Making a Scene

Article excerpt

Byline: By DAVID WILLIAMSON Western Mail

Mark Cousins is one of the most respected film journalists in the world. Here, he talks to David Williamson about his latest ventuIF MARK Cousins had dedicated his life to selling Russian encyclopedias door-to-door, bookshelves in most homes across Britain would be bending under the weight of such volumes.

Instead, he has spent thousands of hours enthusing, arguing, writing, and rejoicing about the world's finest films.

His Scene-by-Scene television series revolutionised the way cinema could be talked about on the small screen. It shunned both the showbiz vacuity of Parkinson and the elitism of Newsnight Review.

Each programme consisted of Cousins sitting with a cinematic legend such as Steven Spielberg or Jack Lemmon, watching classic scenes and talking about their significance.

Scene-by-Scene ran for five years, but during this time Cousins developed a passion for cinema which had origins outside Pinewood and the Hollywood Strip. He complained there was no accessible, single-volume history of world cinema for intelligent readers and was then challenged to write one.

The Story of Film is already a bestseller, and charts, with eloquent excitement, the first century of one of humankind's noisiest and most colourful art forms.

He told the Western Mail, 'This is the first time when every continent has been making interesting work.'

Rather than rolling in fashionable pessimism about the death of celluloid and the rise of digital film-making, Cousins can see evidence of a new golden age everywhere he looks. The young 'Mozarts' of the film-making world can now shoot and edit movies which are constrained only by the limits of their imagination and talent.

He said, 'I think digital is simply a way of lowering the entry barriers to cinema. [Previously,] if you were born in Cardiff with a great talent you could grow to your grave without expressing it.

'It means there'll be lots of rubbish made but it means the new Truffaut has a better chance of getting out there.'

Finding the auteurs of the 21st century is a quest and an adventure for the Northern Irish critic. He recently drove from Edinburgh to India to explore the cultures which have given birth to some of his favourite directors.

'I bought an old camper van,' he said. 'It was the best thing I've done in my life.

'I drove through Iran and discovered a world unbelievably different from the CNN vision. The women are big and bold and all over the place, smoking big cigars.'

One of the youngest but strongest talents in world cinema today is the Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf who made her brilliant debut at the age of 18 with The Apple (1998).

Cousins noted, 'While in America the proportion of women directors is 3%, in Iran it's something like 35%.'

One possible reason for the freshness of cinematic visions coming from a land famed for fundamentalism was, he suggested, 'Iranian film-makers since the revolution haven't seen that much American cinema'.

Comments such as this shouldn't be taken as an indication of snobbery. He is like a cheese connoisseur with an evangelical zeal to convince the world there are tastes beyond cheddar.

He is thrilled that Zhang Yimou's Hero can top the US box office, proving that great films can play in a multiplex.

A further reason for his optimism is the completely unprecedented explosion of interest in one of his favourite genres, the documentary. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 broke box office records around the world and Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void proved non-fiction could be just as epic as a blockbuster.

He said, 'I'm very lucky to be living in a time when mainstream audiences are paying to see documentaries. …