Director and critic Mark Cousins on conveying the experience of traveling in his film What Is This Film Called… Love? and about the potentials and limitations of film festivals.
For those of us that have watched and listened to all fifteen hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, it is, ultimately, that voice—its distinctive timbre and rhythm, the precisely articulated Irish brogue, the awesome sound of the passion and wonder—that stays with you long after viewing. Cousins has turned his obsession with all things cinema into a small cottage industry, spending his time writing about, teaching, curating, exhibiting and imbibing movies, spending the last couple of decades sharing his love for the “greatest” of art forms.
Currently, Cousins is also a busy moviemaker with two works traveling the circuit. First there’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a fifteen-hour series that aired on Britain’s Channel 4, and which some festivals are now screening as a special viewing event. The series provides a guided international tour of the greatest movies ever made, telling the story of cinema through the history of its innovations throughout the centuries. His latest piece What Is This Film Called Love? is as intimate and personal an essay film as The Story of Film is epic. Filmed in Mexico over three days, the documentary feature begins as a film about Sergei Eisenstein but becomes a humorous and touching ode to the nature of happiness. With the Soviet filmmaker acting as Cousin’s Virgil, the film explores the complexities of memory, landscape and memory as landscape, all traversed on foot.
I caught Cousins—speaking from his book-lined study in Edinburgh, Scotland via Skype,—during a brief break from his increasingly frequent travels. Oddly, shortly before our interview, I found out that Cousins will be visiting my current hometown of Tirana, Albania in about a month’s time to jury at a film festival here and to present both his new works, including a screening of all fifteen hours of The Story of Film, to be shown under the stars over the course of three nights at one of the city’s most well-known landmarks, Enver Hoxha’s abandoned pyramid. He greeted me as only a fellow traveler would:
Mark Cousins Where are you?
Pamela Cohn I’m in Tirana, Albania and I hear you’re coming here in a bit.
MC Yeah, I just booked my flight today, actually. I’m so looking forward to it.
PC It’s an interesting place. It’s very mysterious to most people. Many don’t even know where the country is. I think you’ll be quite captivated. I am, definitely. So how have your travels been? How was Telluride?
MC Colorado was amazing. That was my third year in a row having a film at Telluride so it was really exciting. This year, I had my little film, What is this film called Love?, and I was very worried about it. But it went down well.
PC Why were you worried?
MC I always think, “Oh, noooo. I like making the thing, not showing it!” (laughter) And especially this new film because it’s so personal and it was made with very little money, so I was worried. But it was greeted with cheers and all that. After that, I went to Los Angeles, then onto Amsterdam, came back from Amsterdam last night.
PC When I’m traveling for a long period of time and going to many different destinations, the sense of disorientation can become quite overwhelming. Your film is very much about this perpetual disorientation. That’s not to say that you can’t experience intense disorientation right in your own living room. But there’s a particular state that’s very specific, which is caused from moving yourself physically from one spot to another.
MC For those of us who travel, we do acknowledge this mixed blessing of it. Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a lot of his work where I am right now in Scotland, had this lovely phrase, “a thousand colored pictures to the eye.” When you travel, you have a thousand colored pictures in your inner eye—cities, different images from around the world and memories. But, of course, with all that comes a kind of solitude and a sort of sadness, as well. Not being at home where you can just pull a book off your shelf and relax.
For this new movie, I didn’t have any plan to make a film. Once I started filming, I thought I would try to capture that feeling, what I just described. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but sometimes I wake up in a hotel room at two in the morning and think, “Fuck! Where am I in the world?!” There’s a kind of slight terror to that. Traveling does capture that kind of ambivalence about human nature. You want to be grounded and you want to be free. You want to be yourself and you want to be someone else. You want to have a sense of your individuality and you want to escape that. It’s what Virginia Woolf and Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, and many others, write about brilliantly, all this weird stuff. I just nicked some of their ideas. (laughter)
PC It’s expansive though, another voice adding another layer to the conversation. The joy of books for me is the incredible buffet of ideas and inspiration they offer and they’re always there to dip into when we feel strange and alone.
I was speaking to another filmmaker about the way in which we all take in massive amounts of media these days and we were talking about the importance, now more than ever, of the curator, the curatorial presence, the guide. I think all of the work that you do in the name of cinema directly speaks to this idea.
MC Our heads are, indeed, full of images and we’re bewildered. You used the metaphor of a buffet and you’re exactly right. I think a lot about food and appetite. When I was growing up in the ’70s, I heard about a film. It took me a long time to see it. And I got hungrier and hungrier and hungrier and the desire for cinema became more and more intense, an incredible longing. But now, of course, you don’t have to long for cinema too much because it’s mostly a click away. The nature of cinephilia is different than it was in my day. I had the experience of complete abstinence. I was like a monk who suddenly got to have sex. There’s also the fact that the sign-posters, the curators—and their rules as well—have become more crucial. It’s like you’re standing in Grand Central Station and people are swarming about you in every direction and someone comes up and says, “Look, try that way. There’s something great in that direction.” That’s my job and I think that’s what The Story of Film is about. I’m trying to say to people, I know there’s everything and you’ve seen everything on YouTube, etc. But did you know that there was African sci-fi, for instance? That’s the crucial thing I think.
It’s very, very satisfying when I go somewhere, when I’m buying a newspaper or something, and somebody will stop me in the street to say, “Remember that thing you recommended on TV in 1992? Well, I watched it.” (laughter) How satisfying is that?
PC I see this stubbornly contemplative streak in your filmmaking. You will just stop and ponder the thoughts of, say, a fly hanging out on a highway overpass. That control of a viewer’s attention, or your own for that matter, speaks to this discipline of noticing, documenting, thinking, commenting. It gives you—and by extension, the viewer—a chance to breathe and take it in.
MC I think there’s something in the medium of cinema that is so satisfying for human beings. It’s in the ambiguity of it—we never get to the bottom of it. It’s something to do with the fact that cinema has got a reality impulse, but also a dream impulse, I think. For me, it addresses my curiosity and makes me feel as if I’m a citizen of the world. It makes me get out of myself, makes me think of that lovely phrase “the rapture of self-loss.” My first love is painting. Now, this is terrible to say, but painting lacks a soundtrack. And novels are so visually boring. (laughter) When you go to a gig, a concert, it’s so visually boring. So many things seem lacking compared to the kinesthetic richness of cinema, the poetics and vitality of cinema, the way it can make you feel like a child again. It’s the endless fascination of the properties of the medium. I’ve quoted this many times, but Lauren Bacall once said to me, “You know, it’s the industry that’s shit; it’s the medium that’s great.” She really got it. The medium really is that great. For me, I’m only beginning to learn about its greatness. I was reading the latest issue of “Sight & Sound” today and there were so many articles about Chris Marker. I was so excited and was scribbling notes everywhere about this amazing medium of cinema.
PC And the voices that speak about it so eloquently. But it seems like a lot of film criticism—at least the kind an average filmgoer might read—is so derivative, so second-hand. In your writings, you always focus, not only on the importance of the content of the film but what it does to you emotionally, viscerally, how it makes you feel. What is this film called Love?, might be a 90-minute visual journey of film criticism in the guise of personal essay.
MC The first thing that comes to mind is a time when I was talking to Martin Scorsese. I was interviewing him for something and we were talking about emotions, making comparisons between Protestant culture and Catholic culture, or something like that. But we were interested in why Catholics are rather good at cinema. I told him that when I was growing up, on one of her walls, my granny had a picture of Jesus Christ. This picture of Jesus Christ had him holding his exposed heart in his hand. I remember saying to Scorsese that, inevitably, growing up in Ireland, there’s a Catholic feel of, “That’s what we did.” And that’s what I still do. Certainly compared to Scotland where I live or the UK, which is more Protestant, I feel like I’m so much more unguarded with my emotions.
I’ve started writing for “Sight & Sound” a bit in the last few years and there are the critics—whom I admire very much—who filter everything through their thoughts. And I don’t do that. I come out with a feeling and then use my thoughts to talk about what the feeling was. But there isn’t a filter there. In What is this film called Love?, there certainly wasn’t a filter. I was feeling sad, happy, rapturous, despairing. I wanted to find a way of showing that and then, of course, to think about it all. Quotations from writers like Frank O’Hara and Virginia Woolf—my favorite writer—are in the film because they’re helping me work out what moves me so much. Nick James, the editor of the magazine, said to me that he thought the film was me saying goodbye to youth. I think he was exactly right. You realize in life that you’re on a moving walkway and you’re saying goodbye to everything; everything is a leaving game. That’s what I tried to capture in that little film.
As I said, there was no intention to make a film. But then there were these three days. The whole film was unplanned, shot in less than three days in the place I happened to find myself at the time, and then I came back home. In this room where I’m sitting now—see that table there? That’s where I showed my friend Timo [Langer] the footage and asked him if he thought there was a film in it. Plus there was other rubbish I’d been shooting around the world on various adventures. He said, let’s try. If I had consciously tried to embark on a film about me, I would have been too embarrassed or inhibited. So it was easy in the sense that I felt I was keeping a diary, trying to capture these fleeting feelings, the sweet sorrow of being on your own. Only when we were here did it ever occur to me that it could actually become something people would watch.
PC A free zone where you got out of your own way.
MC It’s the way Virginia Woolf worked or the way Frida Kahlo painted her paintings, entirely for themselves, just to express something private. I think all filmmakers, especially male filmmakers, should go through a period of a year watching only films made by women. Forough Farrokhzad, Claire Denis, Samira Makhmalbaf, Kira Muratova, Safi Faye, I could go on and on and on. If you are going to deal with yourself in cinema, if you’re going to deal with the idea of the personal, then you want to see filmmakers who are actually articulate about this. Too many film students know every frame of Tarkovsky, but not one thing about the work of [Larisa] Shepitko, not one frame of Farrokhzad. I think that’s crucial. Or they need to read Virginia Woolf. It’s crucial if you want to deal with yourself in your work even if it’s unveiled as something else. You really need a language for that, an understanding of what self-hood is and what emotional expression is. The idea of something that’s self-conscious doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just that so much work, especially by first-time directors, is inarticulate and self-conscious and so it ends up being something trite. Real life is interesting. Some people believe you shouldn’t make films about yourself; you have to find someone “interesting.” I think every life is interesting. But you need to get a degree of honesty, awareness, self-doubt, complexity. Not everyone gets there.
PC I think it has to do with the stage of life one is in because it seems like the more we live, the less sure-footed we are. The questions increase, the doubts increase—this is the major shock, I think, of hitting middle age. (laughter) I know nothing! Nothing is ever going to make sense, is it!? We all are taught we will be wise when we’re old—who started this rumor?
I want to go back to the filmmaking voice and the critical voice because, again, what I think is so distinctive about your personal film is how these two voices in you conjoin. Criticism is just as much an art form as making movies as far as I’m concerned. Artists need these voices that reflect back on their work in a meaningful way, or else how do you really know what you’re contributing?
MC I think about this a lot, too. It’s true that filmmakers need film critics to interpret them, to contextualize them, to support them, excite them, challenge them, be their interlocutors, etc. The film criticism world is as important a culture as the filmmaking world. The first main criticism of what I see in film writing at the moment is a lack of context. A lot of people don’t know what they don’t know. I read an interview you did with Khavn de la Cruz. And I know a lot of film critics who know nothing about Filipino cinema. They don’t know who Khavn is; they don’t know who Lav Diaz is. I think it’s really important to know this stuff. Criticism is a knowledge economy and they need to know that stuff to be a major critic. But I can say that I’m seeing a lot of different modes of writing, styles of writing, critical voices, degrees of subjectivity and objectivity and emotions. I feel I’m reading a range of things there that are going on. But my concern is as I mentioned previously. These modes and styles of writing can only exist if critics see a lot and I don’t think they’re seeing enough.
PC You can throw a rock in any direction and hit a film festival these days. They are, literally, everywhere—on mountaintops, at the bottom of the ocean, in forests. It’s staggering. There are ever-growing opportunities for anyone to see new and innovative work. The thing is that a lot of the top-tier festivals, the ones in which every filmmaker vies to get into, seemingly have the same exact program, the same handful of films get programmed.
MC The last I heard there was something like 10,000 festivals in the world. The main problem for me is that a lot of them are not trying to be distinctive enough. It’s like having this conformist rock music everywhere. I’ve just done a Film Festival Manifesto for the New York Film Festival and what I’m arguing is that the crucial blind spot festivals around the world have is form. What’s the form of the festival? Not its content, not what films does it show or which guests does it have? But what form is it? What’s its style and shape? Many festivals haven’t even considered those questions. I argue strongly that festivals should be authored like a film is authored.
There are these film festivals I do with Tilda Swinton; we’ve done five or six of them so far, some in Scotland, some abroad in places, such as China. We’ve done various things. In China, our festival took place in a forest and we made it snow in the forest and showed films through the snow. The common denominator between all the work that I do in these festivals is this obsession with form, breaking the idea of what is conventionally thought of as a film festival—a bunch of films, an audience, a competition, a late night section, début films, a retrospective, etc.
What Tilda and I both like doing is taking that idea of a conventional film festival and mashing it up to make children’s parties and rock concerts, gallery art, religious ritual and see what we come up with. Each time we’ve done these, they’ve been remarkably unusual. It’s something I’m quite passionate about and want to write more about.
PC Can you describe a moment during one of these events where you achieved that goal?
MC Yes. The first collaboration that Tilda and I did was called the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams. Tilda rented a very old, rather smelly ballroom and said, do you think we can do a film festival in here? I said, most definitely and we did it and she was brilliant. It was all hand-made, made with no money. The night before the festival started, I was looking at the big movie screen. It wasn’t actually a screen; it was a big white piece of fabric we had stretched across a canvas. I remembered being in Moscow in 1989 and I went to the Russian Orthodox churches. I remembered they covered the holiest of holies until the last minute, as if the image was so sacred that it shouldn’t be looked upon until the last minute. And I said to Tilda, I think we should cover the screen and at the last minute when the film’s about to start, pull down the covering. In the middle of the night, Tilda’s former partner, a great painter, John Byrne, painted this huge flag that said The State of Cinema on it. We had no poles around so we got two broom handles. I held one and she held the other and through the whole festival, we would climb two sets of steps, talk to people about the film and then at the last minute, lower the covering. This captured this numinous sense of awe or what [Edmund] Burke called the Sublime. Children, especially, loved it with that simple excitement they have for things like this.
We’ve just re-made a Georges Méliès’ film with a hundred eight-year-old children. They come into the room and we’ve got sparkly things hanging everywhere and loud, loud pop music playing. And the children just run around the room dancing. We’re already running around the room dancing and we’re exhausted and having that sense of “Wow!” It’s like rocket fuel for me; it just fuels me so much.
I’ll go back to something we were talking about earlier about hitting middle age. As you said, you know less and less. Because I made The Story of Film or have written various books on cinema, people expect some kind of certitude in me. They expect a serious, kind of tweedy, professorial certainty and you know, I’m not like that at all. I’m more amateur than I ever was. When I go to festivals or get invited to talk about things, I try to make it clear that I’ll be speaking in emotional language or a playful language or a sort of intoxicated language about cinema. I’ll want to go partying and have a really informal way of dealing with an audience. Anything else is too stuffy and I would also say, exclusive of many people who don’t consider themselves intellectuals or highly educated.
PC I’m supposing you then look for the unexpected. Who’s out there now that takes you by surprise, whose work do you find fresh and exciting?
MC For me, the biggest discovery is this Filipino cinema I mentioned earlier on. Until last year, I hadn’t seen any of Lav Diaz’s films. I think he’s as great as Bela Tarr. I think the playfulness and hyper-productivity that you encounter in Khavn de la Cruz—granted, not all the films are great—but he’s so inspiring to me in the way he works, the mix of styles he has. So just to look at the Philippines which doesn’t have a big, complex support structure for filmmakers in terms of TV or magazines or film schools or anything—there’s no grand structure. And yet look at the variety of what they’re doing from high art and seriousness, documentary, wildly dramatic stuff. I think we can learn a lot from that, including the most established film cultures. That’s what’s inspired me most recently. Someone’s just sent me Diaz’s Century of Birthing on five DVDs which I haven’t watched yet. It’s like nine hours or something like that. The last one of his I saw was extraordinary. If I had seen it earlier, I would have put it in The Story of Film. I’ve seen a bit of Roy Andersson’s new film in Stockholm and just thought it was amazing. I love the way he combines a kind of visual rigor with an absolutely clear view.
I don’t really see any big trends or anything like that; there are just these pockets that pop up when I get a chance to focus. I mean, at the moment, I’ve got two films basically releasing at the same time and it’s crazy now. I go to Italy tomorrow. I think there’s something like twelve hours of interviews, two live TV appearances. It’s the top-line model of distribution—having the filmmaker show up in person, doing as much press as possible, etc.
I have this belief and it’s almost like a Jesuit’s belief that if you give people a taste of the drug of cinema and they really love it, they’re hooked. You don’t have to keep encouraging people to try it. If they’ve tried it and liked it, then that’s it. They have this new friend for life they can explore themselves. I feel that particularly with children. That’s why I do a lot of work with children because if you can just give them that flavor of that richness of the movies, then they’re gone. And your job’s done.
PC Okay one final question so you can rest before your Italian press marathon: Is there a story out there—or a story in there, in you—that you’ve never quite seen or experienced in cinema that you’re hungry to tell? Or a feeling you still long for that you haven’t yet experienced while watching a film?
MC In The Story of Film, John Sayles says that when he and Maggie Renzi [Sayles’ wife and long-time producer] were young, they were having lots of experiences in their lives that they were not seeing on a movie screen. That inspired them to make the sort of films that they do. I think that’s an excellent way of looking at the movies-what you’re not seeing on the screen. So what first comes to my mind is not a story. It’s a feeling.
I love dancing and I especially love dancing with my eyes closed. When you’re dancing with your eyes closed, it’s a great feeling of not knowing where you are. And I have never quite felt that in the movies. There have been close things like in [Alejandro] Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain or certain Claire Denis films, where I’ve felt completely without markers, without boundaries. I feel very much like I’m floating. But not as much as when I’m dancing with my eyes closed. I would love somebody to make such a film that would give me that feeling. Maybe, maybe David Lynch’s Inland Empire gets close.
PC It’s odd how disorientation can be so comforting sometimes. And the way you spread “the word,” your Jesuitical work as you put it, speaks to that beautifully. I’m really glad you’re coming to Albania soon, a place, it seems to me, where a lot of people here don’t know what they don’t know. I’m looking forward to meeting you here.
MC I’m very much looking forward to it, too. See you soon.
What Is This Film Called Love? is Mark Cousins’s second solo feature.
Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based film producer, curator, freelance programmer and arts journalist.