Film-maker Mark Cousins offers another amazing torrent of cinephilia and connoisseurship in his new documentary series about the cinema: a whopping 14 hours of programming now available on streaming platforms, of which I have now seen the first three-hour part.
It is a study of female directors who are overlooked and ignored in the mainstream film histories, and, with Cousins’s characteristic far-reaching and heroic internationalism, he gives us a celebration of cinema from all over the world. He writes, directs and curates the clips and Tilda Swinton narrates (although the melody of Cousins’ own voice can be unmistakably heard in his script for her). Through the conceit of the road movie, the documentary roams around from idea to idea, from clip to clip, from country to country, from neglected auteur to neglected auteur, and to some very famous auteurs as well.
This is in the classic Cousins free-associating style; it might frustrate someone wanting something more conventionally analytical, but his intellectual and creative curiosity about movies is pretty much limitless, and Women Make Film is a terrifically valuable and generous introduction to the subject. No one interested in cinema will want to miss it, and no one could possibly watch it without learning something. I am ashamed that I didn’t know about the film and stage director Wendy Toye, and Cousins makes a strong case that her short Christmas movie, On the Twelfth Day … (1955), a jewel of innocent gaiety, should be a yuletide tradition on British TV. (And why on earth not? Cousins has already single-handedly made Astrid Henning-Jensen’s short Palle Alone in the World a touchstone for film-lovers. He could do the same for this.)
With enormous verve, Cousins lays out masterly moments from great directors, such as Chantal Akerman, taking us through the mysterious urban tracking shot in her film From the East (1993). He introduces us to the great moments from Ukrainian director Kira Muratova and Czech film-maker Věra Chytilová. There are some staggering moments from the work of Poland’s Wanda Jakubowska, who was interned in Auschwitz during the war, then came back just two years later to film The Last Stage (1947) – her Auschwitz film, shot at the concentration camp itself.
Germaine Dulac’s extraordinary surrealist daydream, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), makes an appearance, and with delicacy and skill Cousins shows us what you might not notice at first in the work of Agnès Varda, Ida Lupino, Lucrecia Martel, Angela Schanelec, Mai Zetterling, Clio Barnard, Ava DuVernay and many more. He lays out the strange visual wonder of Soviet wartime drama The Story of the Flaming Years (1961) by Yuliya Solntseva, and, with the forthrightness that some film historians might lack, addresses himself to the brilliance in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938), about the notorious Nazi Olympic Games of 1936. There are wonderful moments from Penelope Spheeris’s Wayne’s World (1992), Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) along with a clever, subtle analysis of a key scene from DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere (2012).
So, are films directed by women different from films directed by men? And are male critiques of women’s films different from female critiques? These are questions that do not appear to interest Cousins (at least, not in this opening segment), even though many of the films are very much about sexism, misogyny and female experience. It is notable that the subject of the female gaze – which for many other critics would be front and central in a study of this sort – does not feature explicitly here. The points he is making could as well apply to films by men, and Cousins does not digress on to the subject of the cinematographer’s gender or the editor’s gender, or the other determinant factors that create the movie that we see on screen. Neither does he discuss the various reasons why some of these film-makers have been erased. Maybe it’s just too obvious.
Seen from one perspective, Cousins could conceivably be criticised as apolitical, but his approach is simply more fundamental and inclusive. Look, he seems to be saying, here is an amazing artist, let’s simply rediscover her work and add to the sum of human happiness. Cousins is doing real, substantial work in film history. His learning and passion are a marvel.
• Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is available on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema from 18 May.
Source: The Guardian