The Story of Film

Great-Train-RobberyEdwin Stanton Porter invented the action film in 1903 and influenced thousands of film makers with The Great Train Robbery. He’s still being imitated. Eat your heart out John Woo.

Mark Cousins is a film director from Ulster who in 2011 released a 15 hour, 15 part series, The Story of Film, giving an overview of film and its history since 1895. Cousins was writer, director and presenter of the series. It has several parameters its title doesn’t acknowledge, which should be pointed out to avoid false expectations. The first of these is a focus. Taking the whole of film as his subject, Cousins concentrates on innovation in film. Film was a new art form in 1895 when its story began, and a new technology as well, and much of its early history was innovative in both areas. This continued up to the 30s, significantly in Europe, South America, Australia and America. But after WWII the bulk of film production was from America, and in particular Hollywood. At this stage Hollywood turned its back on all aspects of innovation except the technological, and became an industry. It perceived that film audiences were not interested in innovation. Hence the focus of Hollywood on a limited range of melodramatic escapist forms which were, and continue to be, hugely profitable. Cousins tends to ignore much Hollywood output in his series, but follows film innovation instead in Europe, South America and Africa. This could be disconcerting to viewers for whom film is basically Hollywood product. It turns out to be a real eye opener.

Secondly, Cousin’s series is determinedly global. While this is commendable, and acknowledges the great contribution to film made from countries such as Africa and South America, the series doesn’t have the time to give the cultural and political background to conventions and traditions in these countries that formed the approach to film medium and production. Film in the third world, with two major exceptions, was both artistic and political, an emphasis for which the viewer used to Hollywood product needs to be prepared. Many countries which had formerly been European colonies were forming into nations, and film was an important way of defining their nationality for many of them. The exceptions are so-called Bollywood, and Hong Kong action films, each of which has its own cultural context. Without awareness of such contexts these films can be very disconcerting to Western viewers, and Cousins unavoidably skimps much of this background material.

A third aspect is technical. Cousins is himself a film maker, and throughout the series he talks admiringly of technical aspects of film which might not be familiar to viewers. Soft focus, wide angle lenses, depth of field, tracking shots: all terms used by cinematographers and directors to frame their shots and stagings. Non film makers will not know why these choices are praised because unfamiliar with the other choices the film makers could have made, and what if so their shots would have looked like then. Cousins does try, by giving alternate shots, to illustrate his points in these areas, but the series is not on film making and these moments are brief. Generally speaking style in any art form needs to be seen in the context of its times, and with a sense of previous forms, to understand its rationale and effect. This is usually not possible when an encyclopaedic coverage is attempted.

Griffith-intoleranceThe greatest special effects in movie history, DW Griffith’s film Intolerance of 1916 and a set built when special effects were real.

But lovers of cinema and of its unique effect on audiences will get a lot from Cousins’ review. The main problem with the series is its own comprehensiveness. There seems to be two main ways to treat the history of cinema. There is the inclusive method, as Cousins’ series, and the selective, whereby the presenter/author takes what they consider a small number of important films and tries to show their effect, influence and artistic achievement. The problem with both inclusive and selective method is that they tend to leave out what many viewers regard as key films and film makers.

I have a book which covers the same ground as Cousins’ series.  It is Film: an International History of the Medium, written by Robert Sklar and published in 1993 by Thames and Hudson. Cousins mentions 250 film makers as significant, and includes over 600 clips from their films in The Story of Film. Sklar mentions 1,100 films and his 550 page book is illustrated on every page with still photos. A significant difference between the two authors is that Cousins is much more opinionated than Sklar, who merely mentions films, but has no room for much in the way of comment. The inclusion of a film in Sklar’s book is an acknowledgment that that film is in some way significant. Neither author (author/presenter in Cousins’ case) is seeking to pinpoint ‘good’ films, but significant or indicative ones.

Both Sklar and Cousins follow the same outline. Perhaps this has now evolved as the way to treat film history. Sklar divides his book into six parts.

Part One, The Emergence of Cinema, covers the social history of public entertainment and the impact of film in its earliest form. The early experiments and the rise of the nickelodeon, the conventions established by innovators like Edwin S Porter, the influence of DW Griffiths, the influence of films like Cabiria, the rise of the comedy studios like Mack Sennett’s, the first film stars and the effect of WWI, which left Hollywood with a network of studios and exhibition theatres which gave it market dominance, and destroyed the brilliant promise of Expressionism and other forms in Germany. A brief chapter looks at film elsewhere in the world.

Part Two is on the Silent Era. The studio system, the rise and fall of directors as decision makers, the power of stars like Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin and their image, and the creation of a number of expertly crafted genres, each with their conventions, along with the marketing of stars and the studios’ attempt to respond to public opinion. Follows a chapter on European cinema, and one on Soviet film, then a chapter on the huge impact sound technology made, destroying a universal medium based on mime and substituting national cinema, as well as bringing to the fore current notions of acting and the evolution of a cinematic form of the art.

Napoleon - San Francisco - Victoria LabalmeAbel Gance introduced split screen, widescreen, coloured images, superimposed images and hand held cameras in 1927 when his film Napoleon was first released (Joyce published Ulysses in 1922: something was in the air).

Part Three is on Classic Cinema, and looks at the studio system in Hollywood and how Orson Welles was able to emerge from it. Other chapters are on cinema around the world, documentary film, and the effect of WWII on cinema.

Part Four, Postwar Transformation, covers Neorealism, Film Noir, Art Cinema and genres and movements in Hollywood in the 1950s.

Part Five has chapters on the New Wave, cinema in Latin America, Africa and Japan, on new styles in documentary, and on Hollywood in the 60s and 70s.

The final Part Six looks at modern European film, the Hollywood blockbuster, the avant-garde, and ends with a global survey which looks to possible future developments.

Cousins organises his series in a similar way.

Chapter 1, the World Discovers a New Art Form 1895-1918
Chapter 2, The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels 1918-1928
Chapter 3, Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World 1918-1932
Chapter 4, Great American Movie Genres and the Brilliance of European Film 1930-1939
Chapter 5, the Devastation of War and a New Movie Language 1939-1952
Chapter 6, World Cinema Bursting at the Seams 1953-1957
Chapter 7, Shock of the New, Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe 1957-1964
Chapter 8, New Waves Sweep Around the World 1965-1969
Chapter 9, New American Cinema 1967-1979
Chapter 10, Radical Directors of the 70s 1969-1979
Chapter 11, Innovations in Popular Culture and rise of independent cinema in America 1970 +
Chapter 12, Moviemaking and Protest 1980-1989
Chapter 13, the Last Days of Celluloid 1990-1998
Chapter 14, the First Days of Digital 1990-1999
Chapter 15, Film Moves Full Circle. The Future of Film 1990 +

Sklar’s first two parts cover the same material as Cousins’ first three chapters. This period is also the subject of Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood of 1980, considered by many (including me) to be the greatest treatment of silent film ever made, and among the greatest documentaries on any subject ever made. Sklar’s third part tends to be glossed over in Cousins’ treatment. Cousins is much more interested in what he calls “rebel” film makers, the subject covered in Sklar’s part four, than components of the Hollywood studio system. But Cousins does cover the period, with this bias, in his chapters four to six. Sklar’s part five is covered in Cousins’ chapters seven and eight, and Sklar’s part six is given much fuller treatment in Cousins’ chapters nine to twelve. Chapters 13 to 15 cover ground later than Sklar’s date of publication in 1993. Cousins has released a history of film in book form with the same title and the same emphases as his series and it has been re-issued to coincide with the series’ release, though I haven’t seen a copy.

snow_white1Snow White introduced the colour animated feature film in 1938 when they said it couldn’t be done. It took four years and the invention of a new camera and almost bankrupted Disney.

This comparison probably does less than justice to both Sklar and Cousins, but does point out just what to expect in the Cousins’ series. National, art and experimental cinema, world wide in coverage, with comparatively less space given to films of the Hollywood studio system and more modern blockbusters. More in depth coverage from the 1980s onwards. A history of Hollywood would make a nice complement to Cousins’ series. And the Brownlow series mentioned is absolutely indispensable for anyone interested in the history of cinema in the silent era. A pity it has been unavailable for some years.

My own bias is for art cinema first visible as such in the 50s with the work of Ingmar Bergman but occurring of course in every age of the cinema. In this type of film the film makers try and conform to the aesthetics of mainstream Western art and culture while still exploiting the typically visual resources of cinema. Style is used not for its own sake but as part of a message broadly conforming to what has been described as humanism, the concept that humanity have a unique value.

Film makers not mentioned by Cousins at all who are usually considered prominent in this tradition are: Costa-Gavras whose political films attacked right wing militarism, Preston Sturges whose revolutionary satires attacked Hollywood itself, Tennessee Williams whose plays of misfits were bought to the screen by many skilled directors, Louis Malle one of the most revolutionary of European directors whose films stretched the boundaries of what cinema could do, Lina Wertmuller whose satires of political and sexual relationships were provocative in the extreme, Shunji Iwai whose pop art, exquisite studies of sentiment bought a new delicacy to film, Claude Sautet one of the most perceptive of explorers of human relationships, and Eric Rohmer by far the most experimental and revolutionary director associated with the New Wave and its principal spokesperson. And these are just the ones I know! These have been dropped to give space to Chinese and African film makers less familiar to Western viewers but in Cousins’ opinion just as important.

Treated with less detail than deserved by Cousins were: Howard Hawks, Satyajit Ray (only his Apu films were mentioned), Jean Eustache (mentioned only in passing as part of the New Wave), the art cinema of Bergman whose ensemble-performed and literary works influenced independent cinema around the world, and Yasujiro Ozu, mentioned as probably the greatest film maker of all, but attention on whose films seemed to be focused on techniques like his typical camera angles and framing shots rather than the rich emotional values that filled his austerely shot scenes.

late-spring-shukichi-peels-an-appleA man peels an apple in Ozu’s 1949 film Banshun, one of the most powerfully emotional and perceptive scenes recorded by a movie camera. No dolly, no pan, no action, no dialogue, no colour and no special effects. Just complete mastery of composition.

Film makers mentioned and in my opinion over mentioned by Cousins included New Wave Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, all of whose films were historically important as an influence, but none of whose films included any significant content.  A matter of style over substance. Another name over emphasised was Alfred Hitchcock, revered by Godard and Truffaut. If you can forget for a moment with what mastery Hitch made his films, you are left with a collection of rather stodgy thrillers and miscastings of icons like James Stewart and Cary Grant, because it amused Hitchcock to do so. Yet another film maker Cousins over emphasises is Baz Lurhman, who bought MTV cutting to the musical, as George Lucas had bought it earlier to the action film. So what, I wondered. I also wondered why so much Asian film covered was in the horror or gangster genres. True, these are the popular genres in Asia and America, arising out of the prevalence of seinen manga. Yet elsewhere Cousins’ avoids popular film, in favour of coverage of national cinema of African nations, for example. Asian films in the form of drama get little coverage from Cousins.

An example of the selective method of film history mentioned before is Barry Norman’s provocatively titled 100 Best Films of the Century (Chapmans 1992). This approach hasn’t been taken I don’t think for any video presentation of film history. Norman’s book includes 23 films I would agree have a place in a selection of this kind, but also another 20 or so which have been influential but are not now “best films” at least in my opinion. But no Trouble in Paradise, The Awful Truth, Ikiru, Charulata, Lion in Winter, Gandhi, American Graffiti, The Mother and the Whore, Jesus of Montreal, Scenes from a Marriage or Persona, no film at all by Kieslowski. I could go on. In fact, Norman dares me to go on, to compile my own list, one of his reasons for writing the book.

There’s the pitfalls of writing a history of the cinema for you. Too many names and a dizzy feeling trying to comprehend them all. Or a feeling of irritation when looking at a “100 Best” list at all the omissions of essential films. Never mind that we will all have a different list of essential titles.

I found myself enjoying the first few chapters of Cousins’ series, even though the material had been covered before, and I was familiar with it. I enjoyed the opinionated remarks and the insightful ones both. I would have liked more on classic Hollywood, which was important, and more framing background for national cinema of Africa or Bollywood films (I wonder if Calcutta has bridged the gap between Hinduism and the Hollywood musical?). I thought Asian cinema, a vast and varied production, was barely covered. Yet I realise that adding the bits I want would have involved the film makers in finding funds for a 30 hour, 30 part series, and perhaps few would watch it.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the series, again speaking personally, was the second half, the only treatment I know of to survey  contemporary cinema fairly comprehensively right up to the date of release, 2011. Most of the film makers covered in the second half were unknown to me, and I enjoyed a look, however brief, at their discoveries of what film could do, even while acknowledging that many of the films excerpted by Cousins had little impact on me, and perhaps needed several viewings at full length for me to fully absorb them.

From the Lumière Brothers to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s been an interesting story so far. What will happen now that digital allows everybody to be a film maker?

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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