The critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins loves film, and like the best critics and historians his approach to the medium is pluralistic; he doesn’t talk about films in isolation, but connects them philosophically, politically and personally to everything else. If you think you’re a movie buff, you should definitely check out his 15-part “Story of Film” series, which may make you rethink that position. In the ’90s he frequently appeared on television, interviewing a dizzying line-up of filmmakers including Woody Allen, David Lynch and Roman Polanski.
Cousins, a fixture of the Festival, is here this year with his What Is This Film Called Love? After spending six years working on his epic series on the history of cinema, he flew to Mexico and decided, on a whim (the film is ‘an ad-lib’) to film himself for the three days he spends in Mexico City. While there, another thought occurs to him: he recalls that Russian director Sergei Eisenstein spent time in the city, and has a photo of the great man laminated to take along as a companion. He won’t check his emails, he decides, or tell people where he is. He will get lost with his camera and Eisenstein for company, and see where his thoughts and feet take him.
If that sounds self-indulgent, it’s probably because it is, but maybe we’re just not used to seeing a film with such a personal viewpoint; as someone who thinks that William Goldman and Pauline Kael pretty much nailed the Auteur Theory (i.e., that it’s bullshit) it’s still difficult to argue that anyone other than Cousins shaped this film (although there is some narration from Scottish painter Alison Watt and music from P.J. Harvey, among others). Any criticism the movie gets will also be aimed at Cousins, and it takes a certain degree of bravado (and an artistic sensibility) to allow yourself to appear this vulnerable. I particularly liked the detail that Cousins is more worried that people will be bored by the film than he is of appearing naked on screen; this he proves, in case you have doubts. In a sense, he’s naked through the whole film.
Taking his (fairly basic) camera and Eisenstein with him, Cousins narrates (along with Watt’s occasional contribution, letting us see Cousins in the third person), his mind wandering as he stumbles on various sites, each setting off different feelings and memories. I particularly enjoyed the editing, which captures something of the sense of discovering a new city by foot (the only way to get to know any town), and the way it evokes the kind of imaginative awakening that can accompany a journey. We worry about being desensitised to sex and violence when we ought to worry about becoming desensitised more generally, so easy is it for us to fall into stale routines. If this is becoming personal, it’s because it is the type of film that inspires such thoughts, if you let it. It’s also the type of film that can and will be dismissed by some. It’s not a film for cynics, and film criticism can occasionally feed into cynicism; critics can find themselves saying ‘no’ an awful lot. Cousins keeps saying Yes.
Today I also caught an intriguing low-budget British psychological thriller called Unconditional. It follows two twins who care full-time for their wheelchair-bound mother, and who get caught up with a loan shark; early on I suspected some kind of horror movie (not having read a thing about it) but discovered something a little different, and perhaps more interesting. The loan shark, Liam (an unpredictable, ingratiating Christian Cooke) appears at first to have his eye on Kristen (Madeleine Clark) but it is her brother, Owen (Harry McEntire) who he asks out for a drink, and things develop from there in a way I didn’t anticipate.
I won’t say more than that because I didn’t know more, and enjoyed the surprises of its plot. It stretches credulity, perhaps, but there’s a degree to which that’s probably due to the fact that most characters in most movies are fairly one-dimensional and their motivations and desires are blatant; we’re forced to think about the characters in this movie, to work them out to some degree ourselves, and that is refreshing. The two new-comers, Clark and McEntire, give impressive performances and Cooke (who recently starred in “Cemetery Junction”) handles a difficult, complex role extremely well.
This evening I attended the In Person event being held for Elliott Gould. Despite the somewhat under-par interviewing and questions he came across as modest, philosophical and genuine. He revealed, with a note of regret, that he had been asked to play the lead role in Robert Altman’s great “McCabe & Mrs Miller,” and that they got him for “Ocean’s 11” because James Gandolfini was too expensive. He also explains how he ended up causing Robert Altman to change the ending of “California Split” (a wonderful, underrated movie) by accident, and wishing they had filmed the original ending, which he basically acted out for us. He also passed the ultimate Q&A test: he gave interesting answers to boring questions. He even retained his gentlemanly composition when someone asked him – prepare to cringe – ‘What was it like working with Alan Alda on M*A*S*H?’ I was put in mind of Robert Altman, who famously hated the TV series of “M*A*S*H”, which he thought removed the teeth from his movie. At his mother’s funeral, Altman claimed, a group of women came over to tell them how much they loved his work. ‘Oh, we just adored M*A*S*H*,’ they said. ‘We watched it every week.’