"It’s like a tasting menu" - Mark Cousins on The Story of Film: A New Generation

At a time when the simple act of going to the movies remains precarious, Mark Cousins’ new film offers a deep-dive into the artistry and wonder of modern cinema. Interview by Alistair Harkness

Mark Cousins
Mark Cousins

It’s 10.30am on an early December morning and Mark Cousins’ computer has just died. “I’ve been editing for three hours today so I’ve been asking it to do a lot,” says Cousins when he appears on a Zoom screen from his Edinburgh flat a few minutes later. “It needed a little rest.”

The same might be said of Cousins, who’s released three films this year, shot one more (a documentary about the Scottish abstract painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham) and was hit with a terrible bout of Covid in the autumn. “That really knocked me pretty hard so I’ve actually been pruning back my work life a bit. But I’m good,” he says, cheerfully. “I’m happy to have had a lot of films out this year.”

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He’s online to talk about the third of those films, The Story of Film: A New Generation. Following his intimate essay film The Story of Looking and his documentary The Storms of Jeremy Thomas (about the maverick independent British film producer), it’s arguably the most vital of his recent output – a deep-dive into the artistry and wonder of modern cinema at time when the simple act of going to the movies remains somewhat precarious.

The Story of Film: A New Generation

It’s also, of course, a sequel of sorts. It’s been ten years since he adapted his 2004 history of cinema tome of the same name into the innovative, globe-hopping, 15-hour cine-essay The Story of Film: An Odyssey. The world has changed hugely in that time and so have the movies, so what better time to look back and take stock.

“The publisher actually asked me to update the book,” he says, “so I put in a final chapter called ‘Streaming’ because that was an easy way of describing the changes that had happened. But I realised that streaming wasn't the most interesting thing for me. It was more the fact that the river of cinema was becoming a delta because of all these different changes in society and different liberation movements, so I thought, yeah, that is a good time to look again.”

Lockdown was another factor. Observing the way the pandemic not only pushed us into our homes, but also into our own heads a little more, he set out to make a film that would capture what it’s like to submit to a movie and really lose yourself in the magic of the artform, while at the same time exploring how the language of cinema has been expanded and, in some cases, re-invented.

He does all this in intriguing ways: juxtaposing clips of films from across the globe, opening our eyes to what’s possible, and collapsing some of the perceived barriers that exist between the recent movies that all film fans seem to know (Parasite, Joker, Mad Max: Fury Road) and the ones they may not (Lav Diaz’s four-hour slow cinema classic Norte, the End of History, Bo Hu’s similarly imposing An Elephant Sitting Still).

The Story of Film: A New Generation

“It’s like a tasting menu,” says Cousins of how much easier this clip-based essay format makes it to discuss more obscure and challenging movies.

But it also lends itself well to his own desire to make unexpected connections and shake loose new takes on films that dominate pop culture. In a bold move, for instance, he opens The Story of Film by comparing Joker to Frozen and uses both to segue effortlessly into a discussion about cinema as a parallel universe via a clip of Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2015 film Cemetery of Splendour.

“It works, doesn’t it?” he says with a laugh.

He puts this down to his David Bowie-esque cut-out approach. Whenever he’s making a film like this he tends to scribble his ideas on bits of paper that he keeps on a stack on his desk. He holds some up to the camera. “I just write in any old order and once I’ve got a bunch of them I lay them on the floor,” he says, pointing to the painted floorboards that line his home office. “So ‘Frozen’ goes there, ‘Joker’ there and hopefully the sparks start flying. Once I’ve laid it all out I photograph it and turn it into these big bits of paper.” He holds up a roll of sellotaped-together sheets of A4 covered in inky scribbles. “That’s the script as it were, though there’s no actual script. I record the narration live when we’re editing. The big mistake for me in this kind of film is to make a script first and then look for images to illustrate it.”

Mark Cousins

That makes sense. For Cousins, film is all about the power images have over us – something reflected in the three films he thinks have truly reinvented cinema in the last decade: the aforementioned Cemetery of Splendour, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors and Jonathan Glazer’s Glasgow-set Under the Skin, a film that blew his mind the first time he saw it. “It was like being plugged into a circuit board,” he recalls, though he also remembers very well the anger it provoked at its Glasgow Film Festival premiere when audience members objected to its depiction of the city. “They were looking at it through a sociological lens and that’s such a primitive way to look at a film as imaginative as this one.”

As for the future of cinema, Cousins’ global outlook means he can’t help but be optimistic and excited about where it’s going. The only thing that worries him is people’s unwillingness to submit themselves properly to a movie. “The number of times I get messages on social media from somebody saying, “Oh, I'm loving this Fassbinder film; I'm halfway through it…’ and I'm thinking, ‘Why are you sending me a message when you're halfway through something?’ That feeling of being able to pause something, it's good in many aspects of our regular lives, but in our dream lives or imaginative lives, we need to feel powerless in order to fully get the narcotic hit of the film. I hope people won't forget that.”

The Story of Film: A New Generation is in cinemas and on demand. Tickets & Info: https://www.the-story-of-film.com

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