One of the great pleasures of Mark Cousins’s epic visual essay The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2012) is that I always come away with a list of five to ten movies I have yet to see. Cousins’s series is not concerned with re-telling cinephiles the often told stories of cinematic history. It’s more idiosyncratic and advanced than that. Because of this, even a person who has been studying film for over a decade and teaching it for more than six years is surprised and challenged by the examples he lovingly showcases. The sixth chapter, “The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams (1953-1957),” was one of those chapters I felt half familiar with. While I have yet to watch Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (not out of disinterest; I keep waiting for a decent home video release), I knew the director would make an appearance and I had a pretty good idea what Cousins was going to discuss: Ray’s realism vs. the flamboyant stylization of Bollywood film. He also analyzes the work of another Ray – Nicholas Ray – and his presentation of repression and sexuality in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The subject of the episode is how this common theme can be found across the cinema of the 1950s, regardless of geographical borders.
Yet, to his credit, Cousins does not simplify the approaches taken to this subject matter. Analyzing Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958), Cousins argues that the film – which features a young Egyptian newsstand worker who lusts after the town’s vixen – had been shaped by specific historical and cultural occurrences. The 1950s collision of religion and proud status of as a third world country (not succumbing to the pressure to become the US or the USSR) produced an acknowledgement of sexuality that – through the use of high contrast black and white – looked incredibly different from Ray’s Cinemascope color. After watching this episode, Cairo Station is now on my list of “Films to See.”
After taking his odyssey briefly through the cinemas of India, China, and Japan, Cousins winds around to the Mexican cinema of the 1950s. Here, like he did with Satyajit Ray’s work, he analyzing the contrasting methods of Fernando de Fuentes and Luis Buñuel. de Fuentes’s Doña Bárbara (1943) takes the realist approach towards the repressed sexuality that results in the rape of star María Félix. Buñuel, on the other hand, draws upon his obsession with dream imagery to produce a disturbing portrait of lust that involves a mother figure holding a large slab of meat in his Los Olvidados (1950).
Finally, Cousins comes back to American cinema and analyzes how many of the great directors (Ray, Douglas Sirk, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock) concealed their criticisms of Eisenhower era America – which established the American dream with full force – as being fake and limiting. Ray’s masculine protagonists in Rebel Without a Cause have become trapped in domestic spaces, just as Sirk’s Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is widowed both literally and metaphorically by the moral codes of suburban American, entrapped within the screen of the television. Both directors wrap their criticisms in saturated colors that seems to capture an idealized post-WWII America in full Norman Rockwell mode.
Like all of Cousins’s episodes, the viewer is able to think of examples that can further or undermine his argument. With regard to this episode, I couldn’t help but wish the critic had included Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, which would have shown that this thematic preoccupation had taken root earlier than Cousins argues. However, one of the gifts that Cousins’s series provides is the the gift for dialogue and elaboration. He isn’t arguing that this is The History of film an an absolute, canonized, text. This is his story and his examples – more often than not – provide even the most open minded cinephiles with pages of screening suggestions.