Ten years ago, filmmaker Mark Cousins created a mammoth fifteen hour exploration of cinema called, grandiosely but accurately, The Story Of Film: An Odyssey. To mark the tenth anniversary of Cousins’ ground-breaking work, Network are rereleasing it on Blu-Ray.
And it’s hard to think of many recent releases so eminently deserving of a Blu-Ray edition. The Story Of Film contains an overwhelming amount of dazzling clips spanning the whole history of cinema (well, up to 2011!), with over five hundred movies featured from six continents. There are plenty of well-known films included here – the whole thing starts with an excerpt of the D Day Landing from Saving Private Ryan – but more of the project’s highlights come from the inclusion of obscurities.
Cousins dances across the history of cinema with formidable encyclopaedic insight, often drawing parallels between two or more movies made thousands of miles apart. One of the many joys of the project is watching how lyrically he finds these connections: Odd Man Out, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Taxi Driver are linked via the psychological use of bubbles; Shoah and 2001: A Space Odyssey both use the filmmaking technique of the ‘phantom ride’ to strikingly different effect; the influence of Charlie Chaplin is seen in characters from France, Italy and India. Watching The Story Of Film drives home the fact that most filmmakers are film lovers, and it’s both fascinating and exhilarating to see how directors from different eras and different countries have been influenced by the same movie. It’s a big old world, but it’s a small one too.
The opening chapters of Cousins’ documentary are particularly enlightening, as we see how the early cinema pioneers like Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter and DW Griffith built on each other’s work to create the cinematic language we’re familiar with today. Although the documentary is constructed in a rough chronological order, Cousins is not averse to making great temporal leaps to illustrate a point, as when he tracks the evolution of the close-up from 1903’s The Sick Kitten to 1968’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. However far away we move in time from the silent pioneers, however advanced filmmaking techniques become, Cousins shows how the greatest leaps of innovation have already occurred, over a century ago.
Of course, a project covering the whole history of cinema was never going to be flawless. While the fifteen hour duration seems roomy at first, when you consider the immensity of work released in all the countries with a cinema industry over more than a century, then frustrating exclusions were inevitable. Cousins has both an unfortunate fondness both for hacky visual metaphors (like a bauble to represent Hollywood, which he returns to over and over), and for making grand superlative statements (‘— is the best—- in cinema history’). Those looking for quibbles won’t have a problem finding them.
Ultimately though, those quibbles are dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of knowledge and passion that makes The Story Of Filmsuch vital, compelling viewing. Be prepared – your watchlist is about to grow exponentially…
The Story of Film: An Odyssey is on Blu-ray 26 July 2021 from Network