The Story of Film

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

Here at The Moviola, we will be covering Mark Cousins’ 15-part documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey every week, providing you with an overview of each episode of The Story of Film as well as a closer look at some of the accompanying movies set to air on TCM. Today, we examine the seventh installment, “The Shock of the New- Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe (1957-1964)” which premieres tonight, October 14th, at 10PM EST.

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The seventh installment of Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film (2011) is essentially a greatest hit parade of 1960s art house cinema rendered through the lens of the auteur theory.  Formulated, solidified, refined, and complicated by critics and filmmakers across the globe (including the young writers at Cahiers du Cinèma, Andrew Sarris, and Peter Wollen amongst many others), the auteur theorists believe that film is, like literature, the product of a distinct author (often the writer/director).  In order to substantiate this theory, the auteur theorist digs into a given filmmaker’s work and seeks to define the stylistic and narrative patterns that reoccur across  his or her filmography.  That’s the approach Cousins takes here, attempting to define what makes Robert Bresson different from Jean-Luc Godard and how the former’s legacy lives on in the work of Paul Schrader.

Given the broad scope defined both by geography (from Sweden to France to Italy to France…) and subject matter (almost fifteen filmmakers are covered), this installment of The Story of Film is a bit more generalized than some of the other episodes.  It isn’t that Cousins is wrong when he talks about how Ingmar Bergman’s aesthetic was defined by the stage while Federico Fellini’s owed more to the circus; he simply doesn’t have the time to relish and substantiate his analysis.  I prefer The Story of Film when Cousins goes all in on his film analysis and here he tries to serve multiple masters:  Introduction to the Art House via the auteur theory and 1960s cinephile culture at large.  Basically, Cousins gets caught up in the thrill of the birth of modern cinema (and who wouldn’t?!) and spreads himself a bit thin with this one.

My frustration with this episode undoubtedly stems from my own love of the period and filmmakers, especially the French New Wave.  When addressing the topic, Cousins acknowledges the difference in trajectory taken by the structured left-bank filmmakers (Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais) versus the looser critics turned filmmakers on the right-bank (Godard and François Truffaut).  Again, he’s not wrong.  There were differences in approach and preoccupation by the filmmakers on both sides of the Seine.  (Oddly, he neglects to mention director Chris Marker here, one of the forefathers of the visual essay format that Cousins is utilizing.)  And yes, these filmmakers changed the language of cinema forever.

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But why is Cousins trying to give us a greatest hits all of a sudden?  It’s as if he feels compelled to cross an item off of his grocery list.  Chapter seven is hardly a poorly produced recap of European cinema.  It’s passion and enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and – the first time I watched this episode – I thought it did a great job of summarizing.  But, re-watching the series again, I realized he isn’t trying to summarize in most places.  He doesn’t care about the greatest hits in other installments, as I pointed out here in my piece on folks who have been hate watching the series.  So, while this one lacks the depth of some of his other studies, perhaps the silver lining here is that the uninitiated might be drawn into watching Breathless (1959) or Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962).

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Yet, “The Shock of the New” also has one hell of a technical demonstration that makes for a wonderful pedagogical moment.  When he starts discussing the widescreen canvas of Sergio Leone’s outstanding Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Cousins describes how the director realizes the operatic compositions.  He talks about the pairing of a wide angle lens and widescreen and we begin to understand what technological puzzle pieces needed to be put in place for Leone to show us these scenes of a masculine code being defined before us.  However, it initially comes off as vague.  Supporting visual analysis with visual evidence, Cousins shows us what he’s attempting to describe (one of the main gifts of the visual essay format).  Contrasting Leone’s depiction of space to that of Michelangelo Antonioni, the episode begins to veer back into the territory that Cousins does best.  I just wish I could have watched him wax poetic on this story of film for fifteen hours.

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