The Story of Film

By Sukhdev Sandhu


Histories of cinema tend to be dull flat-packs of spuriously consensual breadth, delivered at the expense of argument and angularity. Mark CousinsThe Story of Film, whose spiky passion may be gauged by its early choice of quotation from Lauren Bacall – “The industry is shit, it’s the medium that’s great” – is a terrific exception. It may look like a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, but its central premise is that when it comes to world cinema, “Hollywood in all its glory and attendant, intermittent barbarity cannot be judged the norm.”

Cousins chafes against what he calls the “closed romantic realism” of much American film-making – symbolism-free cinema characterised by emotional excess, short shots, single rather than multiple meanings. In its place he pedestalises Ozu, and champions a battery of French impressionists, German expressionists, Soviet radicals, Scandinavian primitivists, Indian socialists. He enthuses about Guru Dutt, Youssef Chahine and Ousmane Sembene, and his instinctive cross-culturalism allows him to talk about 1950s melodrama in terms of both Douglas Sirk and Mehboob’s Mother India.

It’s rare in a volume of this kind to hear directors (such as Robert Flaherty and Oscar Micheaux) praised for their “social awareness or anthropological ambitions, their meticulous commitment to naturalistic detail and their anxiety about capitalism and exclusion”. It’s also rare for the dominant mood to be one not of jaded cinephilia but of passionate excitement – about films like Russian Ark and the digital revolution that at least offers the possibility of a more international and democratised movie culture. Anger is an energy, but so is enthusiasm: Cousins’ is very infectious.