[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week’s episode. I’m writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I’m going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for next week’s episode.]
If I don’t want to be my parents, then who am I?
With this episode, Cousins again tries to broaden the Story of Film beyond the traditional story, this time with a very specific theme in mind – how filmmakers around the world made films that dealt with national identity in some way. The title makes it sound like a dry dissertation topic, but this is actually a pretty solid episode that doesn’t suffer from being spread too thin quite as much as the New Waves Around the World episode did. He also makes a great effort in this episode (as he has before, don’t get me wrong) to go to the places where each of these filmmakers worked, which gives his film as a whole the remarkably cinematic quality that it has, and gets across the sense of place that is, in this episode especially, incredibly important.
He goes on a tour of Germany, Italy, Great Britain (and Australia), Japan, Senegal, and Iran. In Germany, he focuses on New German Cinema, which is hardly new territory for the dedicated cinephile, but I have to admit this era in general is a blind spot for me. It’s not like the New Waves episode, where I struggled to keep up with a lot of new names and titles – here I’ve heard of most of the films mentioned, I just haven’t made time to see them yet. New German Cinema strove, in the words of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to make films that are important, have something to say, and are born out of their own experience – that is, the experience of a generation whose parents were Nazis or lived under Hitler’s regime. Fassbinder loved Hollywood, but sneered at its romantic ideals, making beautiful but less glossy pictures about dark subjects. Cousins also covers Wim Wenders, Margaretha von Trotta, and Werner Herzog. Cousins suggests that these filmmakers all ask the question, “if I don’t want to be my parents, who am I?” – it’s interesting how many different approaches these filmmakers take at that question, making this a movement I very much want to watch more of.
In Italy he looks at Pier Paolo Pasolini (again – he was also in the New Waves chapter) and Bernardo Bertolucci, who Cousins held up to Robert Osborne as the one filmmaker from this episode that should be better known than he is. I’ve see some of Bertolucci’s more recent films, but not the two that Cousins discusses, The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, though both have been on my to-watch list for a while. These films are Hollywood-level beautiful, but continued the questions of identity that preoccupies this episode. Pasolini was also preoccupied by sex, as anyone familiar with his infamous Salo: 120 Days of Sodom would know, but Cousins avoids that film altogether, instead showing a scene from Pasolini’s Arabian Nights. Sorry, I’m resolutely uninterested in either of these films. Great Britain was also interested in sexual identity, but Cousins focuses on the way sexual identity is fragmented in British films, especially Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. He claims “if any film in The Story of Film should be compulsory viewing for filmmakers, maybe this is it.” An intriguing statement, considering the film seems to have something of a lukewarm reaction among critics. I haven’t personally seen it, though I’m intrigued. He tosses Australia in here as well, with Roeg’s Walkabout as a transition to a discussion of Australian filmmaker’s interest in gender with Peter Weir’s Picnic on Hanging Rock and Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career as headliners.
Cousins spends most of his time in Japan talking about documentary, never my favorite topic, especially when it involves someone shrieking on camera for excruciatingly long minutes. I get that this is the point of that particular film, and I even understand that Cousins shows us so much of it to really drive that point home. Doesn’t mean I enjoy it. Next up, Senegal, which we’ve already seen in the New Waves episode in the work Ousmane Sembene. Sembene is here again, with his political satire Xala, which shows the move from a colonial to post-colonial identity. Cousins brings up the Third World Cinema manifesto – I missed who he said wrote it, but it’s definitely important to the way non-American, non-European cinema develops at this time period. The three types of cinema according to the manifesto, are commercial (associated with Hollywood), art (associated with Europe), and political (now to be associated with the third world) – in keeping with Cousins’ theme for the episode, third world cinema needs to create images of the self in order to counterract the images made of them by Hollywood. You only have to look at Hollywood films about “the exotic” to see why such cinematic statements of identity are vital. This type of identity-building drives films from Senegal, Iran, Chile, Venezuela, and more.
This episode initially sounded like it was going to be dry and boring, but it’s actually one of the stronger ones, thanks to Cousins sticking with a theme that actually works and not trying to cram the films and filmmakers into a schema that doesn’t quite fit. There are lots of films in here I haven’t seen, but I’m interested in checking most of them out. We’re not quite done with the ’70s yet, though…there’s one more episode, with Cousins teasing that filmmakers in Hollywood and Hong Kong were about to change the Story of Film forever.
Where Else to See These Films
I can’t really explain TCM’s choices of programming this week. They’ve dropped down to just one night of programming instead of two with this episode, which limits them a lot, though it’s easy to understand why they chose to do that as The Story of Film moves further away from “classic” film. But they include both of the Australian films mentioned, when I think they could’ve given up one of those spots to one of the Italian films, preferably one of the Bertolucci ones. To their credit, they did include the Wenders film that Cousins spent the most time on, and went far afield to include two parts of The Battle of Chile.