As a young ‘un, I wasn’t that into films. I watched them of course, and there were plenty that I enjoyed, but I wouldn’t have called myself a fan. Maybe it had something to do with Flash Gordon being my first big screen experience…
The film that changed it all for me was Tim Burton’s Batman, in 1989. This was the first time that I understood and really appreciated what all those job titles on the credits meant, as the film was masterclass in costume and production design, music scoring and directorial style. All of these behind the scenes roles suddenly meant something, and from then on I devoured behind the scenes documentaries and magazine articles. It goes without saying that special edition LaserDiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays have been a constant companion over the last few decades.
Of course, watching a behind the scenes doc for your favourite film is all well and good, but imagine if cinema itself got a ‘making of’…
First shown on UK channel More4 in 2011, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, written and narrated by Mark Cousins, takes us on a leisurely, often almost dream-like, 15 hour “global road movie” from the birth of cinema – featuring some very first moving images to be shot, including 1888’s Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge – to the (then) bang up to date early 2000s.
Along the way, we’re introduced to the very earliest pioneers of filmmaking technologies and techniques, the birth of the Hollywood studios, the arrival of sound, World Cinema, the impact of war on the kind of stories being told, New Wave, protest films, the spread of multiplexes, and so much more.
Intercutting scenes from the films being discussed with footage filmed around the world in many of the locations they used, and interview clips with dozens of filmmakers, the whole thing is held together by Cousins’ wonderful narration. His gentle tones allow the almost non-stop stream of information and analysis just soak in through osmosis.
You may not agree with everything he says, of course, but unlike some more recent film ‘criticism’ and comment, there no snideness or cynicism in The Story of Film: An Odyssey – it isn’t trying to re-write film history, or tell you why you’re wrong about the opinions you may hold. The overwhelming impression the viewer is left with is that Cousins loves cinema, in all its shapes and forms, and he just wants to show you why.
In the 10 years since its release, I’ve watched this documentary many, many times, and always spot new things. It’s clearly a once-in-a-lifetime project, so it’s understandable that there’s still been nothing like it since for film fans – probably the closest, in terms of passion, though not style, has been BBC 4’s excellent Mark Kermode-fronted genre-hopping series Secrets of Cinema, but that’s a very different animal.
If you haven’t yet seen The Story of Film: An Odyssey, then it’s currently available on DVD, but – finally – it’s also getting a Blu-ray release from Network Releasing, which is available to pre-order now from Amazon UK, Zavvi and directly from Network.