Customer Reviews: The Story of Film: An Odyssey
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on December 29, 2012
May 8, 2102: Since the time I originally posted some comments on this superb documentary essay, "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," I have re-watched all 15 hours of it twice. Several of my friends are cinephiles and college film professors who have been anxious to share this viewing experience with me. This explains my insanity, as it were. Lots of nice dinners at my house and lots of "The Story of Film." Needless to say, everybody I know finds something missing: an important director, an important individual film. Everybody hates something that Cousins loves. (He is is full of hyperbolic praise for the most surprising things.) But we all agree -- this is a stunning achievement. One of the greatest things about it, by the way, is that it makes you want to see hundreds of movies again or for the first time. If I had the energy, I would remove almost all the negative remarks I have made below -- but best to leave it as it stands. I do have to add, however, not one of my friends has any objection to the way Mr. Cousins speaks. I also no longer find that his remarks interfere with the zillion film clips. Just imagine the mountainous task of selecting and obtaining the rights to them!

Earlier review: This huge "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" is an odyssey for sure in the way the author/narrator's ideas stray all over the place intellectually and geographically. But it is coherent unlike Godard's "Histoire(s) du cinéma." It is also highly idiosyncratic and the author's opinions are right in your face. He makes sweeping pronouncements on who and what is great. One is likely to disagree with many of his powerful convictions.

Here at Amazon, I have read a number of unfair negative customer comments. Many people cannot stand Mark Cousins' Northern Irish accent -- a nasty prejudice I find offensive. It is true that his speech is lilting, even lulling, and virtually every statement sounds like a question; but would these same commentators attack speakers with other national or ethnic accents? And how seriously are we to take comments from people who have seen only two or three hours out of a 15-hour project?

This is not a set to buy if you are seeking a wonderful series on the "Golden History of Hollywood." Cousins does not ignore Hollywood altogether, of course (how could he?) -- but the glamorous studio years are shoved way, way off to the side. Except in one episode, Cousins makes references to Hollywood only as needed. When he reaches the '60s and '70s, American film comes more solidly into the picture. In general, Cousins admires almost all of the American based directors that European intellectuals fashionably admit into the Pantheon of greatness (Sirk, Wilder, Ray, Minnelli, Donen, Hitchcock, Ford, Lynch etc.). In this way he is predictably tiresome, and one even suspects an anti-American sentiment lurking beneath the surface of everything. Certainly the many full-color inserted shots of LA seem designed to make it look as tacky as possible.

So -- for a documentary that calls itself "The Story of Film," it is lousy as a study of American film per se. But Cousin's brief comments on everything he treats are of interest. He offers one insight after another, and his explanations of technical developments would be perfect for film students. He is always discussing lighting, atmosphere, mise en scene, camera angles, camera lenses, and everything that has to do with content and meaning of a visual image. His comments on the advent of digital and CGI techniques are especially good. The viewer is likely to have a series of epiphanies.

India, China, Egypt, Japan, South America, Mexico, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, England, Hungary, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, -- these and more give a sweep to his narrative. I learned about many films I have never heard of before in my life and now am anxious to see.

The film intercuts contemporary documentary footage (apparently freshly shot for the documentary itself) of all the international locales discussed, often showing us a brief glimpse of the way something looks now. For instance, in a the section about Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, there are flashes of the locations today. For instance, Chaplin is on a street corner with the blind girl in "City Lights," and for a second or two we see that empty corner as it looks now -- namely dreary!. We learn about the Shaw Studios in China -- and then see those studios today etc. A technique Cousins uses is to intercut examples of the later influence of a an earlier director on the work of a later one. So, when we learn about Chaplin, we see examples of his influence on other comic actors and filmmakers.

One slightly annoying thing is that Cousins often talks his way through many of the film clips. I think it helps to know something about movies to start with -- but this essay (I think that is a better term than "documentary") is bound to broaden the horizons of any serious film lover.
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on December 14, 2012
My copy of THE STORY OF FILM arrived yesterday and I dove into it immediately.

I have watched the first 3 episodes and so far am really glad I sprang for this set, and I can imagine re-watching it often. Already I am caught up in Cousins' approach, and he continually offers insights I've not encountered elsewhere.

I agree somewhat with the previous reviewer; Cousins perhaps was not the best choice to narrate his own project. To my American ears, his Ulster accent makes each? sentence? sounds as if? it is a question? It is becoming disconcerting. I have been watching Kevin Brownlow's & David Gill's HOLLYWOOD (Thames TV) series, and James Mason's narration is so wonderful in that, but HOLLYWOOD is a less personal approach than THE STORY OF FILM is, I think, intended to be.

The price is reasonable for this immense documentary, considering the number of film clips involved*. (*Christian Marclay's masterpiece THE CLOCK is comprises a virtually uncountable number of film clips, and I don't expect to see a home video release of that art object in MY lifetime.)
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on November 24, 2013
There are those who don't seem be able to stand this series, complaining of the narrator's accent and reading, and also the way it challenges some established (especially Hollywood/US- centric) interpretations of film history. On the first point, Cousins speaks the way many people from Belfast speak and he can hardly be blamed for being Irish. On the second point, it's obvious going in that this work is a personal interpretation of film history that's intended to be thought provoking and challenging. It is not intended or presented as a standard historical overview, rather it's "an odyssey" just as the title declares. If you're looking for a traditional historical overview that leaves your pre-existing prejudices in tact, you might steer clear.

The attempted scope of the work is impressive. Hundreds of films, many of which will be unknown to an American audience are mentioned and many quoted (clearance must have been a nightmare). There are some brilliant observations and connections made. Sometimes Cousins attempts stretches he can't quite make, and some of the interpretation gets a little precious, but even in this the work is instructive. The interlude footage contains many visuals puns on what's being said if one watches carefully, and it's fun to figure these out. The interviews with writers and directors are shot in an anti-cinema style that those wanting something that looks like Discovery Channel talking heads may find off-putting. Again there's more method there than may at first meet the eye.
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on June 28, 2013
As a filmmaker and student of film my interest in this collection was guided by customer reviews here. In fact, I stumbled into it while looking for an old film-history book I can't find anywhere, "Behind the Silver Screen," which was my first film textbook (together with "Film as Art") in the '60s. I was very impressed with Mr. Cousins' ability to hop from one cultural context to another and bring the origins of one film to another into its impact on subsequent generations of film-making. The survey is amazingly comprehensive.

I was, however, turned off from the beginning when Mr. Cousins started his editorializing, trying to pass his opinion as historical fact on the value of one type of film-making over another. To assert that Japanese film is classic while Hollywood film is not at the beginning of the series made me weary of what was to come: not exactly a balanced account.

Some inaccuracies made me cringe. For example, when Mr. Cousins in Disc 2 refers to "Dona Barbara" (1943), directed by Fernando de Fuentes, he states that it was a representation of the Mexican woman as victimized. The film is actually set in Venezuela, in spite of its Mexican production, cast and crew. It was based on a novel by Venezuelan writer Rómulo Gallegos, the finest example of the persistent literary theme of civilization v. barbarism in South America, not a glorification or exultation of Mexican women. These details make his comments less trustworthy as the series progresses: it's always the danger of evaluating cultural aspects of art when such values are alien to the evaluator.

While I would recommend the collection to anyone interested in a visual encyclopedia on film, I warn the viewer of Mr. Cousins insufferably dull delivery as he narrates. It is uninspired and never changes inflection, which is the perfect combination for inducing sleep. I fell asleep so many times I had to keep going back to see what I had missed while I dozed off.
When I first wrote a review for this product I had not yet watched the last two discs in the set. Nothing in these two invalidates my previous comments. However, they do add to my uneasiness about the content and format of the set.
I was looking for a survey of film history. What I found is a very subjective and hperbolic defense of little known film productions. Good film does not need someone to state that it is "the best ever in film history" or "the most beautiful," "the most <everything>," as it stands on its own merits. Picking Gus van Sant as representative of American film trends in the '90s unsettled me, particularly because it was not van Sant's earlier work, such as "Mala noche," that Mr. Cousins focuses on, but rather "My Own Private Idaho" and the orgasm scene.
Mr. Cousins' biases are so obtrusive that they cloud the history of film as it developed in France, Hollywood or anywhere else. Covering the innovativeness of African film, Mr. Cousins presents "Hyenas" (1992), directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty. His interpretation is that Mambety presented modern consumerism and capitalism in a condemnatory way. While that may be true, the story was based on "The Visit," by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose focus was greed and vengeance. "The Visit" was filmed in 1964 with Ingrid Bergman and Ahtony Quinn. Mr. Cousins missed the opportunity to provide his viewers a greater service by contrasting the original ending of the story with Mambety's version instead of presenting the latter's film as representative of African film-making.
His take on an uninterrupted crane sequence in "Battle in Heaven," a commercial flop but an outstanding metaphor of contemporary Mexican society, is that it is meant to represent Mexican social disparity. He should have included Carlos Reygadas in one of his interviews and had Carlos explain this instead of asserting what the sequence is meant to convey: isolation, disconnectedness other than sexual among human beings, our incapacity to alter the world outside of us. It is a film about existential despair where social inequality is an aspect, not the focus. I remit the reader to my earlier comment on Mr. Cousins' lack of cultural understanding of the films he presents and his nonetheless free-handed comments about sociocultural issues.
Some of Mr. Cousin's valuation of film technique either requires a superhuman sensibility to detect or a great ability for exaggeration and nonsense; after watching the entire series I was convinced the latter was more likely. Mr. Cousins strove to present something out of the ordinary and ended up presenting the weird as exceptionally representative. The series should have been more aptly titled "A Story of Marginal Film with Connections to Mainstream Movies." His entire monologue, relentlessly uninspired, is occasionally broken up by interviews with off-Hollywood filmmakers. That is very interesting indeed, but none of the interviews actually add anything to our understanding of film in general. Van Sant's interview is particularly silly.
The DVDs have technical problems. In some spots the video and the audio go completely dark; in others it breaks up as if it had been copied from VHS tape. The menus do not work right. Other than the "Play All" button none other seems to work. The left arrow takes the viewer to unexpected places, and although there is a "Bonus" section indicated on all discs, nothing really takes you there.
I will never watch this again.
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on December 30, 2013
Bought this because I saw it on TCM and liked it. Assumed the DVD would have closed captioning because it was CCed on TCM. But the DVD is not captioned. Huge dissapointment. I am hearing impared and no captioning makes it useless to me.
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on March 16, 2013
This is an EXCELLENT foray into the beautiful world of global film. But the comments about Cousins' accent are merely a reflection of an uneducated American public. Who says that any accent is "correct." Such is not feasible.

However, I get it, y'all (that was intentional). I was initially put off, like many people, by his accent and had to think about my response. Then I realized that other English-speaking dialects create a different sense of what the narrator is saying and Cousins is no accepttion. I thought he was hyberbolicaly arrogant until I listened enough to realize that his brogue is merely his brogue, just like any region of America or any English speaking country. And, most importantly, I realized that the series is decidely a personal, passionate love letter to cinema, with no attempt to represent an historical compendium. Resistance to his voice actually illuminates the profundity of his point of view: the world is made up of different voices, experiences, and realities, with far more voices located outside of the contiguous USA. I am disheartened at our reluctance to give "different" people, narrators a chance. It is very human, and at the same time, very perplexing.

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on June 16, 2013
Those who are expecting a traditional,step by step history of movies are missing the point. Those who are disappointed that they are not getting a slick, actorish narrator are missing the point. They can satisfy those needs elsewhere. What Mark Cousins gives us is a heartfelt, layered exploration of what makes film such a wide-ranging, humane art form. Watching this, I felt that I was sitting with a knowledgeable and very sincere movie fan who can see the "wheels within the wheels" and wants to share his enthusiasm with us, as we're sitting in a screening room and listening to his commentary. As an added bonus, the clips look great! Just relax and join him!
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on July 20, 2013
A great introduction to world cinema, I would definitely recommend this film to opening the minds of people who didn't know that there could be film outside of the unfortunately narrow limitations of the kinds of movies Hollywood makes.

That being said, there are some issues with the documentary, one of omission (which is understandable given the breath of film Mr. Cousins wants to cover) and the other of not dealing with some important definitions of film which are threatening to be changed.

The documentary is not as much "The Story of Film" as much as it is "The Story of Film Directors." A film is noted as important in the documentary when it is one that pushed the boundaries of film to a new level. Mr. Cousins generally engages in the oversimplification of attributing the final result of the film to the director and not nearly as much attention is paid to the cinematographers, actors, designers, or music composers.
With the exception of Walt Disney's "Snow White," animation is almost entirely absent from the Story. More importantly, art and avant garde film is nearly completely left out, whose advances and radical ideas trickled their way down to mainstream directors and are the source of many iconic and groundbreaking images in mainstream film. Even important inventions, like the Steadicam, which for the first time in film history allowed cameramen to remove their cameras from the dolly track and gave them freedom to compose new and stunning images, like the iconic stair sequence in "Rocky" or the camera that tracks Danny in "The Shining," were not mentioned.

As "The Story of Film" enters the 1990s, little or no screen time is given to the transitions into digital, and how some filmmakers see that as a destructive trend that is attacking the core definitions of what film is. Some examples:
*While Mr. Cousins defines Film as a medium that records successive images of light from the external world, he never addresses whether Computer Generated Imagery should be considered in the same category of Film or as Animation. In many major movies for the past two decades, entire sequences are created where there is no actual camera. Should movies with what are essentially long animated sequences be put on the same level as movies that capture light from the outside world?
*The use of Film vs Digital recording methods: there are some filmmakers who believe that film has inherently better qualities that are presently available using digital video cameras (image and color fidelity on digital still cannot match film), and that it is not an appropriate time for the industry to be transferring over to digital capture.
*Similarly, there is a debate whether there is an important difference over screening a movie using an actual film reel passing through light versus digital projection.

The documentary is worth your time, but you should try and keep in mind that there are definitely some major elements being left out. Hopefully Mr. Cousins will make additional features that go into these subjects in greater depth.
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on April 14, 2015
Somewhat pedantic, condescending and politically correct look at the evolution of the movies often does more to annoy than instruct. Recommended mainly for those who are unfamiliar with the techniques and history of cinema (provided one can take Mr. Cousins' neo-Marxist worldview with a grain of salt), and are game for sitting through a subjective, 15-part seminar on those topics. 2 1/2 stars.
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on July 8, 2015
The narration is horribly annoying. It's impossible to watch this film for more than 10 minutes at a time. Narration's Track volume is much to low compare to the sounds coming from the movie and is constantly fading in and out. The person who did the audio for this narration didn't know what he/she was doing. Also narrator's voice is so flat, anemic, irritating and void of any expression.
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