17 August 2007

Book Review: The Story of Film

Due to forces not yet fully understood, the remainder tables of America’s corporate bookstores have adopted Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film as a central bargain attraction. Cousins’s revisionist take on film history, 1888 to present, doesn’t seem much at home next to the latest Biskind sleaze-fest or another Marilyn Monroe peek-a-boo collection, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? For five dollars, Americans of every stripe can now be exposed to provocative theses about the history of cinema. That a book arguing, in somewhat populist terms, the centrality of Ozu to the development and poetics of world cinema has found its way to the bargain bins should be recorded for cultural posterity.

The Ozu bit is one of Cousins’s more provocative polemical choices. He argues, contra academic habit, that the real classical cinema was made not in Hollywood between 1917 and 1960 but in Japan during the thirties and forties. Classicism, the thinking goes, describes a certain kind of unadorned and natural unity between form and content, not simply musty memories of a cherished golden age. Hence, Ozu and Naruse and Mizoguchi become the exemplars of the medium. Cousins leaves aside Shimizu Hiroshi who seems to these eyes, at least on the evidence of Forget Love for Now and Japanese Girls at the Harbor, equally important in articulating a classical style in Japanese cinema, but why quibble with the minor omissions of a book so thoroughly committed to expanding the canon of cinema?

At this point I should mention that Cousins does succeed in livening up the standard accounts of film history, not least through flashing forward and backward on occasion to draw unorthodox parallels between the stylistic tropes of, say, The Best Years of Our Lives and Sátántangó. What’s more, there are titles and filmmakers here that even the seasoned cinephile will not immediately recognize. Cousins speaks of Indian filmmaker Baburao Painter and Spaniard Florián Rey in the same breath as Stroheim and Flaherty, all filmmakers who ‘in their social awareness or anthropological ambitions, their meticulous commitment to naturalistic detail and their anxiety about capitalism and exclusion … indicate[d] how incomplete was the view of the world reflected in closed romantic realism.’

‘Closed romantic realism’ is a politically-correct label of Cousins’s own invention meant to supplant the problematic ‘classical Hollywood cinema’ one alluded to above. The ‘closed romantic realism’ business is a slightly disparaging way of summarizing the whole tradition of Hollywood moviemaking, acknowledging that it stands as a phony (closed) and naively evasive (romantic) imitation of the real world while still maintaining some plastic and narrative semblance to it (realism). Fair enough, but I fear that Cousins’s sober and catholic approach to film history only erects new critical blindspots. While Cousins helpfully cites some unheralded dissenters from around the globe, he also counts King Vidor as one who ‘rejected close romantic realism’ on the basis of The Crowd. As a partisan of that film, I would argue that The Crowd illustrates the stylistic and political flexibility possible under the not-quite-so-monolithic Hollywood mode of production. Cousins seems to be suggesting the same thing, but can’t come out to say it.

What’s more, he devotes several pages to ‘postmodern innovators’ like Tarantino and the ‘lively independent production sector’ exemplified by Soderbergh and Hartley but ignores entirely true American independents like Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry whose rejection of traditional narrative modes would seem perfectly in line with Cousins’s objective to cover ‘great, original films which seem not to have had an impact on successive filmmakers, because they were made in Africa, or poorly distributed, or flopped at the box office, or were directed by a woman, or were misunderstood or banned.’ Other questions: if originality and influence serve as equally valid criteria for inclusion, why are Deren and Warhol included while Brakhage, Kubelka, and countless others are left out? How can one write about Hollywood as ‘closed romantic realism’ and neglect to discuss Frank Borzage, the director who, more than any other, defined, exemplified, and justified that sensibility?

Cousins illuminates certain obscure corners of film history and ignores others that would seem to complicate his theses. The explanations and frameworks are often beguiling and curious but frequently not terribly rigorous. Still, there’s a spirit and openness of inquiry here that more than fulfills Cousins’s stated aim of writing ‘an accessible, jargon-free movie history for general readers and those who are beginning to study film.’ Though imperfect, The Story of Film is better than most any other introductory text book on the subject, despite an appalling number of typographical errors the professionalism of the enterprise.

For more experienced scholars and cinephiles, The Story of Film will appear to be an obvious improvement on the familiar and limited texts that they themselves suffered through on the way to finding the real cinema. Beyond that, Cousins’s text is problematic. Some paragraphs promise exciting discoveries, such as the one devoted to Murata Minoru’s Souls on the Road, a 1921 Japanese production that Cousins brackets with the much more canonical Intolerance and The Phantom Chariot as an example of films juggling multiple epochs through intercutting. I’d never heard of Souls on the Road before picking up Cousins’s book. Does it survive? Do any archives have a print? Cousins doesn’t provide any filmographies that answer these questions. Instead, only this note at the end of the introduction:
I have rewatched almost every film mentioned in this book. In some cases, however, that has not been possible. In these instances, I’m relying on memories of previous viewings. In addition, there are about forty films mentioned which I have never seen. Either prints of them no longer exist or I have been unable to track them down. They are included because filmmakers or historians have made a case for their importance.

That’s quite candid for the author of a work of this scope. Near as I can tell, though, nowhere in Cousins’s narrative does he note that any particular title is lost to neglect and nitrate decay. He does not distinguish in his prose between the extant and the vanished, thus substantially reducing the credibility and utility of his prefatory remarks.


Tim Froh said...

There's one review of Souls on the Road on IMDB (amazing, I know), but, its content aside (which seems worthless), it does seem to suggest that there is at least some kind of print out there. The reviewer is also based out of NYC and not Japan, so who knows? It might be worth looking into.

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