In The Story of Film: A New Generation, Mark Cousins picks up right where his landmark, 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) left off.
After a few glimpses at the inside of cinemas, he finds strange bedfellows in Joker (2019) and Frozen (2013). He finds in these films an expression of ecstasy, both inherent to the films – of interest in each is scenes of dancing – and to the rabid fanbases of each. We travel to the famous steps from Todd Phillips’ film to witness tourists recreating Joaquin Phoenix’s dance, creating in the process their own images. It’s this interaction between film and spectator, between reality and unreality, that Cousins frames his exploration of the new generation of cinema.
As in the main body of the series, the film in centered around the question of innovation: What advances have been made this century in film production and film spectatorship?
One of the strengths of the film is Cousins’ ability to draw parallels between contemporary filmmaking and its historical development. Jean-Luc Godard, one of cinema’s great disrupters, is given due for revolutionising 3-D techniques some four decades after the process was first widely utilised. While this is a valuable technical innovation, the heart of the film lies in presenting how the activity of storytelling has extended the limits of our cinematic imagination.
The first part of A New Generation, titled “Extending the Language of Film,” is organised around the exploration of generic expectations. Cousins identifies genre thinking as a vehicle for innovations. His presentation here begins with a move through comedy, action and musicals, often finding ways to link one or more of these genres together. In this way, he can talk about PK (2014, dir. Rajkumar Hirani), a comedy disrupted by an action set piece, and Baby Driver (2017, dir. Edgar Wright), an action film that moves like a musical.
The primary concern here is with how bodies fill the frame and how they are manipulated therein. This progresses to the point whereby bodies are physically manipulated, as in memorable sequences from High Life (2018, dir. Claire Denis) and Évolution (2015, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilovi?). These films, veering towards horror, allow a way in to understanding how The Babadook (2014, dir. Jennifer Kent), in presenting its eponymous invasive entity, incites us to look away in terror even as we look on in fascination. The desire to see outweighs the possibility of revulsion.
This interest in bodies also leads us into film like XXY (2007, dir. Lucía Puenzo), which explores the experiences of an intersex person. These sections display a maturation relative to the previous body of work. A New Generation doesn’t present anything like a subversive, radical reorientation – neither social nor aesthetic – but Cousins nonetheless demonstrates the power film holds to reflect our environment back onto ourselves.
Bringing the films closer to reality sets us on a course towards unreality. The final section of Part One, the strongest of the film, moves seamlessly through slow cinema and documentaries. Cousins looks backwards to find a foundation for slow cinema in the 1931 film Limite (dir. Mário Peixoto). The film, through its use of slow dissolves, invites a patient type of looking.
Bringing this invitation into the 21st century is presented as a palliative to the mania imbued into our daily lives. Films like An Elephant Sitting Still (2018, dir. Hu Bo) and Norte, the End of History (2013, dir. Lav Diaz) are built out of “blocks of time,” in keeping with cinema as a temporal medium. The stately pace and careful compositions of each film brings the spectator closer to the world of the film. The apparent lack of action places the onus of responsibility on the spectator.
Following through the apparent reality of slow cinema brings us to documentary, which has pretensions towards reality itself. This may be obtained through an observational mode, as in Something Better to Come (2014, dir. Hanna Polak), which is the method we most often associate with documentary.
However, Cousins develops this idea further by showing us films which directly confront the reality they are otherwise recording. Here perhaps the single most important clip in the film is presented: director Anand Patwardhan is shooting footage for his film Reason (2018) when a politician voices his desire to see the director’s legs broken. Over the furore this incites, the director says simply – “I’m standing here.”
Rather than turning away from the confrontation, on the assumption the politician is speaking out of his ass, Patwardhan inserts himself into the film he is shooting as a challenge to those who hide behind the bluster of inflammatory speech. This cinematic intervention is taken to its extreme in Cousins’s presentation of Propaganda (2012, dir. Slavko Martinov), a film whose unreality suggests more about our reality than any observational documentary.
As Part One of A New Generation closes, Cousins presents Hard to Be a God (2013, dir. Aleksei German) as the limit experience of cinema. This virtuoso film – one of the few genuine masterpieces of the first two decades of the century – offers so much texture, so much vile (un)reality, as to apparently accomplish all we could ever hope from the medium. However, as Cousins shows, the techniques used by German to capture this world have their echoes in those employed by Orson Welles to construct one of his own masterpieces, Chimes at Midnight (1965).
Our cinematic innovators are those who know how to riff on old desires, in the process “wiping the lens to see anew.” In this way, Leos Carax bursting through his bedroom wall into a cinema in his film Holy Motors (2012) is an echo of the Poet falling into the mirror in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of the Poet (1932). The second part of the film moves more explicitly into the realm of how changing technologies alters our relationship to film exhibition and production, to the reality and unreality of the cinematic image.
Cousins, who has possibly never said a bad word about anything in his life, speaks highly about on-demand streaming, Go-Pro photography and interactive features. If I’m becoming breathless, it’s because the film covers enough ground to programme a year’s worth of features.
The most telling sequence from the latter part of the film is Cousins’ exposition on motion capture performances, which he refers to as “rotoscoping and Rembrandt.” We see images of Andy Serkis slowly turning into an ape, a process he rhymes with Disney’s early forays into animation. We may no longer physically draw over the image, but we are processing it towards a similar end.
And this is ultimately what The Story of Film celebrates: the innovations of successive generations express the same desire. Regardless of the means of production, the state of the cinematic art is actively concerned with the limits of filming the face. An extreme iteration of this is Son of Saul (2015, dir. László Nemes), which, like Hard to Be a God, pushes cinematographic portraiture to its breaking point.
The Story of Film: A New Generation is a tightly controlled, wide-ranging exploration of contemporary cinephilia. Over two and a half hours, Mark Cousins crosses borders, genres and eras to situate our current moment within long-standing desires. For Cousins, cinema is the magic of capturing and projecting these desires. He shows us how the 21st century has grappled with new problems in innovative ways.
The Story of Film: A New Generation is set to screen on September 25th as part of the IFI Documentary Festival.