Mark Cousins is a man who knows his cinema. His impressive encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema makes his films a must see for any cinephile. I spoke to spoke to Mark for HeyUGuys ahead of the release of A Story of Children and Film, a study of the relationship between children and cinema.
A Story of Children and Film is very similar to The Story of Film in style. What made you decide to choose children as a subject matter?
Well I didn’t intend to choose children to be honest, I was determined not to make another film about cinema, because A Story of Film had taken 6 years and I was tired. But even to relax, I have a little camera and I shoot stuff, and I was shooting stuff with my niece and nephew in my flat, and you know sometimes when you switch off, that’s when you’re brain starts to go, and saw the footage and I thought ‘uh-oh, I can feel a film coming on!’ I found a lot of charm in their silly play. It was very believable, their lacking in self-consciousness, and I think because I was determined not to be making a film, I was very un self-conscious as well, and out of that came something a bit fresh and a bit fun. The thought train started to tremble and I started to ask myself questions like ‘What is the relationship between children and movies?’ Have movies been good to childhood over the years?’ I answered ‘yes’ and then I asked myself ‘How good?’ and I then realised- very ,very good, in fact better than most art forms. It’s the pleasure of thinking and making visual connections which drove this picture.
So obviously a lot of research goes in to something like this, where do you even start?
Well to be honest, I don’t do loads of research! I never have, I’ve always had a head full of movies and I’ve got a very good visual memory, so even when I was writing The Story of Film (the book on which the movie was based), in terms of actual research, there wasn’t all that much, so for A Story of Children and Film, I’d seen most of those films already. So the challenge wasn’t that I had to go out in to the forest and find loads of trees and bring the wood, it was more like ‘what kind of house to I want to build? I did ask around a bit, I had a great friend in Sweden and one in the Czech Republic and a very good friend here in the UK, and I did ask ‘What am I missing here, is there anything really special?’ and they came up with some good suggestions too . So the big thing for me wasn’t an information gathering, it’s more the universal question, how to avoid banality and how to actually find poetics in the material, how to find the spark, the connective tissue between things, so they were the challenges.
Your films tend to be sort of film essays, so is educating people about cinema always your main goal?
No, not at all. I started as a filmmaker in the late ‘80’s and my films were about neo-Nazism, the Golf War etc. so a lot of my work is not about cinema. I’ve completed a film just recently about D.H Lawrence, and I’ve just co-directed a film with Mania Akbari, the great Iranian director. So some of my work is about cinema, and it’s the stuff that I’m best known for certainly. To be honest, hopefully people will learn something about cinema, but at the same time, I feel more like a drug pusher, trying to get people hooked. It’s feels more about intoxication, or passion, rather than education. Education sounds more factual. In the Story of Children and Film, I quite often don’t even mention the name of the director which is usually a big no-no for movie buffs, so it’s not about facts or information, it’s more intense than that. It’s more like ‘Look, I’m a freak in that I love cinema, I come from this planet called cinema, it’s a great planet, come and join me there, come and join the aliens!’
The voice over and commentary in your films are often very literal and accessible to people, as if you want people to understand your point of view, rather than you just giving your opinion.
Yes, if you notice, especially in my films about cinema, I speak in the present tense. It’s always, ‘Look,’ or ‘the character does’, rather than ‘did.’ It’s more complicit in that way, I always feel that I’m sitting in the cinema with you, and we’re looking up at the big screen together, and it’s mutual and I guess what I’m trying to do it move your eye around the screen and notice things that you probably would’ve noticed on your own, but if you haven’t then I help you there. Hopefully, whilst it’s got element of a lecture, it’s slightly more visual and more enchanting than that. I come from a background where nobody went to university, and I don’t want to exclude people in what I do, hopefully my work has a degree of welcome, a degree of embrace. It’s sort of saying ‘this is for you’. Particularly with cinema, you can’t afford to be elitist or snobby, that doesn’t work for cinema. I don’t like when you come across critical writing where you feel as though they may as well put a barbed wire fence saying ‘stay out.’ We need to be more inclusive than that.
Your film takes a moment from ordinary everyday life and treats it almost as it was something that is cinematic in a way. Is that how you generally view the world?
Very much so, that’s exactly what I’m aiming for. I’m extremely influenced by those Iranian directors. I think it was Abbas Kiarostami who said that Iranian cinema is poor on the outside but rich on the inside, and I think that’s what life’s like. Like right now, I’m looking out my window and it’s pissing with rain, and the bus is just going by, and in many ways it’s a miserable day, and yet, there’s magic in that day, and a kind of life force, all sorts of things are happening. I think I sort of believe that every day moments are sort of a miracle. I’m not religious at all but, the great scientist Einstein said that ‘either nothing is a miracle or nearly everything is. So when you point your camera at some ordinary street scene, you see a richness, if you look closely and I thought about that when I filmed my niece and nephew and I think that’s one thing that cinema does very well, it notices that richness, it notices the ordinary miracles of the everyday.
With regard to your films about film, particularly A Story of Film, there are some references to Hollywood. Do you think that Hollywood can teach us things even now?
Absolutely. Story of Film as you know was a history of cinema and it’s been about a quarter of the story, which is why it’s about a quarter of the story in the film, whereas A Story of Children and Film is as much about childhood, and so I felt more free to focus on the more unusual films about childhood so I didn’t focus on any particular part of the world. In terms of Hollywood’s ability to teach us things, there are a number of things. There’s a kind of optimism in American culture in general and you get that in Hollywood, which is very unfashionable, but you get a kind of joy and fun which it’s good to be reminded of over time. It’s like the new Lego movie, it’s just got this absolute wallop of joy in it, and we can learn that from Hollywood. And more specifically, we can learn that Hollywood will back a film like Gravity. It will put a film with big stars with a lot of money, even though it was made in the UK. With Gravity, a lot of people were a bit down on it, but I just thought it was this splendid grief movie, I thought it was a grief movie in the way that Three Colours Blue is a grief movie; a woman spinning in space, the ultimate emptiness and weightless, but it was also technically dazzling and a lot of fun. There’s an extravagance to the Hollywood imagination at its very best and an optimism that is very precious. It’s a kind of tent pole for other movies and it’s the reason a lot of us got in to the movies in the first place. I’d never be snooty about Hollywood, I’m snooty about individual Hollywood films because there’s so much shit, but the idea there is still very valuable in our popular culture.
So of the working directors now, who are the ones that you would say have influenced your passion the most?
I can tell you that I think the best directors in the world are Apichatpong in Thailand, I think Jonathan Glazer in the UK, I’ve just seen Under The Skin for the third time. Roy Andersson in Sweden Kira Muratova in the Ukraine, Alexander Sokurov in Russia and David Lynch. There are so many great directors working today. The ones that I feel closest to in terms of my modest filmmaking are Kirostami in Iran, Roy Andersson in Sweden. Again I’ve just made a film with Mania Akbari who inspired me before I started working with her . I think Mohsen Makhmalbaf inspired me a lot. So it’s filmmakers who are working on smaller budgets who are trying to be innovative, particularly those who blur the lines between fiction and documentary.
So, what is the best film of all time?
[Laughs] The best film of all time is Insect Woman made by Shohei Imamura in Japan in 1963. I love his films any way, he famously said that he wanted him films to be about the lower part of the social structure and the lower part of the human body- class and sex. So he made this film about this really gutsy, determined woman who really has a lot of things thrown at her, and yet she survives and keeps going. As well as stunning to look at, it is about something that is so brilliant which is human fortitude. We are so determined, and I just love it for that reason.