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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.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter 11

[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for this week's episode.]

“I have my finger on the pulse of America.” – William Friedkin.
“These nine words killed the complexity of New Hollywood.” – Cousins.

After an episode on New Hollywood and one on the national identity-themed films from around the world, you’d think the 1970s would be tapped out, but not so – this is an incredibly diverse and interesting decade in film history, and this episode covers popular cinema of the ’70s with Hong Kong kung fu, Bollywood epics, and the beginnings of the Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a fun episode, filled with action and films most people already know, but with commentary that helps fit them into the overall story of film. Of course, some will accuse Cousins of again being anti-Hollywood in this episode, but I’m not really bothered. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, he gives mainstream cinema of the ’70s a lot of props for being remarkably innovative, though in the episode he does point out how these innovative films set the stage for several decades of derivative mainstream films.

First, we go to Hong Kong and flashback to the 1950s, when the Shaw brothers became the first big name in Hong Kong cinema. Under the direction of King Hu, the kung fu film was really born – even if Cousins hadn’t made the connection, it’s pretty hard to miss the influence of A Touch of Zen on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the combination of a historical, romantic story, ethereal mysticism, and beautiful, choreographed floating fight scenes. Then comes Enter the Dragon, with the explosive physicality of Bruce Lee. Cousins points out that Lee’s films are shot with wide angles and long takes, so you can see the fights play out in real time, and then jumps to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which cuts often and uses various focal lengths, showing action and reaction in brief snapshots. So apparently we can blame John Woo for the frenetic editing that plagues action cinema today. I kid. But not really. I’d much prefer the Lee style of shooting for fight scenes.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter 10

[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for next week's episode.]

If I don’t want to be my parents, then who am I?

With this episode, Cousins again tries to broaden the Story of Film beyond the traditional story, this time with a very specific theme in mind – how filmmakers around the world made films that dealt with national identity in some way. The title makes it sound like a dry dissertation topic, but this is actually a pretty solid episode that doesn’t suffer from being spread too thin quite as much as the New Waves Around the World episode did. He also makes a great effort in this episode (as he has before, don’t get me wrong) to go to the places where each of these filmmakers worked, which gives his film as a whole the remarkably cinematic quality that it has, and gets across the sense of place that is, in this episode especially, incredibly important.

He goes on a tour of Germany, Italy, Great Britain (and Australia), Japan, Senegal, and Iran. In Germany, he focuses on New German Cinema, which is hardly new territory for the dedicated cinephile, but I have to admit this era in general is a blind spot for me. It’s not like the New Waves episode, where I struggled to keep up with a lot of new names and titles – here I’ve heard of most of the films mentioned, I just haven’t made time to see them yet. New German Cinema strove, in the words of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to make films that are important, have something to say, and are born out of their own experience – that is, the experience of a generation whose parents were Nazis or lived under Hitler’s regime. Fassbinder loved Hollywood, but sneered at its romantic ideals, making beautiful but less glossy pictures about dark subjects. Cousins also covers Wim Wenders, Margaretha von Trotta, and Werner Herzog. Cousins suggests that these filmmakers all ask the question, “if I don’t want to be my parents, who am I?” – it’s interesting how many different approaches these filmmakers take at that question, making this a movement I very much want to watch more of.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter 9

[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next four days, and I should be up to date for next week's episode.]

New Hollywood was full of mockery and stylistically bold. Old school laced with new truths.

We’re back on more familiar ground this week as Cousins moves into the New Hollywood films of the 1970s. After the upheaval of the 1960s and the tragedies that seemed to mark the end of the revolutionary spirit of the decade – the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc. – you’d think that the 1970s would be a rather deflated time in American filmmaking, but instead it’s exactly the opposite. The studios were floundering toward the end of the ’60s, desperate to attract a younger crowd of people – their solution was to give bright young film-school trained directors a shot, and the result was New Hollywood, which is considered one of the liveliest and most inventive periods in American movie history.

New Hollywood directors knew their cinema history, both American and European, and they respected and in many cases loved it, but they wanted to test the waters, to bend and break the rules. Cousins identifies three types of approaches common in American film of the 1970s – satirical, dissident, and assimilationist. I don’t think the distinctions are quite as cut and dried as he implies, but it’s a decent enough set of classifications to start. Satirical films look askance at society, believing that it’s too late to save it, so let’s poke fun at it. Cousins does point out that satire is hardly new to cinema, and gives some great scenes from the Marx Brothers to show it (he skipped them in his 1930s episode, so I guess he figured to sneak them in here), as well as some Frank Tashlin from the 1950s.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter 8

Film wasn’t just a window through which you saw characters and stories, it was a language and a way of thinking in itself.

Just about every episode, I’ve lamented that Cousins had to rush through some things or wished that there had been a whole episode devoted to something he covered well, but briefly. Holy cannoli, this one is the ultimate example of that, at least so far. In the introductory interview, Robert Osborne asked him how you cut this topic down to an hour and still get everything in. Short answer: you don’t. Turns out Cousins’ original cut of this episode was three hours long. I bet even that was pretty hectic. As it stands, this episode is one of the least satisfying so far, simply because you barely get acclimated to each new place/filmmaker/situation before he jets off to the next one. It’s simply information overload, and almost none of it sticks. I will concede that perhaps some of it is my own ignorance of a lot of the cinema covered here – I can’t fill in the gaps mentally like I’ve been able to in some of the earlier chapters.

After covering the French New Wave and the spread of new wave thinking into Italy last episode, Cousins shows how new waves spread across the world in this one, starting with Eastern Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, film industries were closely monitored, and making the kind of personal films that the French New Wave advocated was in itself a political statement – many Eastern Bloc filmmakers faced political persecution for their films, which were seen as radical.

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