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

Television
by Sam Adams
September 2, 2013 3:01 PM
15 Comments
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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

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.

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15 Comments

  • Tancred Hauthes | September 27, 2013 12:08 AMReply

    This might have been an interesting series, but this is quite possibly the worst narration I have ever heard on any piece of recorded work. As a result, I literally am unable to watch this. I have gotten about 15 minutes in and I have now switched it off. I have no idea why this man was allowed to come near a microphone. The tone, accent, and intonation is absolutely unbearable. Sorry BFI, but this is unbelievably stupid on your part.

  • Joe Fanning | January 13, 2014 10:53 PM

    I firmly agree. Give me Joe Franklin anytime!

  • Frank | September 7, 2013 12:48 PMReply

    Sam Adams-- A tuned-in review--but not quite sure what you were trying to convey with your comment, "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." Don't quite get why you needed to compare his accent to that of a "divine" BBC(read "English"?) voice.
    Nor do I understand why the Irish narrator has to be described in terms of a tired stereotype. --I know you meant no harm by it--but it comes off sounding silly and it mitigates the obvious scholarly take on this subject. It will no doubt sound a bit sensitive to you, but the need to compare his accent to that of a country that for stole from, murdered and dehumanized its neighbor for over 700 hundred years is betrays an ignorance of the facts and compelled a response. Some of us like to remind people of that damning and persistent legacy.

  • Sam Adams | September 8, 2013 5:20 PM

    Honest question: Have you seen the film? Because I'm talking very specifically about Cousins' voice, and not a generic Irishman. (I wouldn't enter into the subject were it narrated by, say, Liam Neeson or Michael Fassbender.) His is not the voice of a professional actor or voiceover artist, and I think that's quite deliberate.

  • Dee | September 7, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    It's always easier to take pot shots, isn't it, Joe Fanning, than attempt to canonize the vast amount of opinion you have on the subject of film. Film is a subjective study, in almost every respect. So analyzing its history will invariably exclude or highlight fragments people are going to disagree with. And the cheekily assertive title, The Story of Film (that would be his subtle Irish humor, if case you didn't get it) does not say "The Story Of American Film", so you can cease with the flag-waving. As unpleasant as it may be to you, the French took the ball and ran with it in the very early days of the industry. One might venture to say that the US eventually superseded them in sheer breadth and volume of content to the extent that french film theorists felt compelled to analyze the American film canon in the Cahiers Du Cinema-- but that does not mean we are the sole purveyors of cinematic storytelling. Oh, and Edison did invent the technology, but he was not a narrative filmmaker--and if you bothered to glean the slant of this series, it is overwhelmingly about the latter. But with all your professed knowledge on the subject, why don't you assume the herculean effort of telling? Your screaming doctrinaire narration won't be an Irish lilt, though, so you may want to hire someone for that.

  • Joe Fanning | January 13, 2014 10:51 PM

    Puh-leeze, in no way did I nor do I disparage non-US films. Without any doubt, "Les Enfants du Paradis" is revered by me as one of the top movies ever. However, in terms of Segment 1 (I easily admit I refused to waste time watching the others), the complete lapse of highlighting the US accomplishments was a serious flaw. Without Edison, Biograph, and Griffith, no "Napoleon," "Potemkin," "Metropolis," et al would have been made. Those three American institutions laid the stone which allowed for the creation of just about every other film ever made since. Could the cuts and outline of "La Dolce Vita" ever happen without the groundwork of "Intolerance"? I rest my case and firmly hold onto the evaluation that the entire STORY OF FILM series was begun by a dreadfully inaccurate first segment that damaged it beyond any repair.

  • JOHN | September 3, 2013 1:17 PMReply

    Thought the series was great. It's on Netflix streaming.

  • Joe Fanning | September 3, 2013 1:42 AMReply

    This longtime Film Advocate was appalled by Session 1 to the point that I have no intention of watching the other 14 segments. On the entertainment level, the bland unimpressive voice of Mark Cousins was sleep inducing. The never ending insults he made towards American Cinema were tasteless and nonfactual. The irony was that not moments after saying inappropriate and incorrect evaluations about Hollywood, he then showed some segments of US films followed by praising terms. This made the comments more that hypocritical in the philosophical aspects as well as the overall project's tone (and his voice, as mentioned previously, was toneless as well). More importantly, the nasty anti-US attitude were not followed up by showing, in any depth, better films from other nations. Thus, his attempts to disparage American Movie production was not followed up to prove his point(s) that other places were equal to and better than what came forth from California.

    In addition, the overall focus of the program was confusing in structure. Cousins went rambling around timelines with 1980 films superimposed with 1896 movies. This wound up making the whole concept of the session non-chronological despite the title - "The Story of Film: An Odyssey." Had it been focused upon film techniques and/or cinematic grammar it might have been fine. However, his constant jumping around on concept, timeframe, and failure to illustrate his ideas were another severe lack (and, to repeat, his bland voice was less than catching).

    As a result, this longtime Film Historian - lecturer at MoMA, Festival Lecturer, who also was acquainted with both Blanche Sweet and Lillian Gish found the time watching a real waste. As a result, over the next 14 weeks, I spend Monday evenings either re-reading my Citadel Film History Books, Scribner's History of Cinema and, in terms of first hand, Linda Arvidson's (Mrs. Griffith) "When the Movies Were Young" (1925), as well as watching DVDs as anything is better rather than listening to the diatribe of someone who seems to have the concepts of a 15 year old while trying to sound knowledgable via an ill-informed speech of misinformation.

  • Parsyeb | September 3, 2013 1:38 AMReply

    It would all probably work better if Cousins didn't insist on up-talking every sentence. He ends up sounding like a snot-nosed brat trying to play himself off as a know-it-all. Oh, so Edison and Lumiere invented cinema, and then Melies added special effects? Way to re-draw the map, pal. Oh wait, he did mention Alice Guy.

  • Joe Fanning | September 3, 2013 1:58 AM

    Yup! I felt as if I was watching and listening to rather than reading a high school term paper. This retired educator just wanted to use red lines and put margin comments while he was rambling on and on with erroneous facts. He failed to explain WHY Edison did what he did and thus disparaged the AMERICAN Inventor who really started it all. Edison's creation was passed over too quickly. Cousins failed to mention that being deaf, The wizard of Menlo Park wanted the movies to be attached to sound- hence kept in the view box as amplification was not possible until the late 20s. He did bring forth the Lumieres' sprocket changes but passed over the Biograph unique format. I could go on and on about the errors. I all know is that i will not make a mistake over the next 14 weeks as this show will not be looked at again!!!

  • Ryan | September 2, 2013 8:44 PMReply

    The Apartment is more deserving of the adjective "thrilling" than anything Mark Cousins has ever created.

  • Andrew | September 2, 2013 6:28 PMReply

    Cousins is all front. No bottom. By pretending he feels more deeply about film, he tries to convince you that he thinks deeply about film. He doesn't. Bucket of toss.

  • Joe Fanning | September 3, 2013 2:01 AM

    BINGO!!! This was the worst misinformation of film history i have ever seen presented. TCM made a real mistake by trying to foster a non-cinematic upon us all. A waste of 15 hours of their time - i will not look at any of the other segments.

  • Victor | September 2, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    Thrilling? More like absolutely dull. It's been available on Netflix for awhile now, and while Cousins does make some interesting observations, it's a mostly pretentious and uninteresting affair which is not helped by Cousins acting as narrator himself. His voice could put an insomniac to sleep.

  • Joe Fanning | September 3, 2013 2:02 AM

    Had to comment your comment. Mine are exactly the same. TCM has made a real mistake and damaged their image with this misinformed erroneous series.

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