The Story of Film: An Odyssey (More4)

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This is a bit of a strange post in that it’s one part review and one part preview/public service announcement about a programme coming up this evening (or if you’re reading this after Saturday 17 September, then an exhortation to try out your 4OD catch-up service in the UK.)

I was a bit reluctant to watch this series when it started two weeks ago for many reasons. Do we really need another “history of film” for one thing? Hasn’t that story been told many, many times already? And this one in 15 hour-long parts? Isn’t that title, “Story of Film – an Odyssey” just a bit pretentious? It didn’t help when the adverts for the series seemed to be taking a Hollywood-bashing stance (“Think Casablanca is a romantic film classic? Pah!” was the tone) of the pure cineaste who only delights in the most obscure and difficult film subjects. I’m too much a lover of the crassly populist to join that elite club, though I might like to peek around the door of the purists’ hang-out every now and then to check out what they’re watching.

Nor did I take to it when actually watching it initially: film-maker Mark Cousins’ lilting Northern Irish tones resulted in such a different narration style from the normal type of “expert voiceover” declamation for a programme that it seemed more like some weird tone poem being performed over random visuals to which the narration had only passing connection. And flat, uninspired, cheap visuals in both conception and execution at that: static shots of the most banal, ordinary buildings and street corners to show how they looked a hundred years after the events being related; or the use of a Christmas bauble hung from the branch of a tree on the sun-baked hills overlooking Hollywood to show the artificiality of tinsel town, and so that it could also (inevitably) be dropped and shatter to show traumatic times in film making. Clichés, much?

But after a shaky start, the series has got steadily more interesting with its study and discussion of basic film techniques, charting their phenomenal development in just a few years and also explaining them to us laypeople who haven’t been to movie school and who might not know about elementary rules of editing, or the 180 Degree Rule for film composition. It also covered the rise of the earliest star directors – particularly in the comedy field with pioneers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, which gave the story heart as well as intellect as it did so.

Finally it dawned on me that the hypnotic, irresistible commentary by Cousins and the dull, clichéd visuals were all a way of providing some “white space” around the wonderful clips of the fantastic silent film classics that were being shown: the programme doesn’t want to add clutter and distraction that will get in the way of us watching and appreciating the excerpts of some of the greatest and most important early works of cinema, and so Cousin’s treatise (the programme is adapted from his formidable book) becomes subliminal and part of the overall mise en scène, – seeping into our heads so silkily that we hardly realise how much we suddenly seem to have learnt about what we’ve been seeing. It’s perhaps not a technique that will work so well once the programme reaches the talkies and can’t supply the narrative over the soundless extracts, but for the silent era this manner of presentation that I’d initially taken against proves strikingly effective and compellingly alluring, once you get used to it and open yourself up to it.

Given that episode 2 was talking about film style development, key directors and international film making outside of the US, I was disappointed at the time that last week’s instalment seemed to avoid touching upon the likes of FW Murnau, Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein at all – all of them film geniuses whose work still looks powerful and vibrant and fresh to this day to my eyes and that I wish more people outside hardcore cineastes would try watching. But I needn’t have worried, once again Cousins was an assured step ahead of me: it appears that those subjects were being held back to form the focus of episode three of the series, which is the one airing tonight, and once I found that out I realised I was more excited about getting to see this programme this week than pretty much anything else in the schedules. A chance not only to see clips from some fantastic films again, but also to have Mark Cousins’ intelligent, knowledgeable analysis of exactly why they were so important to development of the 20th Century’s most dominant and popular artform.

Episode 4 in a week promises to be equally as compelling, taking in the dawn of a plethora of film genres (screwball comedies, gangster pictures, horror films, westerns, musicals) and the arrival on the scene of the likes of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, before Episode 5 turns to the era of World War 2 and the Cold War – and a more realistic, grim era of film noir giving us directors like Orson Welles and an influx of European talent. I suspect later editions after this will appeal to me less (certainly Hollywood film seems to lose its way after the 70s with its subjugation to the demands of the blockbuster) but then again it’s just possible that these could be the most interesting and surprising programmes of all as the programme looks increasingly internationally for innovation and artistry. Certainly the programme has won me over from my initial doubts and reservations and proved its strengths over my sceptical preconceptions sufficiently in the first two weeks to earn itself some quality time on my TV screen.

I hope that the episodes live up to expectations; but if the programme continues true to its philosophy so far of letting the films speak first and foremost for themselves, then the strength of the work on display should make it a slam-dunk.

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