British film scholar and filmmaker Mark Cousins takes the notion of fan service to its most obvious ends in that, as a fan himself, he only seems intent on satisfying his own needs, which turn out to be quite specific. Best known for his 2011 15-hour history of movies, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Cousins expands on his personal idiosyncrasies while addressing film as both an art form and a commercial imperative, and yet the series is reportedly as ecumenical a study of movies as you’re likely to ever encounter (I’ve only seen a handful of individual episodes over the years), which isn’t to say he doesn’t offer opinions, but rather that he can both honor and transcend his tastes in order to make points that may have greater meaning to his perceived audience.
Clocking in at two-hours-and-forty-five minutes, his latest study, A New Generation, takes into consideration the state of international cinema in the years since his opus opened, and, unfashionably perhaps, he is optimistic about the future of the medium and approves resoundingly of all the technical advancements that the movies have acquired in that time. For sure, Cousins’ means of explaining how movies have developed in the last decade—he opens by comparing two blockbusters, Joker and Frozen, for their depiction of outsiders—takes some time to get used to, not to mention his narrative habit of describing in detail exactly what you’re seeing. But the point of this discursive methodology is to show how filmic forms have changed in the 21st century in adapting to these new technologies as well as to deeper engagement with themes that were once either forbidden or simply out-of-mind. In Cousins’ purview every shot is deliberate and revelatory, but not necessarily of something story-related. The first half of the doc is titled “Extending the Language of Film,” which presents movies as a type of communication with its own grammar, and like all languages film is constantly evolving. The movie he cites as the one that pushed this language further than others is Sean Baker’s Tangerine, because it not only highlighted the onset of affordable high-quality visuals through the use of iPhones, but did it by focusing on trans women, who were never the center of attention before: A new technology for a new kind of protagonist.
Cousins’ liberal use of superlatives can be annoying but they point up his investment in the films he’s exhibiting, many of which are almost too familiar, but he’s equally enamored of international titles that you probably have never heard of. He’s especially taken with Indian and Southeast Asian films, but seems less versed in Korean works except for Parasite. And while he has nothing pointed to say about the emergence of streaming, he includes films that are now mostly known through their exposure on smaller screens. He’s also very good at outlining the way genre has become a tool of expression rather than just a stylistic choice—the sections on horror and comedy are particularly fascinating since they delineate in plain terms how different cultures exploit these genres for their own purposes. “Horror is always new,” he says in a hushed tone, marveling at how much good will you can engender out of promising viewers a proper scare.
But to assume that Cousins likes everything short-changes the documentary’s accomplishments. In the second half, titled “What Have We Been Digging For?”, he makes the case that film is still the most immediate art form for artists who want to convey their own sensibility directly, even if they are discovering how to do it along the way. Of course, this capability is transferred to the audience, which both incorporates the viewed experiences into their consciousness while projecting themselves onto the screen. I was almost shocked that I had seen most of the 111 films he discusses, including Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God, which he claims is the most striking movie made in the last 10 years while being one of the least viewed. However, I wasn’t surprised that he taught me a brand new way of looking at them, which means I should probably see them again. If I came away with one incontrovertible truth after sitting through A New Generation is that there will never be enough time for you to see all the films you want.
Opens June 10 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
The Story of Film: A New Generation home page in Japanese
photo (c) Story of Film Ltd 2020