Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Discovering Cinema with Mark Cousins

There are a lot of great films that I would not have seen were it not for one man, Mark Cousins. For people who don't know, Mark Cousins is one of the best known film commentators in the UK and in the last few years has become an acclaimed filmmaker. Originally from Derry, I first noticed him speaking at the Edinburgh Film Festival and then on BBC 2's Moviedrome series in the 90s which showed cult films late on Sunday nights. The series had an introduction at the start of each film which was always insightful and sometimes quite entertaining. It was originally presented by British cult filmmaker Alex Cox and then in 1997 Mark Cousins took it over.

Mark Cousins making his feature "The First Movie"

Mark impressed me as he spoke very passionately and lyrically about film and he had this wonderful, almost musical, Derry accent which really stood out on English television. He also introduced his audience to films that many hadn't seen before as they were films that were rarely broadcast, hard to get on DVD, forgotten or even suppressed. Too many to mention but the better known ones I remember from his Moviedrome series were titles such as David Cronenberg's horror Videodrome (1983) (one of my favourite films), Vanishing Point (1971)  and the Roger Corman/Jonathan Demme exploitation film about women prisoners Caged Heat (1974).

James Woods in a moment from "Videodrome" (1983)

After Moviedrome, Mark presented Scene by Scene for the BBC, a series where he conducted a series of interviews with world famous film directors, some of which rarely agree to interviews. These were quite different interviews to the ones we very often see now on magazine shows. They weren't brief, PR friendly, sycophantic fan pieces, these were long, probing, analytical interviews and sometimes quite difficult, even confrontational questions were asked of legendary directors such as Roman Polanksi, David Lynch, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. They were fascinating insights into some great minds and often involved the directors analysing scenes from their own films and looking back on their life's work.

 Martin Scorsese being interviewed by Mark Cousins in 1998

In 2006, I saw Mark Cousins in person present a talk in Queens Film Theatre Belfast on what he thought were some of the best documentaries ever made. I think it was in reaction to a list of great documentaries that was published elsewhere with which he disagreed, though I can't remember the exact source. Again he introduced the audience to many important films they might not have heard of. I remember him talking about the German documentary Berlin:Symphony of a Great City from 1927. This silent film documents one day in Berlin from the quiet early morning stirrings of the city awakening, to the hustle and bustle during the day of the busy streets of a great European capital, at that point untouched by war. However, it was the clips from an obscure Iranian film that really struck a chord with me. It was a black and white documentary called The House is Black which was 22 minutes long and made in 1962. With considerable sympathy, the film recorded the inmates of an Iranian leper colony. It was haunting, unsettling but also poetic and touching. In our modern culture where we are being bombarded with images of Photoshop perfect beauty, this film showed people with distorted faces, frozen, eroded and disfigured by disease. The image I remembered the most was of a woman, her face wilted by leprosy, putting on eye makeup, still wanting to look beautiful despite her affliction. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the documentary in its entirety is up on YouTube and it's viewing is an unforgettable experience.

                                           The Iranian documentary "The House is Black"

And now, Mark has gone and topped everything he has done before because he has shot and directed a landmark television series about the history of world cinema called The Story of Film. This 15 hour documentary series is being shown on the More 4 UK channel and the Daily Telegraph has already called it the "cinematic event of the year". Using the medium of television documentary, Mark again speaks with the same passion and lyricism he first had when on the BBC but the documentaries are shot in a beguiling offbeat style that makes them feel fresh and modern. He starts off with early cinema and then charts the development of cinema in Europe, Hollywood and refreshingly, shows examples of important films from world cinema, particularly Japan, India and China. I have watched the first 5 episodes now and found the series fascinating and with a superb selection of film clips. Some of his examples I had seen before, particularly from early Hollywood, clips from Intolerance, Buster Keaton etc but its in the less well known Hollywood and world cinema examples where the series works particularly well. I look forward to watching the rest of the series, but was intrigued to see he mentioned Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray's film from 1954 starring Joan Crawford. I think he showed this as one of the Moviedrome films on the BBC and showed it in this series as an example of an American film during the McCarthy era that dared to be a subtle allegory for the mob rule and witch-hunts of the anti-communist sentiment of 1950s America. I was delighted to find the entire film up on YouTube and have listed it below so hope you have time to watch it and enjoy.

So many thanks to Mark for his excellent commentaries on film over the years. He has opened up a world of rediscovered cinema to many, including myself. His series, The Story of Film continues on More 4 and can also be watched online at the Channel Four website (www.channel4.com).

- The FilmPunter.

Joan Crawford in "Johnny Guitar". Watch entire film here.

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