By Isaac Butler
Anne and I recently finished watching "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" on Netflix last month, and while it's a pretty amazing documentary series-- ideosyncratic, filled with fascinating information, lovingly put together-- I found myself nagged throughout with the suspicion that a fast one was being pulled on us. That this Story was missing some key components, and frequently getting its facts wrong. Obviously, you can't cover everything in 915 minutes, and writer/director/narrator Mark Cousins' decision to keep the series firmly focused on innovation and influence is a smart one. Yet, I couldn't shake the impression that rather important parts were being left out.
Cousins is a film historian and critic. I am neither. Yet, I do have certain areas of expertise, two of which intersect with The Story of Film: theatre history and 1990s-early aughts indie American cinema. The former I know through studying and working in theatre since I was twelve, the latter from living through the period and working in a video store. In both of these areas, The Story of Film falls dramatically short.
In theatre's case, the problem is obvious: it's almost never mentioned. Neither is vaudeville for that matter. This is an odd lacuna, to say the least. The Story of Film's first six episodes take us from the invention of film right up to just before the New Wave, never mentioning theatre once, as far as I could tell. This is of course the period when cinema was borrowing from, rebelling against and in dialogue with the visual vocabulary of the stage. Even when discussing artists who worked in theatre like Jean Cocteau, theatre goes unmentioned. Most startlingly, the series includes a lengthy discussion of design in German Expressionist cinema, noting how subjectivity becomes realized in set design without mentioning this idea's roots in theatre and opera.
Much later on, The Story of Film dedicates an episode to "New American Independents and the Digital Revolution." The central thrust of the episode is about its title, and how the postmodern era played out both in blockbusters and in small indie films. It's an episode about our relationship to reality, and how cinema reckoned with this in the 90s and early aughts.
Cousins makes a hash our of this material. The Coen Brothers are described as filmmakers well known for their heart, and George Clooney's character in O Brother is called a wide eyed innocent. Cousins claims that The Big Lebowski was made while we were at war with Iraq, but the 1998 film is actually a period piece that takes place during the war. The section on Gus Van Sant focuses on Gerry, Elephant (called Van Sant's signature film) and Last Days. A full twenty minutes of the hour long episode, an episode that covers everything from Jurassic Park to Jane Campion with brief stops to discuss Ringo Lam and Godard, is dedicated to an interview with Baz Luhrmann.
Most unforgiveably, Steven Soderbergh is never mentioned. Yes, an hour is a short amount of time to cover over a decade of American and world cinema, but this isn't a small oversight. Other than Tarantino, there is no American filmmaker more central to the themes and more necessary to the story that Cousins wants to discuss. Amongst other things, without the box office success of Sex, Lies & Videotape (and, oddly, Four Weddings and a Funeral) there's a good chance that the New American Independent moment wouldn't have happened the way it did. Soderbergh's films during this period also capture all of the various threads that Cousins obsesses over: postmodernism, cinematic quotation, reality in a mediated age, the meaning of "innovation" outisde of digital effects, the place of humanity within the frame, formalism etc.
There are so many glaring mistakes and omissions in this section that it eneded up making me suspicious of the entire enterprise . I kept wondering if amateur experts in Japanese cinema would cringe at the claims Cousins makes about Ozu, or if Indian Cinema enthusiasts would throw their remote agains the wall during his discussion of Satyajit Ray.
At the same time, The Story of Film not only left me with a list of movies I can't wait to see, it has made me into a different (and better) viewer of movies, and I can't imagine a higher complicment than that. Regardless of the particulars, in other words, its overall effect is astounding. Perhaps, then The Story of Film is less useful as an actual work of history, and should instead be taken as chronological survey of form, with some potentially dubious history thrown in to keep it compelling.