More than any other art form, cinema pushed against its boundaries early, reaching in wild tangents even as its roots were taking hold. In his epic and hypnotic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Irish film scholar Mark Cousins begins with cinema’s improbable simultaneous sprouting in New Jersey, USA, and Lyon, France, then follows its branches as they grow around the globe in the ensuing century plus.
In its structure and breadth, The Story of Film is a relative of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series such as Baseball and Jazz. But Cousins’ approach to history shares more with Howard Zinn, and his employment of the very film techniques he discusses lends The Story of Film an appropriately cinematic effect; he demonstrates how the language of cinema affects us and shows us how it has evolved. He is also sensitive to the political implications of cinema and the impacts of sexism, racism and nationalism in our perception of movies and their history.
Over 15 compulsively watchable episodes that stretch about 900 minutes (The Story of Film is available on DVD and via some streaming outlets), Cousins provides a comprehensive history of motion pictures as well as a context for its progression. Though The Story of Film is told chronologically, Cousins alternately lingers and springs ahead to dig into themes (early Scandinavian filmmakers’ use of natural light, the impacts of World War II on American films, the regressive ramifications of sound, etc.).
Cousins assembles an astounding array of film clips to link together the advancement of cinematic communication and the occasional outright theft of visual ideas. One of the joys of The Story of Film is witnessing the manner in which Cousins bridges individual motion pictures over the course of cinema’s brief but industrious history.
He explores the surreal visual leap from Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet in 1930 to Christopher Nolan’s Inception in 2010. He shows us that the famous shot of Travis Bickle peering into a glass fizzing with bubbles in 1976’s Taxi Driver may not have been possible without a similar image in 1967’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which in turn may not have been filmed without the existence of 1947’s Odd Man Out. He details how films can serve diverse—even contradictory—purposes, from giving life to dreams (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) to providing a record of fact (Shoah) to employing lies in the service of truth (Saving Private Ryan).
Cousins sets out to correct some common misperceptions and is occasionally contentious, but he is never condescending. And though he provides a lilting, low-key voiceover, Cousins illustrates rather than lectures; he contrasts Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi’s pioneering use of deep background in the 1920s with Orson Welles’ and Gregg Toland’s later (and more famous) refinement in 1941’s Citizen Kane, and he employs visuals to gently escort—rather than unceremoniously knock—D.W. Griffith from his pedestal (Griffith remains a noteworthy figure in the emergence of cinema, and not just for inherent racism of his most famous film).
Exhaustive but never exhausting, serious but not self-important, respectful of the past but forward-looking, The Story of Film encourages us to view movies with a renewed sense of wonder and perspective. It invites us to seek out films we have not seen and rediscover those we have forgotten, to consider and have conversations about what makes cinema great: its ideas.