Irish documentarian Mark Cousins is in a jovial mood. He has two films in Cannes and the first one debuted on opening day, “The Story of Film: A New Generation.” It’s a wide-ranging update to his 15-hour film-school staple “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (the new one is a slimmer two hours and 20 minutes). Cannes director Thierry Fremaux felt that Cousins’ new film could provide a welcome transition for moviegoers as the festival returned after two years. Indeed, reviews are raves and sales agent Dogwoof is fielding offers.
“Lockdown happened,” said Cousins on Zoom from his home office in Edinburgh just before the festival. “A lot of us had more thinking time and creative time. So I made three films.” His portrait of radical British producer, “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas,” will play in Cannes Classics. The third is a personal documentary based on his 2018 history of the visual world, “The Story of Looking,” and the impact of his own cataract operation.
“My body is getting worse, but my mind is getting better,” he said. “Filmmakers always want to see anew, human beings too. I can see with this eye super-duper, with such clarity. Just as I’m getting older, my eye is getting younger.”
Cousins has the ability to not only make three movies a year, and to watch hundreds more, but to remember them. “I’ve got a good visual memory,” he said. “I do not have a good verbal memory. I can’t remember lines or anything like that. I remember not only scenes, but moments.”
“A New Generation” spans 2010-2021 and covers everything from billion-dollar franchise movies like “Joker,” “Frozen,” and “Black Panther” to highly specialized art films like “Propaganda,” “Cemetery of Splendor,” and The Ornithologist.”
“I am always asking, ‘What have I not seen? Where are my gaps, the holes in the Gouda cheese?’ For a long time, I’ve not been interested in what is in here,” he said, pointing to his head, “but what’s out there. For decades I have been a passionate internationalist. Cinema is the art of elsewhere. When I go to the pictures I don’t want to see myself, particularly; I want to see another paradigm, another existing way of living my life.”
The 2015 “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” stemmed from the 500-page cinema history that Cousins published in 2013, “The Story of Film” (and updated in 2020). It became an invaluable film-lecture resource and amplified the hidebound film canon with films from Senegal, Mauritania, Egypt, Iran, China, and India. Some once-obscure titles have been restored and released partly as a result of Cousin’s advocacy; queer Arab filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s films are now on Netflix.
“It’s not hating the old canon,” said Cousins. “That was a useful thing. But there’s loads of other voices. If you advocate for filmmakers with enough passion, I do hear from archives around the world: ‘You help to get our work out.’ That’s profoundly satisfying.”
This update “wasn’t totally my idea,” he said. “When I did ‘The Story of Film,’ it was so exhausting I said I would never fucking do that again. My producers said, ‘Maybe it’s time to do an update.’ A lot has happened in our film world. It has blossomed in some ways, in that there more people making more films in parts of the world than ever before. So it’s not like the ’60s, ’40s or ’20s.”
More voices in cinema, Cousins said, makes this period more difficult to define. “It’s a polyphonic multiverse,” he said. “That appealed to me, the opportunity to show some of the voices.”
The lockdown meant Cousins couldn’t film as many people. On social media, he sought videos of users in a dream state and received hundreds of clips. Some of these punctuate the film clips in “A New Generation,” all with Cousins’ sotto voce narration, a whisper in your ear as we watch the same thing, at the same time.
Even while documenting the 21st century, the filmmaker’s process is analog: He starts by writing names of films or scenes on 4×3″ pieces of paper, which he shuffles on his office floor. (Cousins decries the “tyranny” of Word documents that make it “hard to move an idea around.”) Then, in a move that Jack Kerouac would admire, he tapes together a scroll of pages into a more detailed script that segues from comedy sequence to musicals, and so on. “Structure is the hardest thing,” he said. “How do I start? How do I progress?”
He knew he would start with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker prancing down the stairs. “I was filming in New York and wanted to go to the steps in the Bronx and met people from Brazil who had come just for the steps,” he said. “David Lynch says you should float into a story. It’s also like plunging, diving in with ‘Joker.’ Then you want to do something unexpected. Not many people would make the connection from ‘Joker’ to ‘Frozen.’ Both films did impact our lives, for good or bad. They have something in common about people who are desiring, who feel harnessed. So, voila!”
After Cousins watched “Baby Driver,” he tweeted to Edgar Wright a connection to Rouben Mamoulian’s “Love Me Tonight” — as sounds create a natural beat — which Wright said he’d shown to his creative team, saying: “we need this rhythm, the idea of a city having a heartbeat.”
At the Telluride Film Festival in 2013, Cousins saw the man walking into black water in “Under the Skin” and knew “without a doubt, it was totally Cocteau. I had the pleasure of cutting that beautiful scene in ‘Under the Skin’ with Cocteau about diving into the underworld, ‘Orphee.'” Another felicitous pairing was Swedish fantasy “Border,” in which Ali Abbasi presented the Neanderthal customs officer and olfactory genius Tina, and Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” “It’s about outsider artists,” Cousins said. “They quirk their way into your unconscious.”
Cousins started, finished, and edited “A New Generation” during the pandemic. No one told him to interview movie stars. “I was free to make it as long as I want,” he said. “[Producers] John Archer and Clara Glynn and Hopscotch in Glasgow trust me to come up with something. It’s a free space, and rare.”
Narration came last. Cousins realized “I don’t want full sentences,” he said. “Just a word or phrase will be enough. You don’t want to talk or impose too much. I knew that I wanted to use minimal language and also knew it should be present tense, so when we’re looking at a clip, I should say ‘here’ and ‘this’ and ‘now,’ so we’re watching together. Never, never, would I write a script in advance, then find film clips to illustrate it. It needs to feel as if we are watching together, enjoying the images.”
For “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas,” Cousins and the producer drove from London to Cannes, as they’ve done many times before — no drone shots. (“It’s just two people in the car, slightly obsessed about film.”) On the way, they talk about Nic Roeg’s “Bad Timing” and “Eureka,” Nagisa Ôshima’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” among with the punk aesthetic and “great radical English people like Powell and Pressberger, Derek Jarman, Vivian Westwood, and Francis Bacon,” Cousins said. “It’s just two people in the car, slightly obsessed about film.”