Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins has expanded his earlier documentary exploration of the first century of filmmaking (The Story of film: An Odyssey, 2011) with his research on the last two decades in The Story of Film: A New Generation, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Both of his film studies are blessed with Cousins’ soothing, almost mesmerizing voiceover in his soft Northern Irish accent. But the two projects are rather different in content and structure. The Story of Film: An Odyssey’s 15 episodes were straightforward documentaries laced with interviews, visits to cinema landmarks and substantial film clips. (You can see the outline of that series—which totaled 915 minutes—and the films covered here.) In A New Generation, Cousins describes innovation in cinema in this century by looking at films from a wide array of global filmmakers and communities often ignored, spending a fraction of a minute on some and several minutes on others. The documentary covers about 90 films in just under three hours.
Cousins’ opening is delicious. He combines dance sequences from The Joker and Frozen to show us that movies still have power and can becomes totems of passion. People have traveled from as far away as Brazil, he says, to the stairway in the Bronx where the Joker’s dance was filmed.
He divides his film in two parts. The first half looks at films that extended the language of cinema, pushed new ways of creating and viewing film through comedy, use of color, the fascination with bodies, action and camera. (After his section on what he calls slow films, he notes, “If you’re used to action films, it’s hard to love inaction films. But cinema is a time medium.”) He also includes a substantial section on documentaries, both observational and essay films (“they take ideas for a walk”). The second half of A New Generation asks “what have we been digging for?” with questions of shifting identities and portrayal of gender in world film. In this half, he also addresses technology changes such as digital filming, the use of camera-phones (as in 2015’s Tangerine), as well as acting styles and references to social justice issues.
Cousins’ style is digressive, as if he’s telling us a story as he covers everything from Hollywood blockbusters to clearly handmade fantasies from Thailand, Argentina and Russia. Some of the films might be familiar favorites such as Black Panther, Baby Driver, Parasite, Moonlight, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Deadpool, or Mad Max: Fury Road. Not only will you see memorable clips from those films, but you’ll hear Cousins discourse on aspects you might not have thought about before—such as the artisanal, steampunk creation of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Or you’ll find yourself wanting to rewatch that opening credits sequence from Baby Driver. You’ll also learn about films like the five-hour The Gangs of Wasseypur from India, produced in 2012, 50 years after the first gangster film. And the Thai film, Cemetery of Splendour, from 2015, about an epidemic of sleeping sickness, and I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians, a 2018 Romanian film about anti-Semitism and assassination. Cousins seeks out filmmakers and communities that have been ignored in traditional film histories (with an emphasis on Asian and Middle Eastern works) and the result is eye-opening.
There are also topics he doesn’t address, such as the importance of streaming movies, and possible costs to the physical movie theater industry. And he barely mentions 3D filmmaking. Was it merely stopped cold by the rise in streaming during the pandemic, which required 2D films? Or is there more to it than that? Cousins ignores this issue.
What Cousins does is look. He looks closely at these films and asks us to look with him and share his love for cinema and its changing nature. When the lights go down in a movie theater, he says, we leave our own world for a while and we want to be hypnotized.
The Story of Film: A New Generation is now playing at the Music Box Theatre.
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