"Thrill Becomes Story"
Mark Cousins first sets forth his major theory in the introductory section of the initial episode entitled “1895-1918: The World Discovers a New Art Form; Thrill Becomes Story.” His examples are taken from two films of the 1940s directed by noted veterans of the silent era. He shows a clip from Michael Curtiz’
In making his distinction between a “classical” cinema and a “romantic” one, Cousins consciously drew on a traditional aesthetic approach in which “classicism,” as seen in ancient Greek and Roman models, was exalted for its balance and harmony, qualities he finds in many Japanese films, especially those of Ozu. He contrasts this with the “romantic” treatment he finds prevalent in most
There are inherent problems, however, with the type of aesthetic dualism that Cousins’ interpretation proposes. Certainly, from the standpoint of seriousness, one could argue that the thematics of Casablanca are just as weighty, just as universally relevant as those in The Record of a Tenement Gentleman but that the different subject matter of the two films and the cultural context in which they were made is so distinct that his comparison is ultimately a forced one. Furthermore, Cousins, for all his citation of “classicism” as an ideal model based on historical precedent, seems oblivious to the negative consequences that have arisen in the past from the rigid imposition of such structuralism. Shakespeare, for example, was condemned by literary and dramatic critics of the neo-classical school for his intense emotionalism, mixture of comedy and tragedy, melodramatic effects, and violation of formal rules of time and place. Indeed, it was precisely this dominance of “classical” norms in the 18th century, producing a kind of aesthetic stasis, that provoked the rebellion of “romanticism” in the first place. Inevitably, the emphasis on order and restraint in artistic expression came to be associated with analogous efforts to impose limitations on societal and political organization, methods of control and authority that became casualties of the age of revolution that convulsed the West in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The ideals of balance and harmony, a seemingly neat and tidy way of defining existence in art, were swept away by a powerful movement that championed the natural and spontaneous, fully embracing the often disconcerting effects produced by the triumph of the unfettered imagination. Its relation to the larger political and social realm was underscored by Victor Hugo’s dramatic declaration of romantic revolt against neo-classicism: “There exists today a literary ancien regime as there once existed a political ancien regime.”
Cousins, however, fails to address the obvious disadvantages in elevating one style of filmmaking over another. Taking on the political coloration that permeates much of his series, his preference for a particular approach toward cinema developed in a non-Western country is evidently meant to challenge
Had he so chosen, Cousins could have presented an interpretation that allowed for genuine cultural differences while simultaneously depicting the symbiosis through which filmmaking around the world emerged. Rather than attempting to draw a forced contrast between
Ozu's productive engagement with Hollywood included even closer borrowings. Much like Shakespeare drawing on the rich store of Italian and French Renaissance literature as plot sources for many of his great plays, so Ozu, utilizing to the fullest his unique technique, transposed the narrative of an excellent American film, George Fitzmaurice's The Barker (1928), to a Japanese setting, creating one of his foremost masterpieces, the remarkably moving and expressive silent film, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934).
When Cousins turns to the actual emergence of cinema and the first films from the turn of the last century, his approach, while brimming with enthusiasm, is far from the radical rewriting he had implied would be his practice throughout. Here, then, is once again the familiar chronicle of Thomas Edison and his associate, W. K. L. Dickson, the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, Edwin S. Porter, and G. A. Smith. Cinema in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century is depicted by Cousins exclusively as it developed in three countries, the United States, France, and Britain, with no indication that there was filmmaking elsewhere at that early time.
It might have been possible even at this primary stage to have departed from the conventional accounts of cinema’s beginnings as related by Terry Ramsaye in A Million and One Nights in 1926 and repeated in the standard annals ever since. As an example, in this early period there was a remarkable pioneer in
Cousins’ presentation with its historical elisions is rooted in a significant omission concerning the development of cinema as an expressive, autonomous art. In “Thrill Becomes Story,” the section in which he documents the birth of the narrative film, he begins with an excellent discussion of the uniquely cinematic technique devised by Edwin S. Porter in his pioneering story film, The Life of an American Fireman (1903). He demonstrates how, in cutting from the outside of a burning building to the interior in which a mother and her child are menaced by the blaze, Porter was able to overcome time and space. This is followed by an excerpt from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924) illustrating the great comic artist’s advanced expansion of such editing techniques to create a special kind of magic on the screen. Cousins next shows an early example of parallel editing from a French Pathe comedy called The Horse That Bolted (1907). Whereas Porter had shown what happened next, Cousins notes that parallel editing was able to illustrate what was occurring simultaneously. From this, he switches to a clip from the famous French historical film by Charles le Bargy and Andre Calmettes, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (1908). Pointing out its innovation in having the actors turn their backs to the camera, he goes on to include a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) as an example of the continuing influence of this technique. He then takes up the issue of the actors’ relation to the public and the birth of the star system. With this transition to a new topic, he thus seems to imply that henceforward the progress of cinema art in terms of its basic grammar was unimpeded and the real struggle was to be in terms of content—the “classicism” vs. “romanticism” that he had discussed earlier.
He thereby ignores at this point a fundamental contention that emerged in the years between 1908 and 1914. For despite its qualities in staging and acting, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise also had a negative effect, causing one of the rebels against its technique, Abel Gance, to later dismiss it as an example of “the first, simple films” retarding the advance of cinema art. As was once pointed out in many histories of cinema, the stagy approach adopted by le Bargy and Calmettes generated a taste among the cultured for similar films adhering to theatrical conventions. Thus was born the tradition of Film d’Art that reached a crescendo with the arrival of feature-length films and “Famous Players in Famous Plays” in 1912, exemplified by such works as Queen Elizabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt. Films of this kind were essentially silent photographed stage plays with little cutting and the actors placed at a considerable distance from the camera in a succession of long-shots. But precisely because they mimicked the established older art of the theatre and brought to the screen elevated historical and literary subjects, they gained for motion pictures, previously scorned by those in polite society, a prestige that had hitherto been lacking.
This regressive tendency in cinema was challenged in the early 1910s, not by the highbrow aesthetes of the day but by filmmakers resolutely appealing to a mass audience. Whether it was the Nordisk melodramas made in Denmark, the serials produced in America and France, the Westerns of Thomas H. Ince, the slapstick comedies of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company, or the many works directed by the as-yet unknown genius at the Biograph Company—all of these films, rejecting the proscenium arch limitations of photographed theatre, presented to their audiences real streets and landscapes on the screen wedded to exciting narratives. To the masses in both the sprawling new cities and the isolated small towns, these popular amusements provided a respite from their daily toil by giving them a chance to see the wider world while often demonstrating a populist sympathy for their struggles. It was thus the cinema as a mass entertainment that advanced the frontiers of cinema art in the years prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, not the aesthetically reactionary photographed stage plays attracting the cultured.
While this salient development was long recognized by most historians of the medium, Cousins does not address this topic at this time in his presentation. As he revealed in his book, his revisionist approach to this key period was colored by the arcane and dubious theories propounded by Noel Burch in an effort to explain the delay in the Japanese cinema’s adoption of film techniques devised in the West until just after World War I. Indeed, the interpretation advanced by Burch in his study of Japanese cinema played a major role in shaping Cousins’ perspective of
Cousins marks the transition to the 1910s by discussing the invention of the star system at the start of this new decade. He does this by showing clips from two 1909 films, Those Awful Hats and The Mended Lute, in which the first American star, Florence Lawrence, appeared. After commenting on her later tragic fate, he deals with Afgrunden (The Abyss), the groundbreaking Danish film of 1910 which launched Asta Nielsen’s spectacular career as a star. In his segment on Florence Lawrence, however, Cousins makes a telling and significant error when he states that she was known originally as the “IMP Girl” just before Carl Laemmle began the star system by revealing her name to the public. His commentary accompanying the clip from The Mended Lute says that this was one of the films in which she had been appearing for Laemmle. In truth, in the anonymous stardom she had earned before joining Laemmle and his IMP Company she was known as the “Biograph Girl.” Both Those Awful Hats and The Mended Lute were among her many Biograph films directed by He Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned at this point in Cousins’ documentary.
After the section on the establishment of the star system, Cousins takes up the silent cinema in the Scandinavian countries,
He begins by showing some remarkable, innovative footage from Benjamin Christensen’s first film as a director, The Mysterious X, the production of which began in
In arranging the first episode in this manner, Cousins largely eliminated five crucial years of cinematic development from 1908 to the first half of 1913, the period preceding most of the first acknowledged masterworks of Scandinavian cinema. In addition, he takes the first episode out of the 1895-1918 time frame with which it was supposed to be concerned by emphasizing the later films of Christensen and Sjostrom. Throughout his series, Cousins repeatedly cuts between films made in different periods. While this technique is of varying effectiveness, it does often serve to illustrate valid points about the continuity of film history. The kind of chronological displacement in this section on Scandinavian cinema, however, is far more questionable because Cousins is, in effect, trying to demonstrate his thesis that the Danish and Swedish films of the 1910s were superior to all others made in the world at that time by utilizing as his primary evidence two remarkable films that were not made until the early 1920s.
Cousins then asserts that once Christensen and Sjostrom were lured to
From the cold northern clime of Scandinavia, Cousins then journeys to an edenic, sunlit garden thousands of miles away, a rural landscape near the town of
The contrast between a
Presumably, Cousins’ statement that no one in Hollywood films was supposed to be “plain, old or sad” is not to be taken literally but is rather rhetorical intended as an argument that from the moment it became a major influence internationally in the early 1910s, the American cinema projected an escapist fantasy that denied reality. In setting forth his thesis, however, he indulges in a massive denial of his own, a refusal to so much as acknowledge the existence of the early American films that depicted social conflicts and injustices, often with a power that remains compelling to this day. So numerous were these works that Kevin Brownlow was able to document them in his Behind the Mask of Innocence, a monumental volume on the American films concerned with contemporary social problems that were produced in the 1910s. Similarly, in 2007 the National Film Preservation Foundation, as part of its Treasures from American Archives series of DVD releases highlighting early American cinema, brought out a major collection of social issue films, most of them dating from the silent era.
Had he not adopted a very different course, Cousins could have included examples in his series from any number of American films of the 1910s that stood outside the prism of escapism he assigned to the cinema of that period, whether it was a powerful short film about the plight of the elderly, What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911), directed by that mysterious Biograph Man, or the equally powerful feature film about the sufferings of immigrants in modern America, The Italian (1915), produced by Thomas H. Ince and directed by Reginald Barker. There were the many strong films about the abuses of predatory capitalism such as Biograph's A Corner in Wheat (1909), the portrayal of the oppression of the Native American in another Biograph film, Ramona (1910), the depiction of prostitution in the big city in George Loane Tucker's Traffic in Souls (1913), the presentation of the harrowing conditions of slum life in Cecil B. DeMille's Kindling (1915), the dramatization of the controversial issues of birth control and abortion in Lois Weber's Where Are My Children? (1916).
In striking counterpoint to Cousins' view of a Hollywood cinema forever dominated by youth and glamour, there was nothing in the least prettified about DeMille’s The Whispering Chorus (1918), a dark and brilliant psychological drama with a decidedly plain, unheroic-looking leading man caught up in an inexorable tragic fate. Also sharply breaking with a glamorous image were the starkly realistic Westerns of William S. Hart, vividly depicting the dusty, corrupt towns of the American frontier, including in his powerful, widely acclaimed masterpiece, Hell's Hinges (1916), yet another early cinematic landmark overlooked by Cousins.
From the standpoint of race and early
As for Cousins’ view that there was no place for the “sexually different” in early American cinema, here filmmakers were subject to the same prevailing censorship that also curtailed presentation of such issues in literature and on the stage at that time. Nevertheless, even this forbidden topic could be portrayed in films in certain contexts. The Vitagraph comedy feature, A Florida Enchantment (1914), is one noteworthy example that has attracted considerable attention in recent years. It is still considered quite daring in the sexual ambiguity of its protagonists who assume different genders. Such works, however, were apparently too much at odds with Cousins’ monochromatic conception of the emergence of American cinema to warrant mention in his analyses.
To drive home his thesis based on a presumptive chasm between
Despite these apparent constraints, Nordisk made major contributions to the development of cinema art in the early 1910s with its exploration of filmic techniques and fostering of acting styles in longer narrative films that impressed audiences and influenced filmmakers around the world. As an example, there was August Blom’s landmark feature, Atlantis (1913), with a spectacular depiction of a sinking ocean liner, clearly capitalizing on the recent Titanic disaster, that remains exciting to this day. Less than three years later, Blom directed an even more remarkable film, The End of the World (1916), a compelling story of class conflict amidst impending doom. The dramatic climax depicts on an impressive scale and with innovative special effects the earth ravaged by collision with a comet. This Nordisk production proved a tremendous advance in the cinema’s ability to present science fiction with a sense of realism unmatched by any other medium. With Atlantis and The End of the World, Blom played a central role in developing the “disaster” epic, a genre that would flourish in
A creative hothouse turning out many fine films with an impressive galaxy of stars and directors, Nordisk thus set a precedent for future studios like
In truth, the emergence of the Scandinavian art film was a later development than is stated in The Story of Film. It was in
Cousins’ efforts to present the cinema of the 1910s as an aesthetic binary is further underscored by his almost single-minded concentration on Scandinavia vs. Hollywood in this part of the first episode. Apart from a fleeting clip of Giovanni Pastrone’s spectacular and innovative Cabiria (1914), he does not comment on the other flourishing European cinemas of that period in
The American cinema of the 1910s is then subject to another form of reductionism as part of Cousins’ polemical strategy. The impression the documentary conveys is that once the pioneers began setting up studios in
The omission of this background is significant inasmuch as Cousins places so much emphasis on the unique characteristics of the
Cousins continues his presentation of the birth of
His next segment is concerned with the pioneering women of the American cinema in the 1910s, filmmakers he says have long been overlooked in the standard histories. He notes the achievements of Alice Guy Blache, praising the poetic quality of Falling Leaves, the 1912 short he excerpts to represent her, and Lois Weber, whose career is illustrated by her technically daring chase film, Suspense (1913). This section includes an interview with Cari Beauchamp, the biographer of the outstanding screenwriter Frances Marion, who provides some informative and intelligent observations.
The inclusion of Frances Marion is something of a departure for Cousins as his main interest throughout the series is the director. (He does not discuss the three films she subsequently directed in the '20s.) His assessment of the feminine pioneers is positive, although considering his earlier indictment of
It is significant whom Cousins leaves out from his exposition. Incredibly, he makes no mention of Mary Pickford, an absolutely central figure who played a pivotal role in the production of her films, nor of Mabel Normand, a major creator of American screen comedy who directed a number of her own films. He also fails to take note of Pearl White and the serial queen phenomenon that helped foster the idea of feminine emancipation among audiences all over the world.
It is while excerpting Lois Weber’s Suspense that Cousins makes his first reference to a figure he has up to then ignored—and as it happens his statement is inaccurate. He claims that for a number of years historians attributed Suspense to a male director, D. W. Griffith. But given that
He begins by stating, over footage of
But although up to then this has largely been positive, he next turns to what he calls “one of the great shocks of cinema,” Griffith's epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation (1915). He shows footage from the battle scenes and the famous homecoming scene. While he pays tribute to its cinematic skill and the subtlety of the acting in the homecoming scene, he also says that this makes the film’s “racism more dangerous.” He then includes the clips of the black-dominated State House in
Cousins then turns his attention to Intolerance, noting the influence of the 1914 Italian epic, Cabiria, on Griffith’s use of the moving camera and spectacular sets in his 1916 masterpiece. He describes the theme of the four parallel stories comprising the film’s narrative as depicting the deadly effect of the forces of hatred and intolerance through the ages. However, in referring to the Modern Story as being simply about “gangsterism,” implausibly describing characters as dressed in “jazz era costumes” when the Jazz Age traditionally means the 1920s, he misses an opportunity to discuss Griffith’s social consciousness. He does comment on the film’s remarkable technical advances and its influence on Eisenstein in the
He concludes this first episode of the series with the observation that in 1918 cinema seemed to have reached its peak with the triumph of
His selection of material from the 1910s in the main serves to reinforce his conception of the development of film art as a division between a classical style of cinema exemplified by Scandinavia and a romantic conception favored by
To be sure, there is nothing novel in Cousins’ perception of Griffith as his emphasis on The Birth of a Nation has appeared ad infinitum in documentary after documentary over the last twenty-five years or so and has been a major factor in the steep decline of the director’s reputation from its posthumous peak in the 1970s. Colored by the prevalent dogma of political correctness, they repeat the familiar narrative about the supposed responsibility of
Cousins’ approach toward
In a further act of resistance against the encroachment of
Proving even less acceptable to the public, his swan song came in the early days of sound. The Struggle (1931) was another stark depiction of urban poverty made on the East Coast with scenes shot on the mean streets of the Bronx in sharp contrast to the studio-controlled realism preferred by
Anticipatory of Italian neo-realism in many respects, as analysts have observed, Isn’t Life Wonderful? and The Struggle are, it would appear, too out of keeping with the director’s supposed adherence to what Cousins calls
It is likely this same insistence on theoretical purity that explains his total exclusion of the great French master of serial films, Louis Feuillade. In a largely appreciative essay on Cousins’ series, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests Feuillade’s absence as stemming from a possible “fit of absent-mindedness.” Yet even in his far more expansive book, with which Rosenbaum acknowledged he was unfamiliar, Cousins made not the slightest reference to Feuillade. It would seem that Feuillade’s serials, like the Nordisk productions, would have only complicated his theory based on the prioritization of “art” cinema paralleling advanced literature. Feuillade’s creative vision was grounded in resolutely popular fiction and as such it was scorned by those of his contemporaries who thought of cinema in terms of high art. In sharp contrast to the prestigious Film d’Art productions, Feuillade’s serials were dismissed by the “cultured” for catering to a mass public attracted by the picturization of sensational crime stories. Cousins appears to be reviving past aesthetic priorities with the privileged status he accords the “classical” art film and the secondary place he assigns to an “escapist” Hollywood dominated by popular genres presenting narratives in a superficially realistic manner.
While recognized by most film historians today as a complex artist with a unique vision of his own, Feuillade evidently posed a challenge to Cousins’ attempt at systematization. As a filmmaker working in a popular genre, his affinities were clearly with those of his contemporaries in