October 6, 2012
In recent weeks the nervous future of the movies, as a business and as an occasional, accidental art form, has been subjected to unusually heavy scrutiny and speculation online and in print. This comes after an Oscar-sanctified movie year in which nostalgic odes to film history ("The Artist," "Hugo") raged against the storm of indifference (those damn kids and their iPhones).
Now we have "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," a whopping eight-part, 15-hour seminar on the birth, life cycles, masters and language of cinema.
Its creator and host (who wrote a book, also called "The Story of Film") is Irish critic and director Mark Cousins, who made his documentary — more like a seminar, a lively and elegant one — for British television. Chicago's Music Box Films has taken up the distribution chores, and the first two parts of "The Story of Film" arrive this weekend at the Music Box.
I've only seen Part 1, but it's strong enough to entice me into the rest of it. Cousins begins with two examples of recent cinema, a few shots from the opening of "Saving Private Ryan" (film as immersive, frightening immediacy) followed by Juliette Binoche's face from "Three Colors: Blue" (cinema as silent observer, and an excuse to photograph the thoughts behind the eyes of a beautiful woman). At first you think: Well, it's one way to begin. Cousins has his unabashedly gushy side, and his narration is prone to generalities and forced poetics as he strains to describe the greatness of the early screen pioneers in France, America and Scandinavia.
But Cousins is really very good at certain things, notably breaking down in simple terms the early silent era's refinement of shooting and editing strategies, intercutting versus parallel editing and the like. All (or most) of the expected suspects are present and analyzed, or at least referenced: Georges Melies, D.W. Griffith (often credited, Cousins notes, with somewhat more than he actually pioneered), the great silent clowns (he sticks mainly to Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd) and early bona fide movie stars (Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks).
This is a feast to enjoy, and to question, and then to enjoy some more. "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" plays weekend mornings at the Music Box through mid-November.
No MPAA rating
Running time (all eight parts): 15 hours, 15 minutes. Part 1 (reviewed here): 2:03.
Opens: Parts 1 and 2, this weekend at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; consult musicboxtheatre.com for full schedule.