Interview: Mark Cousins
In If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, the book is narrated as if it is in the process of being written; a book about the experience of reading. I feel your relationship with The Story of Film is a bit like this. Is the work as much about “re-enchanting” people with cinema as it is about reimagining how we approach cinema?
Yes. The Story of Film isn’t so much about knowledge as the appetite for knowledge. Ideally, I wanted to create hunger, longing, intoxication for cinema. Movies are a bit undervalued, under-imagined. They are often seen as just something that you do on Friday night with your pals – entertainment, escapism, something you do when you are switched off. They are fun this way but are even better when you are turned on, enchanted.
You are one of the few Western critics and film-makers to explore the liminal spaces outside powerful film industries like Hollywood. Are film industries a danger to this kind of ‘borderless’ cinema?
This kind of borderless cinema will keep going, as it always has. Look at the brilliant stuff coming out of the Philippines, for example. The danger is that it gets sequestered, ignored or patronised. If it does, then the “other” filmmakers, the freaks and queers (the people that Travis Bickle hated) will lose heart or ambition; the insiders, the mainstream, will, as a result, become more anodyne. The freak and queer and other world view is, in the end, the only valuable one because we are all others, all freaks, all queers. Everywhere is the centre of the universe.
How, if at all, do you think cinema’s social power can cross real borders?
Cinema is a great empathy machine. It shows that aspects of human life are universal. This universality needs constantly to be restated, re-imagined and re-celebrated in order to combat the village mentality of much of the media. A good film about Senegal or Scotland bottles its essence, its liquor, then becomes a message in a bottle. The further a film travels, the more its essence gets diluted, but it still keeps a lot of its kick.
Your Story of Film didn’t require a large budget, in fact was freed, in many ways, by not having one. How do you see the relationship between artistic or intellectual quality on one hand and the need to secure funding and make profits on the other? Will one always compromise the other?
Usually, yes. As you say, I had editorial and intellectual freedom to make The Story of Film because there weren’t vast sums of money invested in it. Those who did put in money (BFI, Channel 4, Scottish Screen, MEDIA 2, Film 4, etc) were great, but we didn’t break their bank, so they did not force us to try to enter the mainstream media world – or compromise the story by sugaring it and burnishing it with celebrity.
You once wrote a letter to your 8 ½ year-old self describing your work, like Tilda Swinton’s, as an “act of resistance”. ‘Resistance’ has political overtones: how political is it desirable to be when it comes to cinema, and what form should that politicism take?
That’s a big question. The kind of politics that I am best at, in the film world, is the kind that stands up for talent and beauty wherever it comes from; in other words, my politics are a stand against marketing- and advertising-driven cinema. This is the kind of bullying and narrowing of choice that we get in most places in the world. So The Story of Film – and the work of lots of other people – is like that of a defense lawyer speaking up for films that should be more widely seen.
I also see myself, in a less political way, like a DJ spinning movies, samples and melodies that people might not have heard but which excite them.
In terms of films themselves, I think they are, and should be, political when they try to show lives, feelings, joys, sorrows, struggles on screen that never have been on such a screen before. John Sayles says that that’s what he tries to do. Robert Bresson wrote “Try to show that which, without you, might never have been seen.” That’s very political.
Our arts editor Claudia Massie spent a surprising amount of her childhood watching and rewatching videos of Ivanhoe (the Anthony Andrews version) and North West Frontier (Kenneth More, Lauren Bacall and a mightily menacing Herbert Lom) – not obvious kiddie-fodder, but she was devoted to them. What do you think are the key elements that will draw a child into a film?
Kids love films with child protagonists. But they also like “worlds” on film – atmospheric places like spaceships, islands, strange cities, castles, etc. They like a degree of magic – where reality seems to slip its tether. They like, too, the baroque – heightened colour, design, costuming, spaces. They love comedy, of course. Loss is a key theme in children’s cinema, and the epic adventure, and role play (playing at being a parent, often with a bird or dog). And aloneness is so often a key ingredient – think of Astrid Henning-Jensen’s Palle Alone in the World.
I know you find scholarly jargon disagreeable to a certain extent – an academic “citadel” which is “hard to storm”. However, I think a good way to describe your understanding of cinema would be the term ‘transnational’. What does that word conjure up for you?
Yes, transnational is right. Despite (or maybe because of?) being an Irish catholic, and being in Sarajevo during its appalling siege, the national doesn’t appeal to me much. Nationalism was a response to Bonapartism or colonialism, an important phase but a stepping stone to something bigger, a more global solidarity. When I see people talking about film when they really just mean American film, it makes my blood boil. Such parochialism is racist by omission. Iranian, Senegalese, Indian cinema are all mine and as relevant to me as, say, British or American cinema.
You mentioned Freud when you were comparing Hitchcock’s and Van Sant’s shower scenes, and his “narcissism of small differences”. What is your attitude towards other psychoanalytical forays into film, such as Slavoj Žižek’s Pervert’s Guide to Cinema?
I’ve only seen part of Pervert’s Guide. In general I like psychoanalytic thoughts on cinema. Movies feel like an art form with the lid lifted off, with the rational icing on the cake removed. The best way to understand a film like Trier’s Antichrist is to see it as a whole load of unconscious material thrown up onto the screen. A lot of it sticks. Films like Marnie, Uncle Boonmee, Beau Travail, The House is Black, etc are dreamscapes.
You say you see filmic grammar as growing and mutating. Does that mean cinematic expression is limitless?
Yes, I think so. The ontology of the movies (their Janus-faced double nature, their split personality, their reality-and-dream Jekyll-and-Hydeness) might not change much, but the expressivity and poetics are as in flux as the Northern Lights.
In the spirit of your desire to trespass across the boundaries of cinematic understanding, NLP would like to set you the task of populating a hypothetical film with a cast (and crew, if you like) that is temporally as well as geographically unfixed. Any ideas?
I would like Forough Farrokhzad to direct Louise Brooks in a film in which she is a photographer and Djibril Diop Mambéty is her muse.
You describe your relationship with the spectator of your film as one of “stargazing together”, looking at a (paraphrased) Barthes’ “light from a distant star”, which is a beautiful image. How much chance to you get to connect with your spectators, your “intelligent non-specialists”, really? How often do they follow or share your views?
I meet people at the movies all the time (I never go to press screenings). I am on Twitter a fair bit @markcousinsfilm and chat with people there. I teach, and I programme a bit – which is always scary. But the “intelligent non-specialist” I am most in contact with is my teenage self. I recall his enthusiasm, his hunger.
In a project of such scope as The Story of Film some things inevitably end up on the cutting room floor; what was most painful for you to leave out?
Rivette, Rohmer, Alexander Payne, Mai Zetterling, Cukor, Sturges, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Larisa Shepitko, later Boris Barnet, much of Czech cinema, Astrid Henning-Jensen, Mohamed Ali-Talebi, most of Truffaut, Neil Jordan, Finnish cinema, much of Greek cinema…
It is important for you to experiment with the form of film festivals. Where will innovation lead you next?
For me a film festival should be a creative thing. In the past, Tilda and I have mashed film festivals up with (stolen ideas from) kids’ parties, rock concerts, hippy culture, religious ritual, road movies, gallery art, etc. There’s so much more that could be done, and so many more themes: Theatricality, reverie, nudity, walking, real presences…
Calvino also creates tongue-in-cheek terms for the ways people approach books. In the spirit of that, could you tell us a) A Film Which You Saw Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Rewatch, b) A New Film By A Director Or On A Subject Completely Unknown and c) A Film Which Everybody Should Have Seen But Almost Nobody Has?
a) It Should Happen to You by George Cukor.
b) Lav Diaz’s next movie
c) A Moment of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf; 20 Fingers by Mania Akbari
Mark Cousins is a film lover, film critic and film director. He interviewed many of the greats of cinema in his series Scene by Scene. He has written extensively on cinema, most famously in The Story of Film, which he recently made into a series of films about film, called The Story of Film: An Odyssey. He has also collaborated with the actress Tilda Swinton in the travelling film festival The Screen Machine project, and in the film foundation for children, The 8 ½ Foundation. His most recent film projects are The First Movie (2009) and What Is This Film Called Love? (2012)