Cannes 2021 Review: THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION by Mark Cousins

THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION by Mark Cousins

The Cannes Film Festival, and its main screening rooms, are housed in the Palais des Festivals, but ask anyone who loves movies— well, anyone who loves a certain idea of what the movies are— and they will likely agree that the Palais is less a palace and something more akin to a temple for true believers, a place for cinephiles to congregate and engage in a complicated relationship with not only contemporary cinema, but with the history of film. No film festival embodies that history quite like Cannes, which has shaped the international conversation around filmmakers and filmmaking for decades; from its elevation of the art of film to a black-tie event to its veneration of a long list of boundary-pushing filmmakers from around the world, Cannes is a festival that not only has the power to enshrine an artist in the history of film, but one that is fully aware of that power, which brings with it the ability to program almost anything it wants, which has come with its own problems; it is incredibly selective and loyal to its past, and when you lean so heavily on your history, problems of inclusion become a whole different part of the story. 

The festival was born in a different social, economic, and historical moment, but so was almost every other institution of power, and so, as it continues to see curation as a part of a continuum, Cannes continues to navigate how to contextualize its relationship to the past in a contemporary moment of long-needed, seismic change, be it access for people who have too-long been excluded from the production and celebration of cinema, to the new battlefronts that are reshaping the future of theatrical moviegoing. This is not a festival about democratic social participation in the movies; it is more akin to evangelism than conversation.

On the other hand, we live in a moment when films need a champion more than ever, and it is hard to come to Cannes as a true believer in cinema and not be moved by the experience. In that sense, the festival’s first official screening— Mark Cousin’s new documentary THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION— was the perfect start, a heartfelt benediction for the global community of contemporary cinephiles. As an extension of his multi-part THE STORY OF FILM, the latest A NEW GENERATION follows Cousin’s generosity, curiosity, and passion for the medium in the 21st century, from images and sounds to performances and genres, to create a sort of “state of the art” for modern filmmaking, placing recent films in the context of the past, but also, as a way forward, as a vital and living form.

As a film programmer and someone who has watched and thought about films for decades, no illusions about my own objectivity; there is none. Cinema’s history remains dear to me not only from the perspective of the films themselves— which, I am sure we could all assemble a list of exclusions from this chapter of THE STORY OF FILM that we would have loved to see Cousins address (while retaining admiration for the images, ideas, and interpretations he brings to A NEW GENERATION)— but also on the level of personal and political identity, which Cousins rightly identifies as a sort of “borderless, stateless” globalism, tied together by filmmaking, that unites cinephiles as being, in a sense, a community of people who seek to understand one another through filmgoing and dialogue. Of which, I am 100% guilty as charged. 

In the wake of the pandemic and attending my first in-person film screening in over a year and a half, I was not prepared to be so moved by the experience. I felt fractured; on the one hand, I couldn’t quite believe I was back in a theater, that I was at Cannes again after twenty one years, that I was sitting in the dark next to a stranger from another part of the world, watching a film together, and on the other hand, here was the past twenty years of my filmgoing life, unfolding before me as a sort of acknowledgement of that experience as meaningful, relevant, to be celebrated. I was quietly on the verge of tears and, as the images, rhymes, and Cousins’ soothing narration and love of cinematic ideas unfolded before me, I felt as if we had collectively arrived at a moment of truth not only for the impact of the pandemic on that sacred thing we love, but for cinema culture as a whole. 

Throughout the film, I kept thinking about what was to come at the festival this week, about how A NEW GENERATION was screening in dialogue with Cannes and its legacy and its evangelism, about how this moment would be framing everything I had yet to see, and how those films would also be in dialogue with an unseen future, with the past, an eternal reframing not only movies, but of myself. That anticipation, delivered here in the form of a retrospective from our often cruel and difficult times, felt to me like a real gift, a signpost on the never-ending search to be connected in the dark, to find one another. To breathe together again. And so, maybe, this is just my own way of coming to terms with all of these complications, with my conflicted feelings about all of it, which feels like coming home again. 

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