Monday, June 4, 2012

A Whiff of SIFF: The Odyssey Continues…

Parts Three and Four of Mark Cousins’s Looong Documentary

reviewed by Christopher Wood

The more I watch the sixty-second trailer that plays before every screening at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, the more I like it. This joyously frenetic promo takes characters from Fight Club, (500) Days of Summer, and dozens more films and swirls them into colorful Busby Berkeley configurations, all timed to a score that sounds like it wafted in from a 1950s musical. (See it here:

Call the visual feast “kaleido-cinema-scope” I guess. Not the cleverest of names, but like the toy this ad begs multiple viewings. Every time I try to keep up with the many movie characters whooshing across the screen in a breathless blur, and every time find myself wonderfully lost in sheer spectacle all over again.

You feel something similar when taking in Irish director Mark Cousins’s documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey - a few moments you might recognize, but the ones you don’t make the experience a stranger, more thrillingly exotic ride. And out of all the several hundred selections at SIFF ‘12, a one-minute celebration of cinema introducing this nine-hundred-minute celebration of cinema seems the most fitting.

Last Thursday, part two of Odyssey left viewers hanging at the brink of Sixties cinema (my favorite era). So I entered part three earlier this week with some anticipation, thinking this time Cousins won’t dig up too many obscure films and instead dive straight into more recognizable classics. After all, it wouldn’t hurt to see a familiar face now and then on this trip around the world.

Alas, the director holds fast to telling his story from a truly global perspective. The first two hours consist of foreign film after foreign film I have never seen been, let alone pronounce the title. This isn’t to say I haven’t had fun watching the groundbreaking jump cuts in France’s Breathless, or Italy’s Sergio Leone elevating westerns to sun-and-dust operas. But in his multiple Magellan-like quests, Cousins prefers to leave American cinema until the end of his journey, as if devaluing its impact. This thinking, I think, at times lessens the entertainment value of his project (at least for American viewers like yours truly).

Bruising from part three’s disappointments, I played a little reverse pysch on myself. I lowered my expectations for last Thursday’s part four, and ended up enjoying myself substantially more. We enter the Seventies, and Cousins’s pacing has slowed to a comfortable level. Now he takes his time studying a nation’s cinema, no longer cutting away to another film from another time for comparison. The years roll on, and the images continue to astound - a POV shot of a bullet going through Mick Jagger’s skull (no joke) in Performance (an absolute must-see for cinephiles, says Cousins); those lovable Indians breaking into random musical numbers in pictures like the 1975 epic Sholay. Hollywood usually has its day in the sun, but reigned for an entire decade with three unprecedented blockbusters: The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), and Star Wars (1977). (Psst! Exorcist director William Friedkin will attend SIFF this Saturday, June 9, for a retrospective/screening of his newest work, Killer Joe.)

Then came the Eighties with Reagan, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Top Gun. Not much else happened.

The present of filmmaking rapidly approaches with the epic conclusion to Odyssey this Tuesday. The one solid perk about this series is you can jump in at any point, so even if you missed the first twelve hours you haven’t missed a thing. I just hope SIFF staff has diplomas waiting for the rest of us.

(Part Five plays at 7 P.M. on Tuesday, June 5, at the SIFF Film Center - 305 Harrison St., Seattle. Find tickets and other information at 

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