A decade after his landmark 15-part, 930-minute series, "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," Mark Cousins returns with "The Story of Film: A New Generation," to share his passion and observations about innovations in world cinema. The 167-minute documentary looks at some of the most exciting films from the 21st century that pushed boundaries, broke rules, and stretched connections.
"When you see 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,' or 'Under the Skin,' you just know it is innovative."
Cousins breaks down scenes from popular and obscure films and how they film action, bodies and horror or deal with issues of race and identity, as well as how genres like "slow cinema" or documentary are changing. He also considers technical advancements, from films that were shot on iPhones, like "Tangerine," as well as those made using VR or motion capture.
In a recent Zoom interview, Cousins spoke with Salon about "The Story of Film: A New Generation."
Let's start with some facts. How many films and hours of cinema did you watch to compile "The Story of Film: A New Generation," and what was your criteria for the clips you selected?
I go to the cinema all the time. It's not like I start from scratch and have to research a film like this. I am already seeing stuff. There are some films I hadn't seen before making "The Story of Film: A New Generation," Lav Diaz's film, and some of the Asian stuff that doesn't come so easily to my local cinema. In addition to daily watching, I probably spent two weeks looking at other films that I knew I needed to see. I don't have loads of spare time but on a daily basis I see one film a day maybe two, always in the cinema. Most of my movie watching is not for work purposes, it's for pleasure purposes.
When it comes to criteria, it's what's innovative. When you see "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," or "Under the Skin," you just know it is innovative. I don't need to write anything down. That's new and some kind of landmark. Then I scribble. [Cousins display a sheet of all the titles.] It's an easy way of seeing the steppingstones in the story.
Your documentary showcases fabulous clips, such as people being punished for film piracy from a Ugandan film, "Crazy World," to a breathtaking action sequence from the fiver-hour "Gangs of Wasseypur." You also feature an excerpt from "Propaganda" a film that looks like it was from North Korea (and was rumored to be smuggled out) but was really made in New Zealand. How do you find these films, and where can viewers see them?
"All creativity is jumping between unexpected things. Jumping from 'Joker' to 'Frozen' was unexpected."
Two of the three you mentioned are on YouTube; "Propaganda" has been for years. I'm a hungry lone wolf always looking for nourishment, so I look on YouTube to look for stuff, and I'm lucky that because of my work I'm connected with film archives around the world. If I ask can I see a film, I get sent a link. "Gangs of Wasseypur" I didn't see it in the cinema, I bought the Blu-ray. It's always a question of not relying on what comes to our local theater. We need to support our local theater, but we need to ask what are we not seeing? Why are we not seeing it? And how do we see it?
You open connecting "Joker" and "Frozen," and include many popular Hollywood films examples, from "Deadpool" and "Black Panther" to "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." You also showcase "PK" which was one of the biggest hits ever in India. I've long considered you — and I don't mean this negatively — an art film snob, with really obscure taste. I was surprised by the nods to blockbusters. Can you discuss why you featured these films?
I am the absolute opposite of an art film snob, whatever that is. I come from a working-class background, and none of my family was educated, so in no way have I ever had an elite taste in cinema — ever. Everything I do is genre-blind. This latest manifestation of "The Story of Film" is the same. I start with the two films you mentioned, "Joker" and "Frozen," to surprise people. But no way. I'm the opposite of what you just said. People who know me know that I got to popular stuff all the time. Cinema is the art form of the people, and if we think of it as an elite event then we have misunderstood cinema.
When I watch your films, you mention titles I've never heard of.
That's very, very different from an art film snob. A lot of what I talk about is Indian cinema, which is some of the most popular in world, which you mentioned with "PK," for example. What I often am is more international than other people, not more highbrow.
I wasn't suggesting you were highbrow or looking down on popular cinema. I think you use popular cinema to make your case — this is innovative in Hollywood, but here is how cinema has been innovative elsewhere that you may not be aware of. You may not be aware of how innovative "Joker" or "Frozen" were, but you have knowledge of obscure films, and your taste can run to the obscure.
What does obscure mean? You are very knowledgeable about cinema, but if you are in Mumbai, or Tehran, or Cairo, my taste isn't obscure because a lot of what I am talking about is the big popular stuff. It's obscure from your world and my world, the Anglo-Western world. It looks obscure there, but if you are not in that place, it isn't.
The first part of the film focuses on comedy, action, musicals, bodies, horror, and slow cinema. How did you select these topics and did you cherry pick the examples to prove your points? In several cases you cite classic films as references for the contemporary ones to illustrate the history and the innovation, as when you link "Holy Motors" and "Under the Skin" to Jean Cocteau's "Blood of a Poet."
Usually, I don't look at the genre. It's slightly unusual for me to look at things like comedy or action. But I knew I was dealing with a small amount of time here, 10 years, so didn't want to do chronological thing, so I thought if I look at genre, like action, it will allow me to jump across countries, and nations. You and I know that politics of the last generation have become increasingly nationalistic in America and in Brazil and Hungary, so I wanted explicitly not to look country by country and looking genre by genre gives nice connections between action films or comedy films. That feels quietly daring in the present day.
"A New Generation" was more thematically linked, like your "Women Make Film" project.
"Women" wouldn't have worked if I had done it chronologically. The story would have been hardly any women, then a few in the '20s and '30s and it would have been a too conventional narrative. I wanted to mess around and choose themes that allowed me to jump around. All creativity is jumping between unexpected things. Jumping from "Joker" to "Frozen" was unexpected in "A New Generation," so I want to be ahead of the audience. I don't want the audience to know what's happening next.
"A film like 'RRR,' is one of the most technically brilliant films in the history of cinema."
The second part of the film is more focused on technological innovation, from Tsai Ming-Liang's use of VR to the motion capture used in "War for the Planet of the Apes" and the digital retouching of Robert DeNiro in "The Irishman." What observations do you have about the use of technology in films to both cheat and create "reality?"
With every technology that comes along, often the first use is a regressive use, and a way of recategorizing people. Before cinema, there was the use of airbrushing in the fashion industry to make women looks skinnier. How awful. I could make another film about the terrible things happening in cinema, but that is not what I am doing. I am looking at people who have used technology in a good way. When I make a film, it is going to be six months of my life, minimum, so I prefer to look at people who are using technology in great way, not a terrible way.
The Story of Film: A New Generation (Music Box Films)
I recall seeing the film "Julia and Julia" with Kathleen Turner and Sting in 1987. It was the first film to be released in cinemas that was shot in High Definition. I remember how artificial it looked at the time. It was iconic for the technology, but not for the film.
Again, if you look at the global story you get all this interesting stuff. How have the Iranians used technology to body swerve censorship and all sorts of other things? Or in India, a film like "RRR," is one of the most technically brilliant films in the history of cinema. We have to be quite humbled, those who speak English, and see how other people are using this stuff in a more imaginative way than we are.
One really great example in your film is "Black Panther," which you explain is both pre- and post-modern. It's Afro-futurism and rejects the "victim" narrative of Africa reimagining it as Paradise Lost. Can you talk about how a film like this can change ways of seeing which is your point in highlighting it, and its global influence.
What I love about that film and those filmmakers is that you can tell they looked at actual African films. They looked at Djibril Dop Mambéty, who happens to be tattooed on my arm here [shows tattoo] and those great Senegalese films of '70s, '80s, and into the '90s. What they are doing with "Black Panther" is that there is a heritage and a history and there is a line of visual culture there that was forgotten, and we are now going to re-celebrate it. It was so exciting to see that film, for me. Obviously, I'm a white person, but to see that it was connecting back to African cinema in a fantastic way, that is very valuable. Then you ask how is "Black Panther" itself a springboard for new African American and African creatives? When you see something like that, you think cinema is still alive.
You also focus on identity in contemporary cinema. I love when you link "A Fantastic Woman" about a transwoman in Chile with Ava DuVernay's documentary "13th," about Black citizens and the prison system, to show how they both address invisibility, and then add an Indian film "Ship of Theseus," about death and identity. What can you say about the silver screen being both a mirror reflecting back on us and a lamp illuminating our way?
You've said it, in a way. A film like "Ship of Theseus" is brilliant in Indian cinema and widely acclaimed because it is about transitioning. Maybe you, Gary, and I are not what we were 20 years ago or 30 years ago. And "A Fantastic Woman" is explicitly about transition in some way. These films are, yes, they are a mirror, saying, "Here's where we are," and "Under the Skin" is a really great example of saying, "What if you peel a layer off yourself? What's behind it?" So, these films are saying, "Here's where we are, but it's not a fixed thing." It's going to change and continue to change, and we'll continue to change as individuals and societies, The societies that make these films, in Latin America and India — look how fast they are changing and look at what challenges they have. Therefore, a film like "A Fantastic Woman" is extremely valuable. It is a public endorsement of change and the flux of human beings.
Your documentary whets my appetite to watch or rewatch almost all of the films you showcase. What films are your personal favorites that folks should seek out?
My advice is if you have an opportunity to see a movie you know nothing about, go for it. And if you are sitting at home, or going to a movie theater, and there are two films and one has a big movie star and you know the genre, and there is another you haven't heard of, go for the one you haven't heard of. Chances are you will just slightly extend yourself. I know folks are conservative and want conventional things, but I also think deep down we want the thrill of encountering something new, and that is what cinema can provide easily and affordably. I refer to cinema as the "affordable sublime." It's bigger than life and luminous. If you haven't heard of something, the chances are that it will be better than something you've heard of. Don't play it safe.
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We all think we know ourselves. But if you go back to the early '70s, and if you said to people, "Do you want David Bowie, do you want this sort of alien transperson? Nobody would have said yes. Nobody asked for David Bowie, but then he came along and a whole generation fell in love with him. Now lots of people across the spectrum thought he was really great. We don't know what we want. And I include myself in that. I remember the first time I heard a David Bowie album, and I was properly mind-blown. That is the purpose of art and the purpose of cinema. Yes, we'll go to the "Black Panther" sequel, but it's the other stuff that really rejuvenates you.
"The Story of Film: A New Generation" is available on digital Sept. 20. Watch a trailer via YouTube.