In Jordan Peele’s brilliantly layered Nope (2022), the lead characters are described as relatives to the jockey depicted in the first ever moving picture, Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 silent short film The Horse in Motion. That film was constructed of several cabinet cards that, when the device they were placed in spun, viewers got the sense of movement from the rapid replacement of each card before them. Since 1878 the technology for film has changed dramatically beyond chronophotography to include standard cinema, 3D, Dolby, IMAX, IMAX 3D, 4DX, ScreeenX, VR, and, with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), high frame rate (HFR) format. In his 167-minute documentary The Story of Film: A New Generation, filmmaker Mark Cousins looks at the relationship of films in a variety of genres from around the world. Though he does discuss the technological approaches of many films, the bulk of this video essay is examining the films of 2010 – 2021 in regard to how they tell their stories, as well as the connections many possess to the films that came before. Sometimes this means jumping in time or location, but each leap from genre, from country, from time, leads to a greater understanding of cinema as a whole.
Having not seen Cousins’s 2011 documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey or any of his prior work, the presumption for the way A New Generation would function fell into the standard documentary structure. Introduction of concept, interviews of various types, examples examples examples, rinse repeat until reaching the conclusion and the final thesis statement. A New Generation isn’t that in the slightest. Rather, the whole documentary fits more in line with a video essay one might find online doing a deep dive into a specific topic (like Nerdwriter1); starting with a look at both Todd Philips Joker (2019) and Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) to set up the general structure of the doc before diving in head first. So what is Cousins’s intent? Over the course of intensely analytical yet playfully delivered information, with nary an appearance from him or other interviewees to speak of, Cousins explores movies in regard to their narrative themes or their technological approach or their specific cultural voice, each time demonstrating a connection to a different film and filmmaker, perhaps from another period or place, drawing a direct line between each one. The stated intent of the documentary is to examine what was in cinema as a means of looking to the horizon, yet what Cousins creates also serves to link the creations of the day to those audiences may or may not know. The value here is that far too many cinephiles fall into the same traps as the casual viewer, believing that only the films they’ve seen (either from social influence or personal interest) are the only ones worth investigating, unaware of the social, historical, and cultural significance that would serve to enrich the films they already know.
There’s a positive and simultaneous negative to Cousins’s approach. With each film, he identifies the film and its maker, a title card displaying the information in accompaniment, as well as providing any necessary context to what portion of the film is being displayed to the audience. From there, he transitions — either through an idea, concept, or technical aspect — to another film, each one a logical connective point to the other. Whether someone in the audience can conceive of a different connection they themselves might make, there’s no denying the air-tight evidence Cousins presents, easily convincing the audience of his authority, even as his vocal delivery doesn’t demand or require supplication from the viewer. With no physical presence, the audience has only Cousins’s soothing voice to adhere outside of the moving pictures and his delivery is quite honestly hypnotic. Perhaps it’s the fluidity of the presentation or the repetition of the structure, but one finds themselves cozily observing A New Generation rather than leaning into it. This is the positive/negative present throughout the documentary: no matter how fascinating the information shared, how devastating the on-screen examples may be (though two in particular during the documentary genre section are quite evocative), one feels as though they are adrift on a river of information, Cousins’s narration a warm blanket throughout. Perhaps if this were broken up into more digestible portions rather than a 167-minute single course one may not experience a strange tranquility that impairs the absorption of specific details versus the general concepts.
Regarding A New Generation as a home release, there are two other pitfalls to address. The first is that the text of the title cards that present over the examples are often difficult to read due to their font and format. Granted, the retail review copy sent by Music Box Films was played via my Xbox One X and displayed on a 4K television, so the disc may have been upconverted to a point where the text is digitized in a manner that it may not on regular HD or SD projections. The second is that the disc itself includes no bonus materials save for a trailer. While watching a trailer may be interesting for those not yet certain of what Cousins plans to present, those who buy the film in hopes of exploring the material further will be unfortunately disappointed. Admittedly, this may be a by-product of placing a 167-minute film on a standard DVD, therefore there may not be space on-disc to include other materials without degrading the film itself. That’s most certainly a possibility, but this doesn’t make the lack of bonus materials any less dismaying.
For a cinephile of any level, I recommend taking notes throughout A New Generation. Cousins is so thorough, you may find a point you hadn’t considered about a film you know or may want to learn more about a film you might’ve never heard of before. He mentions and presents glimpses of various film theaters, too, and, imagine my delight at finally getting a look at the Metrograph after years of emails from them. There’s plenty to learn within his documentary, the best of which is that all we know, all we love about cinema, is inspired by what came before and that the stories of today carry thematic connections that were as relevant in the early days of global cinema as now.
No bonus features are included on the home release.
In theaters September 9th, 2022.
Available on digital September 20th, 2022.
Available on DVD November 22nd, 2022.
For more information, head to The Story of Film: A New Generation’s Music Box Films webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.