In a week when the film world lost a true titan, Jean-Luc Godard, commentary rightfully centered on the notion that this was the end of an era. The era in question, it’s intimated, was one in which movies, and the folks (almost always men) who made them, could be rightfully considered a legitimate art form. This stands in contrast to a pre-Godardian past where the Hollywood studio machine churned out profitable product that sometimes, almost miraculously, achieved genius, and a present in which that machine, now global in scope, serves as little more than a method of turning intellectual property into cash.
The truth, of course, is and always has been more complicated, especially if one is willing to look beyond the marked pathways. That’s exactly the sort of investigation in which the Irish scholar and documentarian Mark Cousins has specialized. His fifteen-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) is an overwhelmingly comprehensive, yet studiously idiosyncratic, tour through more than a century of cinema. Cousins followed that up with the welcome, equally ambitious, paradigm-shifting Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2019). In each of these herculean labors, Cousins evidences a truly global, small-c catholic approach, juxtaposing and jumping from film clip to film clip, all of it accompanied by his whispery, particularly accented narration.
Now, he’s made an addendum of sorts: The Story of Film: A New Generation, which takes about three hours to give the same treatment to developments in world cinema during the new millennium. For anyone who dove into Cousins’ previous efforts, it’s almost comforting being smothered in his egalitarian enthusiasm, even if that sometimes overshadows his level of analytic rigor. For those who haven’t, it’s a good test to see if those experiences are for you.
A New Generation kicks off by comparing Joker and Let It Go as examples of movies about protagonists who achieve their final form. From there it’s a movie-a-minute as Cousins lobs between the familiar (Gravity, Under the Skin, 2001: A Space Odyssey) with the obscure. Best to watch with a notebook close at hand—I now have the pseudo-documentary Propaganda and the Estonian dark comedy November on my watch list.
It’s in the second half of A New Generation that the real discoveries await, though. Cousins explores how technological advancements have led to “new ways of seeing,” and in so doing charts connective paths that lead, in one instance, from Leos Carax’s Holy Motors to Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin to Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten. (He devotes a good portion of time here to Godard’s Goodbye to Language.)
Cousins explores the increasingly gauzy wall between documentary and fiction, the ways digital tools have transformed performance, and the previously unfathomable perspectives that tiny cameras can provide (“The GoPro camera was cinema’s Copernicus,” he says). He cites films ranging from An Act of Killing to The Irishman to Leviathan. (As I said, keep a notebook handy.)
The most astonishing discovery for me watching A New Generation was something called the DAU Project, an absurdly ambitious, years-long endeavor that sounds like a cross between the Stanford Prison Experiment and a re-created Russian reality TV series from 1965. It’s this sort of expansive approach that makes Cousins’ work so valuable. And, as someone who clearly has a broad and worshipful appreciation for cinema’s past, his excitement and optimism are more than welcome. (Opens Friday, Sept. 16, at the Living Room Theaters)
STREAMING PICK: That said, there’s nothing wrong with looking back at the unsung figures who helped to create a market for non-Hollywood product and thereby enable the careers of countless auteurs. One such figure was Donald Rugoff, the entrepreneur behind Cinema 5 Distributing, which distributed films ranging from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Gimme Shelter to Pumping Iron. (Yes, you have Rugoff to thank for providing Arnold Schwarzenegger with his big breakthrough.)
The documentary Searching for Mr. Rugoff was made by a onetime employee of Cinema 5, in an effort to tell the full story of a famously irascible, (hopefully) inimitable character who combined great taste in movies with a huckster’s willingness to do anything to get butts in seats. One former colleague describes him as a proto-Harvey Weinstein, although one senses that this comparison was made before the extent of Weinstein’s criminality was widely known.
The movie is a love letter to the arthouse demimonde of Manhattan in the 1960s, when the latest Fellini, Truffaut, or Kurosawa was a cultural event.It’s also an acknowledgement that Rugoff was, by all accounts, a terrible person to know, much less work for. That may seem like part of his charm now, but there was no silver lining at the time, other than his ability to make money while providing quality films for his audiences. Searching for Mr. Rugoff is an engaging detective story and a flashlight directed towards a cobwebbed niche in the history of independent movies.
(Searching for Mr. Rugoff, along with more than twenty Cinema 5 titles, is streaming this month on The Criterion Channel.)
DOC-O-RAMA: PAM CUT hosts a weekend of notable nonfiction programming at the Whitsell Auditorium, highlighting documentaries that profile “those who were bold enough to call for change,” which is another way of saying that they’re about relatively unheralded folks who’ve personified, to one degree or another, the evolution of LGBTQ+ culture.
One such title, All Man: The International Male Story, looks at the rise and fall of a catalog empire that played a similar role for gay men (and some heterosexual woman) to that which the “Victoria’s Secret” catalog played for straight dudes. Founder and raconteur Gene Burkhard comes clean on the inspiration for his seemingly cantilevered underwear products, as well as the challenges in charting a course for a business with a predominantly gay clientele in the 1960s, ’70s, and the ultimately tragic ’80s. Former employees and models chime in on the ups and downs of working for a publication that brought flamboyant, often over-the-top fashions (think “Seinfeld”’s Puffy Shirt) to Middle America through the genius of mail order.
Other docs screening this weekend include Workhorse Queen, about a Rochester, New York-based telemarketer turned “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” competitor, and Wildness, which captures the filmmaker’s relationship with a Latino Los Angeles gay bar.
God’s Country: Thandiwe Newton gives a raw performance in this rural, race-conscious thriller as a Black professor who teaches public speaking at a small, unnamed rural college. She lives alone in an isolated canyon, and the inciting incident involves two white guys, hunters, who park their red pickup on her property without her permission. Their interactions only blur the line of who’s making assumptions about whom. Meanwhile, she faces a different sort of racial anxiety during a debate at her workplace about racial diversity in an upcoming hiring process. Director and co-writer Julian Higgins makes an impressive, nuanced feature debut, aided immeasurably by one of the best performances in Newton’s long career. (Opens Friday, Sept. 16, at Cinema 21.)
See How They Run: Everybody loves a good whodunit, right? That’s both the lure and the joke behind this flimsy, inoffensive diversion set in 1953 London, as Agatha Christie’s famously long-running play “The Mousetrap” is celebrating its 100th performance. (Outside of Covid shutdowns, it hasn’t closed since.)
As BBC veteran Mark Chappell’s script would have it, a blowhard American film director (Adrien Brody), in town to work on the big-screen adaptation of “The Mousetrap” is murdered backstage just after that 100th show.
The real fun starts when the grizzled Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and the overly enthusiastic young Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) are assigned to tackle the case together. That pair steals the show, in an affectionate parody of Christie’s formulae that indulges in some clever metafictional fun. (Opens Friday, Sept. 16, at theaters everywhere.)