Mark Cousins is a very nice man, he once just sat down with me and we really had a nice conversation about what constitutes a cult film during the London Film Festival, I can’t remember what year, maybe 2016 when he was promoting Stockholm My Love? This mammoth, over 900 minutes series The Story of Film: An Odyssey is probably what he is best known for now. Fans of cult cinema will have a place in their hearts for him because he was the host of Moviedrome from 1997 to 2000, when he replaced Alex Cox, the director of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy. I’m particularly fond of his Scene by Scene series, where he interviewed various actors and directors about their work. The David Lynch and Paul Schrader ones are especially good, the Woody Allen one is hilarious because he can’t bear to see even a clip of one of his old friends and turns away from the screen everytime Cousins plays him a clip.
However, The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a deeply flawed, at time infuriating, piece of film history. The first problem is it’s Mark Cousins’ story of film, not THE story of film. When the series is at its most successful, it’s when Cousins attempts to “redraw the map of movie history that we have in our hands… factually inaccurate and racist by omission.” However, Cousins himself is factually inaccurate, from suggesting that Howards Hawks was bisexual (certainly a possibility, but I can’t find any backing for that claim) to claiming Godard described himself as “a right-wing anarchist.” Godard has occasionally flirted with anarchism, but was a committed Maoist for many years and has actually has flirted with right-wing politics of late with his endorsement of Marine Le Pen “to shake things up.” But again, there’s no record of Godard ever claiming that particular affiliation. He also gets years for films wrong w constantly, for example, he says Elephant was a film of the ’90s when he has a part on Gus Van Sant: it is a film reflecting on the ’90s for sure, but it came out in 2003.
Cousins also has a clear vendetta against Hollywood cinema for the most part, sometimes with good reason and sometimes just in a petty way. The film is a good primer for World Cinema to some extent, especially if you haven’t seen much, especially Asian cinema. However, he is far too interested in “realist” cinema for my liking, and is very dismissive of “fantasy” cinema, which he paints as too vast a canvas to really mean anything, from anything slightly unreal to more traditional “fantasy” cinema. My tastes skew more towards the fantastical than the realist in the first place anyway.
It’s an honourable attempt to decolonise film history, but at times he gives far too much importance to some African or Asian films for being masterpieces or so innovative etc., when next to nobody saw them at the time, and even now only really hardcore world-cinema buffs who are actively on the lookout for these films have seen them. I respect what Mark Cousins has done here, but for starters, the fact that Stanley Kubrick is basically just mentioned in passing raises a few eyebrows. Cousins even tries to make out that one of the darkest films of the all time, never mind the ’70s, Chinatown, has an “optimistic ending.” Also, the visual metaphors throughout the film are utter shit, and the interviews Cousins does with various filmmakers and interviews for the most part don’t add a huge amount to the proceedings. I’m only going to mention his monotone Northern Irish accent which narrates the film quickly: I don’t mind it as much as some, but occasionally you do wish he would hire a narrator with a strong voice, something I noticed he did with his more recent and similar Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema.
I have to be honest and say that the Blu-Ray is kind of annoying as well. It consists of clearly 15 one-hour parts, but they are lumped together into five three-hour parts, with no choice of just playing one episode at a time. There are no supplementary extras.