Mark Cousins loves upending expectations almost as much as he loves movies, and he really, really, really loves movies. Anyone who’s seen his 15-hour “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (2011) knows how passionate Cousins is about the medium (how knowledgeable, too). Anyone who hasn’t seen it, can do so via Kanopy — hint, hint — which is available through many local libraries.
That passion remains abundantly on display in “The Story of Film: A New Generation,” which starts a weeklong run at the Brattle on Friday. At just under three hours, “New Generation” is a short subject compared to its older documentary sibling. Cousins focuses on the last decade, looking at no fewer than 87 films, with another two-dozen earlier ones thrown in for good measure. What determines his selections is whether these individual trees contributed in some significant way to the larger film forest. Of course Cousins is the one who gets to define “significant.”
He upends expectations straightaway, with his first two titles: “Joker” (2019) and “Frozen” (2013). Yes, two Hollywood blockbusters — and one of them a Disney movie. Cousins’s explanation for their inclusion upends expectations further: Both are about “release.” Who’d ever make that connection? Cousins does, and once pointed out it makes perfect sense.
Soon enough, there will be films from Finland and Estonia and Uganda and the Philippines and Thailand. Cousins hints that, forced to pick best in decade, his choice would be the Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethaku’s “Cemetery of Splendor” (2015). But “Joker” and “Frozen” put us on notice: Movie passion is not the same thing as movie snobbery. There are sections on action films and comedy and horror (”in our own time, horror is on fire,” Cousins says, in a way it hasn’t been since the 1930s) as well as documentary and “films about bodies” and “inaction” films. “If you love action films, it’s hard to love inaction films,” he says. “But the best revived a sense of film as a time medium, that patience is rewarding.”
The way Cousins says things is almost as interesting as what he actually says. He grew up in Northern Ireland (it’s a shame that he didn’t direct “Belfast” instead of Kenneth Branagh) and now lives in Scotland. One of the pleasures of “Story” is listening to the Celtic stew that is his accent. Cousins’s highest term of praise, “innovative,” he pronounces in-nuh-vit-if. In the second half of the film, when he refers to the conflict between “poor and rich” the way he says the first word, purr, sounds awfully close to pure. Maybe that’s as much a matter of morality as pronunciation.
“Story” comes in two sections. The first, “Extending the Language of Film,” looks at innovation largely in terms of form. The second, “What Have We Been Digging For?,” considers it mostly in terms of content. The second half gets a bit scatty the further it proceeds. In part, that’s because of a focus on extra-cinematic considerations, such as personal identity. Cousins is a how guy much more than a what or why guy, and here he’s getting away from how.
“Story” mostly consists of film clips, each nicely identified in the corner by title, director, and year of release. Make sure you have something to write with, for future-viewing-list purposes. No way you’ve seen every movie mentioned or even heard of all of them. Chances are that not a few you’ll want to track down and see in their entirety.
It’s not just specific films, filmmakers, and genres Cousins discusses. He also tackles the impact of the pandemic (on filmmaking and filmgoing alike), the smartphone, YouTube, streaming, and virtual reality. With film, form doesn’t necessarily follow function. It does inevitably follow technology.
In addition to the clips, Cousins includes views of various locations around the world — Times Square, India, Hong Kong — a reminder that moviegoing, as well as moviemaking, is global in nature. It’s a conceptual version of establishing shots. Cousins also regularly cuts to shots of people with their eyes closed. The credits refer to them as “dreamers.” They’re stand-ins for all of us who watch film, which is a sort of dream. This uncharacteristically poetic touch is a bit distracting.
Watching “Story,” one realizes that so much of what most of us most love about the movies isn’t the medium, per se, but its appurtenances: stardom and glamour and the pull of narrative. What Cousins loves is the medium. We love the effects. He loves the cause.
To coincide with “Story,” the Brattle has scheduled several of the films Cousins cites. It’s the sort of imaginative programming that makes the Brattle, well, the Brattle. Those films are “Zama” (2017), “Holy Motors” (2012), “The Babadook” (2014), “Good Time” (2017), “Cemetery of Splendor,” “Leviathan” (2012), “Moonlight” (2016), and “It Follows” (2014). Cousins’s discussion of “It Follows” is a highlight of “Story.”
Attentive readers might notice that “Frozen” didn’t make the cut. Don’t worry, there’s always the Disney+ option.
THE STORY OF FILM — A NEW GENERATION
Written and directed by Mark Cousins. At Brattle. 167 minutes. Unrated.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.