Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (movie review)

The most obvious thing to say at the outset is:  there are lots of ways to tell the story of film and this is just one guy's account.  Such introductions should be unnecessary but not every reader is so fluent in the humanities as to remember what it means to give a work the floor:  that means you let the storyteller tell a story and don't always interrupt with the obvious thought:  but you're not the only storyteller around.  Like, duh.

And a gifted storyteller he is, this Mark Cousins, and fluent with the camera, talking about editing techniques, lighting, while building a vocabulary, an unvarnished travelogue.  He needed to go to these places, interview the directors, a few actors.  He films what might be considered mundane parts of town, amidst the more touristy, but that just adds to the realism, and helps establish a consistent background for framing, for telling the story of film.  The other glue that holds this movie together is the lilt and cadence of the narration itself.

The film is self aware and shows the tradition of film and artists manifesting self awareness through this medium.  The scope is global.  We don't just look at "international films" in some section; we keep circling the globe, coming back, updating.  Iran, Japan, Korea, Russia... we keep revisiting.  The Hollywood sign is given lots of closeup treatment, supports the reverie.  As our view keeps rolling around the planet, our vocabulary grows.  Italy, Nordic countries... China.

My own trajectory took me through Rome's English language theaters, mainly two, one far away in Trastevere and the other within walking distance, not far from Piazza Euclide (I was closer to Piazza Ungheria, on Viale Paroli).  Steve McQueen, James Coburn, the 007 films... spaghetti westerns.  I watched a lot in the Philippines too.  I was pleased when he hit films I'd seen, made me feel culturally literate, but on balance I'm more reminded of what a small fraction of these movies I've seen, and all of them are but the tip of an iceberg.  One gets the same feeling in a library or bookstore:  way too many for one lifetime, where to begin?

The focus is very much on directors and innovation.  What was cutting edge at the time, where were the most copied ideas coming from?  How do you show when two people are talking to one another, what is your angle as onlooker?  We become habituated to conventions, such that when a different approach is taken, we notice, but how well may we articulate what's different?  Films like this one, 15 hours in all, spread over five weeks of viewing, help build that shared global literacy and ability to discuss and appreciate, as well as make, films.

What I'd say The Story of Film does not have much time for is animation / cartoons (Fantasia, Yellow Submarine, The Simpsons), television and advertising, and the kind of literary ideas being bandied about in wider culture.  The TV sitcom and soap opera, news coverage, the ecosystem between Netflix, Internet and film.  He talks about the move to digital, but less in terms of what this means in terms of distribution / copying.

Thanks to Trevor, I'd seen some of that Scotsman climbing the Guggenheim, and that single 90 minute movie shot by Sakahrov in Russia.  The Stalker, I've seen it.  So pleased he gets all the way up through Avatar and Moulin Rouge.  Romeo & Juliet by Baz Lurhman. No slacker.  Tight script.  Really interesting personas.  Nothing about Mishima and Schrader's make of it, that I can remember anyway.  Nothing about Aliens, but lots on James Cameron.  Good awareness of documentaries.  No mention of the Qatsi movies.  No mention of IMAX or 3D.

I was fascinated by TV series theme songs and opening sequences, a connoisseur one might say.  Six Feet Under's was brilliant and bleak.  Advertising, and jingles, really got my attention as well.  We used to record commercials for each other, back in Rome.