Sitting in a cab the other day, I glanced at the odd image that appeared on the small television screen mounted on the back of the front seat. “What in the world is that?” I wondered as I looked at the closeup of some beige and bumpy blob. Was it a meteor? an enlarged fat cell? a mutant virus?
The mystery began to unravel as each of the ensuing shots zoomed out to reveal more and more information. As the camera moved back, I saw that the blob was one of many oyster shells chilling on ice. Then a hand holding a knife appeared; the hand belonged to a man who picked up the oyster and pried it open. It turned out that the man was casually sitting at a bar, the atmosphere dark and woody. The big conclusion at the last cut: A restaurant logo and operating hours flashed on the screen.
In Part 1 of THE STORY OF FILM, filmmaker Mark Cousins reminds us how Hitchcock created tension through his “brilliant use of closeups” to start a scene and would then zoom out to reveal place, rather than relying on the traditional establishing shot and moving to closeups from there.
“The guy who directed that restaurant commercial was a Hitchcock fan,” I thought to myself.
My education in the history of filmmaking continues with Part 2 of THE STORY OF FIILM: AN ODYSSEY. (Comments on Part I may be accessed at http://wp.me/pfwMd-ZE)
Part 2 includes the segments “Expressionism, Impressionism and Surrealism: Golden Age of World Cinema” and “The Arrival of Sound,” featuring a collection of insights, observations, and trivia by Cousins, the intrepid film historian, director, writer, and narrator of this newly released primer on the evolution of film.
Cousins narrates the series in his lulling, quiet voice, as if he is imparting special secrets, chock full of analysis and comparison/contrast with a big dose of hyperbole. He says that the the 1920s were “the greatest era in film”; that Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was “perhaps the greatest film director that ever lived”; and that Alfred Hitchcock was “the greatest image maker of the 20th century.” I couldn’t quite keep up with all of the testimonials to greatness he brings to his commentary, but I have to admit that I enjoy those kinds of big, dramatic statements in his narrative, including pronouncements along the lines of “Cinema can be broken into two periods, before LA ROUE (1923) by Gance and after LA ROUE.”
Nonetheless, Cousins does provide illustrations to support his declarations, doling out a relentless — and fascinating — selection of clips from more than 40 films include Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927), Buneul’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929), and Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), just to name a few. Each selection illustrates the innovations in story, action, and technique that dramatically widened the possibilities in filmmaking during “the golden age of world cinema,” and how this world of visual innovation abruptly changed when sound came into the picture. From the dadaists to the realists, we go bouncing around from innovation to innovation like the crazy journey of the baby carriage in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) to the great musical journey of the song “Isn’t It Romantic” from Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT (1930).
I am especially intrigued by the movie trivia that Cousins peppers in between his cinema history lessons: That there were 36,000 extras in METROPOLIS. That silent films in France were referred to as “deaf cinema.” That 90 percent of Japanese silent films have been destroyed. That Howard Hawks was responsible for bringing intense speed to cinema (recall the overlapping dialogue in BRINGING UP BABY). That the tragic demise of forgotten Chinese movie star Ruan Lingyu created a national mourning event of historic proportions. That the memorable camera angles in L’ATALANTE were a result of director Jean Vigo not wanting to show the newly fallen snow on the ground. That director Abel Gance watched the restoration of his NAPOLEAN at the 1979 Telluride Film Festival from the window in his hotel room. So many movies, so many footnotes….
As we follow Cousins’ journey through the movie business of the 1930s, he tells us that this era gave rise to the “great genres” of musicals, westerns, horror, gangster films, and comedies. And, at the conclusion of Part 2, Cousins asserts that three key films of 1939 — GONE WITH THE WIND, NINOTCHKA, and THE WIZARD OF OZ — bring “the end of escapism in films.” This statement still stumps me.
The world is heading to war, and won’t there be plenty of escapist films during the tumultuous times ahead? But for some reason, we won’t get Cousins’ perspective on the films of the war years. The next episode of the series begins with a segment entitled “Post-War Cinema.”
Music Box Films is distributing this new documentary, and Chicago’s Music Box Theater is conducting a multi-week screening of this ambitious effort. The DVD will be released in November 2012. You will want to add it to your collection.