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Mark Cousins On ‘What Is This Film Called Love,’ PJ Harvey, 'Prometheus' & “The Sadness Of Time Passing”

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist July 14, 2012 at 12:33PM

Having seen and loved Mark Cousins’ almost unreviewably subjective “What Is This Film Called Love” on its international premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week (read about that experience here), we got to sit down with Cousins in person pretty much immediately afterwards. And it felt rather like walking straight back into the film we had just left: ‘What Is This Film’ is so unapologetically personal that it’s difficult to escape the feeling that, like him or not, you kind of know Cousins by the end of it.
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What Is This Film Called Love
Aside from Harvey, how did you approach the soundtrack?
“We had used some of the music of Simon Fisher-Turner’s as guide music -- he’s done music for silent films and Derek Jarman films -- and we sent it to him and he [also] wrote a lovely email back, and so I started become encouraged, particularly by the music. Music people understand, you can sit in your bedroom and write a song or you can make music in your computer about you, your personal life, your sense of joy. But we’re slightly more embarrassed about making really personal films. Music people get it -- so maybe music people will get my film down.”

Later we return to the subject in the context of the love theme from “Vertigo” by Bernard Hermann which Cousins also uses, in defiance of poor beleaguered Kim Novak. “We had cut that sequence and because that first shot is of travelling, it’s very like ‘Vertigo,’ so we tried the Hermann music and I loved it. I’m not afraid of a little cliché, and I think it’s gorgeous, so we put it in and… I sent it to PJ Harvey and Simon Fisher-Turner and Tom Luddy who runs the Telluride Film Festival and a bunch of others and said, ‘Look, I know I have to pull out the Bernard Hermann music because it’s too cliched’ and they all said ‘Don’t.’ So I left it in. I loved it and I loved combining it with the poetry from Norman MacCaig -- the simplest of techniques.”

Speaking of MacCaig, you allude to and sometimes quote from a lot of literary influences.
“I was reading a lot of Virginia Woolf -- she is brilliant at the personal, my favourite writer, the way she writes about her own thought processes, and going walking and daydreaming. I have to say I think Virginia Woolf was the first great documentary filmmaker even though she never made a documentary film.” At other times Cousins uses lines from Frank O’Hara and Joan Didion, while also frequently referencing, of course, Eisenstein's theories and ideas. But it’s not just the poetry and prose he directly refers to that exert their pull over the film’s direction. “I’m very very interested in Asian philosophy, that sense of the ‘ongoing moment’ -- I love that phrase -- and I love a phrase from Roland Barthes that ‘every photograph is light from a distant star.’ So there’s always a sense of having travelled, of moving.”

What Is This Film Called Love
As much of an "ongoing moment" as it describes, there is a melancholy, nostalgic aspect to the film too.
“Well, every mile forward is a mile lost...I realised as I was cutting it that I was making something quite sad about leaving youth behind. I’m 47 now, so youth is gone -- it was gone years ago. But there’s a sadness about that -- a sweet sorrow. I wanted to make a film about the sadness of time passing.” Later he relates this back to a formative film in any cinephile’s canon: “When I first saw ‘Citizen Kane’ I was a teenager and it just looked to me about technology and the brilliance of film. Now when I look at ‘Citizen Kane’ it’s an elegy for lost youth; it’s about that single moment in time that he’s trying to recover.”

With any personal essay, the issue of authenticity arises. How much of what we see is narrative overlaid after the fact, and how much of it reflects the experience you had at the time?
“Everything.“ replies Cousins immediately. “I was taking notes all the time, you see my notebook occasionally [in shot] and when I’m filming I’m often writing the commentary while the shot is running, so very little changes in commentary at all. Everything is true, even the feel of the dream sequences, like that song I heard 'Avenues and Alleyways,' so all of that is exactly what happened. The only time when the film starts to lie is when Eisenstein writes back to me, but up until that moment everything is pretty much what happened...and was exactly what I thought."

This article is related to: Mark Cousins, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, What Is This Film Called Love, Interviews


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