Opinion / The Story of Film

The Story of Film? Here I Thought It Was a Punchline!

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I chose Cousins’s fifteen hour visual essay as the best film of 2012 back when I wrote for Cultural Transmogrifier.  I wrote that “as a crash course in film history and textual analysis, this is the best alternative to film school that the movies can offer.”  I stand by that claim.  However, given the epic levels of hate-watching/snark tweeting that have poisoned my Twitter feed over the past five weeks that Turner Classic Movies has aired it, I think a more pointed note of context for the series needs to be offered up.

First, let’s look at the title of the program:  The Story of Film:  An Odyssey.  What words are deliberately missing from that title?  Well, Cousins made a conscious decision not to call it The Story of Hollywood, inferring that it has a global scope that reaches beyond the coasts of America.  More significantly, he avoided the use of the word “History.”  The Story of Film is not a record or account, nor is it strictly chronological.  History implies factual objectivity and The Story of Film is more subjective than that.  The film is as much about Cousins and his preoccupations as it is about the story of the cinema as an art form.  Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoires du Cinema (1988-1998), this is a personal journey.  That’s why both Cousins and Godard narrate their films.  It makes the viewer aware of that subjectivity, placing it front and center.

This is significant because it is an exercise in branding and alerts us to the position that Cousins sees his series as occupying.  If cinephilia were to be represented by a three story building and each story marked a progression in knowledge and depth, it would look like the following.  Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Robert Osborne would represent the doorway to the first floor (That’s not a slight on their abilities…  They’re the popular gatekeepers to the cinema for most Americans).  Deeper into our house, the first floor itself might hold other popular critics on film.  It would also house your David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson Film Art book and your Introduction to American Film History class.

The second floor is a different story (literally) that builds upon the knowledge laid out in the first floor foundation.  This is the position Mark Cousins occupies, stuck between the popular cinephiles and the academics.  If you’re watching The Story of Film, you’re not getting an Introduction to Film.  No, Cousins is further down the path than that.  He’s capitalizing on knowledge you would, hopefully, already have gathered from your journeys on the first-floor foundation.  Essentially, the folks occupying the second floor do not see it necessary to recap the history of Golden Age Hollywood because almost every book on a library or Barnes & Noble bookshelf is about the history of Golden Age Hollywood.

Instead, the second and third floors of cinephila push your knowledge outside of the comfort zone.  Film is not solely defined by the half-century old Hollywood films that appear on Turner Classic Movies and the second story isn’t concerned with telling you the same story you heard on the first floor.  The writers, thinkers, and filmmakers on the second floor want to complicate and elaborate upon that story.  Essentially, you’ll watch Citizen Kane (1941) in my Introduction to American Film class.  We’ll discuss the star system, the blacklist, deep focus, vertical integration, and all the other greatest hits.  Once you reach the second floor however, we’re past Kane and we’re not reading Bordwell and Thompson.  We’ve traded the foundational knowledge for putting Peeping Tom (1960) in dialogue with Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.”

I’d talk about the third floor, but it seems most of the Cousins haters got lost on the first floor, sharing war stories about the 1,295th time they watched Double Indemnity (1944) on TCM.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with staying on the first floor.  However, if you’re calling yourself a cinephile, staying on the first floor connotes a lack of curiosity.  You’re more comfortable being in the shallow depths and narrow width of a child’s swimming pool than you are with exploring the ocean that the pool leads into.

More significantly, some of the reactions I’ve encountered towards the series have skated towards ethnocentrism.  “Why doesn’t that guy talk like us?”  “Why couldn’t he hire a professional to do the narration?”  “Why is he talking about Italian movies in the post-WWII period?”  Well, Cousins is Irish critic and this is His Story (not History).  Why is he talking about Italian Neo-Realism?  Because it was incredibly influential on the bulk of international cinema (the French New Wave, American Independent Cinema) and he’s expecting that you’ve moved beyond the first floor Golden Age Hollywood story.  Why should he tell you the same story over and over again?  It doesn’t interest him and it doesn’t serve his purpose.  He isn’t promising you an introduction; he is promising you an odyssey.  If you’re upset that your preconceived notions of what The Story of Film should or could be do not match what it is, you’ve got a cognitive bias and you’re only going to hate the other 10 hours.

The larger question is: If you’ve been put off by the voice over and scope, why are you still watching?

Whenever I encounter an apathetic student in my classroom, I ask why s/he is enrolled at the University and/or sitting in my class.  Most of the time the students tells me that he or she “needs to.”  Unlike my students, your job and/or escape from the workplace is not contingent upon your spectatorship of The Story of Film.  Now, one of the most tossed about definitions of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  If you hate Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film and you keep returning to it regardless,  you’re either insane (because you’re expecting the first floor “Golden Age Hollywood” story delivered through voice over narration read by Morgan Freeman) or hate watching (which I’ve already written about with regard to TCM and Twitter).  If you’re insane, I’m afraid I don’t have any advice for you.  If you’re hate watching, what are you gaining from it?  If you really want to watch Citizen Kane, go watch Citizen Kane.  If you want to hear the Golden Age story, I can give you a list of books and documentaries to check out.

In the end though, hate watching isn’t about gaining knowledge or experience through a primary outlet (TV, film).  If it was, you would realize (in the five second gap between your tweets as the series flickers somewhere off in the mental distance – that 15 hours is hardly enough time to provide an Introduction to American film, let alone an Introduction to International film (I can hardly do it in my class!).  You would realize that it isn’t about an Introduction or The History of Hollywood.  It’s about a personal, subjective, journey through (hi)story of the cinema which does, indeed, reach beyond our borders and language.

Do I have criticisms of the series?  Sure, but I also feel comfortable letting a spade be a spade.  In the end, hate watching has little to do with the text at hand.  Your brain can’t multitask, no matter how much you try, so you’re not really comprehending the movie or show you’re simultaneously tweeting about.  No, hate watching has more to do with you.

So, if you really want to play that cinephile card authentically, why don’t you nurture the subject of your admiration with something constructive?

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9 thoughts on “The Story of Film? Here I Thought It Was a Punchline!

  1. Great read. There was some snark here when it aired last year, but it sounds like you’ve had it worse. I actually think the key point about the title comes with the sub – AN ODYSSEY. If ever there was any doubt that this is a personal journey, then surely this seals it? It’s similar to how Godard placed that all important (s) on the end of the word ‘Histoire’ in the title of his charting, recognising the fact that multiple histories of the medium exist, and will differ from person to person.

  2. I didn’t realise hate watching was a real thing. I guess I thought it was a euphemism for guilty pleasure.

    I’m not an academic, or at least not with film, so I enjoy any book or documentary that is grounded in a personal perspective.

    Of course I also want anything that purports to be objective or a grand survey or a “history” to do its damnest to be that. I got a great big tome of a book a while ago called The World History of Animation. Not only was it entirely skewed to disney, there were great chunks of periods, studios, nationalities and landmark films not mentioned at all. I’m not an expert and I could see that. But if a book was called my life with animation, I can run with that and trade structure for passion and specific viewpoint.

    Interesting metaphor in your essay.

  3. Why aren’t you reading Bordwell and Thompson on the second floor? Those guys are awesome. On the other hand, putting “Peeping Tom” in dialogue with Laura Mulvey sounds to me like academic interpretation at its most tired and formulaic: Grinding narrative movies through psychoanalytic concepts that tell us little if anything about how films are actually made and experienced by moviegoers.

  4. Michael:

    Bordwell and Thompson’s other books (aside from their textbooks) would be 2nd-3rd floor. And yes, I love them dearly… However, I would argue that even Bordwell’s cognitivism is a bit monolithic (the same way psychoanalysis can be), as not every moviegoer goes through the schema that he outlines.

  5. Basically, even Ebert has 2nd floor writing. I didn’t mean to pigeon hole the authors (Ebert’s reviews have a different objective than his essays or books). I was classifying according to text.

  6. Pingback: The Story of Film? Here I Thought It Was a Punchline! | The Moviola | artsy sciency intrigue

  7. Pingback: The Story of Film: An Odyssey– Chapter 7: “The Shock of the New – Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe (1957-1964)” | The Moviola

  8. Great article! Although you and I may disagree on where the line is between snark and hate-watching…I’d say we both agree in this case there are some folks who consistently tweet while watching with nothing constructive to offer. (And I was shocked the other evening to see just how petty these negative tweets were getting.)

    I’ve loved watching the series so far. Unlike you, I’m not educated in the arena of film…so my eyes have been opened in a lot of places…even from the first few episodes…discussion of edits and camera placement, etc. (relatively ‘simple’ film-making stuff, I’m sure…but things I hadn’t thought about previously.)

    Regarding the discussion of world cinema, I’m also in agreement that this isn’t a documentary about Hollywood. Besides that point, I’m naturally a lover of foreign films, so discussions of Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, etc. are right up my alley and I’m eating it up with a knife and fork. Others would do well to realize that cinema is a global medium…even if the US spends the most on production and ticket sales.)

    And even in the arena of world cinema I’m learning a lot in this series. L’Atalante? Never heard of it before. Same with Pather Panchali and Cairo Station…and these were *such* great films (IMO). Episode 8 has blown my mind with the visuals created by some of the Russian directors.

    Looking forward to more in this series…as you say it’s “the best alternative to film school that the movies can offer.” Thanks for a sharing this.

    • Hiya, Joel! I couldn’t agree more. I’m certainly not a film scholar like Drew, so this series has definitely been a fantastic educational tool for me as well. (Cairo Station last week was a first for me too–so glad that the Story Of Film brought it to my attention!)

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