Andrew Collins: the big guns

Getting worked up about Battleship Potemkin, an 86-year-old silent film about a boat

I hope, like me, you are enjoying Mark Cousins’s epic Story of Film: an Odyssey on More4, a modest channel that somehow found the money to send him round the world – admittedly, shooting most of the 15-hour odyssey himself, without a crew – for the benefit of cinephiles everywhere. It’s very much an “authored” show, and all the better for it. (Although Cousins does not appear on camera like Kenneth Clark or Joanna Lumley, the voice is very much his.)

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Cousins believes that the popular history of cinema is “racist by omission” and seeks to redraw the map by shining a spotlight not just on Hollywood, which kind of exists in a permanent spotlight of its own construction, but on other parts of the world, be they Sweden, Russia, Japan or Senegal.

It’s one of the few programmes on television that is actually a journey – unlike, say, Celebrity MasterChef, which is actually only a “journey”.

Anyway, a positive upshot is that Film4 is showing a selection of lesser-seen landmarks from the history of cinema, including films by Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir and Ousmane Sembene. As Cousins says, his series is supposed to act as “a tasting menu”. Here are the full dishes.

Last night, I tucked into Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent classic about the 1905 mutiny on a Russian warship off the coast of Odessa. You can say something is a “classic” all you like, but if it’s in black and white, you’re already on a hiding to nothing with some people. I’m lucky, I grew up watching black and white films on telly, even when it was a colour telly, so I have no prejudice against monochrome. I also watched silent movies as a kid, when they used to show Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films in the school holidays.

That said, there’s nothing worse than watching an 86-year-old Russian film with intertitles if you’re doing so to show off, or as an act of sacrifice. World cinema should not be roughage, it should be a big cake. And Battleship Potemkin, while grave and serious – and state propaganda, let’s not be coy – is hugely enjoyable.

I watch a lot of modern movies. I have to. It’s my job. But this gripped and entertained me as much as anything I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. The imagery, the technical skill, the stirring orchestral music, the sheer mastery of a cast of thousands… and for all the bombast and the shots of machinery banging away to remind Russians that hard work is noble, it’s the tiny human moments that make Battleship Potemkin so powerful, not least the baby in the pram rolling down the steps.

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So let’s be inspired by Mark Cousins’s “tasting menu” and tuck in. Or you go and see Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know How She Does It.