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Film critic and historian 'Mark Cousins' uses film clips, interviews with filmmakers, and illustrative footage of locations around the world to take viewers through film and filmmaking history, from the late 19th century to today, with a particular emphasis on world cinema. Written by
It wouldn't be hard to get me to enjoy a documentary on film. Give me a decent narrator saying interesting things about movies, throw in some good clips and Boom! you have my undivided attention. On the strength of the IMDb rating and some of the critic reviews for The Story of Film, i actually thought i might get through the whopping 900 minutes it entailed. In the end, i got through less than 3 hours before taking a solemn pledge never to have anything to do with this documentary again. IT IS AWFUL.
Its not just that the narrative jumps all over the place in a disorienting, seasick fashion. Its not just that the clips chosen are boring and forgettable. Its not just that the interviews have little or no substance and are clumsily shoe-horned in at inappropriate moments.
It is all of these things, but the main reason i couldn't sit through this documentary by Mark Cousins was Mark Cousins. There are two things wrong with his method of story-telling. The first is that he's a terrible story-teller. An audience wants to be engaged, enthralled, excited by films, and a documentary claiming to encompass the entire history of cinema should reflect this idea. What we get here is exaggerated sentences, endless superlatives, childish metaphors, bizarre insights and pointless details which do nothing to really suggest the brilliance of the films it covers.
The second thing is that his voice is incredibly difficult to listen to for a sustained period. Occasionally, Cousins will say something worth remembering: this is cancelled out by the irritating, monotonous inflection of his thick belfast accent. Nobody talks like this in real life, and the effect is that i felt as if i were being force-fed lessons by a sanctimonious preacher rather than a fellow cinephile who really enjoyed speaking about his passion for films.
This is not to mention the amount of visual and intellectual loitering done by the documentary. Its hard not to feel patronised as a viewer when a reference to Hollywood in the 30's as an idealised "bauble" is repeatedly backed up by shots of an actual bauble hanging on a tree. Repeatedly. Some of the other delightful visual treats include stock footage of the fronts of actual cinemas, shots of the homes of dead directors, people walking around on the street, and phantom shots from the front of a train played in reverse. All filler. Usually the narrator will seek to expand on ideas over these shots. What he actually does is say the same things again in different words, or go on meaningless tangents about nothing of interest.
I gave this doc 3 stars because i did learn one very important lesson from it: if you want to educate yourself about films, then go watch films. Maybe turn on The Story of Film with the sound off and look at some of the movies it covers. For all its flaws, i sense that Cousins knows his stuff, and has good taste in films. The problem here is that he fails to communicate his knowledge in a coherent or enjoyable way.
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