Film as an artistic medium is uniquely well suited to the television documentary format, and The Story of Film: An Odyssey, now over halfway through its considerable course of Saturday night screenings on More4, will most likely prove the definitive attempt at a harmonious combination of the two. It is the culmination of five years of research and writing by film-critic Mark Cousins, and bears all the hallmarks of a labour of love. This is no bad thing: as a narrator Cousins is remarkably good at uncovering cinema’s mysteries and revealing its best concealed secrets. And though his softly-spoken, lilting delivery may veer between the soothing and the grating, the words themselves are almost always quietly insightful.
As the name would suggest The Story of Film is certainly an epic. Its journey through cinema’s colourful history may have rolled out of the starting gates in early September, but a month and a half in and the leisurely pace of affairs has got us no further than the “dazzling” 60s: last week’s main attractions were Easy Rider, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the early work of Roman Polanski, amongst others. Such a comprehensive and luxuriant history demands a certain amount of dedication from the viewer, but he or she is rewarded with a spectacularly rich and educational experience. Indeed the series as a whole amounts to a complete and gloriously cinematic lecture-course on film history in 15 hour-and-a-half long instalments.
Of course, it could be argued that such a series could never be long enough: it is impossible to condense such a diverse art-form into a set of episodes that after all only amounts to maybe 5 or 6 feature-lengths. This may be true, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that the essence of cinema, whatever that may be, is somehow there. In the magnificently idealistic introductory sequence Cousins takes pains to convince us that “It’s not money that drives movies, but ideas.”
And indeed this is a theme that recurs regularly throughout the series: according to Cousins, at least, the story of film is not a story of egotism, or of profiteering, or of individual stardom, or of the success of large corporations, though you might well expect it to be all of these things. It is, instead, a story that invariably takes us down unexpected paths: to the birth of ‘classical’ cinema in Japan, to the first days of Hollywood, when female screenwriters dominated the movie business, or to Scandinavia, which was the hotbed of cinematic innovation in the 1910s. Most importantly of all, though, the story of film is a story that affirms our belief in all that is good about cinema, and one that reminds us exactly why we find it so hard to tear ourselves away from the silver screen.
– Alexander Hawkins-Hooker
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