Sunday, December 11, 2011

Narrative Art

The Story of Film
by Mark Cousins

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema
by Slavoj Zizek

"At the end of the 18th century, a new art form flickered into life. It looked like our dreams. Movies are a multimillion dollar global entertainment industry now, but what drives them is not box office or showbiz; it is passion, innovation. So let's travel the world to find this innovation for ourselves..."

Those are the words that, for the past 15 weeks, have begun Mark Cousins' unprecedented Story of Film, charting cinema's development, right up to the modern day.

Cousins is a terrific film historian - his voice guides the viewer through 110 years of change with gentle assuredness - and his knowledge of international is cinema is clearly second to none (or very few). It is enormously refreshing to watch a film history with a global perspective, one that does not simply re-hash the Hollywood-centred history - Griffith, Chaplin, Film Noir, Musicals, Westerns, John Ford, Easy Rider, Raging Bull, Jaws, Star Wars, High-Concept 80s, Sundance 90s and the Digital Era that followed - with which so many of us are already familiar. Most, if not all, of those elements are featured in the Story of Film, but it is not the dominant narrative. Cousins gives just as much time to films from France, Germany, the UK, Egypt, Iran, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America - and even I, a film obsessive, was introduced to much that was new. There are no cultural or geographical prejudices, everything is respectfully described by Cousin's warm and generous voiceover, for which I am grateful.

Cousins is particularly good at expressing his enthusiasm visual ingenuity and ideas conveyed via the medium of the moving image - regardless of whether it is an MGM musical made by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, a Samurai movie directed by Akira Kurosawa or a dream sequence imagined by Frederico Fellini.

The documentary does lose some of its momentum as it moves into the modern day. Cousins' ideological preferences will not be to everyone's tastes - The Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney (a series of avant garde post-modernist art pieces without narrative or dialogue) are described in detail, whereas The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are dismissed in a sentence. Of course, this kind of selection is inevitable - even in 15 hours it is impossible to include everything that is worthy of comment - but, in the last few parts of the series, as Cousins stretches to find films that fit his 'transgressive' ideal, some of the selections seem less ingenious, more political - Breaking the Waves, Requiem for a Dream and The Rules of Attraction are brutalist dramas that address violent and unpleasant subject matter. But I do not think that necessarily makes them any more authentic than the best of Hollywood fantasy cinema. Our dreams are equally as potent a playground, as Cousins recognises in his championing of the films of David Lynch (Blue Velvet and Mullholand Drive amongst them). In an oddly industrial way, the best of Hollywood's modern digital Blockbusters are as surreal as anything created by Bunuel or Dali.

This contrasts with The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, which is a three part documentary film series presented by Slovenia philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek.

Zizeck draws no distinctions between American and foreign, mainstream and alternative - all forms are equally open to analysis; the dominant ideological position is not what the films themselves projects outwards, but what Zizek reads into them.

Unlike Cousins, with his apparent preference for the authenticity of realism over the abstracted truth of fantasy - the segment on the 1990s is praised as the last gasp of realism, before the digital era arrived to distort our imaginations and by so doing obscure the real world - Zizek posits that no such distinction can or should be made. The real cannot exist without the imagined or the fantasy realm; the two are in constant dialectic with one another, each just as vital, just as important when it comes to elucidating a greater understanding of our culture.

Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Lynch and Chaplin, among others are put under the spotlight of Zizek's keenly analytical gaze. Hitchcock and Lynch in particular seem rife for psychoanalytic deconstruction and, oddly, Maybe as a result of Zizek's deadpan, Eastern European delivery, it never sounds like psychobabble. Anyone who fails to appreciate the creepy, pychosexual depths of Hitchcock's Vertigo would be well served by watching Zizek describe the disturbing process of mortification to which Scotty subjects Madeline/Judy - he has to transform her into a dead woman before he can desire her fully - then come back and tell me Hitchcock was a director of mere 'entertainments'.

Zizek says that we should take fantasy seriously because it is just as real as reality, and that film is vitally important because it is the best tool humanity has yet created to plumb the depths of our subconscious and analyse our dreams. I think Cousins would probably agree and, unsurprisingly, I do too.

Of course, it is impossible to compare the two films directly. Zizek picks specific films, which enable him to elaborate on his Freudian psychoanalytic theories, while Cousins attempts to encompass the entire history of world cinema in just 15 hours. What I liked most about both, however, was their sense of subjectivity. I certainly did not agree with every point that they made, but the sight of an active imagination, thinking deeply about cinema and looking beyond the glossy surface we all see, was manor from heaven for a film bore like me. Anyone who feels like they missed out on, or looks back with fondness on, their film degree should check out - Narrative Art - Keyword description


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