Monday 17 January 2022

On demand: "The Story of Film: A New Generation"

It's been a decade since Mark Cousins signed off on his landmark More4 series
The Story of Film, one of the last truly ambitious arts projects to have made it onto British TV. (That particular landscape will become only more impoverished if Nadine Dorries has her way.) With The Story of Film: A New Generation, Cousins now offers an update - like a Windows update, or an extra chapter in an already hefty reference book. So what's been happening? Comic cuts, predominantly: Cousins acknowledges as much by opening his abundant selection box of clips with Joaquin Phoenix's Joker doing his little dance down those steps. For the occasionally Pollyanna-ish Cousins, such films speak of a desire for escape and release, understandable given some of the events of the past decade; still, there's little doubt in this mind that the loudness of the Joker vamping to the Glitter Band or Elsa in Frozen belting out "Let It Go" (clip #2 here) - what we might call the Disney-Marvel-DC industrial complex - has largely drowned out, arguably even helped suppress, those national movements that revivified earlier decades of filmgoing. Filmmaking and film-watching has become somewhat scattered - or "borderless", as Cousins spins it, a nimble word choice that at once serves to invert the decade's nationalistic political rhetoric and reflects the way we're all now seeing more films than ever across many more platforms. Some of us have spent the past decade of filmgoing feeling increasingly like King Canute, standing on the shore and despairing as wave after wave of new releases crashes in, discharging excellent or intriguing works one may never find the time to see or the space to write about, and the occasional turd that hits you square between the eyes. Cousins strikes me as far more adept at going with the flow, surfing these waves, seeing where they take him. For a further two hours 40 here, the water's lovely. Dive in.

In most respects, A New Generation forms a clear continuation of The Story of Film. Themes are identified (bodies, the reinvigoration of horror, slow cinema, new technology); tireless editor Timo Langer cuts in deft, eyecatching linking material (portraits of key figures Cousins has met on his festival travels, more of those phantom carriage rides); and the filmmaker's own voiceover retains the air of a pal sitting next to you on the sofa, whispering recommendations in your ear (watch this; this is good). Yet as the first half notes those films that did most to expand the horizons of 21st century cinema, the new chapter shapes up as not so very far from the business of a review show, albeit one with an especially diverse remit - one capable of hopping from Rajkumar Hirani's P.K. to Booksmart, and from Deadpool to Bruno Dumont and Lucrecia Martel. Cousins is of an age to remember when covering such a diversity of films was par for the arts-programming course, and when print journalists would just as readily lead on something subtitled as they would the blockbuster of the week. There is substantial pleasure to be taken from having such a smörgåsbord of cinematic treats laid out before you - the most indelible images, from the greatest recent movies - and then from revisiting them through the Cousins critical framework. Any kind of cinephile can only feel their pulse quicken again upon being returned to the desert of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road ("a health-and-safety nightmare", as Cousins puts it); if you're watching at home, one eye will inevitably drift to the DVD shelf to make sure your own copy is there for another watch. But perhaps only Cousins would think to compare Miller's mayhem with the priciest moment from Keaton's The General, a film made almost a century before (borderless thinking, if ever there was); and perhaps only Cousins would move from there to Baby Driver. This may be what it is to launch yourself upon the ocean of contemporary filmmaking: sometimes you reach for a life preserver to steady yourself, and pull out Ansel Elgort instead.

Still, this is in its own way a personal history - Cousins' choice - and I can't think of a major 21st century film that its author has overlooked. His doc selection is especially wide-ranging and strong; very few of his featured titles would be a complete waste of your time; and Cousins merits eternal respect as one of the few Western critics to have troubled to keep an eye on India, still the world's second biggest industry. You might marvel at his ability to have watched all these movies while making the half-dozen or so films he himself has made over the past decade; doubly so, if you factor in The Story of Looking, which suggested he's experienced periods of physical frailty of late. (I suspect the Cousins response would be that movies can be rehabilitative; we take to our sickbeds with them.) He backs up this scope with imaginative analytical depth, too, explaining Godard's use of 3D in Goodbye to Language via inserts of a vase of flowers, and taking to Google Earth to visualise the young Tsai Ming-Liang looking up at the sky on his walk from school: "Such looking was multidirectional; it had no frame." That idea of multidirectional looking sits close to the heart of A New Generation; it's Cousins' own cure for the modern cinephile malaise of seeing the same old things everywhere one looks. He winds down with a clip of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - more superheroics, but with a built-in multidirectionality, an eye for those stories and images that hadn't yet made it into the MCU - before concluding with a trip to Africa, a continent that remains severely underfilmed and underseen. It's easily mocked, but Cousins' optimism has a way of flipping a switch in your head from negative to positive: on the issue of on-demand viewing, with its potentially overwhelming choice, he notes "movies had power over us; now we have power over movies". Yet like the very best critics of this (or any) age, he's steered by the five words that have always guided this project, and which may be more crucial than ever at a time when our viewing options are so scattered. This is good; watch this.

The Story of Film: A New Generation is available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and Dogwoof on Demand.

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