Tag Archives: The Story of Film

The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter 13

This is the story of the end of an era. For 100 years, movies had been shot on this – celluloid. Paper-thin, shiny, perforated. A medium so sensitive it could capture the subtle colors in snow. But in the ’90s, the digital image and Terminator 2 came and reality got less real. In these last days before that happened, as if to stave off the moment when the link between reality and movies would finally be broken, filmmakers around the world made passionate movies about emotions not spaceships or other worlds.

In this first of two episodes devoted to the 1990s, Cousins highlights the humanist dramas and insistence on realism that characterize a lot of non-American film in the 1990s. According to Cousins’ interview with Robert Osborne, the ’20s and the ’90s are his two favorite eras, because of the great diversity and innovation found there. Of course, he’s talking about anything but mainstream Hollywood cinema in the ’90s, which were, as Robert pointed out, full of remakes and formula films. Instead, this episode will take us to Iran, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, and France, while Episode 14 will focus on the American independents like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers.

Chapter 13 is more polemical than most of the episodes in its fierce defense of filmmakers using film (the actual medium) to capture human themes, which Cousins continually contrasts to the digital revolution on the horizon. He is so tied to this theme that it makes for some really weird comparisons, including a repeated offhanded vitriol toward The Lord of the Rings movies. Even though I appreciate the films he’s talking about here and am really interested in seeing many of them, his apparent hatred of hobbits and the fantasy cinema they stand in for makes this episode a little repellant to those of us who rather like some fantasy films mixed in with our human dramas.

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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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