Casablanca a classic? Think again…

Mark Cousins’s new documentary series is set to rewrite cinema history

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The history of cinema: it goes like this, doesn’t it? Thomas Edison, a train pulling into a station, The Birth of a Nation, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Ealing, CinemaScope, Bonnie and Clyde, Jaws, VHS, “I’ll be back”, Toy Story, DVD, 3D – the end. Right? Wrong.

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That’s the conventional, orthodox, some might say reductive, Euro-American history of cinema – and it’s incomplete. In glossing over, say, the documentaries of the 1960s Japanese New Wave, which captured political struggle at a time of economic expansion, or the visually stunning 1970s work of Malian director Souleymane Cissé, offering a window on another world, it draws stick men in place of a richer, more complicated panorama.

More than that, it is “racist by omission”, according to the new gospel of Mark Cousins, the breathlessly enthusiastic author, broadcaster, film-maker, curator and cineaste best known by TV viewers for his forensic BBC2 series Scene by Scene (1996– 2001).

He’s back, with an expansive, globetrotting, highly personal 15-part series for More4, The Story of Film: an Odyssey. Based on his learned 2004 book, it was directed and shot by Cousins, and sets out to redraw the map of movie history. And you might not like it.

The Belfast-born, 45-year-old former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival tells me it is “an epic tale of innovation across 12 decades, six continents and a thousand films”. In this low-attention-span world, those of us who like to be educated as well as entertained by television have to be grateful if BBC4 allows a history of some- thing cultural to fill three parts.

That More4 extended a 12-hour commission to a 15-hour one after Cousins pleaded his case runs counter to prevailing wisdom. And if you don’t like your status quo challenged, it’ll be a bumpy 15 weeks.

We’re only four minutes in to the first episode when Cousins has this to say about matinée favourite Casablanca: “At first thought, you’d guess that the story of film would be about scenes like this one,” offers our languid, off-camera tour guide over a familiar clip of Rick admonishing Sam for playing As Time Goes By.

“Full of yearning, story and stardom… because Casablanca’s a Hollywood classic, Ingrid Bergman’s lit like a movie star, highlights in her eyes… it’s all filmed on a studio set. But films like Casablanca are too romantic to be classical in the true sense.”

Did he just say that Casablanca isn’t a classic (as we understand the term)? Well, no. He said it wasn’t “classical”. Since Mark has graciously allowed me to interrupt his holiday in Amsterdam for this interview, I let him explain.

“I first said it in the book, and it was reviewed by a lot of academics who agreed with me. I think Hollywood cinema in general – which I love, dearly – is romantic. It’s like romantic painting: heroic people staring out at the horizon, having a dream. And there’s nothing inherently classical about that, it’s a brilliantly, beautifully idealised view. But it’s hard to argue that Casablanca is classical.”

But because the film is beloved, doesn’t he know full well that he’s dropping a bombshell?

“No. Because classical doesn’t mean beloved. It means balanced. Casablanca is wonderful, but I think it’s a work of romantic art – of emotion. Look at the lighting, look at the beautiful ending. I didn’t say it was insubstantial – I certainly don’t use romantic in a pejorative sense. My favourite art is romantic. I’m a romantic! To set out to make a 15-hour epic is a romantic act!”

Cousins’s series makes a much clearer case for his arguments than words on a page or discussion, as mention of any film – be it Yasujiro Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue, or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – is simply a cue for a crisp, illustrative clip.

For all his academic high-mindedness, Cousins is as much a populist as, say, Paul Merton, whose work on silent Hollywood he respects utterly, even though the two presenters seem to come at the same subject from opposing directions. He assures us: “People who watch the whole 15 hours won’t hear theoretical terms such as mise en scène.”

A voracious devourer of television, he vividly remembers seeing Citizen Kane and the film noir Force of Evil on BBC2 as a boy (“TV was central to my falling in love with cinema”), and resents being misidentified as a snob (“Avatar is in there, and I love it. And round about the 14th hour we look at Laurel and Hardy”).

Call him pretentious and he’ll tell you he prefers to be labelled “passionate”; whine that you’ve never seen a film by Cissé, and he’ll remind you that films are now just a click away on the internet. “West African movies are beautiful, haunting and dreamlike, you just have to coax people to watch them.”

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Ultimately, Cousins sees his epic journey less as a grand televisual tour, more as “a wee tasting menu”. And there’s plenty to savour in the coming weeks – in a series that demonstrates, as Cousins puts it, an “absolute belief in the power of TV and cinema holding hands together”.