Overlap - Investigations in new and forgotten storytelling

The Anti-narrative of Film – Interview with Mark Cousins

Speaking with Mark Cousins during his tour of The Story of Film, the director outlined how he sped up his 900 minute film to turn its flaneur-like walk through a hundred years of movie history into a frantic dance. But since his early television work presenting Moviedrome and Scene by Scene through to more recent directorial work on the films The New Ten Commandments and The First Movie, Cousins’ projects have been characterised by this arm around the waist of a personalised celluloid. And it’s an approach that sees plenty of exposure in Cousins’ most recent project.

Featuring a vision of film as a character of ideas and appetites, The Story of Film attempts to decipher the magic and beauty of film but remains staggered by it, resulting in a narrative that resembles a slow motion swoon.

As such, it’s a useful starting point for what turned out to be a rangy, occasionally epiphanal discussion of alternative stories – with stop-offs for such varied subjects as dictatorial cinema, the benefits of dawdling and the pistols-drawn battle between Robert McKee and anti-narrative. Our chat involved a lot of looking at films as if they weren’t, with the first item on what turned out to be a Moebius loop-like list of topics being discussion of the game-like structures of the likes of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, René Clair’s Entr’acte and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster

We were talking about whether films are becoming like games and the usefulness of looking at them as such. Do you find films sometimes remind you of things that aren’t films?

Absolutely. One of the things I argue in The Story of Film is that what you might call The Straight Story – the conventional linear narrative – is sometimes bullying in some way. It forces everything to be contained within a chain of cause and effect.

I’m much more interested in those kind of films that set up multiverses. What I like about what the game paradigm has introduced to the imaginative life of film is the idea of the multiverse. The most famous recent example is David Lynch’s Inland Empire – which features an unravelling storyline that comes to a point with so many possible crossroads that it simply unravels.

Is Matthew Barney’s Cremaster a good example of this?

It’s a very good example. Sergei Eisenstein had this idea of the circular book – what we would call broadly the hyperlink. He felt that reading a book was a too linear exercise and he wanted a book to extend in this direction and that direction so the book becomes a thing where the reader has options to explore in 360 degrees.

That was one of Eisenstein’s ideas and I think it’s a central idea in twenty first century ways of looking at storytelling. What happened with Cremaster was it began exactly the way Eisenstein had envisaged. Matthew Barney imagined five different locations; New York; The Isle of Man; Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho; Utah and Budapest and Cremaster’s structure is like a kind of starfish with five angles. He actually drew these five locations as five drones on a bagpipe. So you start with the bagpipe and then you move out from there.

Can you watch them in any order?

Any order. And the order he prefers is 5, 3, 1, 2, 4 or something like that – ie not in the order in which they were made. Isn’t that really game-ey?

It sounds like a hub world – the starfish’s central disk connected to the five arms…

What I like about this is this kind of anti-linearity that was envisaged by Eisenstein. He theorised so much about non-linearity – post linearity you could say. I argue strongly in The Story of Film that filmmakers like Ozu as early as the 1930′s already understood about non-linearity. Certainly Jacques Tati did. He wanted to remove story from his films as much as possible. Even Roberto Rossellini says that he wanted to reduce the story. What I think is exciting about games and the games world is that it has turned ‘post narrative’ from a thing that egghead philosophers were interested in to a thing that you absolutely do in the course of play.

Freud talks about play as a kind of unravelling of self. You’re your unplugged self when you play and I think that’s really crucial to it. So if you take those ideas of unravelling and forgetting who you are and add Eisenstein and Cremaster you’ve got a proposition.

Can we talk about interaction? Not just in games. Immersive theatre and ARGs all present examples of allowing the audience to wander the story space however they like. Is film a more dictatorial medium? Is it even possible to deliver a film you can ‘tour’ around or explore?

It depends. I think that the general view is that film is more dictatorial. But that’s the kind of Robert McKee view of cinema. That narrative mode of cinema is very good and it’s what many people think of as cinema. It’s very closely associated with Hollywood cinema. But it’s not the only type of movie. I think there’s been a constant danger throughout movie history which is that the ‘dictatorial cinema’ as you call it is the only type of cinema and you just simply submit to a big, overwhelming, pacifying experience. With some films that is the case. But a lot of the time it isn’t.

I think that the examples I’ve been just talking about – especially David Lynch – and the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul; their films are simply not about that. They provide you with too many imaginative options and too many contradictory possibilities. It’s not that you’re sitting in the audience with a console and you can choose ending a, b, c or d. The filmmakers themselves are providing multiple, contradictory endings or possibilities. There’s game ideas there.

That brings us to Van Sant. I love his film Gerry -

I love Gerry.

- And the way he describes looking at games in The Story of Film is very interesting. Tell us about that. Was it something you wanted to explore beforehand or did it just come out of your conversation?

When I saw Gerry I thought ‘This is like a game.’ The non-cutting particularly. So I brought it up specifically when I met and he answered very specifically. Gus Van Sant had been one of the filmmakers in the anglo-film world who was exploring ways of making films without cutting. Alfred Hitchcock would say – and many people would say – that the edit is the essential aspect of cinema. Van Sant was doing away with that. Others were as well but in the English language world [Van Sant] was doing it more. And once he started playing games he realised that’s what you do. “I will not cut from here to there. I will just let them get there…” That, again, is a kind of post-narrative thing for me. The idea of the cut is to tighten things – to remove the dull bits.

It’s also a way to keep the audience on your path. It prescribes. You’re being pushed along constantly.

It’s like the filmmaker deciding all the time what she or he thinks is interesting in the story moment. Gus Van Sant says, “I refuse. I’ll be more passive than that in some way. I’ll let an event happen – two guys walking along – and then you decide what’s the most interesting thing.”

You can come in or out of the story. Gerry reminds me of social media in this way. It’s almost like a feed you can dip in and out of…

That comes from games. It’s a sort of radical interpretation of games because you cannot control where the guy’s walking and this is an event that happened in the past rather than the present tense that games exist in. But if you provide the journey within it then it allows people’s minds to wander.

These are old ideas I think. That idea of the picaresque. The unpredictably flowing road – the closest cinema has to the picaresque is the road movie, where things will just wander. Both the road movie and the picaresque offer a less tight narrative machine. There’s looseness and unpredictability within them. And that’s very game-like. My own taste runs to that kind of loosening of the narrative chain into a medium where you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next and there are options.

I’ve been watching Jerry Schatsberg’s film Scarecrow and I think this film – much like Van Sant’s Gerry – has the kind of looseness you describe. There’s a life going on on the screen – mostly conversations in rooms – that you can come into and go out of. Do you think film will change to reflect the feed-like nature of web platforms – that wanting to have shorter, smaller things?

I actually don’t think that. I’m suspicious of the general proposition that the increasing number of screens we have in our lives has a profound effect on the kind of stories or narrative experience people want. I think that just as you can argue that things are speeding up and there are more options of looking at different things, so you could also argue the counter. Which is that long form narrative experience – the DVD box set of Mad Men – is what people want. I think that just as you can argue there’s a speeding up of the desire for narrative experience, so you can say there’s a hand in hand desire for the longer format experience…

Where does Transmedia fit into this? There’s the opportunity here to tell long form narratives across multiple platforms via more molecular pieces of story. I don’t need to watch the David viral for Prometheus to understand the feature film but it might inform my experience. Were you interested in exploring Transmedia for The Story of Film?

Well, the sort of things we’re talking about; the simultaneous narrative options that are transmedia ideals, these things are not at all new. Epicurus writes about the daydream or the ‘parallel universe’ feeling of walking along, Fontaine writes about the pleasure of daydreaming; the multiple experience where you imagine you’re two or three things at once. Think of Rousseau’s book Confessions, where he goes out and walks – and talks about simultaneous ‘mindloads’ of things happening…

The human mind, especially when it’s in a playful mode, is a dawdling machine that takes over, and doesn’t enjoy the linear. I think that’s the central idea in all those writers that I’ve talked about and it’s the central idea in most of the examples here that we’ve talked about.

Watching the film Ent’racte, which you talk about in The Story of Film, I was struck by how its stop motion animated props and broken rules of gravity recall the adjusted variables of two pieces of machinima by a guy on YouTube called The Ninja Cowboy; The Silly Adventures of Mr. Mochi and GTA IV Carmageddon Gone Yakkety.

Why I like games and why I’m passionately against those people who are against games is because the people who are against them say this is a new and damaging mode of playful experience. It absolutely is not. Funny you should mention Ent’racte. Remember what the word means. It means an interval between two things…

Which is when it was designed to be shown, wasn’t it?

Absolutely. The reason I think it’s so good is I think so much great art is made in the twilight zone – in the liminal world between two other things. So there was an act on stage and another act on stage but instead of the audience members getting ice cream or popcorn they made something that was almost sort of like an ad-libbed jazz piece. Ent’racte is a kind of mind-dawdling, distracted, ticking over piece of art. And a beautiful one.

But it was also a great example of transmedia because it was interacting with the acts of the ballet it was sandwiched between – and using different platforms to this end.

There’s a point to be made about the specificity of a language. Which is that basic modern idea that certain artforms have got certain linguistic properties which are specific to them. Certainly there are things in cinema – things in the idea of the shot and the cut which are so profoundly different from what came before them. People argue against this: I say there are no flashbacks in Shakespeare.

If you’ve got a filmic experience here, and a musical experience here, and another type of media experience here – as you skip between them you’re skipping between profoundly different formal experiences. The content may all be of the same thing but the forms are profoundly different.

As another example of what I’d call transmedia, do the kind of things William Castle did with The Tingler – where buzzers were installed in audience’s seats, or House on Haunted Hill – where skeletons flew out at them – interest you?

Very much so. And the reason why they do interest me – and I do think we have got to the nub of it here – is that I believe that cinema isn’t really a narrative medium. I believe that it’s magical. It’s very good at the senses, the body. I remember seeing horror movies when I was a little boy and just feeling it in my body. That’s what William Castle was trying to do. A film was something that you felt in your nervous system.

I think that the writers, the philosophers who understand cinema best are not the Robert McKee’s who reduce cinema to a story experience. I think much better are all those fancy phenomenologists who talk about the way the body remembers things. I always love that great Robert Frost poem about apple picking. Somebody’s been apple picking all day up a ladder and goes home, goes to bed. And even though he’s no longer standing on the ladder he remembers the impression that the rung of the ladder had on his feet. He remembers that. And the phenomenologists write all about that – how your body responds to things.

So film is in part about making us remember things that haven’t happened?

Yes. I think that’s close to the hub of what cinema does. Narrative is great in cinema but its not central.

Can we talk about the challenges of maintaining an narrative over fifteen hours in The Story of Film?

Well I know the word ‘story’ is in the title of the film I’ve just made but for me it was about keeping people interested for so long. And I knew that one crucial thing would be not to go too fast because then people would get exhausted. For me it was about tone and mood.

In The Story of Film I’ve absolutely imagined myself sitting with you watching the films. I decided that if I could establish an intimacy, a screen direction and a pace that was slightly night-time almost – something that had a kind of neon jazz-bar feel to it – if I could get that right either people will fall asleep or they’ll go with it. It’ll lull them. So that was the idea. It was a pacing issue more than a storytelling issue.

The narrative and the links in The Story of Film are more dreamlike.

Associative. Again going back to the ticking over, playful brain, which is very good at association.

We were talking about Exquisite Corpse, which you’ve looked at for The Story of Film tour…

You know how Exquisite Corpse came about? Folding the bit of paper? It’s a surrealist idea; they would do a drawing, fold it over, then somebody would do the next drawing. I think it’s profoundly great storytelling but Robert McKee would hate it because you don’t know what’s happened. You simply do your bit and when you fold it out you get an unexpected, unpredicted, I would say picaresque story. But not one that has cause and effect. It’s radically anti-story.

I wanted to talk to you about fan edits and fan trailers. Film experience is beautiful because it’s always a dialogue between the audience and the filmmaker but I feel like the internet in particular provides the means for audiences to bring more to this conversation…

That’s all fantastic. Muck around! I’d still want that central time-based experience of cinema. But I think it’s brilliant when either the audience mucks around or the filmmaker mucks around. I’ve just speeded up The Story of Film five thousand per cent to turn it into a dance, as you know.

Freud writes about the desire to wreck – you know when you see little boys and they see a Lego town and just wreck it? Filmmakers often want to muck around and wreck their own films. Hence the desire to write a bad review of your own work on the internet under a false name.

Have you done this Mark?

I’ve never done it, but boy have I wanted to! But my speeding up of The Story of Film into a dance is part of that wrecking impulse.

I think that wrecking is just as positive a part of crowd-creating as anything else.

Here’s what it is – and this ties in with your Robert McKee thing -

Hey! When did he become my Robert McKee?

Anything that is too beautifully structured – an ice sculpture of a swan – there’s a desire to make anti-structure. To smash! And that is a very basic human impulse and I don’t know why it’s there but I think it explains my interest in anti-narrative or para-narrative. Half-way narrative things such as Ozo and Tati create; these filmmakers have got just a little bit of narrative to keep them going. I think the theme of what we’ve been talking about is the structure of the narrative and the non-structure of the narrative. A filmmaker like David Lynch is extremely good at the non-structure; at making very loose associations between things; a monster behind a burger bar or rabbits on a stage.

Paul Schrader says that between a theme and its metaphor there needs to be a gap; like there are gaps in a battery so the voltage will fly and there’ll be a spark. David Lynch so gets that. He puts two things of high voltage next to each other – without having them touch – and then a spark flies. That’s why games – and the process of playing a game – is good. You’re producing sparks.

The Story of Film is available to buy now on DVD.

Category: Films, Transmedia, TV, Videogames

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