The Story of Film: A Correction

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Let me begin by saying that film critic Mark Cousins’ 15 part documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey is one of the best, most accessible, and most comprehensive histories of cinema–in any medium–available to the student or to anyone else interested in learning more about this incredibly rich topic. The virtues of Cousins’ work are many: his narration and interviews are probing and thoughtful, the clips he selects are usually fascinating and instructive, and the series as a whole is admirably global in focus, highlighting the oft-neglected contributions of women and minority filmmakers; the innovations of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African film; and the cinematic cross-pollination between the west and the rest of the world. We should all be grateful that The Story of Film recently made its television premiere in the United States on Turner Classic Movies, with one episode and a slate of featured films shown every week.

Since Cousins’ aesthetic preferences / priorities are rather different than mine, I do have some quibbles regarding representation: I think he overrates some directors and films while undervaluing others (off the top of my head, the following directors do not appear in the documentary at all: Dziga Vertov, Oscar Micheaux, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Guy Maddin, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Pedro Costa, Paul Thomas Anderson, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, Edward Yang, and Jia Zhangke). But at the very least, TCM’s programming has led me to watch Buster Keaton’s The General and Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu for the first time, both of which now number among my all-time favorite movies.

However, there’s one rather egregious error in episode 7 (about the European “new waves” of the fifties and sixties) that I feel obligated to correct in public, even though doing so makes me look pretty pedantic. The error of fact comes in the too-brief segment on the work of Jean-Luc Godard. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a Godard fanatic–I think an entire episode could have been devoted to his work alone, as he has radically reinvented the medium several times over throughout his prolific career, forging a new Brechtian inaesthetics of cinema in the process. When discussing À Bout de Souffle, Cousins quotes Godard as describing himself as “right-wing anarchist.” Godard, of course, would be aghast at this misattribution; he has been a staunch radical leftist for nearly all of his life (his childhood in a politically reactionary family notwithstanding), and it’s surprising that Cousins, who has surely seen at least a few of Godard’s many explicitly political films, would not have noticed this obvious mistake. In reality, the “right-wing anarchist” phrase was said by fellow French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville about his own political views.

Regardless, I recommend The Story of Film to one and all. I’ve greatly enjoyed learning from (and arguing with) Cousins’ brainy enthusiasm for cinema every week–although I’m also hoping for a director’s cut someday

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