The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Eight

Film wasn’t just a window through which you saw characters and stories, it was a language and a way of thinking in itself.

Just about every episode, I’ve lamented that Cousins had to rush through some things or wished that there had been a whole episode devoted to something he covered well, but briefly. Holy cannoli, this one is the ultimate example of that, at least so far. In the introductory interview, Robert Osborne asked him how you cut this topic down to an hour and still get everything in. Short answer: you don’t. Turns out Cousins’ original cut of this episode was three hours long. I bet even that was pretty hectic. As it stands, this episode is one of the least satisfying so far, simply because you barely get acclimated to each new place/filmmaker/situation before he jets off to the next one. It’s simply information overload, and almost none of it sticks. I will concede that perhaps some of it is my own ignorance of a lot of the cinema covered here – I can’t fill in the gaps mentally like I’ve been able to in some of the earlier chapters.

After covering the French New Wave and the spread of new wave thinking into Italy last episode, Cousins shows how new waves spread across the world in this one, starting with Eastern Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, film industries were closely monitored, and making the kind of personal films that the French New Wave advocated was in itself a political statement – many Eastern Bloc filmmakers faced political persecution for their films, which were seen as radical.

Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water was radical in Soviet Poland purely by being about a love triangle.

In Poland, Cousins covers Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski. Wajda, like many Polish filmmakers, made films about WWII, but Wajda made them about the failure and cost of war. Polanski, on the other hand, did not make films about the war but psychosexual thrillers, which weren’t socially conscious enough for the mainline Polish industry. Polanski soon left for the UK and eventually the US, and we all know what happened after that.

The Czech New Wave is a particular favorite of mine, especially Milos Forman’s French New Wave-inflected dry satires. Cousins also highlights Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, which is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen, with every style imaginable combined into one anarchistic fever dream. Cousins mentions the film outraged authorities, but I’m not sure it’s for the scenes he shows – the end of the film is a blatantly anarchist and anti-authority of any kind, while the scenes Cousins shows are merely stylistically experimental. I’m not sure I really like the film that much, but it’s an experience for sure. Since this is one of the few areas covered in this episode I actually know anything about, I’ll also suggest a dreamy fairy-tale horror coming-of-age film called Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (yes, it’s kind of uncategorizable) and Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting, two films that couldn’t be more different from each other, but are both more than worth watching. On the side, I’m glad Cousins mentioned the prominence of Czech stop motion, but I would’ve loved to have more of this. It’s some brilliant stuff, and the tradition of stop motion in Czech cinema continues to this day.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s films (like Stalker) threatened the Soviet cinema status quo with their overt interest in spirituality.

Cousins barely stops in Hungary for a few shots of Miklos Jasco’s The Red and the Black, pointing out his use of long tracking shots used to show suffering and his influence on probably the only Hungarian filmmaker you can name, Bela Tarr. Then on to the then-Soviet Union, for a few shots from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Stalker and Sergei Parajanov films. Honestly, my notes for this whole episode are really sketchy, because he was moving from filmmaker to filmmaker and national cinema to national cinema too fast to keep up. I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but that’s it from this era of Russian films; at least his clip from Stalker made me want to see the film, which is more than I can say for a lot of the films in this episode, which simply lack context given the short time he’s giving to each one. He brings in a mention of current Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sukurov for very little apparent reason.

Moving to Asia, we have more films from Japan – he makes the claim that since WWII most Japanese films had been about the trauma of the war (implying that the filmmakers we’re about to see would break with that), which doesn’t seem to hold true with the Japanese filmmakers we’ve seen in previous episodes, including Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Are they exceptions? He doesn’t clarify. But he shows a fairly cute clip from Nagasi Oshima’s Boy, with a boy and stepmother planning a fake accident for insurance fraud. I’m game to check that one out, but Oshima’s follow-up In the Realm of the Senses is on my very short list of films I never intend to watch in full. Cousins continues with Shohei Imamura, who I’ve heard great things about but never seen anything from. The Insect Woman sounds like a B movie produced by Roger Corman or something, but apparently it’s nothing like that, instead focusing on a woman with an illegitimate child by a GI. The tough lives of women are a common theme for Imamura, just as they were for Mizoguchi. Other than time period, I’m not seeing a lot of distinction here between these filmmakers and the Japanese masters of the ’50s, at least not as Cousins is describing them. And the one filmmaker I have seen and enjoyed associated with the Japanese New Wave, Seijun Suzuki, is mentioned nowhere, despite his stylistically experimental approach to crime stories, which makes him rather simpatico with the French New Wave.

Now, wouldn’t it have been cool to hear about this film? Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.

To highlight how much Cousins is rushing through this, I had to do additional research just to write the preceding paragraph, because I couldn’t puzzle out exactly what was going on with these filmmakers and how they actually constituted a New Wave. Ten minutes with Wikipedia, and I already feel like I know more about the Japanese New Wave and even the individual films Cousins mentioned than I did listening to Cousins here. This is really the first time I’ve been disappointed with his coverage, even though I would always like more detail than he gives – it’s not only an overview here, it’s simply inadequate. I suppose it did give me some names to go look up on Wikipedia, so that’s something, I guess.

Not much changes as he moves on to India and Brazil. I can tell you he highlighted Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul from India and Glauber Rocha from Brazil, but not too much about what made their cinema different from what had come before. I was intrigued by the Kaul clip from Uski Roti, which spaced time out, the cuts making actions take longer than they would in real life rather than the same or shorter as most films do. Cousins shows I Am Cuba to represent, well, Cuba, and shows the famous tracking shot over a revolutionary’s funeral. I’ve been wanting to see the film for a while solely because of that shot.

Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black.

Iran does make an interesting case since its first great film was a documentary short directed by a woman, Forugh Farrokhzad. All three of those things are unusual for a foundational film, and I’m interested to see it, despite the seemingly somber subject matter of a leper colony. Cousins says she was an influence on later Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, but then doesn’t elaborate at all, which is a major problem for me. I like what I’ve seen of Iranian cinema, so I’m primed to learn more, but I don’t know Makhmalbaf, so I have no idea what her cinema is like or how Farrokhzad’s might have influenced her. It’s like he shot interviews with Makhmalbaf and talked about her more, ended up leaving it on the editing room floor, but felt obligated to use the one shot of her in there. It’s sloppy and pointless.

On to Senegal, and the first major films from black Africa (the 1950s episode had the first major films from Africa, but they were from Arab Africa, in Egypt) and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. These films deal with postcolonialism, racism, prejudice, gender politics, and politics in general. The cinema of Africa is highly underrepresented in film history, so I’m glad Cousins included something, but again, this is incredibly brief, especially after last week’s stinger was of an African village.

Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl follows a young Senegalese woman treated like a slave by her French employers.

Then on to English language films from the UK and US. Cousins has promised a more global look at cinema history, and I believe he’s genuinely attempting to do that (and often succeeding, at least in bringing up foreign filmmakers that don’t always enter the conversation), but in this episode which skims over so many different cultures, he spends more time on English language cinema than any other, and covers more American filmmakers than filmmakers from any other country. I get that he does that to some degree because we as viewers need something to hold on to that we recognize, that we can latch on to with a “yes, I’ve heard of that person!” But this should be at least two, maybe three episodes to deal with this absolute explosion of global cinema.

In Britain, we continue the “angry young man” cinema focusing on issues of youth, society and class in working class areas, as well as cutting loosing with Richard Lester’s joyous take on the youth revolution with A Hard Day’s Night. I did really appreciate Ken Loach’s interview here, talking about how he cut conversation in Kes, letting someone start talking before cutting to them, because that’s how we’d refocus in real life – not before someone starts talking the way most films prior to this had done. That’s an astute observation, and that technique of leading the camera with audio has become commonplace today.

Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider heralded the end of an era and the start of a new one, though such transitions are never without cost.

Circling back to America, Cousins does, to his credit, note a lot of 1960s films and filmmakers that wouldn’t ordinarily headline a film history book. He includes Cassavetes, yes, and Easy Rider, but starts with a documentary about Kennedy called Primary that I’ve never heard of, which instigated the “fly on the wall” technique of non-invasive documenting that was borrowed extensively for fiction films as well as documentaries. Cousins includes Hitchcock in here, somewhat surprisingly, positioning Psycho as a new wave film stylistically in its realism and editing (not sure I totally buy that for this film that’s as often gothic as it is realistic, but it’s an intriguing placement). Meanwhile, film schools are coming into existence, and the first generation of film school graduates are cutting their teeth at Roger Corman’s studio, bringing together a love of Old Hollywood and the fast and loose shooting style of the B movie legend. They would become the New Hollywood that Cousins will explore in Chapter 9. He also throws in 2001: A Space Odyssey here, which doesn’t seem to fit. He shoehorns it in with a discussion of the long time lapse between famous bone-to-spaceship cut, but it feels out of place.

His major thesis for the episode is that at this point in time, movies were coming from everywhere, and they were more about the personal stories the filmmakers wanted to tell and the political statements they wanted to make than the more distanced narratives that romantic filmmaking favored. “Film isn’t just a window through which you saw characters and stories, it was a language and a way of thinking in itself.” Probably not coincidentally, the 1960s also saw the rise of literary theory and its application to film in film criticism, prompting both filmmakers and film critics to look at film with new seriousness and explore its boundaries with new abandon. But, Cousins says, romantic cinema would be back in the ’70s, and he accompanies this claim with a swell of epic and bombastic music. Most of the time these little tags tease the next episode, but here that’s not the case, as the New Hollywood filmmakers Cousins will cover in Chapter 9 and the global revolutionaries of Chapter 10 remain deeply suspicious of the romantic tradition. We don’t get to a return to romantic cinema until Chapter 11, with the rise of the modern blockbuster.

What’s Next

Next week we’re back on more familiar territory, with the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. By this time, the first generation of film-school educated directors are on the loose, they’ve cut their teeth on Roger Corman-produced films, and they’re going on to make what are now considered some of the finest films in American movie history – personal, political, satirical, and mostly within the remnants of the American studio system, making this not quite the independent cinema revolution that you’d think it might be.

TCM will accompany the chapter with some masterpieces from Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and others. If there’s a second golden age of Hollywood cinema, this is it: the ten-year period following the breakdown of the studio system, when studios were desperate and willing to try anything to get the eyes of the youth – even giving control over to young and untested directors.

Where Else to Watch These Films

HuluPlus is the clear winner of the obscure world cinema availability title, thanks to the Criterion Collection. You can see a good chunk of the films from Chapter 8 on there. Moving into the New Hollywood era in preparation for Chapter 9, Amazon Prime holds the crown, though mostly with rental films rather than films included with Prime membership. Still, better than nothing.

Boy: HuluPlus
Knife in the Water: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Daisies: HuluPlus
Andrei Rublev: HuluPlus
Ashes and Diamonds: HuluPlus
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: not streaming; available on DVD from Amazon and probably Netflix
The Insect Woman: HuluPlus, YouTube
The House is Black: YouTube (it’s a short film)
I Am Cuba: not streaming; available on DVD from Netflix and Amazon
Black Girl: Netflix Instant, YouTube

The Graduate: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, YouTube ($1.99 rental)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
The Last Picture Show: not available to stream; available on DVD from Netflix and Amazon
Mean Streets: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Badlands: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($1.99 rental)
Cabaret: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
M*A*S*H: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Chinatown: Amazon Prime,
Killer of Sheep: YouTube

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If you want to delve deeper into Japanese New Wave, I reviewed a bunch of Shôhei Imamura titles last year:
Insect Woman
Ballad of Narayama (my favourite)
A Man Vanishes
Profound Desires of the Gods