Turner Classic Movies is in the midst of celebrating its 20th anniversary and that alone is worth noting. Remember when TCM was new and they messed around with colorizing classic films, sending shock waves through the preservation movement and movie fans in general? Well, since then they have methodically proved themselves time and again by preserving and programming timeless films and introducing them to new generations, creating original documentaries, showing silent films on Sunday nights and hosting their now annual TCM Film Festival in Hollywood where people come from all over the country to see classics on the big screen. (And no film is old if you haven’t seen it before.) For all TCM has accomplished, they are about to raise the bar.
Starting on Monday, September 2, TCM will present the first of fifteen episodes of Mark Cousins’ epic, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” Based on his bestselling book of the same name, the documentary, which has been garnering raves when shown at film festivals and on European television, examines the history of film from an international perspective. Each chapter will be introduced by Cousins in discussion with Robert Osborne and those will run every Monday, repeated on Tuesday, through December 9. Full disclosure here – I am in an episode or two, but I think it is the most original and insightful look at the evolution of the art form since Kevin Brownlow’s and David Gill’s Hollywood series made in 1980.
Cousins, a native of Northern Ireland, worked on “The Story of Film” for years and traveled the globe (often in camper vans and always with the lightest of loads), to film location shots and interviews. Cousins has a new film out, “A Story of Children and Film,” where he investigates the representation of children in cinema. Well-reviewed at Cannes, “Children and Film” screens this weekend at Telluride, where Cousins will be in attendance.
As great as it is that TCM is screening the documentary, what is truly fabulous is that they are also programming over 100 films featured in “The Story of Film,” many of which have never been seen on American television before. Just look at the listing for September 2 focusing on 1895 – 1918. Along with shorts from the Edison Company and the Lumiere Brothers, there are the D.W. Griffith’s that everyone talks about but far fewer have actually seen such as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Orphans of the Storm” as well as the film heralded as the first feature filmed in Los Angeles, De Mille’s “The Squaw Man.” But the real rare gems that night are “Falling Leaves,” “A House Divided” and “Canned Harmony,” three films from Alice Guy who was not just the first woman director, but one of the very first film directors period and among the first to create narrative films.
Cousins says he is humbled that his documentary has been the catalyst for this innovative programming and “overwhelmed” at the films that are being screened. When asked what he is most excited about sharing with American viewers, he is hard to restrain. “There is ‘the Chinese Greta Garbo,’ Ruan LIngyu, and they are showing her masterpiece ‘The Goddess.’ I have long argued that the most rebellious figure of 50s cinema isn’t James Dean, but the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. At this time of such trouble in Egypt, TCM is showing his breakthrough film, “Cairo Station,” in which he also plays the lead. And it’s brilliant that they are screening one of the greatest French new wave films, Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” about a woman between those two hours in one day, who is told that she has cancer but who, somehow, lives so fully.”
What else? “I am just delighted that they are showing my favorite film of all time, Shohei Imamura’s ‘The Insect Woman’ which, like Varda’s film, is about female fortitude. Imamura’s film has some of the most beautiful widescreen compositions in cinema, but it grittily honest about what people will do to survive. To anyone who thinks that African cinema is primitive, I show them ‘Yeelen’ – a kind of west African ‘Star Wars.’ And for anyone who thinks that the greatest documentaries have been made in Europe or America, I show them ‘The Battle of Chile,’ Guzman’s long, involving, heart breaking film about the Pinochet coup in Chile.
And then there Abuladze’s ‘Repentance’ – a cheeky film about a dead body that mysteriously keeps appearing in a town, a bold metaphor for the ‘unburiability’ of Stalinism. Gorbachev saw it and the story goes that it encouraged him in his plans for glasnost and perestroika. Not that films have to be world changing – for people who love thrillers and crime investigation stories, there is one of the greatest ever – Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Memories of Murder.'”
We could go on and on, but check out the full listing at TCM.com and make space in your dvr because we are about to get a master class in the history of filmmaking. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Turner Classic Movies’ 20th anniversary. Congratulations TCM.