Director: Mark Cousins
Cast: Mark Cousins
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Perennial video essayist Mark Cousins turns his gaze towards children in this charming wee feature. By zooming in on such a seemingly small subject, though, A Story of Children and Film opens your mind to much bigger themes.
Cousins stitches together no fewer than 53 movies from 25 countries around the world to examine the relationship between childhood and cinema. His work always carries his own fingerprints as well as those of the filmmakers he showcases, so it’s only fitting that we should start not with a big screen classic, but with footage of his own tiny human relatives, as they play with a marble run in the living room. Sitting the camera down on the floor with them, the static shot places us immediately on the same level as the children, while Cousins uses their behaviour as triggers for his own thoughts, springboards that catapult us from film to film.
It’s a format that has the potential to be inaccessible or repetitive, but Cousins is king of the cine-essay for a reason, leaping from one touchstone to the next with a lightness of touch and an infectious warmth. The editing is mind-boggling, but never distracting, as the film casts an impossibly wide net over world cinema, tying strings between films that you’ve either never heard of or never connected before.
Those bonds might be thematic, in the case of romance in Moonrise Kingdom and friendship with a bird in Kes, or literal, in the case of The Red Balloon and Melody for a Street Organ (2009), which also features a child holding balloons. But they all come with genuinely interesting insight, as Cousins picks apart structure and composition to explain these scenes’ common effects.
“Where Gene Kelly sang in the rain about happiness, this boy trudges in the snow in loneliness,” he sighs in the case of Street Organ, where the camera sweeps down from an aerial position for a street level tracking shot, in the style of an old Hollywood musical. It’s not all sadness and loss, though: in Moonrise Kingdom, the direct gazes into camera only highlight the intimacy being formed between our young couple. “Childhood as a proscenium,” observes Cousins.
Those kind of comments could sound pretentious or laboured, but the director’s twee Irish lilt makes it sound too gentle to be academic, giving his narration a fairytale-like quality that’s perfect for this particular material. That helps him to reach beyond western cinema to include examples from around the world, reminding us that kids performing for the camera is a universal phenomenon, that boys stand up to Nazis in German cinema by dancing, just like Shirley Temple, that one boy from another country, who’s never been on camera before, already knows instinctively to clear the frame to get his own moment in the spotlight.
Even a cut from E.T. to a Danish film called Palle Alone in the World (about a boy flying into the moon), makes the unforgivable interruption of John Williams’ iconic eight-note theme forgiveable. Indeed, there is wit to the movie’s structure, which likes to drop back in on previous characters, such as a boy (in Nohammad-Ali Talebi’s Willow and Wind) trying to carry a pane of glass across the forest to repair a window at his school. It’s a cute touch that gives the essay a false sense of linear chronology, as though everything on screen is happening at the same time, even when we’re not watching.
It’s a familiar device in video essays, but one that finds new depth here, as Cousins juxtaposes it with the way that cinema is so effective at limiting perspective to that of a child: in Willow and Wind, written by Abbas Kiarostami, what’s outside of the frame feels outside of our central boy’s understanding. Similarly, cameras being placed at low heights invoke the psychological state of childhood, not unlike the way that Cousins has set up his own living room as a gateway into this global tour of innocence. There are countless films missing, particularly from more recent years, but there is as much fun to be had in finding your mind making connections to unseen films on its own as there is in playing ‘Name That Film’.
One director who inevitably gets featured is the gentle work of Hirokazu Koreeda, who takes time in I Wish to show us close-ups of each young character’s face, before diving into a separate POV shot of a kids painting of a volcano, which becomes animated for a brief moment. “The adventure is inside in his head,” observes Cousins, but that’s what A Story of Children and Film succeeds at: over 100 delicate minutes, it manages to capture the surreal, sad, funny, stroppy feelings inside their heads, as well as the joy of rediscovering that childhood adventure as an adult. This is playful, poetic and profound filmmaking.
A Story of Children and Film is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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