Questions in an interview with United Kingdom filmmaker Mark Cousins concern the formal properties and development of nonfiction films taking the shape of essays, rather than documentaries. The relationship between Orson Welles’s films and his lifelong habit of drawing is the subject of Cousin’s latest essay film, The Eyes of Orson Welles. As the interview progresses, the subject shifts to relationships among the arts and the creative process.
The British-born, Irish-raised, and Scottish-educated filmmaker Mark Cousins is best known for his global fifteen-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). After working for British television from the late 1990s to 2000 and again in 2011 with The Story of Film: An Odyssey he has written and directed many improvisatory films about cities, places, and film itself. In I Am Belfast (2015) the city of Belfast is personified by a ten-thousand-year-old woman; a narrator in Stockholm, My Love (2016) speaks directly to the city; and the filmmaker travelled to contemporary Albania to film Here Be Dragons (2013). Cousins invokes literary and filmic muses: he consulted D.H. Lawrence’s writings in a film about a visit to Sardinia; he carried a photograph of the Russian director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein as he walked around Mexico City in What Is This Film Called Love? (2012); and his most recent filmic invocation takes the shape of a letter to Orson Welles. Another film about films, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018) follows A Story of Children and Film (2013). His 2017 book, The Story of Looking, is a visual and verbal exploration of imagery and the technologies of sight from painting and sculpture to photography and film, considering the development of visual culture, art, and science over time.
After I saw The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018) I was eager to ask Cousins about what I think of as the essay film, which has elements of documentary film, but departs or rather drifts away from that form in some curious ways. Cousins explores Welles’s life and work by studying the director’s drawings—caricatures, set designs, landscapes—following the visual ideas of the twentieth century as they are transformed into cinema. We also learn about Welles’s social projects, including an all-African American production of Macbeth in Harlem (1936) and a BBC radio program addressing police brutality in 1955 [“The Police” from Orson Welles’ Sketch Book]. Cousins’s style is a fluid associative mix of his own photographs and film footage, combined with documentary footage, clips from myriad sources, found images (drawings by Welles, for instance), and reflective, deeply informed voiceovers, often in the second person. While this interview focuses on the essay film, the discussion takes a heuristic turn toward the nature of the creative process. After hearing the filmmaker speak at the premiere of The Eyes of Orson Welles at the Traverse City Film Festival in August 2018, I interviewed Cousins by email [Image 1].
I would like to ask you some questions about the essay form in cinema. I see many of your films, including the newest, The Eyes of Orson Welles; Here Be Dragons; I Am Belfast; and others, not as documentaries—although there is certainly some connection—but as filmic essays. If you agree, can you describe what makes them essays rather than something else?
You’re right in that they aren’t what’s conventionally thought of as documentaries. They have few or no interviews, they aren’t fly-on-the-wall observational, and they don’t have objective or journalistic voice-overs. They are shot like documentaries, but written like letters or poems. The combination of objective image track and subjective soundtrack still excites me.
So, yes, they are more like essays in the non-scholarly sense. A fiction film is a bubble, an essay film bursts the bubble. But none of this is to say that my movies are more than, or better than, documentary. I’d rather say that documentary is polygeneric—not a genre but a house of genres. It contains multitudes—essay films, current affairs, experimental film, cinema verité, poetic work, etc. Aesthetically, documentary is the biggest thing in cinema.
Do you see Chris Marker, some of Chantal Akerman’s work, and even someone like Derek Jarman as influences on the essay film? You are a film historian; how would you place the form in the context of the history of film?
Yes, yes, and yes. Marker’s films, especially Sans Soleil (1983), taught a whole generation of us to ask the questions of a commentary—who is speaking, from where, and when? It is conventionally assumed in docs that the speaker is an expert (usually male), in the present, and telling us what happened. But what if one or more of these things are untrue? That’s where the magic lies. In The Eyes of Orson Welles, for example, the speaker is me, but I’m talking to dead Welles. In I Am Belfast, the speaker is ten thousand years old. Impossible in both cases, but liberating [Image 2].
It’s the long, static stare in Akerman’s films that I love most. She has massive confidence in an image, a moment, and lets it run as if it’s sacred. She’s against the glance, the impatience of fast-cut Hollywood. In real life I am fast-paced and glancy; in my movies—and those of others—I long for the opposite of that. I love quietude and contemplation rather than sensation.
Jarman, whom I knew a bit, helped unblock the impasse of filmmaking. He and his collaborators showed that you didn’t need 35mm and a big crew. Instead of the movie equivalent of fresco painting, he did oil painting. He was the Gustave Courbet of the movies.
In the context of film history, essay films are the most stylistically and thematically free films. You’re on a bike rather than in a car when you make them.
Your The Story of Film: An Odyssey is global. Is the literary and filmic essay a particularly Western form?
No. Some of the best essay films are by Anand Patwardhan of India.
John Stuart Mill said that poetry is overheard. Would you like to comment on the connection to your work and poetry? Another way to put it would be to ask you to comment on the poetics of the form in visual or filmic terms. And/or in literary terms or on the differences between the two.
I like that—“overheard.” It’s like Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000). When she makes her films she is gleaning, finding things, picking them up. Similarly, in Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities (1974), the main character, a photographer, says “I don’t take pictures to speak, but to listen.” The poetry is in the world. Rilke knew this, and wrote about it. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open. I love the built worlds of filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Erich von Stroheim, Vincente Minnelli, and Kira Muratova, but each is a god in a sense, a creator of sets and worlds. They are dominators. Varda and Wenders can be like that, but they (and I) are also submissive to found poetry, the spark that flies when you put together two found things. In the case of my Welles film, I took a found thing—a box of his artworks—and added an imaginary thing, a letter to him. Hopefully some sparks flew.
I sense a tension or a set of polarities in your films between a very rational organization—the sections in Eyes and Children and Film—and a deeply subjective and emotional response to the flow and play of images and meanings. Might you comment on this in formal terms or even talk about where these perceptions and habits of mind come from?
Again, I think you’re right. From childhood I’ve always loved machines, engineering, taking things apart. In every film I’ve done, I wanted to get the machine bit right from the start. In other words, the structure of the film, its shape, was decided very early in the planning process. Into this “hard” design, I am then free to add the “soft” elements—the emotions, observations, colors, etc. This relates to the previous answer, about dominance and submission in creativity. I want to be dominant and submissive. I want to impose a rigid structure on my Welles film, or my Atomic film [Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, 2015], or my A Story of Children and Film, and then I want to add the ghost into the machine. More practically, I can’t think of the structure of a thing and its detail at the same time. I can’t write a good sentence if I don’t know the overall shape of the thing I’m writing. It’s too confusing to me.
Your flow of images and moving camera seem to capture the flow of the mind, of visual ideas and the wondering and wandering of the voice. Would you comment on your process of collecting visual images, their arrangement, coherence, and editing?
Yes, I love that flow. I often find that in a film there’s too much story. I feel a bit bullied by a lot of story, as if we’re breathlessly pushing onward for the sake of pushing onward. If I’m on a coach tour and it takes me to the Eiffel Tower, I want to get out for a bit, and not just drive on. You could call this the picaresque, the loosely structured story or string of events. It’s my favorite mode, which is why I love road movies.
This is where your point about the flow of the mind comes in. Road movies often feel like mental wandering. I love the writing of Virginia Woolf, especially when she’s observing, charting her own thought processes. Woolf is a fly on the wall of her own mind. Heady stuff for me. Left to their own devices, when they think no one is looking, our minds make immensely creative connections between things. Part of my job is to get out of the way of my own mind, and let it do what it does best. I shouldn’t inhibit it or try to steer it too much.
Do you have any thoughts about how you came to be literate and fluid in words and images or do the films tell this story?
I was a poor reader at school, we had few books in our house, and I still read very slowly. When I read, I have to translate a sentence into an image before I can get what it’s about. This means that I can’t skim read and “page turner” means nothing to me, but I suppose it does also mean that, with all that incessant translation, I’ve come to know the visual aspects of words, and maybe—if it doesn’t sound too fancy—their feel or sculptural sense. I’m usually surprised, and pleased, if someone says that I use words well because to do so is hard work for me.
The Eyes of Orson Welles is all about the relationships between drawing or visual images and film. This is a huge topic, but I would like to hear more of your reflections on the subject.
I love drawing (though am not great at it). I draw to stop thinking. When I’m filming a shot, I feel that I’m in a similar zone to drawing. A drawing has no soundtrack, of course. A film is a drawing with a soundtrack. I have no doubt that a great drawer like Rembrandt would have made films. Visual artists long to be musical. Musicians long to be visual. There’s a mutual desire. Imagery and sound have that desire, they complete each other, and they are the one thing the other can’t be. Cinema brings them together, it is their blind date.
Your use of the second person and the subjective voice is compelling and distinctive. How did you decide to take this leap away from the usual authorial/authoritative mode?
As mentioned earlier, a key influence was Marker’s Sans Soleil. In this film, the female commentator regularly says, in the English version, “He wrote me,” yet the speaker does not exist; she’s an invention of Marker. So he has imagined a correspondent who then tells the story from her POV, thus making himself not “I,” but “he.” This sounds inaccessible, and some people do find Sans Soleil boring, but I’ve tried to use the impossible interlocutor in emotional ways. Their very absence adds heart. In my Mexican film, What Is This Film Called Love?, for example, the narrator starts as myself, then I become a woman (the artist Alison Watt), and then she becomes a deer, who doesn’t speak but who is subtitled. In Stockholm, My Love, Neneh Cherry starts her narration by talking to her father. In the second act this changes to talking to an old man called Gunnar, and in act three, silent but subtitled, she talks to the city of Stockholm itself. I avoid as much as possible the objective male voice in the third person. As soon as I write the word “you,” a window opens.
Subjectivity, for me, implies not just a poetics, but a politics of form. Could you elaborate on those implications with reference to your work?
I am political in my life, but the anger in my work is usually quite well hidden. If there are politics in the forms of my films, they are to do with my impatience with formulaic storytelling, and fixed, authoritative world views. I want my films to feel open, moving, playful, tentative, uncertain, or ecstatic, so they have to have some looseness. I want their ends to be unforeseeable from their beginnings, just like our lives are. Back to machine words, I love the idea of “torque” or twist. A film should torque, it should transition into something else. I’m not sure if that’s political. Maybe it’s a basically unconservative position—change is good. In the era of trans activism and awareness, we’re reminded that everything is in transition [Image 3].
May I ask you the same question you asked Welles in your film The Eyes of Orson Welles? Where did your taste for politics begin?
Margaret Thatcher. I was brought up working class, so I had some sense of class inequality and the injustices that follow, but to live in Scotland when the “poll tax” was imposed by Thatcher’s government—a community charge that hit poor people far harder than rich people— was to join the barricades. Also, the historic miners’ strike of the 1980s: there needed to be changes in heavy industry in the UK, but under the guise of forcing that change through, the Conservative government wrecked communities and consigned at least one generation to poverty, poor physical and mental health, and reduced life expectancy. Shame on them.
One of my favorite quotes from Here Be Dragons is about Enver Hoxha, Stalin, and Mao ruining it for the rest of us. What is it that they ruined?
They ruined the belief in alternatives to capitalism, because they were corrupt, murderous autocrats.
Again, you are an historian, and history has an implicitly narrative nature. How does narrative come into play in your work?
History has a forward structure, but I don’t think it necessarily has a narrative structure. History is “then,” but not always “therefore.” Things succeed each other, and lots of things are caused by what went before them, but the causality is often weak, or indirect, or sideways, not forward. A historical event—take 9/11, for example—is like a cue ball in snooker or pool, smashing into a block of other balls. A chain reaction starts. And a chain reaction isn’t a narrative, is it?
What kind of narratives might have a politically progressive direction?
I’m not sure. I used to believe writers like Bertolt Brecht on this—that “closed” texts are conservative, and “open” texts are progressive, because they are better at change, they can incorporate history more, etc. This now sounds very naive and even poncy to me. A simple example: I could see the homophobia in my family and friends lessen as they watched early series of the TV show Big Brother in the early 2000s in which there were nice, ordinary, helpful, decent gay people. This was, as far as many homophobic people in Ireland and elsewhere were aware, the first opportunity they’d had to watch how gay people live their lives, and see that they are “just like us.”
Big Brother was TV at its most popular. I would argue that its form—radical observationalism—was daring in the context of TV. Was it Brechtian? Perhaps. I think that if we are looking for progressive narrative form, one of the first places we should look is in popular media, the center of the agora.
Can we say that I Am Belfast and Here Be Dragons are organized around a geographical vision? Can you comment on that? Might they even be called psychogeographical in the Debordian sense?
Yes, the Belfast film and Here Be Dragons could be called “listen to the city” movies—ditto Stockholm, My Love and What Is This Film Called Love? I love Guy Debord and love his idea of the dérive, the drift against the grain. Walk across Berlin with a map of Paris. I’ve walked across many cities—LA, Beijing, Berlin, Paris, London, Mexico City, New York, Moscow, etc.—with no plan and without trying to hit the hot spots. I’m most happy, to be honest, near the bus terminus on the outside of town, where power isn’t but where life is. There isn’t a vision in my drifting, more a sense of getting away from the numbers, the Trip-Advisorization of a visit. I don’t want to go where people recommend, I want to go somewhere that isn’t recommended, that isn’t even on the recommend paradigm [Image 4].
The interplay between geography and inspiration was central to your Welles film as was the filmic potential for movement in time as well as space. Would you comment on your use of space and time?
Time first: Time is always sad, I think. It’s always about loss and dying. I’m one of the happiest people I know, but have had quite a few bereavements over the years and, so, am always bracing myself a bit for the next one. This means that time is a kind of enemy. It’s the courier of loss. It knocks on your door and delivers the parcel. As well as being sad, this makes time fascinating, unifying, and humbling. You can’t fight it; it is a kind of god.
Space! There’s the rub. My brain is quite bad at words, but good at space. Architecture is my first love, though I’ve never studied it. When I walk into a building, I adore the sense of where I am, where I’m being led, to what extent I feel imprisoned or liberated or narrated or moved. I love Highland glens, empty beaches at night, petrol station forecourts, shopping malls, dense forests, my own flat, abandoned swimming pools, mazes, temporary diversions, cycling fast, the miniaturization of life in my campervan, and being constrained. Space is self-loss, the rapture of self-loss.