The story of film is the subject and title of Edinburgh-born, documentary filmmaker and author Mark Cousins’ new book. After commenting in a national newspaper that film literature was lacking an accessible, clearly delineated and jargon-free history of the moving image Cousins received an offer from Pavilion Publishing to produce exactly that. The result is a lovingly crafted roadmap of cinema that sidesteps any undue attention to Hollywood by sticking firmly to an interesting organising principle: schema plus variation. Taken from Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950), Cousins uses this schema to assess the history of cinema in terms of the films that reconfigured previous forms and ideas into things fresh and new. In other words Saving Private Ryan (1998) finds inclusion here over other Normandy pictures like The Longest Day (1962) because Spielberg’s film reconfigured screen warfare and changed the way audiences think about battle violence.
By examining such films that changed the language of cinema, as opposed to the ones that have gained the most cultural popularity (although these two very occasionally converge), Cousins’ book takes an original tour of world filmmaking that offloads equal prominence on American, Iranian, Chinese and Indian cinema alike. Beginning at the beginning with cinema’s silent emergence in the 1890s Cousins’ self-consciously simple prose traces the medium’s founding fathers and some of the oft-forgotten works that pioneered techniques we now take for granted. Works such as the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (Enoch Rector, 1897), which gave audiences the kind of spatial largesse we now know as widescreen, or G.A. Smith’s The Sick Kitten (1903); Smith’s film was to first to exhibit a close-up that was not motivated by people looking through things such as keyholes.
Chapter 1’s Silent gives way to Chapter 2’s Sound with a shot of Harry Caul wielding his sound mic from Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) – such is the book’s attention to relevant imagery and screen-grabs. Cousins treats the sound revolution of the late twenties as something akin to cinema’s deflowering. Yes the movies had come of age because of Universal’s The Jazz Singer (1927) and the innovations of Jack Foley but they had also lost their purity and visual primacy. Cousins however finds just as much, if not more, to admire in the years following Al Jolson’s triumphant announcement. His clear favourite seems to be the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu’s truly classic visual style (Cousins tries hard to redeem the notion of ‘classic’ from its current state of overuse in film writing) was the apotheosis of balanced simplicity and inspired the work of future directors and screenwriters such as Robert Bresson and Paul Schrader.
Derek Jarman, Steven Spielberg, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Pedro Almodovar all find inclusion in Chapter 2’s Sound before Cousins enters into what he terms the first meritocratic age of cinema, Digital. Here the obvious entrants like Terminator 2 (1991) and The Matrix (1999) rub shoulders with more esoteric contenders like At Five in the Afternoon (2003), an Iranian picture that details the rising independence of a young Afghan woman. This is the core skill of Cousins’ book. His ability to traverse the globe and cut a swath as much through international cinema as through our common trepidations of engaging with it is no mean feat.
While it is a minor criticism that most readers will never see a large portion of the films under discussion here, and thus may find certain segments uninvolving, Cousins does remind us in the conclusion that this is a tour of the trend setters and not the money makers. Moreover, and by his own admission, that means no Shirley Maclaine running down the street at the end of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).