The Story of Film: A New Generation – there’s hope for cinema yet

Mark Cousins offers an optimistic view of the contemporary cinema landscape

The Story of Film: A New Generation
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Director: Mark Cousins
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Mark Cousins
Running Time: 2 hrs 40 mins

Nobody who had been paying attention would have finished Mark Cousins’s monumental 2011 series The Story of Film: An Odyssey with the impression that the eponymous yarn was now over. The Belfast man is nothing if not an optimist about the medium. More than a few film commentators, when summing up the decade that followed, would accompany their treatise with an ominous tolling bell. Cousins sees huge advances and endless possibilities. There is some foreboding here, but the key impression is of a form mutating its way creatively into a new millennium.

It would be wrong to describe A New Generation as a mere coda to The Story of Film. Clocking in at a weighty 160 minutes, the documentary travels to every corner of cinemaspace. Speaking in his melodic cadence – with a few more suppressed chuckles than before – he takes us from Palme d’Or winners to Beyoncé’s Lemonade (arguably a pop video) and on to the Bandersnatch episode of Black Mirror (whatever “television” now means).

Along the way, he dabbles with contradiction by pointing up supposed dramatic innovation while tying the new work in with parallels from history. Thus Mad Max: Fury Road breaks new ground in action cinema while travelling along paths mapped out by Buster Keaton’s The General. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver makes street life into a dance space while borrowing extensively from Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight.

The film is better at convincing us that cinema remains tied in with its past than with convincing us that the last decade welcomed radical shifts in form or technique. He does, however, make the case for democratisation. No such survey would be complete without mention of how smartphones have come to be used on theatrical features such as Sean Baker’s Tangerine. “In the last decade the Spider-Verse has grown,” Cousins says, referencing one of the era’s animation phenomena.

Even film enthusiasts who question his optimism will be swept along by the cunningly edited montage of clips and the consistently engaging analysis. Nobody could reasonably accuse Cousins of snobbery. He begins the film with nods towards Joker and Frozen. A discussion of Lav Diaz's famously gruelling, four-hour Norte, the End of History concludes that "we're in a Clint Eastwood film". A glance at contemporary shockers such as It Follows and Midsommar tells him that "horror is on fire".

Nobody has yet had time to assess the effect of the pandemic on cinema, but Cousins is, as you would expect, entertaining no negative thinking. “When public life returned we marched to the movies again,” he says towards the close. Let’s see, shall we?

On limited release from December 17th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist