The Story of Film: An Odyssey (UK, 2011)

Directed by: Mark Cousins. It would be really easy to skip a review for this one, for the simple reason that it was so damn large, and I watched it over such a long period of time, I’m not sure how much I can really wrap this one around my head. Or really, more to the point, I’m not sure how much I can comment on it beyond saying I learned a lot about movies and I generally like it very much. I have to admit, I was probably biased against it ahead of time going in, and I’ll explain why. This thing is fucking 915 minutes long for starters, so I was understandably a little bit cautious, and I decided to look at some reviews to weigh the odds of how much I’m going to like it. Most of the reviews were sunshine and roses, as they should be, this is a very fine accomplishment. Almost all of them mentioned the repetitious droning monotone of Mark Cousins’ own voice, which he uses for narration instead of hiring a narrator, and expressed varying levels of charm or irritation with that voice. (And his Northern Irish accent? which caused nearly 100% of what he stated to be pronounced like a question? became actually quite distracting for me? to the extent that, for 915 goddamn minutes? I would have advised him to hire a narrator? but hey that’s just me? and there probably wasn’t a budget for a narrator anyway? Fair enough?) But of course, being cynical, I locked into one of the only negative reviews I could find, this one by Brian Doan, maybe because it was on Ebert’s website. Some of what his gripes were seemed a bit unfair and petty, and some of them, frankly, were over my head. It would be easy to dismiss this guy’s review as some elitist academic who was cross at Cousins for making a 15 hour film about film that a large audience might actually want to watch. And really, that’s a fucking miracle when you look at it—Cousins made this thing, a 15 hour documentary about film that a relatively mainstream, non-specialist audience can and did engage with. But then again, there were some things about this movie and Cousins’ take on film, that were irritating. There’s one line in that review that’s still pretty funny:

I should have known I was in trouble midway through the second episode of Mark Cousins’ epic “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (2011), when his narration describes Hollywood as “a bauble,” and the camera panning across an L.A. landscape stops on a red Christmas bauble hanging from a tree branch. No, really. 

I won’t go on about it like Doan does, but I’ll just say that Cousins can really hit the nail on the head sometimes. The fact that a big chunk of his “odyssey” revolves around setting up this cheesy metaphor of the Hollywood “bauble”, that he shoots an actual Christmas ornament, repeatedly, and I think he smashes it at one point, that whole thing really detracts from the quality of the film I think. I loved the act of bringing the average viewer away from the primacy of Hollywood and into the immense and beautiful world of “world cinema”, or just quality cinema made outside of Hollywood. But as this dismissive, hostile, and sometimes completely reductive and unfair attitude towards mainstream Hollywood kept repeating and repeating, I couldn’t help but think that he was kind of sprinkling salt on the ashes a bit—his film is already a major blow against the notion that film = Hollywood. All he had to do was just make his film, and go about educating people on the beauty of world cinema. To me, all the space and time he invests in this stupid “bauble” metaphor, he could have shaved an hour off his movie and it would have been all the more impactful. But hey, what do I know? I’m definitely indebted to this film for sparking my fire a bit and hustling me to branch out to more non-English-speaking cinema, which I’ve been meaning to do for years, but never did, so thank you Mark Cousins.


4 responses to “The Story of Film: An Odyssey (UK, 2011)

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