THE STORY OF FILM (the book) by Mark Cousins (first published, 2004)

After reading E.H. Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’, I decided this was the best book I was ever likely to read about the history of visual arts.

In his preface, Gombrich wrote that his book was  “intended for all who feel in need of some first orientation in a strange and fascinating world”.

Mark Cousins makes no secret of the fact that Gombrich’s definitive work was a model for his story of the art of cinema from the silent era of the 1880s to today’s digital age.

His is an equally comprehensive and triumphant work of scholarship and stamina.

One can only be awestruck, and a little envious, that Cousins has not only seen so many movies but that he has the skill and insight to place each in its context and describe then so succinctly and intelligently.

The easy road to take with a book of this type would be to relate the history  as that of American cinema while throwing in a few token movies from other parts of the world to add a little exotic variation.

One of the great things about Cousins’ book, and the 15-hour documentary series for Channel 4 series that followed, is that he does more than just pay lip service to the concept of world cinema.

Hollywood is obviously recognised for its fundamental part in the story he tells but we are shown how innovations in U.S. cinema was mirrored, or many cases anticipated,  in countries around the world such as Japan, Russia, France, Italy and Britain.

Mark Cousins

“Film history has more than one line of narrative”, argues Cousins and he proves this by comparing and contrasting the art form from a truly global perspective.

In so doing, his subject centres more on the visionary directors than on the movie stars. His objective is to celebrate cinema as a means of expression  rather than as a fame factory or an exotic business model.

The focus is always on those men and women who asked the question “How can I do this differently?”  This is what Steven Spielberg asked himself when he was shooting the memorable opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan and it’s a question the greatest filmmakers have asked themselves throughout the history of cinema.

The book looks at those artists who took risks to challenge existing ways of seeing and in so doing ensure that the language of film is one that is constantly evolving.

Cousins shows how experiments with lighting and editing, or by shooting with different lens or from an unusual angles changed the audience’s perspective and opened up fresh possibilities. He made me realise that I miss many of these details by simply following the plot of the film.

His deconstruction is not done to explain acts of trickery or as an academic exercise, but to show what makes movies work and gives them their power

By adopting an admirably non-elitist standpoint and by writing in plain, jargon-free English, he combines the enthusiasm of a fan with the thrill of discovery. It’s a perspective that means he can convey as much admiration for Laurel & Hardy as for Ozu and Godard.

The subtext is that there are always many ways of seeing the world and true magic happens when a film succeeds in tapping into our dreams or exposing us to our nightmares.

He made me want to re-visit those films I’ve already seen and seek out the many films he mentions which I have yet to see.

At a time when mainstream American movies in particular are rapidly running out of ideas, this book is a timely and impassioned reminder that great cinema , like great literature, should not deaden the brain but inspire us to see the world from other points of view.

E.H. Gombrich set a high benchmark but Mark Cousins manages to reach it.  This is the best book about the art of film I have ever read.

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