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A voyage through cinematic innovation

Film maker Mark Cousins spoke to David Hennessy about his new documentary The Story of Film: A New Generation coming to cinemas.

 Fresh from his film The Story of Looking screening at the Irish Film Festival London, Northern Irish film maker Mark Cousins updates his influential documentary series with an examination of the most powerful movies of the last decade.

The Story of Film: A New Generation, in cinemas now, has been described by Hey U Guys as, “Cementing his reputation as cinema’s foremost documentarian”, and the cinema release follows its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival previews.

It also comes a decade after The Story of Film: An Odyssey, an expansive and influential inquiry into the state of moviemaking in the 20th century with spanned an incredible 900+ minutes.

The new documentary sees the filmmaker Mark Cousins look at more recent cinematic innovations from around the globe.

Mark told The Irish World: “There are a lot of pessimists about movies who say, ‘The golden age is over’.

“But I think we’re in the golden age, in a way, because certainly what I’m seeing from around the world is constantly exciting.

“There are a lot more perspectives, it’s not only the rich and privileged.

“It’s more people of colour, more women.

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“There’s still a way to go but I always think of it as a river becoming a delta. It’s widening and broadening with more streams.

“If you look on what’s in the movies this very week, there’s just loads of great stuff and so it’s good time because of social change, and also technological change as well.

“You can shoot a film on a phone and so there’s lots and lots of flux in the film world.

“Films that have been deeply innovative for me are films like Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson.

“That film, I think, was deeply innovative.

“It was a kind of profound way of looking at bodies and fear and what feels like to be an alien, etc.

“I think a film like Moonlight, which won an Oscar, was an important thing for social change around LGBT people and things like that.

“And I think Jordan Peele’s films, Us in particular, was very, very important because it was centred on a black family but their blackness was almost irrelevant.

“That felt like innovation in terms of content.

“A film like Parasite, a Korean film winning an Oscar and going around the world, breaks down barriers about what is foreign and what is not foreign.

“I would also mention Lenny Abrahamson’s film, Frank.

“I think the idea of Michael Fassbender wearing a big head through most of the film.

“That’s the opposite of acting, and yet look at the performance and how moving it is and when he takes the head off at the end.

“So I think that was a landmark film of our times.

“A lot of people would say acting is all about the movements of the face and seeing the eyes of the actor. What if you have none of that? And still, it works brilliantly if it’s done well.

“And great directing from Lenny.

“There’s been a lot of innovation, I must say.

“There are people who are depressed about cinema.

“I know a lot of sort of slightly snobby people who say, ‘Oh, it’s only Marvel movies now’. But they’re just not looking in the right places.

“Look elsewhere and you’ll find great stuff.

“The studios always played it safe.

“The mainstream will always play it safe.

“And yeah, Hollywood is playing it super safe but it is also doing Moonlight and so even there, there’s hope, there’s room for optimism.”

The film sees Mark refer to well known films like Joker, Frozen and Cemetery of Splendour as he explores recurring themes and the evolution of film language to reflect shifting identities in 21st-century world cinema.

Referencing nearly 100 films, well known and more obscure, the film touches on everything from Parasite and The Farewell, to Black Panther and Lover’s Rock.

There has long been the issue of women in cinema not getting the credit they deserve.  There is no debate on this topic, Mark says, but he sees positive things happening there too.

“It’s been spoken about. In terms of debate, there’s no debate to be had.

“One of my last films was called Women Make Film, and it was 14 hours long, so I spent six years on this subject.

“What happened in the movies is women were in key positions in the silent period, then they were pushed out by money and men, and for a lot of film history, they’ve been side lined, particularly in countries like the UK and Ireland and America, and the Western world.

“It’s appalling, we just lost all the potential stories and films that those filmmakers could have made, but society has changed and rightly.

“Sparked by Harvey Weinstein and others, the film industry has looked at itself. It has done a bit of soul searching, and realized how unfair it’s been. It’s just about fairness.

“Once you get equality, once you get as many women as men making films, we’ll still have loads of shit films.

“Women will make rubbish films but men have been making rubbish films for 100 years, so that’s nothing new.

“It’ll still be very hard to make a good movie.”

You just have to look at some of the things that have passed for acceptable in films of the past to see how far society, and in turn films, have come.

“If you look back at some of the old movies, they’re very dated, sexist or racist, all sorts of things.

“I watched The Eiger Sanction recently, that Clint Eastwood movie about him being a hitman and it’s very, very, very, very dated.

“They pat the women’s bums, and there are close-ups of up skirting.

“So as societies change, and it’s changing a lot for the better, those kinds of things are dated.

“These legendary people who ran MGM and Columbia, like Louis B Mayer, who ran MGM, was a horrible man and a sex offender and very, very conservative.

“The guy who ran Columbia, Harry Cohn, had a bust of Mussolini, a fascist, in his office.

“So most, not all, of them (big studios) were very conservative, and they were always trying to foster family values and very homogenizing white world views and thankfully, we’ve got beyond that.

“I think what I would argue against is that the basic pleasures of a good story, of a good hero, of an adventure, these are timeless things. We see them across all cultures, myths and legends.

“But the underlying mythology and fable-like qualities are still potent, I would say.”

Mark sees the Blair Witch Project, a student film shot for $200,000 but went on to gross over $250 million worldwide as a landmark in a new film making age.

“Really Blair Witch was a real milestone, an important film.

“It was sort of like DIY filmmaking, and that started in Denmark with Lars von Trier and a bunch of people there who were saying, ‘No, let’s actually refuse the big cameras and the fancy lighting kits’.

“Typically, in the old days, you needed five trucks to show up just to shoot a scene so shaking all that off, not only do you did you shake off the equipment, you shook off the influence of the executive producers who said, ‘No, it needs to be less controversial…’.

“So you could go into more daring cinema and that was a key thing.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, that’s too daring. People wouldn’t want that, the audience wouldn’t want that’.

“And I always say the audience didn’t know it wanted David Bowie.

“Nobody said, ‘We need this shape shifting alien, bisexual creature’.

“And then it came along, and a whole generation fell in love with it, you know?

“So that’s the way imagination works. You bring into being like a figure like Ziggy Stardust and suddenly people are excited by it.”

Mark says Irish cinema is in a great place due to the talent emerging.

“Ireland’s doing really well. For a small country, we’re doing extremely well in cinematography with Robbie Ryan shooting the best films in the world.

“And acting, look at all the actors, look at Saoirse Ronan, and all the great actors operating at the highest level on the international stage.

“Then, of course, there’s the whole industrial side, studios and things, the animation side with Tomm Moore with the most recent film, Wolfwalkers, and there’s loads of good stuff.

“Lenny Abrahamsson is a world class director.

“I think Ireland should be quite pleased with itself and what it is achieving in cinema.

“Obviously, we thought of ourselves as a literary nation, a country of books and music, and not so much cinema.

“But that has changed, I think.

“And that’s partly, I have to say, because of education.

“Especially in the north of Ireland, the film education is really rather good.

“And so if we teach kids to love films, and it’s in their bloodstream, that’ll pay off in 10 years’ time or 20 years’ time.”

Mark painted an intimate portrait of his hometown in 2015’s I Am Belfast.

“I think Belfast is a city in transition and I think transition is great in individuals and in cities. Change is good.

“Obviously, Belfast was held down for a long time by The Troubles, but like a squashed spring, it started to bounce up.

“It still has problems.

“As a population, there’s still an anxiety in us because of all those decades of what you could call lockdown.

“The Troubles were a kind of lockdown, and so it takes a while for that to work out of our society system.

“And some of the urban aspects of Belfast, like Royal Avenue, used to be a kind of Champs-Elysees, a beautiful, glittering place where you went to socialise and see entertainment.

“It’s very depressed and so a lot more has to be done, a lot more investment in the centre of the city is needed to create these kinds of jewel-like spaces to draw people back in.

“So Belfast is moving in a good direction, I think.

“It’s so lovely to see the greater diversity in Belfast around sexuality and all sorts of things, new populations, and it’s definitely looking to the future in a satisfying way, I think.”

Many great films have come out of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. Omagh, Bloody Sunday have told the stories of bloody moments in history.

In the Name of the Father chronicles the biggest miscarriage of justice ever to take place in Britain while more recent movies like Good Vibrations tell the stories of those trying to move away from violence.

Does film play a role in healing?

“Definitely film does play a role in healing and redemption and recovery.

“There’s a great Italian filmmaker called Pier Paolo Pasolini, and he said, ‘Film is recovery’. Simple as that.

“So definitely any society that is coming out of conflict needs to tell stories about that conflict because it takes a while of repetition and repetition before you start to feel a bit less battered by something.

“Kenneth Branagh’s new film Belfast is a good example of this where it takes us through a lot of pain but finds joy.

“I think that’s a very, very useful role that cinema can play.

“It’s a very good tool in that way as well.

“Sometimes when you’re being entertained, you can relax enough to release some of your fears or your anxieties.

“There are a lot of Irish stories that haven’t been told, that should be told.

“There isn’t a really good film about Roger Casement, for example. I’d love to see that, even that great speech that he gave.

“There’s a lot in Ireland that has been written about and sung about, but not filmed brilliantly.”

However, for all the talk about innovation, we have to talk about what some may see as imitating and rehashing old ideas again and again.

Do we need so many remakes? “There’s a good example because Spider Man: Into the Spider- Verse, was brilliantly inventive, dazzlingly new. I thought I had taken something when I was watching it.

“So even when you when you rework and rework and rework a formula, it doesn’t mean that each reworking will be rubbish.

“It’s disappointing that they spend all that money and for me, there’s an ethical issue, is it right to spend $50 million on something that’s just a remake of something before but Spider-Verse was fantastic.

“I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, but I cannot wait to see it.

“A lot of sort of snobby people are going, ‘Do not need a remake of West Side Story?’ Just wait and watch it and if it’s sh*t, then we can say we did not need it.

“But West Side Story actually did need remaking because if you look at it again, there’s a lot of dodgy stereotypes about Latino people in there and there’s room for improvement as its original director, Robert Wise, was not a great director so we shall see.

“It’s just like doing cover versions of a song.

“There’ll always be covers versions of classic songs.

“You can do it for modern society.

“I always remember- because I’m sort of child of the 80s- when Soft Cell started recording. Soft Cell started doing covers of Northern Soul songs, songs from the 60s, like Tainted Love. That was a cover, but what they brought to it, and they twisted it into something sort of wild and daring and dangerous and slightly pervy in a great way.

“These classic stories can be dragged from the 60s and plunked into the 2020s and they’ve got something new to say.

“If you think across the history of cinema, cinema is still really young.

“You know, it’s only what? 125 years old? Compare that to poetry or music or theatre and all the other art forms, they are ancient in comparison.

“So I think that cinema is kind of in its childhood, it’s still getting going. A lot of people think it might kind of be coming to an end. I don’t think so. I think it’s just getting going.”

Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: A New Generation is in cinemas now. Tickets & Info: https://www.the-story-of-film.com 

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