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DVD Review: ‘The Story of Film: An Odyssey’

★★★★☆

Director and critic Mark Cousins takes us on the definitive guided tour of cinema from its very beginning in the newly released The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). This 15-hour expedition through time uncovers the early signs of changing eras within film, the emerging art form’s political impact and the highs and lows key directors have endured and overcome to produce their iconic work. Truly, the research and style of this BFI-funded, Film4-produced work goes above and beyond any existing TV critique oft he medium.

Film effectively began as a scientific experiment, grew into a reputable and controversial form of artistic expression, and evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. From real life workers leaving a factory to gangsters and cowboys, Cousins is sure not to miss out any genre, movement or trend. He revisits famous locations and places such as the canal featured in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) and the first theatre in Paris to screen the Lumière brothers’ early work. He also explores arguments as to whether film should be focused on depicting on fiction or reality – or neither, by way of Victor Sjöström, Luis Bunuel and F W Murnau’s surrealist works.

The comprehensive voice of this marathon details how economic movements proved problematic in terms of on-location shooting, with the studio system becoming paramount (pun intended) to a production’s fast and precise turnaround. In turn, we also learn how the all-singing, all-dancing stars of the post-war years boosted flagging economies and ignited whole nations’ melancholy hearts. If nothing else, The Story of Film is fearless at disclosing dark tragedies from behind the screen, and why some filmmakers lack a legacy others will uphold forever.

We revisit social cinema from 1930s India, studying the caste system and real life struggles up close on camera (Sant Takuram [1936]), and delve into Akira Kurosawa’s deeply cinematic portrayals of Japan’s rich heritage, consequently welcoming in the new era of the individual – a theme that resonates in all of the auteur’s films. Notably, we also see a rare glimpse of ‘taboo’ Soviet-dodging filmmaker Sergei Parajanov and his exploration of ancient Armenian sorcery and folklore (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors [1965]). Cousins explains how and why these ‘new waves’ swept around the world, celebrating the drastic breath of life multiple avant-garde movements gave to the global industry.

Cousins’ peerless wonder is weighty in detail and facts, never afraid to indulge the viewer in the history of a certain director’s method of shooting, where a film school got its name or why the mise-en-scene of a particular shot significantly changed the future of filmmaking. The Story of Film is something of a prestigious film degree squeezed meticulously into engaging segments, for any appreciator of cinema to learn from.

Alexandra Hayward