Mark Cousins - publicity shot
Stories & Ideas

Mon 13 Jul 2020

An Interview with Mark Cousins

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Kristy Matheson

Kristy Matheson

Director of Film, ACMI

ACMI's Director of Film Kristy Matheson spoke to writer and director Mark Cousins ahead of Virtual Cinémathèque: The Story of Film

Kristy Matheson: In the introduction to your 2004 book, The Story of Film, you write, "The intention has been to write an accessible, low-jargon movie history for general readers and those are beginning to study film, the sort of book I wanted when I was sixteen.”

Was sixteen-year-old Mark already in love with the cinema or was it just coming into view? How did this medium come to capture so much of your attention; was there a particular moment or film?

Mark Cousins: Thank you for showing The Story of Film, and for ACMI’s great work. Australia is very lucky to have a cinémathèque like yours! I fell in love with cinema when I was 8 ½. I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles in the 70s and early 80s, so didn’t often get to an actual movie theatre. But I saw – and was entranced by – horror movies on bootleg VHS cassettes and film noirs and Gene Kelly musicals on the BBC. I was compelled, hypnotised. I was a shy boy, and a bad reader at school,  but cinema – its magic carpet ride, its intimacy, its astonishing illusion – married with, and fed, my longing for elsewhere.

There were particular moments. Seeing Psycho and realising that it was different from the other horror films I’d seen. It was more controlled, more refined and had more of a shape. And then watching Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil on TV. What a Möbius strip it was! And then we watched The Exorcist on VHS tape.  We were brought up Catholic and so my aunt blessed the video player with holy water. I can hardly think of a better way of exciting a child about the danger and spirituality of the movies!

KM: In your work as a filmmaker (I’m thinking specifically here of your latest film, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie through Cinema) you’re inviting audiences to explore filmic roads less travelled. Aside from sharing things that you love, what motivates your choices as you embark on new film projects?

MC: Outrage at the side-lining of great cinema. The narrowness of fandom. As you say, my primary motive is to share the love, but I do want to try to be an advocate for the great African filmmakers or women filmmakers, for example, whose work deserves, on merit, to be widely seen. Love + rage is a good recipe. More generally, of course, the issue is fairness and equality. A male, white, English speaking, straight, middle-class, able-bodied filmmaker is far more likely to have their work funded and distributed, just because of the facts of their birth. This is shameful, and those who are excluded suffer most. But all of us who care about cinema also lose out. We are denied the very thing which made us fall in love with cinema in the first place: the chance to see other lives, emotions, places. 

KM: When I read or watch your work, I’m overjoyed that your approach is expansive (in the works cited), detailed (in its examination) but the interpretation is entirely democratic. How did you come to "read" films in this particular way and were there other critics, writers that inspired your approach?

MC: Thank you. The democracy, the determination not to exclude people by using jargon, for example, comes from my class background. For a long time, I felt that arts organisations and cultural writing were not for people like me. They seemed to be a closed shop, a club, with its codes and behaviours which would subtly humiliate those who didn’t know the code. The thing about cinema is that – in a way – it has no code. I know that that’s the opposite of what’s taught in film courses, but it’s the everydayness of movie-going, the unsnobby-ness of many cinemas and the fact that we can “get” its language without tuition, which excites me. Of course, I believe that cinema has poetics and form – many of my films are about just that – but the poetics sneaks up on you after you are in the film. Conversely, to read or see Shakespeare’s King Lear you sort of have to deal with the poetics, the language, first.

Other critics?  Yes. Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s and Paul Willemen’s book The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema was formative for me, as was the work of Cari Beauchamp on early Hollywood. I like French writing on film, because it is so extravagant and heated.

KM: In the opening episode of The Story of Film you note that "Much of what we assume about the movies is off the mark, it's time to redraw the map of movie history that we have in our heads – it’s factually inaccurate and racist by omission". The film was released in 2012 yet I feel like this could have been written last week. Are there shining examples of inroads being made into challenging this or is the dial stuck?

MC: I probably wrote those words in 2007, and of course people were saying similar things long before I did. I feel that progress is painfully slow. It took decades to get people to watch the films of Agnès Varda. Most movie lovers have not seen the movies of Senegal’s punky, master director Djibril Diop Mambéty. Lots of film fans I know think that Indian cinema is what they call “Bollywood” or Satyajit Ray. That’s OK if film culture isn’t your job, but the majority of white people I know who work in cinema can say something like “Indian cinema is a bit of a blind spot for me”, which is like saying “European cinema is a bit of a blind spot for me". Here in Europe, I feel that a neo-colonial superiority complex persists. How can the parts of the world that we conquered, and (according to the colonial story) “civilised”, have outstripped us in cinematic invention? Also, cinema continues to have unspoken assumptions about the fact that, since it was invented in the industrial era, in the white world, more traditional cultures, first nations people, etc., have to be taught it. Not true.

KM: It’s been announced that you’re working on an update of the series, The Story Of Film: A New Generation. Is this something you can comment on or is it too early to discuss?

MC: Yes, we’ve just finished editing. It’ll be 2 x 80-minute films looking at cinema of the last decade, again using the theme of innovation as the thread. Making the original The Story of Film was so exhausting that I swore I’d never revisit it, but I’ve forgotten the pain! And people around the world have continued to make great movies.

Thank you again, and I send my best wishes to your audience.

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