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In his latest discursive love letter to cinema, documentarian Mark Cousins notes that essay films “take ideas for a walk.” The walk he takes us on here is a beauty, a dreamscape crafted from a decade’s worth of mind-bending ideas and innovative screen creations. The Story of Film: A New Generation sometimes has the unhurried flow of a friendly saunter, and sometimes it rushes headlong around corners, where jaw-dropping surprises await.
Having surveyed the first century of filmmaking with his 15-part The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Cousins turns his restless and impassioned explorations to the 10 years since that 2011 series’ release — up to and including these past months of pandemic-mandated lockdowns and shuttered theaters. A New Generation is never less than inspired, and there’s a heady thrill to its juxtapositions, beginning with the gambit that opens the doc, pairing Joaquin Phoenix’s deranged dance down a flight of New York City stairs in Joker with Idina Menzel’s showstopping belting as an animated princess in Frozen. “Huh?” you might say. Keep walking.
The Story of Film: A New Generation
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Director-screenwriter: Mark Cousins2 hours 40 minutes
Cousins’ comparison of those two blockbusters draws parallels that are as incisive as they are unforced, setting the tone for the film as a whole. He then pivots to another megahit, the 2014 Indian satire PK — a movie toplined by a superstar (Aamir Khan) and drawing a huge audience, and yet one that most Western moviegoers have never heard of. Cousins, himself an indie filmmaker, makes his point without beating us over the head with the economic realities of the Hollywood-dominated movie industry. In a film whose overriding thesis is an optimistic belief in the language of cinema, he’s more interested in opening our eyes to its trailblazing practitioners around the globe, in tentpoles and well beyond. He excerpts dozens of films with a piercing sensitivity, the transitions elegantly choreographed by editor Timo Langer.
Cousins is a compelling writer and narrator, and one who doesn’t shy away from superlatives (Mad Max: Fury Road is “the best action film of our times”; the Safdie brothers are “two of the most distinctive filmmakers of the 21st century”). The eloquence of his voiceover narration is heightened by the lilts and slants of his Northern Irish–Scottish accent, an intoxicating match for the hypnotic visuals. (Would a convo between him and Werner Herzog, another filmmaker with an exceptionally distinctive speaking voice, be the equivalent of the music of the cinephile spheres?)
The doc is divided into two sections, “Extending the Language of Film” and “What Have We Been Digging For?” As organizing principles, these work well, one concerned with visual style and storytelling, the other with questions of identity and point of view. But their overlap is as inescapable as it is exhilarating. A New Generation is further argument against the persistent practice of categorizing movies by country, with Western films at the top of the hierarchy. Cousins honors filmmakers’ identities while emphasizing that cinema is, in essence, borderless.
He uses genres — comedy, action, dance, horror, slow cinema, documentaries, movies about the unreal — to explore his themes. Some of the chosen films embrace genre to reimagine it (Johnnie To’s Vengeance) and others defy it completely (Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin). His straightforward anatomy of Us and Parasite as striking portrayals of our shadow selves couldn’t be more lucid or potent. From Black Panther to Shoplifters to Song of the Sea, he celebrates fresh takes on community and identity, and reminds us, six years after its release, that Sean Baker’s Tangerine shattered boundaries in terms of its subject matter (putting trans women front and center) and its filmmaking technology (an iPhone).
Some bemoan the cross-pollination of movies with consumer tech. Some find the high-end computerization of filmmaking distracting. But Cousins is unequivocally upbeat about everything from performance capture to digital de-aging. He pronounces the GoPro “cinema’s Copernicus”: The human POV isn’t necessarily the center of the screen universe anymore — a ground-shifting development, to put it mildly. He lauds Godard’s redefinition of 3D in Goodbye to Language, the narrative experimentation of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and, especially, the use of virtual-reality cameras in Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Deserted. In these inventive approaches, Cousins invites us to see an expansion of the visionary aspect of film (as opposed to the formulaic). The movies are inhabiting new dimensions.
He devotes particular attention to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterful Cemetery of Splendor, “one of the best films of our times” — no argument here — by one of the most talented voyagers of liminal dimensions. When movies truly transport us, they’re a kind of collective dreaming, an experience we’ve been denied for more than year. Cousins offers poignant glimpses of empty theaters, and self-videos he collected during the pandemic of people shutting their eyes to sleep, to dream. His optimism regarding human connection via movie love prevails.
Even if you don’t adore every movie Cousins admires, his choice of clips is tantalizing. Describing what we see on the screen, he imbues it with new meaning. If, like me, you have a never-ending list of movies to watch, you’re more than likely to add a few titles to it after watching Cousins’ documentary. It’s just as likely to give you a new perspective on a familiar film. Hearing him describe one of my favorite films of recent years, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace — “as generous and precise as a Dolly Parton song” — was like reading a finely tuned piece of poetry that illuminates the everyday from an unexpected angle.
It might not be as endlessly eye-opening as Cousins’ most recent major doc, the essential and extraordinary 2018 series Women Make Film. But that was an excavation of a vastly underappreciated and underexplored realm, the work of female directors. There are discoveries and obscurities in A New Generation, to be sure, but the territory it travels is generally familiar. What sets it soaring is the discerning guide at its helm, one whose curatorial exultation and rigor are also calming, reassuring — a welcome voice in cacophonous times.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Production companies: Hopscotch Films
Director, screenwriter, director of photography: Mark Cousins
Producers: Mark Cousins, John Archer
Executive producer: Clara Glynn
Editor: Timo Langer
Additional camera: John Archer, Tamer Joseph
World sales: Dogwoof
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