Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey
by William M. Drew
The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a mammoth fifteen-part documentary series written and directed by Mark Cousins, a prominent film critic from Ulster, is an undoubted landmark in the various attempts that have been made to chronicle cinema history on television. Based on Cousins’ book of the same title, the series, first shown in 2011, aspires to nothing more nor less than to present the entire story of cinematic development around the world from the birth of the medium in the late 19th century to the advent of digital technology some 120 years later. Originally broadcast in the UK in September of 2011, it reached an even wider audience two years later when it was shown on Turner Classic Movies in the fall of 2013. With only director Jean-Luc Godard’s highly personal and idiosyncratic Histoire(s) du Cinema a possible precedent, Cousins has been the first documentarian to attempt to embrace cinema history in all its totality. As such, The Story of Film, which went on to win a Peabody Award, has attracted widespread attention and more than a little praise. A reviewer in the London Telegraph, for example, hailed it as “visually ensnaring and intellectually lithe, a love letter to cinema, and a radical rewriting of movie history.”
However, while Cousins surely deserves plaudits for undertaking such an ambitious project and the series has undeniable felicitous aspects that both enlighten and entertain, The Story of Film also has definite flaws which undercut its virtues. These shortcomings stem from both Cousins’ attempt to reduce film history to a pet theory and a fundamental imbalance in the structure of the series' chronological narrative of cinematic development. But while The Story of Film has definitely generated its share of controversy, too much of the criticism has been aimed at such superficial factors as the Northern Irish accent of Cousins in his narration of the programs and even the apparel he wore when introducing the individual episodes on TCM in segments in which he was interviewed by Robert Osborne. I think any serious analysis should avoid mere surface appearances of this kind to consider the series both in the context of Cousins’ book and the historiographical traditions that influenced it.
The structural problems are, I believe, rooted in the decision to present the cinema’s first sixty years—what could be called “the nitrate era”—in only five episodes while devoting as many as ten episodes to the succeeding decades from the 1950s to the present. Compared to the much fuller treatment accorded this later era, the earlier period thus appears far more fragmented and rushed in its presentation with essential chapters entirely omitted. And what remained was more often than not shaped to conform to Cousins’ particular thesis.
In the original edition of The Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow astutely concluded that “Whatever future the cinema may have will be based solidly upon its past. . . .And you cannot enjoy the last reel unless you know what happened in the first.” Instead of rushing through the silent era and the first two decades of sound on his way to the much more fully delineated later era, I think it might have been better had Cousins expended further time on the pioneering decades, thus providing viewers with a proper understanding of the emergence of cinema as an art in the first half of the 20th century. While it is possible that constraints imposed by the series’ financial backers limited the amount of time he could devote to the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Cousins, to my knowledge, has made no such claim. Additionally, this same imbalance, with glaring omissions of major artists, is to be found in his book. In truth, it would seem that a significant part of what Cousins selected and what he eliminated from his narrative was intended to bolster a theory centering around a perceived dichotomy between “romantic” Hollywood entertainment and the “classicism” of filmmakers in other parts of the world. It is especially in the earlier episodes, dealing with a more remote period of cinema, much of which was likely less familiar to his viewers, that Cousins was most rigorous in his efforts to impose his theory on the vast sweep of film history.
It is the aim of this analysis to delineate how Cousins presented the cinema’s first sixty years in the earlier episodes of The Story of Film, highlighting both the virtues and the flaws of the series. That he has introduced a number of viewers to aspects of cinema history with which they have not been familiar is undeniable and is to be commended. However, The Story of Film also contains serious errors and omissions that need to be pointed out. Indeed, in many respects, the series, far from being a truly radical rewriting of past narratives as advertised, tends to reinforce the traditional accounts that have long hindered a more wide-ranging, challenging view of filmic development. In emphasizing cultural conflict as he does in his view of “Hollywood vs. the rest” and his attendant neglect of large sections of cinema history that are not in accord with this perception, his approach is all too reflective of the immense divisions of our time. Yet I believe that a more complete chronicle of film history would instead reveal the strong interdependence among cultures and nations that led to the birth and growth of this exciting new art form. It is my hope that in discussing the methodology utilized by Cousins, this essay can suggest an alternative interpretation, one that might do full justice to this extraordinary chapter in cultural history.