Having seen and loved Mark Cousins’ almost unreviewably subjective “What Is This Film Called Love” on its international premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week (read about that experience here), we got to sit down with Cousins in person pretty much immediately afterwards. And it felt rather like walking straight back into the film we had just left: ‘What Is This Film’ is so unapologetically personal that it’s difficult to escape the feeling that, like him or not, you kind of know Cousins by the end of it.
The man we met entirely bore our own impressions out. As erudite and passionate about films and filmmaking as you would expect from the creator of the mammoth, already canonical 15-hour-long “The Story of Film,” there is also a restless energy about him, and a friendly informality that entirely gels with the persona he projects onscreen, and that made it an easy pleasure to chat to him about the music, the inspirations and the challenges behind making his "ad-lib" of a film.
How do you think a film as personal and individual as this one will be received?
“Well, I just felt that if I was completely honest about my own emotions then people might see something [in it]. Some will say it’s just an ego trip or something…” says Cousins, later adding, “I’m sure I’m going to get horrible reviews! I can already see the one star ratings.”
However the few times it has screened to date have also brought their fair share of positivity, our own included: “film bloggers [who’ve seen it] so many of them have reviewed it as a personal letter to me, and talked about their own lives. [Er, guilty!] The fact is, when you make something like this, you don’t know what you’ve made, but if it makes people reflect on their own emotions, then that’s fantastic…I know I’ve made something that is sincere and captures those three days in my life, three days I can never get back. I was on my own and just as alive as I've ever been.”
It’s the kind of personal essay that could easily have remained a putative pet project, or just a scribble in a notebook. At what point did it really become a film?
“I’m always making things, and I did it to fill my three days. But no, I didn’t know what it would turn into. I knew I was being stimulated by thinking about Eisenstein’s ideas, so I went home and showed my editor: ‘I’ve just shot this thing, there might be something here and I know it’s from the heart.’ So we started to cut it (we cut very fast)…and we got it to 75 minutes and looked at it and thought ‘oh! There could be something here.’ And then we sent it to PJ Harvey.”
Cousins had included in the rough cut the PJ Harvey track “To Bring You My Love,” which is also in the final film, and sent the early edit to her to see if she would allow its use. Her response, he suggests, was instrumental in building his confidence about the project. “She sent me the most beautiful letter back saying she’d been inspired by the film and ‘Here are two new tracks as well, would you consider using them?’ And we used them, of course. So the first piece of music in the film is a PJ Harvey song that had never been used in public before, and it’s about Mexico — by pure chance.”
He is well aware of the alchemical effect her tracks have on the film. “I said to [her afterwards] ‘Your music lifts this film off the ground,’ which I really think it does. Also what she does is she genders the film in a very interesting way. Surprisingly I would have made a more feminine film if it hadn’t been for PJ Harvey. Her music is hard and her voice is [growls huskily] so she provides this quite masculine element to what’s otherwise quite a gentle thing. I love that.”
Aside from Harvey, how did you approach the soundtrack?
“We had used some of the music of Simon Fisher-Turner’s as guide music — he’s done music for silent films and Derek Jarman films — and we sent it to him and he [also] wrote a lovely email back, and so I started become encouraged, particularly by the music. Music people understand, you can sit in your bedroom and write a song or you can make music in your computer about you, your personal life, your sense of joy. But we’re slightly more embarrassed about making really personal films. Music people get it — so maybe music people will get my film down.”
Later we return to the subject in the context of the love theme from “Vertigo” by Bernard Hermann which Cousins also uses, in defiance of poor beleaguered Kim Novak. “We had cut that sequence and because that first shot is of travelling, it’s very like ‘Vertigo,’ so we tried the Hermann music and I loved it. I’m not afraid of a little cliché, and I think it’s gorgeous, so we put it in and… I sent it to PJ Harvey and Simon Fisher-Turner and Tom Luddy who runs the Telluride Film Festival and a bunch of others and said, ‘Look, I know I have to pull out the Bernard Hermann music because it’s too cliched’ and they all said ‘Don’t.’ So I left it in. I loved it and I loved combining it with the poetry from Norman MacCaig — the simplest of techniques.”
Speaking of MacCaig, you allude to and sometimes quote from a lot of literary influences.
“I was reading a lot of Virginia Woolf — she is brilliant at the personal, my favourite writer, the way she writes about her own thought processes, and going walking and daydreaming. I have to say I think Virginia Woolf was the first great documentary filmmaker even though she never made a documentary film.” At other times Cousins uses lines from Frank O’Hara and Joan Didion, while also frequently referencing, of course, Eisenstein's theories and ideas. But it’s not just the poetry and prose he directly refers to that exert their pull over the film’s direction. “I’m very very interested in Asian philosophy, that sense of the ‘ongoing moment’ — I love that phrase — and I love a phrase from Roland Barthes that ‘every photograph is light from a distant star.’ So there’s always a sense of having travelled, of moving.”
As much of an "ongoing moment" as it describes, there is a melancholy, nostalgic aspect to the film too.
“Well, every mile forward is a mile lost…I realised as I was cutting it that I was making something quite sad about leaving youth behind. I’m 47 now, so youth is gone — it was gone years ago. But there’s a sadness about that — a sweet sorrow. I wanted to make a film about the sadness of time passing.” Later he relates this back to a formative film in any cinephile’s canon: “When I first saw ‘Citizen Kane’ I was a teenager and it just looked to me about technology and the brilliance of film. Now when I look at ‘Citizen Kane’ it’s an elegy for lost youth; it’s about that single moment in time that he’s trying to recover.”
With any personal essay, the issue of authenticity arises. How much of what we see is narrative overlaid after the fact, and how much of it reflects the experience you had at the time?
“Everything.“ replies Cousins immediately. “I was taking notes all the time, you see my notebook occasionally [in shot] and when I’m filming I’m often writing the commentary while the shot is running, so very little changes in commentary at all. Everything is true, even the feel of the dream sequences, like that song I heard 'Avenues and Alleyways,' so all of that is exactly what happened. The only time when the film starts to lie is when Eisenstein writes back to me, but up until that moment everything is pretty much what happened…and was exactly what I thought."
As something of an expert on Classical cinema now, how do you view technological developments like digital and 3D?
“First of all I would say that the art of cinema itself is at a very high level right now…I think 3D and digital haven’t changed cinema fundamentally, it is always going to be about the joys and sorrows of being alive. Right from first moment cinema had an impulse toward reality, and toward dreams, and it still does — you still see very realistic work and very dreamlike work. So I would argue there hasn’t been a fundamental change in cinema, what has changed is how we watch it.”
A positive answer, but are there trends in current filmmaking you dislike?
“I hate the last acts in American cinema. Nearly always I feel as if [I wish] I’d walked out. The first 40 minutes of ‘Prometheus’ I thought was spectacular then it just piled on the plots too much. As Ozu said, as Cesare Zavattini, the great neo-realist said, ‘plot can become a bully,’ and strongarm the film in a certain direction. I like a bit of plot but it needs to be balanced within the narrative — action and stasis is a balance that I love in cinema. So I wouldn’t say there’s a filmmaker that I hate, but there’s a tendency to overplot which I hate.”
And finally, you collaborate with Tilda Swinton on various art- and movie-related projects. What can we expect next?
"Each thing Tilda and I do is a one-off. We did the Ballerina Ballroom, we did that whole [mobile cinema driving through the Scottish Highlands], then we went to China and created a magical forest in the China Film Archive, and then we did a flash mob Laurel and Hardy dance. Each one is its own thing, each one is quite childlike in its approach, like a little experiment…We’ve been talking to some activists in Libya who want to bring some old cinemas back to life and have asked if we could help out, I’d love to maybe go and do that, and try and help local filmmakers and activists to create a filmgoing scene.”
Thanks for your time. And for your film, come to mention it.
“I didn’t think I’d be talking about it — this is really the first time I’ve talked about ‘What Is This Film Called Love,’ so thank you. It’s really helpful for me to talk about the film.”