'The Story of Film' review: A TMC must

:M*A*S*H" (1970) is one of more than 100

:M*A*S*H" (1970) is one of more than 100 films TCM will present in conjunction with the U.S. television premiere of the acclaimed documentary series, "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," beginning Sept. 2. (Credit: TCM)

DOCUMENTARY SERIES "The Story of Film"

WHEN | WHERE Starts Monday night at 10 on Turner Classic Movies

WHY TO WATCH Astonishing movie images and "emotions bursting at the seams."


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WHAT IT'S ABOUT Now, I remember why I fell in love with film. PBS at its dawn aired the weekly festival "Film Odyssey," screening German Expressionist chillers, French tone poems, Mexican neorealism, American indie flicks and more. The films' makers played with the form, exploded the Hollywood norm, delivered stylized visuals, high-dived into the human psyche. Wow -- movies can take us anywhere!

That amazement echoes throughout "The Story of Film," director Mark Cousins' 15-week docuseries celebrating cinematic innovation. He weaves magical clips, global journeys, occasional interviews and his own idiosyncratic narration -- "trying somehow to apprehend the infinite."

That's a quote about Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" from the story's ninth episode, about the 1970s "new American cinema" -- Scorsese, Coppola, Altman -- and its birth of the contemporary. (The "emotions" quote at the top is from the sixth hour, on the 1950s burst of James Dean and Marlon Brando.) But first, Cousins takes us 125 years back to those initial sparks of images and ideas, the movies as a new kind of mirror, fragmenting space to reveal a larger, more profound picture.

From the flickers of Edison and Lumiere, in tonight's kickoff hour, Cousins makes us appreciate even the elemental grammar of film that we now take for granted. Next come the stirrings of art, capturing "things that could be felt rather than seen," in "images [that were] extravagant and uncapped."

Cousins' lilted Irish monotone (I adore his narration; some will hate it) plainly captures the augmenting awe of each cinematic innovation. He's film's James Burke, associating the art's leapfrog links, just as the "Connections" host did for science. Cousins can riff from Marilyn Monroe's hair salon to 1920s stoneface comic Buster Keaton. Later that same hour (airing next week), he's off to India, then an arctic documentary, then Iran, Danish director Lars von Trier, visual composition and the spiritual: Joan of Arc.

MY SAY Each hour with Cousins is revelatory and arousing -- a feast of visuals, concepts and insights into the "battle for the soul of cinema that] made it splendid," infusing the art with "sublime tension."

Cousins takes each moment on its own terms, making "The Story of Film" accessible even to viewers skeptical of silent or foreign films. His 15 hours race through time to hit the 1960s halfway through, spending their last three weeks in the '90s and 21st century digital. This highly personal survey of cinema's wonderment places the art's innovation in overall context, while dazzling the senses with each individual moment of bravura.

BOTTOM LINE A must-see.

GRADE A


OPENING WEEK TCM LINEUP

Just when you see an awesome clip in "The Story of Film" and think "Man, I wish I could see that movie," there it is. Each hour of TCM's 15-week docuseries is surrounded by world cinema landmarks on Monday and Tuesday nights -- 119 movies from 29 countries.

MONDAY NIGHT'S BIRTH-OF-MOVIES LINEUP -- 1893-1912 shorts from Thomas Edison's studio (8 p.m.), 1895-1897 shorts from France's Lumiere brothers (9:30 p.m.), George Melies' 1902 effects fantasy "A Trip to the Moon" (11:15 p.m.), works by pioneer director Alice Guy Blaché (11:30 p.m.), Cecil B. DeMille's "The Squaw Man" (12:30 a.m.), plus D.W. Griffith's still-controversial feature breakthrough "The Birth of a Nation" (2 a.m.) and "Orphans of the Storm" (5:15 a.m.).

TUESDAY NIGHT -- Griffith's "Intolerance" and "Way Down East" (8 and 11:30 p.m.), 1922's occult chiller "Haxan" (2 a.m.), Sweden's "The Phantom Carriage" (5:15 a.m. Wednesday) and Lillian Gish's desert thriller "The Wind" (7:15 a.m.).

Future weeks bring influential American titles from "The Public Enemy" and "Citizen Kane" to "Reservoir Dogs" and "Gladiator." And rare treats from around the globe -- 1930s films from China and Japan, postwar Italian neorealism, '50s dramas from India and Egypt, '60s entries from behind the Iron Curtain, and surprises from Iran, Cuba, Senegal, Mali and more. Download the entire "Story of Film" lineup (tonight through Dec. 9) at tcm.com/storyoffilm.

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