One cannot begin to encompass what is covered in Music Box‘s release of “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” without leaving many, many omissions on the table. It took seven years to produce and takes more of an educational approach rather than a traditional narration. Mark Cousins’ documentary is comprehensive enough to be taught as a college film course. What he gives us is an fascinating tour through the world of cinema.
Taking a world centric approach, Cousins lyrically takes us through the spectrum of film. Opening with a clip of the beach scene in “Saving Private Ryan”, he poetically talks about film being “a lie to tell the truth” and “Cinema as an empathy machine.” He repeatedly states that remarkable innovation is the theme of “The Story of Film” in that there is inherent magic in cinematic art forms and they naturally need to keep changing forward.
Cousins starts early showing the invention of pictures captured on film and shown through light. From here, the cinema machine is born. Quickly after, it is blown up and shown to many people at the same time. Moving to the 1920’s and 30’s, American cinema was booming , in London there was the emergence of Hitchcock as one of the great genre directors. Then there was the birth of propaganda films like “Triumph of the Will” used as powerful tools in Germany. As wartime progressed into the 1940’s there was a collective hardening of life and films became raw to match the roughness of the current state of the world. This brought about Neo-realism. At the same time long lenses and deep focus were introduced which helped create new frame compositions like the ones seen in”Citizen Kane.”
As Cousins moves into the 1950’s, the focus leans more toward what film was becoming in places like India and Mexico. Directors like Luis Bunuel who thought realism was boring on film and liked adding dreamlike sequences to make his films more interesting. Then there was the emergence of sexiness in cinema in France where it’s claimed that Brigitte Bardot brought more money to the French than their motorcar industry. As the 60’s progressed, younger audiences were losing patience with the old style films and brought upon a revolution. More progressive movies were being made like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This is when more directors were asking the question “Who are we?”
Hitting the late 1970’s and the oncoming decade, mainstream movies emerged like Jaw and Star Wars. These are movies with mass appeal which are showing things to people that they had not seen before. At this same time, Bruce Lee’s emergence as a modern warrior filled with rage, revenge and style was a display of never seen before athletic masculinity in films. This era is also mentioned as the “last days of Celluloid” as the 90’s ushered in digital filmmaking. Computer effects were becoming believable in “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park.” This is where Cousins astutely announces that film’s reality is losing realness. Movies moved from what we “wanted” to see to what we “could” see.
The epilogue wraps up on a curiously melancholic note. It attempts to vaguely predict the future of film, talking about movies perhaps moving towards an “Inception” type of experience where viewers experience layers of reality “playing a game of living and dying together.” Russian filmmakers think that Provacatuer is the future of film. It is fascinating to see the creativity of early filmmakers using special effects, whether by accident (a camera briefly jamming long enough to make it look like a person walking by just disappears) or through creative ingenuity. Cousins then successfully shows them as stepping stones to effects like the ones seen in the Matrix. This can also be said for film itself and this is where Cousins really excels. He shows you the progression and how everything is connected. There is so much revelatory information given in a measured manner that is easy to digest.
The progression is chronological but Cousins will sometimes jump forward or backwards to show relevant film clips. There are also a lot of juxtaposing old locations used in films with new footage of the same space. He also tends to dip into moments of hyperbole when showing various clips by using terms like “best examples ever made” and “greatest example of [insert genre here] in cinema.” It’s nice to hear him talk with such conviction however some of his statements can be fairly subjective.
Cousins does not feel the need to show film clips of Hollywood blockbusters to spice up his documentary. Instead, he mentions that during the same time when blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings” were being released other countries were doing their own, smaller scale films that continued to push innovation further. Peppered throughout the doc are interesting interviews with filmmakers such as Lars Von Trier, John Ford (who absolutely hated film analysis) and Baz Luhrman. Since so much is covered there may be some dry spells in entertainment depending on people interests on certain things. But even at 15 hours long, there is much left unsaid.
As expected, the dvd quality varies greatly with all the different films from different eras. They all look to be from good sources. The modern day footage looks good, most likely shot digitally. It is a fairly accurate DVD presentation from Music Box
As with the video, the audio too depends on the many sources shown. The main voiceover narration from Cousins is clear and well prioritized to the front speakers. In the occasion when there is a split screen shown for comparing movies the music/audio splits off into separate speakers.
There are no extras except for a 90 second trailer for the movie itself. But then again you can look at the whole main film as one humongous extra.
Watching the entire “The Story of Film” documentary in such a condensed period of time gives an amazing perspective on connecting all the cinematic dots. My library of “Necessary movies to watch” has grown exponentially after experiencing it all. This is a must watch for all movie lovers or any young, aspiring directors who want to learn more or looking for inspiration. This should see this without hesitation as it is an amazingly comprehensive look at the totality of film.