Philip Concannon previews More4’s history of film and cinematic innovation
“At the end of the 1800s, a new art form flickered in to life. It looked like our dreams.”
The Story of Film is a story told through moments; images thematically linked to tell us how this art form, created by inventors and visionaries in the 19th century, exploded to become the industry that we know it as today. Mark Cousins has already told this story in his book of the same title, but this 15-part documentary series still feels like a significant film event. At a time when the art of cinema seems secondary to the business of moviemaking, and when public interest and awareness in films beyond the mainstream appears to be at an all-time low, The Story of Film is a valuable attempt to reconnect us with the essential magic at the heart of cinema. “Movies are multi-billion dollar global entertainment industry now,” Cousins admits at the start of episode one, “but what drives them isn’t box-office or showbiz. It’s passion, innovation.”
Cousins is unashamedly in thrall to the romance of the movies and the sense of wonderment that they can invoke. His 2009 feature The First Movie took him to Iraq, where he showed films to Kurdish children who had never seen a movie before and then gave them cameras to make mini-movies of their own, offering them a new way to process the often troubled world they live in. So there can surely be no better guide for this exploration of cinema’s past than Cousins, a man who is as stimulated by American cinema of the 70’s as he is by Senegalese cinema of the same period. He has travelled the world for this project and interviews are promised with Stanley Donen, Lars von Trier, Samira Makhmalbaf and Jane Campion among others, but the first episode of The Story of Film is largely dedicated to the innovators who got the ball rolling and are no longer with us to tell their own stories.
The Story of Film begins right at the start, searching for the birthplace of cinema, the source of the Nile. Cousins takes us back to a time of experimentation and technological breakthroughs, as the likes of Edison and Eastman developed the machinery and film materials that would change everything. The richest portion of this opening episode is the extraordinary range of clips that Cousins and his team have assembled to show us the results of those early experiments, and how now-customary filmmaking techniques were born, occasionally by accident. Georges Méliès, cinema’s first magician, was once filming on a street corner when his camera jammed, making it appear as if the streetcar he was shooting disappeared from the frame. He subsequently used it to make audiences believe in a man appearing out of nowhere in front of their eyes. It was a mishap that moved the art of filmmaking forward.
We are shown so many examples of these innovations being captured on film for the first time, and Cousins explains how these ideas became part of the DNA of moviemaking. When George Albert Smith filmed from the front of a train in 1899, creating a “phantom ride” effect, he could never have guessed that his unusual technique would later be utilised by Claude Lanzmann in Shoah or – in a more abstract fashion – become the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s journey through the cosmos in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other examples of ideas being passed down the generations are more obvious; Cousins shows us a shot from Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, which is later aped by Jean-Luc Godard, an admirer of Reed, and then by Martin Scorsese, who revered both filmmakers. The Story of Film is the story of an ever-evolving art form, in which directors picked up the techniques and images developed by their predecessors before finding a new purpose and resonance in them.
The programme is at its best when linking disparate movies in imaginative ways (there’s a wonderful contrast between the romanticism of Casablanca, with one of the most iconic movie scenes of all, and the contemplative quiet of Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman), and it is at its weakest when dealing with the more prosaic aspects of its narrative. The tale of how Hollywood became America’s moviemaking capital may be an essential step in this journey, but it seems flatly realised (and familiar to anyone who watched Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood recently) when compared to sequences in which Cousins allows images to lead the way. The Story of Film is a beautifully constructed programme, edited with fluidity and intelligence as it moves gracefully between countries and across decades, and Cousins’ own lyrical, heartfelt narration is perfectly pitched, but it is the treasure trove of archive footage on display that continually makes the heart soar.
Whether it’s Buster Keaton falling asleep and dreaming himself into a movie in Sherlock Jr., Lillian Gish watching in horror as a dead body is exposed in The Wind, or a more recent clip such as Saving Private Ryan‘s hellish D-Day landing, The Story of Film is replete with moments that remind us how transcendent great filmmaking can be. There’s something here for everyone, and while the series is a dream for cinephiles, it will surely enchant anyone with a passing interest in film, or even anyone who simply possesses the desire to see something beautiful and imaginative on television. Over the course of 15 weeks, Cousins will attempt to “re-draw the map of movie history,” which is a bold ambition, but if the first episode is an accurate guide then his attempt to achieve that goal will result in a thrilling, illuminating odyssey. The story has just begun.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey begins on Saturday 3 September at 9.15pm on More4
Philip Concannon blogs at www.philonfilm.net