The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter 12

In the 1980s, greed is good. Conservative idealogues tell false stories about life and love. Innovative filmmakers spoke back to them – speaking truth to power.

This is one of the most politically-charged episodes in The Story of Film, as Cousins positions the innovative filmmaking in the 1980s as political protests against the establishment, specifically against conservative regimes. I’m a moderate conservative myself, so I took this episode with a grain of salt ideologically, but I won’t argue that the side of the ’80s he’s chosen to portray certainly support his theme. On the other hand, after three episodes in the ’70s, he only spends one in the ’80s, and avoids many facets of that decade that would run counter to his thesis. I suppose he wouldn’t consider those films to be innovative enough to figure in the Story of Film.

Anyway, Cousins surveys world cinema in the ’80s, looking for patterns of protest and the different forms that protest took, and for what he’s going for, it works pretty well. He starts with China and the rise of the Fifth Generation, a of filmmakers who started making films in the mid to late 1980s protesting against the state-approved dramas of the Cultural Revolution. This sounds like I know something about Chinese cinema, but I don’t – I just looked that up on Wikipedia. Cousins assumed “Fifth Generation” was self-explanatory, I guess. Filmmakers like Tian Zhuagzhuang, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Yimou were interested in Chinese history, in the lives of ordinary, rural people, and in the power of the image itself. Cousins makes a few comments about how some particular thing in their films is very “un-Maoist” or explains how it would’ve been in Maoist cinema. I realize I’m woefully ignorant of Chinese cinema beyond enjoying Zhang’s costume dramas, but seeing some of this Maoist cinema to be able to understand exactly what these filmmakers were doing differently would’ve helped me a lot in this section.

A young boy tries to deal with the horrors of war in Come and See.

In the Soviet Union, the Communist authorities were losing their grip, and filmmakers were brave enough to take advantage of it. Cousins shows a scene from Repentence where a dictator is dug up and put on display in a garden as a symbol that atrocity cannot be buried – this film, he says, actually changed the world by materially encouraging glasnost. I’ve heard a lot about the WWII film Come and See, so I’m not surprised that Cousins calls it the greatest war film every made – it looks extremely powerful, but also extremely depressing. He also shows a clip from Long Goodbyes, which apparently was banned because the form (conversations with people facing away from each other, jump cuts, focus on psychology rather than sociology) made Soviet leaders uncomfortable. I have a hard time understanding that, especially based on the clips we saw. How can a film be a threat just because its form is experimental? Elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, Poland’s Krsysztof Kieslowski experiments as well, using tint and vignette effects to create some profoundly off-kilter films like A Short Film About Killing, which also had a real social effect on Poland’s use of the death penalty. I’m quite familiar with Kieslowski’s later work in France – The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours Trilogy, but I’ve only barely dipped my toes into his Polish work, which seems to be of a rather different sensibility. Cousins shows a lot of this film, pretty much spoiling it, but I’m sure I will have forgotten by the time I get to it.

He dips for a second into Africa, where he says films started looking into the past rather than the post-colonial pre-occupations of the 1970s, but they’re also experimenting with form, introducing flashbacks within flashbacks in Wend Kunni (and with very few if any signifiers that a flashback is startint) and animal symbolism mixed with a Leone-esque standoff in Yeelen. I recorded Yeelen off TCM,, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to see what it’s like beyond the couple of minutes included in the doc.

David Lynch’s exploration of the weird underbelly of suburbia in Blue Velvet challenged how America wanted to see itself in the ’80s.

Usually he’s been finishing with the United States, but this time he hits the US right in the middle of the episode, talking about the failure of Reaganomics, the rise of MTV, and the pervasive masculinity of popular culture (Top Gun, etc.). But the innovation was happening under the surface (Lynch’s Blue Velvet) and on the fringe (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). He calls these filmmakers “high water marks in the otherwise low tide of American cinema.” On the one hand, this is clearly his bias against mainstream film coming out again, but on the other hand…I don’t really like mainstream ’80s movies either, so I’m inclined to agree with him. I do, however, have exceptions like The Princess Bride and Back to the Future that I’m not sure he would accept. Moving further away from Hollywood, he has a great interview with John Sayles and Maggie Renzi, who are precursors to the DIY and indie movements in the ’90s. Sayles works for hire in Hollywood, but makes his own films with Renzi with a fiercely independent spirit. I thought this was one of the better interviews in the whole series, not just this episode.

In France, the protests took something of a different tack – a reaction against seriousness. French philosophy at the time was interested in postmodernism and pop culture, so you get Luc Besson, hyperactivity, surface gloss. You get Leos Carax, who makes the most expensive French film ever not about rich folks, but about a homeless couple on a bridge with hyperreal abandon. On a similar wavelength, post-Franco Spain’s prominent director is the flamboyant Pedro Almodovar (who is decidedly more flamboyant in these early clips than he is in the post-All About My Mother films that I know better). It’s interesting to include these films in here, since most of the rest of this episode is about pretty serious and dark films – I would’ve liked to have heard more about why France and Spain’s protests takes this aggressively pop culture, low art form, or if Cousins is simply reaching to figure out how to include films like this and make them fit his theme of protest. The other Spanish film he includes, Victor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun, plays more on the symbolic level of the Russian films mentioned above. (No mention of Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, unfortunately, which is a film I love.) Was Almodovar anomalous, the sole outrageous provocateur while others like Erice played out their themes on a more subtle level?

Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives turns a semi-autobiographical lens on his own difficult childhood.

Britain encompasses a few of the types of protest film already encountered – the political line under Thatcher was that art should reinforce traditional values, so Stephen Frears made My Beautiful Laundrette with gay multiracial sex. Other filmmakers were more serious, but focused on working class life, ordinary people, and painful semi-autobiography (Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth, Terence Davies). I’m not really familiar with any of these films, beyond having heard the titles. Still others (Derek Jarman) went into the experimental realm, expressing their rage through overwhelmingly saturated colors and fast cuts. Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg is known as a body horror director, but he’s not just about gore; he’s interested in the boundaries of the body, and the collision between hard and soft, between skin and metal. As with Almodovar, I’ve seen more of Cronenberg’s later work, which is less extreme and more mainstream-friendly.

Cousins extolls the bravery of the best of the ’80s films (by which he means the films that test the edges of filmmaking, because there’s little that’s comfortable or even enjoyable about most of the films he lists – I’ve said several times I’m not that familiar with several of these, but unlike previous episodes, I have very little desire to seek out most of these films), but I’m not sure what his feelings toward the ’90s are going to be. He teases it as “the era of digital and the internet when reality started to lose its realness,” but also says that cinema will enter another golden age. I guess we’ll have to find out.

Where Else to See These Films

I should note that I’m only including in this section the films that TCM has programmed to go along with their showing of The Story of Film, so that those who don’t have TCM can follow along with what TCM is doing. It’s far from everything Cousins discusses, and it’s a much smaller group of films now that TCM is only programming one night of films to accompany the series instead of two. This Wikipedia article includes a comprehensive list of all the film clips used, if you want to seek out more yourselves.

Gregory’s Girl: Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus
The Elephant Man: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Yeelen: Amazon DVD (also on Netflix DVD)