In my commentary on, and analysis of, The Story of Film, I have sought to describe both what Cousins included and what he omitted in his coverage of the cinema’s first sixty years as well as to point out specific errors. While it would have been, of course, utterly impossible to have included full consideration of all the major chapters of early cinema other than in a series many times longer than the one he realized, it seems to me that, in too many instances, the rationale for exclusion or abridgment, when offered, was far from satisfactory. Hence, there is the reductionism of most American silent cinema to a mere bauble, the characterization of the early sound era in Weimar Germany as “folksy” productions about “mountains and music and homeland,” and the dismissal of the first forty years of Egyptian film production as simply “formulaic.”
In his book, too, Cousins justified bypassing entire countries on the grounds that their production at that time was “formulaic,” although he seems to have used this term in place of any real study of the periods overlooked. Other than a lack of such attention, how else can one explain the total absence from his book of the masterpiece of Australian silent cinema, The Sentimental Bloke (1919)? The creation of pioneer director Raymond Longford and his leading lady, Lottie Lyell, who also co-directed and helped write the script, The Sentimental Bloke was a naturalistic comedy that departed radically from the conventions of narrative cinema. Rather than utilizing melodramatic plot devices, the story is a natural progression of incidents in the life of an Australian working class couple early in the 20th century. The Sentimental Bloke has a true sense of the flow of life, plain and unvarnished as revealed by the camera, differing strikingly in its intense realism both from the kind of glamour ascribed to
It was much the same with
Despite his promise to redraw the map of traditional film history, therefore, Cousins’ main alteration from the models of thirty years ago was to add East Asia to the
Cousins' treatment of gender issues in filmmaking also promised more than it delivered. Aside from Leni Riefenstahl and the segment on early American women pioneers that seemed to be mainly an attempt to check Griffith's reputation for innovation, female directors from the cinema's first fifty years were absent from his series. As my analysis has revealed, there was nothing about Francesca Bertini's pioneering neo-realism in Assunta Spina, Nell Shipman's boldly independent conception of filmmaking, Dorothy Arzner's notable achievements within the studio system, the vital role of Egyptian women in founding a national cinema. There was no example of the outstanding work of women directors in the climactic late silent era, whether it was Olga Preobrazhenskaya's powerful depiction of patriarchal oppression in a Russian village, Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927); Germaine Dulac's astonishing avant-garde film, La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928); or, in another sign of the enormous cinematic vitality in the Southern Hemisphere, the work of Australia's extraordinary McDonagh Sisters--Paulette, director, Isabel, actress, Phyllis, set designer--in creating stylish, sophisticated dramas like The Cheaters (1930) that rivaled in quality many of the fine films made in the better-known cinemas.
Although Cousins presented several cogent arguments in the introduction to his book concerning the nature and evolution of film as an art form, it is evident that his choices of what films and artists to emphasize over others, first in the book and then in the series, were to a considerable extent influenced by existing approaches. It may thus be instructive to examine the various ways in which film history has been interpreted over the years and what trends might have affected the construction of the series.
Probably the most common manner of presenting film history to a mass audience has been one that is traditionally Hollywood-oriented although other cinemas have sometimes been treated in the same way. This form of chronicling adopts the mantle of entertainment, often emphasizing gossip and scandal about the stars. The approach was succinctly summed up in the title of a TCM series several years ago on the history of
Another way in which cinema history has been perceived is a nationalistic one in which the overall interpretation is colored by the achievements of the analyst’s own country. Stress is laid on filmic “firsts” in the native land and their impact elsewhere to the degree that the rest of the world appears almost as an adjunct by comparison. While this view of cinematic development is often helpful in bringing into focus vital information that has been overlooked, it also runs the risk of tending toward parochialism and jingoism.
Clearly rejecting this form of presentation, Cousins does not spend much time on British cinema prior to the Second World War. There is a discussion in the first episode of the early British pioneers, represented by G. Albert Smith, an excerpt from Humphrey Jennings’ 1934 documentary, Post Haste, in the section of the fifth episode dealing with British cinema in the 1940s, and a major emphasis on Alfred Hitchcock in the fourth episode with additional mention of him in the third chapter. Apart from these, however, there is very little on prewar British cinema compared to most of the other larger cinemas of the era. As indicated by his book, Cousins follows the established neglect of British silent film production in the 1910s and 1920s, a limited view that was sharply challenged by Matthew Sweet in his excellent 2006 documentary, Silent Britain. Cousins, though, was apparently unaffected by this repudiation of orthodox opinion. For example, neither in his book nor his series does he refer to Anthony Asquith’s silent film masterpiece, the powerful proto-noir A Cottage on
Yet if Cousins avoided any nationalistic tendencies in his conception of film history, he was strongly affected by a variation of such exclusivism—an essentialism that focuses on the differences between cultures. Characteristically, essentialism tends to exaggerate or emphasize these differences in order to present a culture in a specific way, whether positively or negatively. It has long been an undercurrent in cinematic interpretations, particularly of filmic traditions outside one’s own country. In the early 1930s, for example, a number of Western film theorists, rejecting the capitalist system and the films produced by American and European studios, embraced Soviet cinema as a superior and revolutionary alternative with the potential to liberate mankind from the forces of oppression and exploitation.
As I have noted, Noel Burch advanced a comparable interpretation of Japanese cinema as another form of filmmaking repudiating Western modes of expression for one that was uniquely Eastern. As an outgrowth of his purist view of Japanese cinema, he rejected the other great historic traditions of non-Western filmmaking in
A salient example of a negative form of essentialism shaping the interpretation of a particular cinematic tradition is Siegfried Kracauer’s very influential From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, published in 1947. As the title suggested, Kracauer saw elements of Nazi ideology in many of the classic German films of the
That Cousins has incorporated essentialism into his conception of cinema history is evident in his first episode when, in making a comparison between Japanese and American cinemas to the disadvantage of the latter, he conveys a sense that one culture is superior to another. This is reinforced in the subsequent contrast he draws between Scandinavia and an environment conducive to exploring the truths of life and an American cinema anchored in a balmy
Far more influential on Cousins’ cinematic historiography, however, especially in the first four episodes, is the tradition of British intellectual and aesthetic film criticism going back to the 1920s. Among the pioneer writers and critics at that time were Iris Barry, a leading reviewer who helped found the London Film Society in 1925, Kenneth Macpherson, the editor of Close-Up, a journal devoted to experimental cinema, and Paul Rotha, the author of The Film Till Now: A Survey of the Cinema, one of the first histories of world cinema published in 1930. The influence of this 1920s British-based movement extended over several decades and across the Atlantic with Iris Barry in the 1930s establishing the
While there were undeniable variations in the British intellectual approach toward cinema in the 1920s, there was a general tendency which postulated clear lines of distinction in what constituted the best or most ideal filmmaking and what was considered far less satisfactory. This perception was shaped in large part by
The response to this imbalance by the British cineastes was to establish a definite hierarchy in the ranking of international filmmaking. First and foremost in their estimation were the Continental art films, especially those produced in
In a general sense, much of Cousins’ exposition of early film history replicates the position taken by the British cineastes of the 1920s. Like them, he perceives international filmmaking in its formative decades as a vast struggle between the progenitors of an art film tradition based in the Old World and the entrepreneurs of the entertainment empire centered on the
Ironically, in elevating one approach to filmmaking over another, Cousins, like the first wave of British cineastes, has inadvertently substituted one form of cultural imperialism for another. In privileging an international style influenced by the European avant-garde over more locally based forms of expression that reached a wider audience, he has embraced a kind of elitism. This is evident in the treatment of the early histories of smaller or more medium-sized cinemas like those of Brazil and Poland in which only those few works that could be reconciled with avant-gardism were considered by Cousins worthy of inclusion in his presentation.
It was probably for this reason that a number of key works from the silent era in the “other” cinemas were never mentioned by Cousins in either his book or his series. Films like The Sentimental Bloke and El Husar de la Muerte, powerfully addressing as they did themes rooted in the national culture and attracting mass audiences in their countries, apparently had no place in Cousins’ methodology despite the two works remaining enormously influential in, respectively, Australia and Chile. Other classic silent films from smaller cinemas expressing the national ethos with comparable power include Ramon Peon’s Cuban feature, El Virgen de la Caridad (The Virgin of Charity; 1930), and Orestis Laskos’ Greek production, Daphnis and Chloe (1931). Peon’s film, blending documentary-like realism with a dramatic narrative containing an exciting climax, vividly recreates the village life of humble Cuban farmers and their struggle against the wealthy property owners who oppress them. Laskos’ film, adapted from the ancient Greek romantic novel, depicts the love of a young couple filmed amidst the beautiful and sensual natural backgrounds of
As varied as their themes, narratives and characterizations were, The Sentimental Bloke, El Husar de la Muerte, La Virgen de la Caridad, and Daphnis and Chloe had in common a populism and a national consciousness that was as independent of avant-garde abstractionism as of the
The type of dichotomy between a favored international abstractionism and a disregarded national, populist cinema employed by Cousins has bred resentment and sometimes strong reactions. For example, among Brazilian filmmakers of Cinema Novo in the 1950s, notably Glauber Rocha, there was an unfortunate tendency to dismiss Mario Peixoto’s Limite as a mere copy of the European avant-garde in contrast to Humberto Mauro’s work which was seen as authentically native. In an essay I wrote on Limite, I attempted to bridge this chasm by noting the parallels that unite Mauro and Peixoto as two brilliant artists evolving from, and expressing, the same culture, albeit with radically different, individual visions. In highlighting Peixoto while totally ignoring Mauro, Cousins in a sense has reopened this schism. His approach to
Still, despite retaining the hierarchical structure of the earlier model, Cousins is far more inclusive and intelligent in a number of his evaluations than was often true of earlier cineastes. At one time, some highbrow critics were so convinced that the Hollywood studio system was the enemy of true artistic expression that they even dismissed F. W. Murnau’s
Cousins’ greatest departure from the predominant trend in film analysis for much of the 20th century is the welcome and richly-deserved attention he pays in his series to the remarkable early development of cinema in the three Asian giants—Japan, China and, to a lesser extent in the sixth episode, India. For decades, the majority of Western critics, as Knight observed in The Liveliest Art, tended to regard Asian cinemas as simply turning out “great quantities of films of dubious merit and purely local interest.” Hence, the standard treatment of the emergence of cinema art long ignored their early histories, ironically for much the same reason that Cousins’ series largely bypassed the pioneer filmmakers of Latin America,
Despite this extension of film history’s geographical boundaries, however, Cousins for most of the first four episodes presents the annals of cinematic development in accordance with the structure established by the first generation of British cineastes. Then at the very end of the fourth chapter, he introduces a sudden, significant shift. Commenting on the celebrated
It would seem that, as cinema history moves away from the silent era and the first decade of sound, Cousins is more affected by another group of cineastes with a very different perception of the art. The cineastes of
This more sweeping perception of film had a lasting effect on succeeding generations in
These contrasting approaches colored the issue of film preservation itself. In consonance with the structured conception of film history in Britain, Iris Barry at the Museum of Modern Art and Ernest Lindgren at the National Film Archive adopted a selective policy toward the conservation of moving images in which favored works would be earmarked for preservation while others deemed less important might be neglected or overlooked. The result was that many American and British films disappeared during the time that Barry and Lindgren were managing their archives.
The French approach was altogether different. Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, famously declared that “every film should be preserved” without regard for personal preferences. As he put it, those who “think they have taste, me included, are idiots.” Nouvelle Vague master Francois Truffaut, who emerged from the creative ferment engendered by Langlois’ Cinematheque, agreed with this perspective, maintaining that cinematic works should be saved “from the capriciousness of judgments conditioned by the fashions of a period.”
This wide-ranging enthusiasm for all things cinematic produced a very different body of writing than what existed in the English-speaking world. For years, the French film historian Georges Sadoul traveled the world, gathering information on the development of cinema in many countries for an encyclopedic chronicling of the art unparalleled by more limited writers in the English language like Paul Rotha. Some of these analyses in
Perhaps for this reason Cousins’ interpretation of
Had Cousins’ initial chapters been similarly infused with the views of the first generation of French cinephiles, he might very well have produced a very different series. Rather than establishing strict boundaries between art cinema and entertainment films in which Hollywood was presented as a beguiling and threatening monolith producing almost nothing but fantasies, he could have been inspired to set forth a view of cinema’s origins that revealed a fundamental unity for all the fascinating variations among the world’s cinemas. The continual interchange between national cinema traditions helped spark creative expression in many individual countries rather than simply imposing one dominant style over all others.
Cousins’ call for a new “classicism” to define cinema art at its highest, as I implied at the start of this analysis, would, if it were actually implemented, only lead to a cultural rebellion as all such attempts at standardization of taste have done in the past. Shakespeare’s free-flowing plays were written in defiance of the rigidities of classical dramaturgy with its insistence on the “unities.” Just as classicism in
Beyond an attempt to apply a long-vanished esthetic to the cinema, Cousins’ series was, perhaps inevitably, affected by much more current trends. It is an irony that the closer the world seems to have been drawn together through modern communications, the more divided it has become on ideological and cultural grounds. In presenting the origin of cinematic expression in terms of a cosmic struggle between Hollywood and the rest of the world for the soul of the new art early in the 20th century, Cousins’ series reflected these divisions including the doctrine of political correctness and the theory of a clash of civilizations. His approach was further fragmented by his dismissal of large sections of non-Hollywood film history on either cultural or political grounds.
With the world now at a tipping point, there must be a new consciousness of a shared planet with a shared cultural heritage and a shared destiny. Applied to many fields of human activity, such a concept would render as outmoded the traditional approach to film history that colored much of the interpretation of The Story of Film. In truth, the emergence of film as an art form came about not through the sort of conflict Cousins envisioned but through positive interchange across countries and cultures. But while Cousins does discuss the influence of one country's films on another in his series, his heavy emphasis on a presumptive clash between Hollywood "romanticism" and Eurasian "classicism" essentially overshadows the creative borrowings and parallel developments among the world's cinemas that were the real warp and woof of film history.
The dream of many pioneer filmmakers that cinema would be a universal language bringing humanity together and making war obsolete proved illusory long ago. Yet at the same time there is no doubt that with unprecedented immediacy the international nature of film production was essential in enabling the new art to develop and flourish as it did in country after country around the world. A documentary series delineating the history of world cinema as a creative symbiosis embracing all of the human experience is long overdue.
This analysis has doubtless been at times severe in its judgment of The Story of Film. I do wish to reiterate its undeniably positive features. Besides the admirable audacity of such a massive project, there is no question of Cousins’ genuine love for the art, expressed with an enthusiastic passion in the series that is often infectious. Even if the whole does not add up to a satisfactory interpretation of cinema history, many individual segments are extremely effective and engrossing in presenting and making understandable the significant creative forces that helped shape the art of film. This includes not only the better known and more fully appreciated figures and productions but also valuable considerations of major films and artists either missing or misinterpreted in the standard accounts. Cousins thus deserves high praise for breaking with entrenched orthodoxy in his recognition of the importance of Abel Gance, his attention to Latin American masters Mario Peixoto and Fernando de Fuentes, his avoidance of political correctness in assessing Gone With the Wind, and his placing of early Asian cinema in the forefront of filmic development.
An examination of those episodes in which Mark Cousins deals with the cinema of the nitrate era has yielded both disappointment and the promise of a more engaged, truly representative presentation of those crucial years of artistic development. The kind of wide-ranging appreciation of film as an art, so characteristic of the first wave of French cineastes, could provide a guide for an interpretation that truly succeeds in redrawing the map of movie history we have in our heads. To adopt this approach, though, it will be necessary to overthrow the cultural and political boundaries, including those set by Cousins, that have been inimical to a revolutionary reconfiguration of cinema history. In both its drawbacks and its virtues, Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film is thus a useful indicator of where we are now and how much more is still needed to arrive at a full chronicle of the emergence of cinema in the first half of the 20th century as the major artistic experience of the modern age.