Cannes: ‘The Story Of Film: A New Generation’ Opens Festival With A Hopeful And Optimistic View Of The Recent Past And Future Of Movies

Leos Carax’s Annette is the much publicized and awaited opening film of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival kicking off tonight, but actually it is filmmaker Mark Cousins who can claim the glory of being the first film of the festival this year, and it just wrapped up its premiere screening this afternoon at the Debussy.

When fest director Thierry Fremaux saw Cousins’ mouthwatering and mesmerizing two hour and forty minute tribute to recent cinema, The Story of Film: A New Generation he knew it was just what this year’s fest, the first in over two years and moved to July from May because of the lingering effects of the world pandemic that forced cancellation in 2020 of the all-important Cannes event for the first time since World War II. The aftermath of that pandemic is also part of Cousins’ sweeping survey of cinema spanning 2010 to 2021 as a way of uncovering cinematic innovation from around the world and putting it in the context of a new digital age that is redrawing the map of how we see and experience movies. There is no question that this was an ideal way to kick things off this year for Cannes, a cleansing of the palette for the recent past and an invigorating vision of the future – at least for to whet the appetite for the latest morsels of global filmmaking though the eyes of some of our most adventurous filmmakers. He structured the film which he narrates in a dry but effective fashion as a dizzying selection of clips organized into distinct categories from comedy to horror to drama etc. and then it got the attention of Cannes, as you just might imagine.

“Thierry Fremaux saw it and he phoned me and he said, ‘ look, this feels like the beginning of Cannes’. I kind of launch the event. I was rather surprised at that because, you know, there is no television funding in this film or anything like that, but I was delighted that he thought that this would be some kind of launch of cinephilia,” Cousins told me last week while getting ready to come to the Cote d’Azur not only with this film, but a second he did with producer Jeremy Thomas (The Storms Of Jeremy Thomas) as they embark on a five day journey – ala Thelma And Louise – to Cannes, that will be shown later in the fest. Previously he has been to Cannes with The Eyes of Orson Welles and A Story Of Children And Film. “He said we’ve been asleep, and now, we’re waking up. I love that metaphor because it’s in the film, as you’ve seen, you know, there are lots of people sort of sleeping or waking. So, I was, of course, thrilled that the idea that Cannes would use this on the opening day. I think they’re using this film to say the word meanwhile. Meanwhile, when we’ve been asleep this happened.”

Cousins has done this film as a kind of follow-up to his massive 15 hour 2011 The Story Of Film: An Odyssey which was much celebrated for its look at film in the 20th century, winning a Peabody in the process after being broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. This time around he wanted to keep the running time manageable, and winds up focusing on an eclectic collection of films from Joker and Son of Saul to Cemetery of Splendour and Gangs of Wasseypur, from The Irishman and Frozen to Midsommar and The Babadook, from Holy Motors and Tangerine to Black Panther and Parasite – 97 movies in all as he explores recurring themes and new motifs, the incorporation of evolving film language to how technology is changing the course of cinema in a new century. And he ties it up with how COVID continues the process, while offering hope and optimism that the old ways of seeing movies can also be part of the new ways.

“I’m interested in how things changed but also how they’ve remained the same. Lots of people love saying that this time that we’re living in is completely different from any other time and that’s understandable. We want to think that we are so alive, but when you look at movie history, it’s been hit and bombarded by so many things, as you know, so many technological changes, and social changes and different attitudes to movie going. And so, our current time, yes, it’s momentous. Yes, COVID is kind of species wide phenomenon, but I would argue, in some ways, that what cinema did to us in 1895, it’s still doing to us today in some ways, like the innate properties of it,” Cousins told me. “Cinema entered our collective unconscious, and it has stayed in there through thick and thin despite all the changes in society, and technology and politics. Cinema is still in there. But I think we’ve realized that, under COVID, that we have movies in our heads and that’s, you know, very kind of valuable and that’s the thing we love about movies. I think, not just seeing new movies but realizing that we’ve got a memory bank in there.”

I told him that with his previous deep dive into all things movies, and now this one, he seems to have a certain genius for recalling specific scenes and moments that fit his narrative, and in also using even the most obscure films (to many people at least) from all corners of the globe but making it accessible. What’s his method in putting it all together? “No. I’m not that kind of genius. I watched tons of stuff, Pete, and I’ve got a good memory for things, so I remember a scene or a film pretty well, but what I also have is a kind of structural brain. I think I’m pretty bad at words but I’m really good at structure. And so, if I see a film, like when you think of the American films and the story of film in a new generation, it’s like Booksmart, and Deadpool, and Good Time and Baby Driver, and It Follows and Into the Spider-Verse and all those films. I sort of can see where they will fit in my story. So, when I saw the Spider-Verse film, which I absolutely f*cking loved…I hope it’s OK  to swear. Sorry. But I absolutely loved it. You know, I thought cinema is a kind of spider-verse. That’s what it is,” he said. “We go into the spider-verse, and so, as you saw at the end of this film, I use that metaphor of spider-verse as a place where you can go in and be whoever you want and have a kind of joyful, exciting experience and be multiple. So, I’m not that genius who knows everything but when I see something, I remember it and it really sticks.”

There is no question that The Story of Film: A New Generation really sticks. I told him I went into watching it (and yes I saw it in a cinema because I wanted to) I thought maybe this would be some sort of arty That’s Entertainment –style compilation of clips, and in a way it is that, but in very surprising ways combining so-called arthouse cinema with very commercial movies too. He actually sparked to the comparison. “And on your point about That’s Entertainment, I really like that. I love those That’s Entertainment films, and I rewatched them recently. I mean, I do feel when I’m in show biz that’s my job in a way. But show business, as we know, yes, it’s about electrifying people. It’s about entertaining people. It’s giving them escapism but it’s more…in a deeper level, it’s making them feel alive, feel something intense, and even if you look at The Wizard Of Oz it’s not only escapism, it’s about making people feel an intensity, a kind of community, and so, the films that I’ve chosen for The Story Of Film: A New Generation are trying to do that as well,” he said.

In the movie’s last 40 minutes or so, he tries to go from some very dark places that filmmakers have drifted towards, mirroring their societies, and show that film can lead the way to a brighter tomorrow, no matter how corny that may sound on paper. The proof is in the images. “I am optimistic about the future of movie going, and I know lots of people thought under COVID maybe people really would forget the ritual, the pleasure of movie going, but I don’t think so. Certainly, for me, I didn’t forget. I was desperate to return,” he says.

“But more generally, as you know, lots of us know, you have pleasures sitting in your room watching that big TV. You enjoy sitting there watching films on your sofa, on your demand, and we all have our domestic lives, but our domestic lives are not enough to sustain us as imaginative creatures. You know, they’re comforting, and they’re wonderful and they’re loving if we’re lucky, but we also want what Joseph Campbell called the rapture of self-loss. We really want to get into a bigger realm where we forget who we are, which is, frankly, what working class women did when they went to see Greta Garbo films in the 1920s, and we’re still doing it. We’re still longing to escape our own worries and desires and cinema will continue to afford that, I think. Cinema was and is extremely good, effortlessly good at doing that.”

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