Interview: Mark Cousins - Filmmaker, Historian, Author, and Altar Boy of Cinema



Editor’s Notes: A Story of Children and Film is now out in limited theatrical release. 

When interviewing such a multifaceted personality like filmmaker, film activist, film historian, author, and freewheeling globe-trotting seeker of truths and social justice, Mark Cousins, one is challenged by the volume of answers that are already available in his phenomenal body of work that taught us about the innovators that drove cinema to its next revelatory watershed moments in The Story of Film or the misconceptions about the unexplored corners of the world and the universal importance of imagination in The First Movie. Mark is a man who believes in the magic of cinema and its importance as a soothsayer, hammer, mirror, and timeless realm of light and shadows that tells truths through fabrications and captures moments to amplify the banal and make us reconsider the parameters of our own existence. It was a tremendous pleasure to interview Mark and I found him to be an open and gracious soul that offered some great insights into his body of work as well as his philosophies on life and the medium of our shared passion.


Matt: Brian De Palma once glibly called you a “truth seeker” during an interview you were conducting of him, do you agree with his assessment and what are the truths that preoccupy your thoughts when you aren’t immersed in either creating or observing the medium of our shared passion? What is it about film, a realm of dramatic fantasy and dream realities, that lends itself so readily in the seeking of poetic truths?


Mark: Yes, I do try to tell the truth in my work. I’m sure most filmmakers would say that. In my case I have looked at social truths (the nature of neo-Nazism in my film Another Journey by Train, children in war in The First Movie, etc) and I have sometimes used a hammer as well as a mirror: The Story of Film tries, in a way, to change how we see movie history, as does my book Watching Real People Elsewhere.

In my more personal work (What is this Film called Love?, the forthcoming Life May Be), I’ve tried to look at more personal truths - how thought works and zigzags, the self-loss often felt by travelers, our bodies as surfaces rather than vessels, and what a moment feels like. Increasingly I realize that it’s cinema’s ability to make a moment seem more than it meant (Garbo blinking, the freeze at the end of The 400 Blows, etc) which is one of the things I love most. The rapturous present of cinema, its precocious ability to capture the ongoing moment, the fleeting, what Barthes called the punctum, the thing that pricks up. The truth pricks us.

Matt: Is cinema’s ability to make a moment seem more than it meant what attracts you to become an active participant in its history? When I write about a film like Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (using today’s assignment as an one example among countless) I become one of the rare participants in the film’s history, something permanent and larger than the self while bringing attention to it, creating a paradoxical relationship with the material as I play both student and historian. What role suits you best in that dialectic hierarchy, particularly as you have shifted from student to historian to artist while keeping roots in all three?

Mark: Yes. Cinema notices what is sacred. The ordinary beauty. The stuff we are too busy to clock. Cinema literally clocks it (puts a clock on it). I like this so much because it’s not a fancy thing to do, it’s quite simple, and yet cinema has been doing it for nearly 120 years now.

Although I make films, and write about films, both things are me being a supplicant, an altar boy. I will always, primarily, be a fan, a lover, an amateur, a constant apprentice in film.

Matt: As a lover of cinema do you miss the romanticism of the “detective story” days of yore when film acquisition required clandestine operations to see what had only been whispered about in dark hallways and ancient texts? Instant ubiquitous availability of most films is a marvelous thing, but there was an investment in the search that created a bond with the material and an accountability as we unraveled the untold mysteries that film had to offer. How has this shaped the film selection process for you as you use the very history of film as a brush against your own canvas like in The Story of Film or A Story of Children and Film? It seems that some of the films in A Story of Children and Film are particularly sacred as they have found their way from the village of Goptapa to interactions with your nieces and nephews all these years later; how long have they been a part of personal film canon?

Mark: This is an interesting issue. I think of it as a question as appetite building. How do we become hungry for a film, or cinema in general, when it is everywhere and a click away? As you infer, in the past we had to search for it. I recall waiting for weeks after having ordered a VHS from New York or London. Weeks of waiting, longing, getting hungry.

I miss that deferral (a pleasure deferred is a pleasure doubled), but overall the scarcity and unavailability of films in the pre-digital era damaged film history, curtailed our ability to see and, therefore, understand and know and love cinema. We are in far better, more democratic and more informed times. We just have to make sure that we don’t take those times for granted.

On the second part of your question - yes I have personal favourites, a personal canon. They tend to be films that seem to have their own, truculent humanity, that are boldly honest and made in parts of the world where cinema is sequestered or undervalued. Where movies matter.

Matt: Do you feel that this democratization of cinema put cinema “back in the box”, creating a less communal experience overall as we all gain the means to see the films that might be interesting only to us from the comforts of home?

Mark: I think we will always want to see films together. The digital age has overestimated how much time human being want to spend alone. That’s why attendance at, for example, music festivals has gone up. We as a species lived off-line for many thousands of years; we know the sweaty, social joys of off-line, and will continue to want them for a long time.

Matt: For my next question I present a quote from one of the filmmakers that drives my passion and makes me reconsider the possibilities of perception and the objectivity of my own eye, Stan Brakhage:

“Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word.”

Which I find particularly useful when viewing a film like A Story of Children and Film and The First Movie. Do you believe that children are capable of a more “pure” perception of film, their eyes and minds unpolluted by the menial concerns and contrived prejudices of the adult world?

Mark: I’ve never seen that Brakhage quotation - it’s magical. Maybe children can see in less prejudiced or categorized ways. I know that they are often less guarded emotionally than adults are, that they can switch between tearful and happy in seconds, etc. This fluidity is wonderful, I think, and very creative too, in that it allows children to connect things which logically or conventionally are not connected. This is a definition of creativity, I think. It is also the way that visual, as distinct from inductive, thinking works. Brakhage beautifully describes a kind of deregulated looking, a dreamy, trippy kind of looking which is very cinematic I feel. I think I work with children, and tell stories of journeys, and have dream sequences in my films, in order to loosen up the visual thinking, in order to try to get closer to that lovely fluidity that we see in the films of David Lynch, of Jean Cocteau, of Federico Fellini, of Jane Campion.

Matt: I think you are absolutely correct about the digital age’s overestimations and miscalculations of how much time we are willing to be alone. Most of my film viewing is done at home using an inexpensive high definition projection system and the image quality is great and the diversity of my selection options will ensure that I never have to worry about finding something new and interesting to watch, but the real magic only happens when experiencing film in a communal setting. Whether it be showing Chaplin and Keaton to my hometown in a small outdoor film festival I put on and hearing the unmitigated honesty of the laughter of children as they react to something they had never experienced before, or seeing Melies and other turn of the 20th century jewels accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra to a captivated audience, the most memorable cinema experiences that I will always carry with me will be those experienced with others. What are your most memorable/magical cinema experiences that you will always carry with you?

Mark: My most memorable cinema experience was in Sarajevo, during its siege (in which 10,000 people were killed). A bunch of activists set up a little amateur underground cinema, and we showed films. Even during a war; especially during a war. It showed how much people want movies.

Matt: That is a remarkable testament to the importance of the medium. What films were shown? What did people connect to in such tumultuous times? Were they starved for an escape from their terrifying realities or were they motivated to social action by seeing more harmonious realities than their own?

Mark: People in Sarajevo didn’t want to see Arnie actioners, of course, as such comic book or heroic violence falls flat indeed in a real war.

They wanted to see good films, simple as that. Any genre. They felt imprisoned, were imprisoned, so wanted to see the outside world, life beyond the war bowl.

Matt: Watching your niece and nephew playing their marble game in A Story of Children and Film while Eustache peeks in from the background offering an innately cinematic quality to a simple family moment made me wonder, what came first in the making of this film, the original raw footage or the idea for the film? Do you live life and let an idea inspired by everyday events determine your next film organically?

Mark: The idea for the film came from the raw footage. A friend, John Archer, who produced TSOF, suggested that I make another film on children. The footage suggested the way.

Yes, I love the way ideas come from anywhere (“inspiration is a ball kicked in from nowhere” - Seamus Heaney). Happiness comes from unexpected places too.

Matt: Are there any thoughts of a pure fictional narrative film in the future? Not that I grant more validity to the fictional narrative format, it would be intriguing to see what fantastical magic and invented worlds could be conjured from the mind of someone who seems to live a life in tune with the beautiful magic that permeates the world but only reveals itself to those wise enough to believe in it.

Mark: I think that I couldn’t do fiction. Perhaps I don’t have the talent, but what I mean, more, is that I don’t have the drive and discipline to create, from scratch, fully fictional worlds. They are too sealed for me. I love open structures, things that move from chance to idea, to framed to dreamt.

Matt: Don’t you just hate pants?

Mark: I have a lapel badge that says that! The answer is yes.


About Author

Behind me you see the empty bookshelves that my obsession with film has caused. Film teaches me most of the important concepts of life, such as cynicism, beauty, ugliness, subversion of societal norms, and what it is to be a tortured member of humanity. My passion for the medium is an important part of who I am as I stumble through existence in a desperate and frantic search for objective truths.

  • AdamKuntavanish

    Wonderful stuff, Matt. And to finish it off with a Simpsons quote is inspired!

  • Matthew Blevins

    I owe that one to friend, writer, and Simpsonsphile, Josh Slater-Williams. He offered it as a suggestion semi-facetiously but I thought it would be a great closer.

  • Johan Son

    He’s a massive cockend. You might bear that in mind before slavishly republishing his pretentious meanderings