Most film-history documentaries, by necessity, limit their scope. This might mean filtering cinema through the director’s particular prejudices or national heritage (Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma, finally released on DVD last December; Oshima’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema; A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies). Or it might mean sticking to one facet of the timeline, as in historian Kevin Brownlow’s extraordinary work on the medium’s adolescence, Hollywood.
Its sweeping intent stated by the title, the latest entry in this documentary subgenre, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, aspires to take in everything from Edison and Lumière onward: six continents and more than a century in the space of 15 episodes and 900 minutes. The series was written and directed by the film journalist and documentarian Mark Cousins, adapted from his 2006 book of the same title, and aired Saturdays on England’s Channel 4 last fall. In an Ulster brogue, Cousins also narrates, alternating between stabs at lilting poetry (“the spinning, winning brilliance of Soviet editing”) and calculated down-to-earth matey-ness. (Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana is “a knee in the balls to Franco”; a scene from Vera Chytilová’s Daisies is “like the Lumière Brothers on acid.”)
The tapestry of imagery alternates between excerpted clips from hundreds of films and new, ugly interview footage with a curious scattering of personalities—first film historians, then survivors of the eras under discussion (Stanley Donen, Claudia Cardinale, Norman Lloyd, Baz Luhrmann) that the narrative often extravagantly detours to accommodate. Additional original footage includes a travelogue of filmmakers’ birthplaces and studio lots, as well as metaphorical cutaways like a Christmas ornament hanging in the Hollywood Hills, repeatedly used to represent the Romantic “baubles” of the American studio system. Cousins’s (inconsistent) stance against Hollywood in favor of “realist” or “innovative” filmmaking—pet words, along with “masterpiece”—is his most cogent, ostensibly iconoclastic position.
The Story of Film is nearest to claiming its own identity when delivering on its announced intent to “redraw the map of movie history that we have in our hands . . .
factually inaccurate and racist by omission.” This is attempted by providing screen time to such figures as the iconic Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, Mexico’s Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, and Ritwik Ghatak, a titan of Indian cinema.
The Story of Film also inadvertently works when Cousins is in less well-traveled territory because the viewer has to trust his guidance. Elsewhere, little slips undermine faith in the narrator: Joseph Cotten is ID’d as Everett Sloane in a scene illustrating deep focus in Citizen Kane, and an announced location of the first nickelodeon in New York is incorrect according to every source I know. More irksome, the clips, often improperly masked or displaying conversion issues, are rarely drawn from the best available materials. This scruffiness would be easily forgiven if there were something sufficiently “innovative” in Cousins’s approach to transcend the cut-rate production value. Instead, this Story, for all its claims of rewriting, is too reliant on received film-buff wisdom.