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.