The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

Director: Mark Cousins

So yes, this was an effort of a few days; not even I’m fool enough to watch a 15-hour plus thing like this in a single hit. Even doing it as I did, one disc (i.e. three episodes) a day, was difficult enough; each episode has quite a lot packed into it, and three in a row was kind of pushing it… Anyway, this is in keeping with the last couple of things I reviewed, being a film history documentary based on a film history book, although this is a much more general study than the genre-specific items we looked at, and, unlike them, this one is made by the author of the book and narrated by him as well. Said narration seems to be a sticking point with some people; Mark Cousins is unabashedly Irish and so is his accent, and his rather specific intonation (which tends to rise more than fall) is initially a bit difficult to get used to; it’s not the sort of voice I suspect most of us are used to hearing narrate something like this. Once you get past that, there are other small irritating things, little faults of subediting that really should’ve been caught, ranging from little things like wrongly dating a film to, well, larger ones like wrongly identifying a film (there is a notable difference between Méliès’ Moon at One Metre and his Trip to the Moon, Mark). And even with the unquestionably generous runtime, there’s still little bits of additional information that could’ve been squeezed in to flesh certain things out, you know, how some “third cinema” filmmakers like Haile Gerima in Ethiopia actually learned their trade in the US, that sort of detail. Be all that as it may, though, it’s hard to deny Story of Film is a pretty grand bit of work, an avowed history of innovation in film more than an overall look at the art form. This means it does tend to focus more on the “arthouse” side of things at the expense of popular genres, except, obviously, where Hollywood is concerned (and, later, Hong Kong and India), so I’m sure some critics will find it incomplete and missing out too many classics in favour of less obvious examples (especially the African stuff). This approach is fine by me, of course, it’s the less obvious examples I’m interested in and they’re the ones that give Story of Film its value. As I’ve indicated, it’s not perfect—I think my ideal film history doco would be an adaptation of Bordwell & Thompson’s Film History: An Introduction, which would undoubtedly dwarf this if it were done properly—but as a (comparatively) compact study of the world of cinema, it acquits itself well.

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One thought on “The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

  1. Joel Bocko July 9, 2014 at 2:13 am

    Agreed – I like this film quite a bit and even chose it as my favorite of 2011 (although I still haven’t seen many films from that year so there wasn’t much competition). I even found Cousins’ delivery charming after a while. My main sticking point, to the extent I had one, is that his Story of Film is essentially The Story of Live-Action Mostly Narrative Largely Feature Film. He seeks geographical diversity but not particularly diversity of form and the numerous non-narrative possibilities of film aren’t really explored (and forget about animation – there’s like. 2 Disney clips and a Czech short and that’s about it!). But, like Kenneth Clark’s grand art history doc Civilisation, this is very much a “personal view” and ultimately I’d rather have that sense of warm enthusiasm, whatever its idiosyncrasies and oversights, than something more comprehensive but perhaps colder.

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