Sunday 6 April 2014

Moviebrats: "A Story of Children and Film"

Emerging against a backdrop of arts cuts, mass critic-culling and a more localised televisual indifference to the cinema, Mark Cousins' 15-part series The Story of Film - screened on More4 in the UK, and TCM in the US - formed one of the most heartening works of 21st-century movie criticism: an extended love letter to the seventh art that demonstrated how film studies could still be passionate and poetic, inclusive and fun. (You'd be surprised how many colleagues of mine came to use it as a means of finessing affectionate impersonations of Cousins' distinctive Celtic brogue.) Now we have a follow-up, A Story of Children and Film, which comprises both a continuation of that cherishable project and a pint-sized, self-contained spin-off. Inspired by footage he shot of his niece and nephew at play, Cousins has turned his eye to the place of children in the cinema, proposing that "looking closely and openly at a small thing" allows one to notice much of wider significance. 

Naturally, it also allows us to see something of our (better? idealised?) selves, and I mean it as a compliment when I say there are certain childlike characteristics Cousins has steadfastly refused to give up. The new project's open-mindedness is signalled right from its multilingual titles, and there's an unrestrained energy in the way its story hops freely between eras and continents. Freed this time from the strictures of chronology, Cousins has arranged his latest around emotions, loose concepts, whatever the little ones were up to before the camera that afternoon: sulking, dreaming, playacting. It treats the archives as one vast pick 'n' mix stand, allowing the filmmaker to fill his pockets - and these 100-odd minutes - with cinematic cola bottles: images, scenes and characters that fizz upon first contact, and thereafter stick to the palate. You could get giddy off this sort of thing, and start developing cravings - but then the Cousins methodology has always been to give a brief taste, and then make one want to try more.

His curiosity is boundless, as ever. There are familiar reference points along the way: E.T., of course, and Antoine Doinel on the beach, and Meet Me in St. Louis, where the close attention paid to Margaret O'Brien (rather than the older Garland) is typical of Cousins' ability to refocus the eye on tiny, telling details within the frame. Yet again, though, he's less interested in films we've all seen than in those most of us haven't: he works in little-known items from Iran (such as Mohammed-Ali Talebi's Willow and Wind, earning it a belated release next weekend), the Far East and Albania, not in that lofty manner by which some critics attempt to demonstrate their all-seeing superiority; rather, it has more in common with that fraternal way John Peel used to push obscure gabba house tracks upon his listeners - a kindly-intimate form of address, whispered in your ear in a library by a fellow traveller keen to nudge you in new directions, towards new insights. Cousins wants us all to play together, to stay up all night talking movies - you know, the way we did back in the day before we all got old, got jobs, and had to get up in the morning.

As in any history, some omissions and biases become apparent. Cousins is wise enough to skip past the book thieves and little orphan Annies through which American movies have long sought to milk suggestible audiences: even without narrative context, a clip centring on the bereft heroine of Shinji Somai's 1993 film Moving proves rather more legitimately heartbreaking. Yet as my colleague Nigel Andrews pointed out in his Financial Times review, there is another story of childhood and film, one that takes in the Children of the Corn and the Village of the Damned, not to mention The Omen's deathless Damien - and which is less convinced than Cousins that children are our future, not the seeds of our own demise. (When Cousins addresses the issue of violence - enlisting Laurel and Hardy and the Zéro de conduite kids as character witnesses - it is as a liberating, optimistic, even funny force.) 

Still, as that faultlessly ingenuous title makes clear, this is but a story of children and film, as told by a boy who remains, now more than ever, such a thoughtful, positive and engaging student of the movies. It would not be too hard to imagine showing A Story of Children and Film to your own nieces and nephews, your own sons and daughters, and then to imagine the little ones emerging from the cinema pleading with you to accompany them in spending the forthcoming Easter holidays, and then possibly even the summer months, tracking down every last one of the films held up for inspection here like a leaf or a snowflake. This is the very best kind of pestering, surely no kind of a chore whatsoever, and - at the very least - more than anyone, young or old, would get coming out of Rio 2 this weekend.

A Story of Children and Film is now touring selected cinemas, and is also available on demand via the official site here, ahead of its DVD release on April 28; a season of works featured in the film, entitled The Cinema of Childhood, follows in its footsteps from Friday - click here for details.

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