The Bigger Picture

By Jason Wood


Mark Cousins travels far beyond the predictable frame

In Widescreen: Watching. Real. People. Elsewhere, writer, programmer and documentary filmmaker Mark Cousins presents eighty essays on film and ideas written across the world in the last decade. Compiled from columns he has contributed to Prospect Magazine, the majority of which have been delicately refined, these relatively short but incredibly punchy and insightful pieces offer a potent reflection on the changes – both major and minor – in film culture in the 21st Century

In ‘The Point of Criticism’, one of two newly written pieces penned to open this collection, Cousins echoes Terry Eagleton’s belief that criticism can have a social function and for Cousins that function is to focus on a much broader spectrum than mainstream cinema. By choosing not to add his voice to ‘those around the world who clamour to talk about western cinema, Hollywood and mainstream aesthetics as if they were all that movies entailed’ Cousins adopts the stance of an outsider, offering a dissenting voice to the provincialism of film culture, its narrowness and rapaciousness. And yet if Cousins is frequently outraged at the dominance of an increasingly homogenized cinema landscape and the fact that on its third week of release the third instalment in the increasingly dreary Pirates of the Caribbean franchise could be found playing 54 times a day in his native Edinburgh, he is also savvy and realistic enough to realize that whilst film is an art it is, and often regrettably, also an industry and a business. The writing in Widescreen is tremendously eloquent and impassioned, as well as cogent, balanced and connected to reality. This is a rarity in contemporary film criticism.

Describing the essays – bracingly grouped under the self-explanatory categories that lend the book its full title – as the ‘selling of thoughts about cinema to busy people who knew they should mistrust the cinematic mainstream offered but hadn’t the time to wade through film culture to find what and where was good, thoughtful or maverick’, Cousins analyses the key aesthetic, technological and industrial changes that the medium has undergone in the last decade. These include the advent of the entirely computer-generated film and the subsequent realization that ‘the central tool of the filmmaker is no longer a camera but a computer’; the rise of DVD, the increased power of the Internet, the flourishing of the documentary as a theatrical entity and the emergence of a group of directors who encapsulate the global dynamism of the film world.

For Cousins this group includes Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Carlos Reygadas, the Dardenne Brothers, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Aleksandr Sokurov who, with the ‘single breath’ of Russian Ark pioneered the possibilities of digital filmmaking. By focusing both on subjects relatively unexplored and infrequently considered (my favourite being the virtue of speechless films) and a truly disparate range of cinema that takes in Europe, Asia Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, Cousins takes the reader on a globetrotting journey. Widescreen is his series of scholarly, inquisitive and frequently entertaining postcards home.

Widescreen is published by Wallflower Press.

Jason Wood is a writer, programmer and critic. His books are published by Wallflower Press and BFI Publishing among others.