I chose Cousins’s fifteen hour visual essay as the best film of 2012 back when I wrote for Cultural Transmogrifier. I wrote that “as a crash course in film history and textual analysis, this is the best alternative to film school that the movies can offer.” I stand by that claim. However, given the epic levels of hate-watching/snark tweeting that have poisoned my Twitter feed over the past five weeks that Turner Classic Movies has aired it, I think a more pointed note of context for the series needs to be offered up.
First, let’s look at the title of the program: The Story of Film: An Odyssey. What words are deliberately missing from that title? Well, Cousins made a conscious decision not to call it The Story of Hollywood, inferring that it has a global scope that reaches beyond the coasts of America. More significantly, he avoided the use of the word “History.” The Story of Film is not a record or account, nor is it strictly chronological. History implies factual objectivity and The Story of Film is more subjective than that. The film is as much about Cousins and his preoccupations as it is about the story of the cinema as an art form. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoires du Cinema (1988-1998), this is a personal journey. That’s why both Cousins and Godard narrate their films. It makes the viewer aware of that subjectivity, placing it front and center.
This is significant because it is an exercise in branding and alerts us to the position that Cousins sees his series as occupying. If cinephilia were to be represented by a three story building and each story marked a progression in knowledge and depth, it would look like the following. Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Robert Osborne would represent the doorway to the first floor (That’s not a slight on their abilities… They’re the popular gatekeepers to the cinema for most Americans). Deeper into our house, the first floor itself might hold other popular critics on film. It would also house your David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson Film Art book and your Introduction to American Film History class.
The second floor is a different story (literally) that builds upon the knowledge laid out in the first floor foundation. This is the position Mark Cousins occupies, stuck between the popular cinephiles and the academics. If you’re watching The Story of Film, you’re not getting an Introduction to Film. No, Cousins is further down the path than that. He’s capitalizing on knowledge you would, hopefully, already have gathered from your journeys on the first-floor foundation. Essentially, the folks occupying the second floor do not see it necessary to recap the history of Golden Age Hollywood because almost every book on a library or Barnes & Noble bookshelf is about the history of Golden Age Hollywood.
Instead, the second and third floors of cinephila push your knowledge outside of the comfort zone. Film is not solely defined by the half-century old Hollywood films that appear on Turner Classic Movies and the second story isn’t concerned with telling you the same story you heard on the first floor. The writers, thinkers, and filmmakers on the second floor want to complicate and elaborate upon that story. Essentially, you’ll watch Citizen Kane (1941) in my Introduction to American Film class. We’ll discuss the star system, the blacklist, deep focus, vertical integration, and all the other greatest hits. Once you reach the second floor however, we’re past Kane and we’re not reading Bordwell and Thompson. We’ve traded the foundational knowledge for putting Peeping Tom (1960) in dialogue with Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.”
I’d talk about the third floor, but it seems most of the Cousins haters got lost on the first floor, sharing war stories about the 1,295th time they watched Double Indemnity (1944) on TCM. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with staying on the first floor. However, if you’re calling yourself a cinephile, staying on the first floor connotes a lack of curiosity. You’re more comfortable being in the shallow depths and narrow width of a child’s swimming pool than you are with exploring the ocean that the pool leads into.
More significantly, some of the reactions I’ve encountered towards the series have skated towards ethnocentrism. ”Why doesn’t that guy talk like us?” ”Why couldn’t he hire a professional to do the narration?” ”Why is he talking about Italian movies in the post-WWII period?” Well, Cousins is Irish critic and this is His Story (not History). Why is he talking about Italian Neo-Realism? Because it was incredibly influential on the bulk of international cinema (the French New Wave, American Independent Cinema) and he’s expecting that you’ve moved beyond the first floor Golden Age Hollywood story. Why should he tell you the same story over and over again? It doesn’t interest him and it doesn’t serve his purpose. He isn’t promising you an introduction; he is promising you an odyssey. If you’re upset that your preconceived notions of what The Story of Film should or could be do not match what it is, you’ve got a cognitive bias and you’re only going to hate the other 10 hours.
The larger question is: If you’ve been put off by the voice over and scope, why are you still watching?
Whenever I encounter an apathetic student in my classroom, I ask why s/he is enrolled at the University and/or sitting in my class. Most of the time the students tells me that he or she “needs to.” Unlike my students, your job and/or escape from the workplace is not contingent upon your spectatorship of The Story of Film. Now, one of the most tossed about definitions of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” If you hate Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film and you keep returning to it regardless, you’re either insane (because you’re expecting the first floor “Golden Age Hollywood” story delivered through voice over narration read by Morgan Freeman) or hate watching (which I’ve already written about with regard to TCM and Twitter). If you’re insane, I’m afraid I don’t have any advice for you. If you’re hate watching, what are you gaining from it? If you really want to watch Citizen Kane, go watch Citizen Kane. If you want to hear the Golden Age story, I can give you a list of books and documentaries to check out.
In the end though, hate watching isn’t about gaining knowledge or experience through a primary outlet (TV, film). If it was, you would realize (in the five second gap between your tweets as the series flickers somewhere off in the mental distance – that 15 hours is hardly enough time to provide an Introduction to American film, let alone an Introduction to International film (I can hardly do it in my class!). You would realize that it isn’t about an Introduction or The History of Hollywood. It’s about a personal, subjective, journey through a (hi)story of the cinema which does, indeed, reach beyond our borders and language.
Do I have criticisms of the series? Sure, but I also feel comfortable letting a spade be a spade. In the end, hate watching has little to do with the text at hand. Your brain can’t multitask, no matter how much you try, so you’re not really comprehending the movie or show you’re simultaneously tweeting about. No, hate watching has more to do with you.
So, if you really want to play that cinephile card authentically, why don’t you nurture the subject of your admiration with something constructive?