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TCM's 'Story of Film' Is the Most Thrilling Movie Event of the Season

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire September 2, 2013 at 3:01PM

An annotated guide to the first week of Turner Classic Movies' massive 'The Story of Film,' inspired by Mark Cousins' 15-part documentary.
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George Melies' 'A Trip to the Moon,' from 'The Story of Film'
George Melies' 'A Trip to the Moon,' from 'The Story of Film'

With Telluride wrapping up and Toronto looming, the list of eagerly anticipated fall titles is growing by the day. But the most exciting film event of the season begins tonight on Turner Classic Movies, where Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film kicks off a 15-week run. Every Monday through December 9th, and every Tuesday through the end of October, TCM will broadcast one hour-long episode of The Story of Film, which is adapted from Cousins' book The Story of Film: An Odyssey. (Physical copies aren't directly available in the U.S., but you can buy the e-book here.) 

Mark Cousins (right), with TCM's Robert Osborne
Mark Cousins (right), with TCM's Robert Osborne

The aim, as Cousins says in the first hour, is simple, if not modest: to "redraw the map of movie history that we have in our head." As he explains in the book, that means omitting some films that are great but not especially innovative -- he singles out Billy Wilder's The Apartment, with tonal blends by way of Lubitsch and imagery taken from King Vidor's The Crowd -- and restoring filmmakers whose place in film history has been eroded by the whims of commerce or erased by the forces of sexism and racism. Cousins shows us scenes from Casablanca and The French Connection, but only to demonstrate what he won't be focusing on. For all the legacy of the New Hollywood, he says, "Dakar in the 1970s was as as exciting as Los Angeles."

Although its title pretends to a certain definitiveness, The Story of Film isn't an authoritarian work. (Cousins' latest, showing in Toronto this week, is the humbler A Story of Children and Film.) It's scrupulously researched and globally informed, but it's still, quite openly, an argument. Cousins' Northern Irish brogue isn't the divine voice of a BBC newsreader but the banter of the supremely articulate and well-informed guy at the next barstool.

The Story of Film is also available on DVD and via Netflix, but what's so exciting about TCM's series is that they've used Cousins' text as the backbone for a history of their own. From now through December, they'll broadcast more than a hundred films, including many they've never shown before and several that aren't available in the U.S. (Set your DVRs now for Nov. 25, when they'll show Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home?

To celebrate this bonanza, Criticwire will present a guide each week to The Story of Film, including comments on each episode (and, when appropriate, quotations from the boom), a listing of Turner Classic Movies' broadcast schedule, and suggestions for further reading. Because as expansive as The Story of Film is, it's only the beginning.

Turner Classic Movies schedule:

Mon., Sep. 2

8 p.m.: Films from Edison Studios (U.S.A.)

9:30 p.m.: Films from the Lumière Brothers (France)

10 p.m.: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). Episode One: "Birth of the Cinema (1900-1920)" 

11:15 p.m.: A Trip to the Moon (1902) (France)

11:30 p.m.: Alice Guy-Blache Shorts (U.S.A.): Falling Leaves (1912), Canned Harmony (1912), A House Divided (1913)

12:30 a.m.: The Squaw Man (1914) (U.S.A.)

2 a.m.: The Birth of a Nation (1915) (U.S.A.)

5:15 a.m.: Orphans of the Storm (1921) (U.S.A.)

Tuesday, Sept. 3

8 p.m.: Intolerance (1916) (U.S.A.)

11:30 p.m.: Way Down East (1920) (U.S.A.)

2 a.m.: Haxan (1922) (Sweden, Denmark)

4 a.m.: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). Episode One: "Birth of the Cinema (1900-1920)"

5:15 a.m.: The Phantom Carriage (1922) (Sweden)

7:15 a.m.: The Wind (1928) (U.S.A.)

Further reading:

Editors Guild Magazine on Edwin S. Porter's The Life of an American Fireman, included in "Films from Edison Studios." Porter's initial version replayed a fireman's rescue of a woman from a burning building twice, once from outside the house, once from inside. Later, he intercut the two, showing a vast advance in the understanding of how editing could keep time flowing by fracturing space.

From the American Society of Cinematographers, the great John Bailey on Louis and Auguste Lumiere, with links to a compendium of their films compiled and narrated by Bertrand Tavernier.

Bryan Selznick, the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, on George Melies.

The (concluded) Kickstarter campaign for Be Natural, a documentary in progress on the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy Blache.

TCM's Bret Wood on Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man, generally cited as the first feature-length film.

The New Yorker's Richard Brody and MSN Movies' Glenn Kenny (at his personal blog) on D.W. Griffith's landmark, eternally problematic The Birth of a Nation, plus a history of African-American protests against the film.

Griffith's Intolerance, which Cousins cites for its use of associative editing, which links events not by place or by time but by theme: The New York Times' Nicolas Rapold, Slant Magazine's Drew Hunt, plus Brody and Kenny again.

From the Criterion Collection's release of Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, essays by Chris Fujiwara and Gillian Anderson

Paul Mayersberg's essay on Victor Sjostrom's The Phantom Carriage, from the Criterion Blu-ray.

From his "Century of Film" series, the Guardian's Derek Malcolm on Sjostrom's The Wind.

This article is related to: Reviews, The Story of Film


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