Cousins’ latest The Story of Film entry largely trades in hyperbole, platitude, and bland observation, rendering it little more than a 150-minute trailer binge.
For many cinephiles under 30, Mark Cousins’ original 15-hour long The Story of Film: An Odyssey was something between a crash course and a gateway drug into film history and culture. Cursorily examining over 500 movies from 120 years of cinema history, the film managed to be expansive enough to touch upon dozens of film movements and styles, yet underbaked enough to only give a parting glance to each. However, whatever criticisms one could lob at the shallowness of Cousins’ approach or at the inclusions and omissions in his canon, they seemed to be made up for by the simple fact that his project was successfully able to help people discover new areas of cinema and give them a basic knowledge of film history.
Today, 11 years on, Cousins has updated his original series with The Story of Film: A New Generation, a 2 ½-hour-long feature that covers the past ten years of cinema. Where the original series began with Cousins nobly proclaiming, “it’s time to redraw the map of cinema, which has been racist by omission,” by dint of being contemporary, his new film is more squarely focused on the aesthetic experiences and novelties of contemporary cinema. This is most apparent from his selection of films, which runs the gamut from arthouse high-brow to low-brow mainstream to mid-brow independents, from An Elephant Sitting Still to Frozen to Midsommar, and consists of such critical commonplaces that the whole thing feels more like a defense of the contemporary canon than a rethinking of it.
Told in two vaguely defined parts with similar themes — with the first covering movies that “extended the language of film” and the second covering films that discovered “new ways of seeing in film” — The Story of Film: A New Generation is more of an assemblage of Cousins’ ideas on various movies than a linear history or story. This means that the film relies more on Cousins’ abilities as a film critic rather than as a film historian. Unfortunately, his aesthetic commentary and analysis, delivered through voiceover in the same monotone as the first film, is consistently clunky and half-cooked. His most typical move as a narrator is to simply state what’s happening on screen, giving us such asinine commentary as “we don’t see his face” and “he walks down the street” over a shot from Norte, The End of History. This level of redundancy not only fails to open up new perspectives on the material, but also reduces it to a one-dimensional aesthetic experience with little room for ambiguity or socio-political context.
It’s precisely this, Cousins’ lack of interest in grappling with the context surrounding the films he’s chosen, which proves to be the film’s fatal flaw. A brief foray to Wakaliwood, for example, leaves out any discussion of the unique process through which films are made and presented in that Ugandan industry, leaving any uninitiated viewer clueless to what makes Wakaliwood special. Instead, we are given a brief clip from Crazy World about film piracy and the meaningless claim that “a big budget for tracking shots or fancy costumes is not necessary when your imagination is as playful as this.” Hyperbole like that defines much of Cousins’ commentary, which describes everything as the greatest usage of X or the most significant example of Y. Combine this with a tendency for platitudinous philosophizing, and the result is a stew of mainly well-chosen film clips that give you little more than a 2 ½-hour trailer binge.