Visual ideas are the real things that drive cinema.
It’s time to redraw the map of movie history that we have in our heads.
These two quotes taken from Mark Cousins’ narration in the prologue to The Story of Film could well sum up the entire undertaking. Here he lays out his two-part thesis. First, the story of film as far as he’s concerned is preoccupied with seeking out visual ideas, innovation, and cross-pollination throughout film history. Second, he is going to question the accepted story of film, which is Hollywood and Europe-centric. Certainly he covers European and Hollywood cinema and recognizes the advances they made (much of the first episode is devoted to giants like Edison, the Lumieres, and Griffith), but throughout the he’s quick to point out when the established national cinemas fell into complacency and innovation was strongest elsewhere – Japan, or China, or Senegal. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
The fact that Cousins begins with this prologue is important. Besides giving a hint into Cousins’ breadth of knowledge and eye for visual echoes, it establishes this documentary not as primarily a textbook film history, striving for completeness and objectivity, but as a dissertation that takes a position and argues for it, via exhaustive knowledge and personal passion. Though the film is factual and highly informative, it is also very explicitly “Mark Cousins’ Story of Film,” as opposed to mine or yours or anyone else’s, and the film is stronger for it. Though his modern-day footage sometimes seems out of place, it strives to create a feeling of contemplation, of getting lost in a reverie. Not content to tell the history of cinema, Cousins wants you to get lost in the dream of cinema, and he makes his documentary a part of that cinema as well.