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The Story of Film: An Odyssey


This the 4OD catch-up page : episodes 1-5 still available as of 2 October 2011


Bought the BCA edition of Cousins’ book when it came out in 2004. It’s full of information and ideas, but I find it a difficult book to read because there isn’t enough space around the text. Simply highlighting all the film titles would make a great difference.

Weighing in at 1.2 kg of fine paper the 612 pages of The Story of Film (no ‘An Odyssey’ subtitle), including index and picture credits, they had to pack it all in, but it looses out though a something not quite right visual interpretative choice of layout. All of which is paradoxical since it’s about a visual medium. Plenty of nice graphics, including many in colour. Maybe the other editions have better visual impact. Though it’s a wonderful, heavy glossy large-format paperback, with a good proportion of colour photos to go with the colour films they represent. For me I think one simple change would have made it o.k. Print all the film titles in bold, so that you could, can. skate over the text, from title to title from time to time, reverentially almost touching them, one after another in a quasi-religious way, as if these were mentions of God’s name in the Torah. What do you need to do with this book? To be able to open it somewhere and find the line of films, trace it through and stop at the one you want , read about it, say Renoir’s Regle de Jeu, and then move on. They would stand out from the page rather a lot, but in the case of text (as opposed to film) functionality should come first over looks. Note, however, I haven’t used bold for titles! Just might come back an make the titles bold to make my point.

Interestingly, The Story of Film documentary, though taking each era and new technique chronologically as he does in the book – mixing directors from different countries as the themes are followed, and occasional looping forward in time to later films and directors, and then back, to make points – doesn’t really allow you to sit with the book picking out more detail at each stage as you watch. Some of the book is re-jigged or missed out altogether, not unexpectedly. Going back to the book after the series is over, will be like a re-editing of the documentary, with a rapidly fading image of film sequences not quite tallying with the text and photos. Although if you are a film buff, these clips seem to stick in mind like glue somehow. Probably get full marks on depth of field in a large proportion of them, for example.

In episode 5, which I have just watched, Cousins mentions Carney in Scarface[1932]: how the American critics of the time concentrated on the wrongness of the character Cagney portrays showing such glee in his badness.

Coincidentally just read H. L. Mencken’s The Homiletics of Criticism which in mind nicely dovetails with this remark by Cousin’s about film criticism. This is a cultural thing which pretty much still exists: modern Hollywood movies are still treated by critics as if they are moral tracts first – the homilies of homiletics – and visual aesthetic experiences second. So a film, say in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, will be criticised heavily for unsympathetic portrayals of soldiers before it is assessed as a whole. First and foremost is the making sure the myth of America is playing out correctly, or corrected if deemed wrong, and second is the truth of an artistic portrayal. So try to stick to film experts for critiques!

Cousin’s film essay is perfectly understandable, though I find I’m again taking a fragmentary approach, as I did with Godard’sHistoire[s], picking out bits here and there, preferring to enjoy the visual spectacle of so many film clips, artily and artfully edited together. This is pretty much what you have to do with Godard: going back again and again to slowly bring out the complexities. You’re not quite sure some of the time what his position is, let alone having an answer if you find you disagree!

Luckily, in The Story of Film we don’t have to endure subtitles in English and the traditional Godard dense verbal overlay in French – plus translations of the textual montages on screen! – which rather defeats the purpose for non-French speakers. Though to help with Godard there is the nice tabulation (in French but at least written down to take ones time over translating and sorting, which I have found an linked to in a earlier post Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma. If you can’t find it amongst all the other things in there, it’s La « partition » des Histoire(s) du cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard by Céline Scemama. In that post there is a snip of the first page of the schema, so that it’s possible to see at a glance how this might help to unravel the complexity of Godard.

Cousin’s delivery is so measured as to make it impossible to miss a single word. Godard almost seems to be ‘colour-blind’ about narrative can blot out visuals, like a mobile phone-call can as one is driving. Or maybe, rather, Godard knows very well that it does have this effect, but chooses to do it nonetheless, because he requires this conflict in the viewing/listening experience. He’s not there to give you an easy ride. That, I feel (other have said) is because Godard is really a novelist manqué. He gives preference to the textual (in his case not only texts on screen – including montages of words and parts of words – but texts read out) as if he were unsure he trusts film on it’s own. If it isn’t that – and I’ve a lot of reading to do on Godard – then his oeuvre as a whole (with exceptions) is a long, drawn-out essay on the limits and difficulties of film. Which is fair enough. And why so many are intrigued with him.

What I’m looking forward to (I’m just off to watch episode 5 of the Story of Film) is to see how he tackles the New Wave, Godard in particular. Is he going to uses film techniques to mirror Godard’s style? Well, probably not. But the clips he uses to illustrate his points will be great fun.

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October 3, 2011 Posted by | Godard, Mark Cousins, The Story of Film: An Odyssey | , | Leave a comment