May 16, 2023
What is the Persistence of Vision Award?
SFFILM Festival’s Persistence of Vision Award, given to an artist whose singular work falls outside the realm of traditional narrative, goes this year to Mark Cousins, the prolific filmmaker whose deep knowledge and intellectual curiosity is reflected in work that runs the gamut from the 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey to Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise to The Eyes of Orson Welles. The POV Award ceremony on Thursday, April 20, included Cousins in conversation along with a screening of his documentary The March on Rome, which investigates the rise of fascism and Mussolini 100 years ago while finding parallels with the world’s contemporary rightward drift. That’s not all. Friday, April 21, Cousins was on hand for a screening of another of his films, My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, in which he gives voice to the Master of Suspense, allowing him to explicate his work from beyond the grave.
Cousins was not available for an interview as he was traveling but he did answer questions posed to him via email as he sat in an airport, waiting for a flight.
Q: Before we get to your career, I wanted to start with a question about film festivals and their place in film exhibition. If I’m not mistaken, you used to host a traveling one yourself along with Tilda Swinton. We seem to be at a juncture, hastened by COVID, where the theatrical experience is waning. Certainly, not the first time it’s been challenged but streaming seems to have so many in its grip and so many theaters that closing during the pandemic simply never reopened. Art houses are an endangered species. Given that, can you talk about the importance of SFFILM Festival and others in terms of giving filmmakers, who might not otherwise have the opportunity, a venue to show their work on a big screen and audiences the chance to see films that may never come around again or only come around in a streaming setting?
Mark Cousins (MC): Film festivals came about because of market failure. Film distributors weren’t showing a wide enough range of films, so film festivals had to fill in the gaps.
The market isn’t failing as it was. Today, so many films are a click away. The failure isn’t scarcity but abundance.
This doesn’t mean that the job of film festivals is done. Abundance creates its own problems – especially lack of appetite. Not only is film history everywhere today, so are film festivals. Maybe they add to our sense of [feeling] overfed?
Isn’t it time that they innovate more?
That’s why Tilda Swinton and I did our 5 punky playful film events, to try to sketch new ideas about film festivals!
Q: I’m only half-joking when I ask, when do you sleep? If IMDB is to be trusted, I count 9 projects on your plate since 2020 alone. True, we were all forced to sit inside a lot during the pandemic and a couple of the projects are shorts, but it is still a lot of work. What drives you and how do you manage multiple projects simultaneously?
MC: I am driven by the pleasure of making. It is an intoxicant. I started directing in the 1980s, when production was slow, equipment was heavy, and crews were large and mostly male. All those things have changed. There’s a new lightness in filmmaking and I am riding the thermals.
Q: Two of your 2022 projects, March on Rome and My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, screen at the festival. Talk about your motivation for making them and how you determined your approach to the material. March is such a deep dive into forgotten history that you tie into our alarming present. And Hitchcock is just a delight, scholarship that so perfectly captures the master’s voice.
MC: I was asked to make March on Rome by Italian producer Andrea Romeo and Palomar productions.
I jumped at the chance because I am interested in the far right–in the 1990s, my first good film was about neo-Nazis and Holocaust denial. Also, this was a film about visual culture, which is one of my passions.
I was reluctant at first to make a film about Hitchcock, as so much has been said and done about him. But then I spied an unusual way of looking at this great 20th-century visual thinker, and so I went for it. The result is a lockdown film, a movie close to the contours of Hitchcock which is hopefully ludic!
Q: How do you decide what projects to take on, be they about film or another subject, such as the a-bomb or Belfast?
MC: The subject needs to have visual potential. It needs to be opened by a visual key. Ideally, too, it needs to allow me to combine anger and gentleness.
Q: You made the 15-hour The Story of Film, the 14-hour Women Make Film, and The Story of Film A New Generation, clocking at 2 hours, 40 minutes. Tell me about the joys and pitfalls of these massive undertakings?
MC: People often say that attention spans are shrinking, especially those of young people. But is that true? If you take the long view, I suspect that people still like the labyrinth, getting lost in the maze of a story, a structure, a city. A film is like a city.
Q: What was your gateway drug into film?
MC: Herbie Rides Again. Gene Kelly’s clothes. Cyd Charisse’s legs. The sexualities in Cabaret. Shirley MacLaine running near the end of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
Q: Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Abbas Kiarostami, Jeremy Thomas, Sergei Eisenstein, Paul Schrader, Susan Hayward, and Lena Horne are among cinema luminaries that have graced your films. Who are some others you admire?
MC: Imamura Shohei. Kira Muratova. Chantal Ackerman. Lynda Myles. Virginia Woolf.
Q: You used to work in television interviewing filmmakers and actors in a forum that actually allowed them to talk about their work in a way few shows do. Tell me about your time making that series. Also, do you ever miss it?
MC: That was a quarter of a century ago. I was so young. Suddenly I was friends with Jane Russell or drinking beer with Lauren Bacall. I got to know so many movie stars. Before Scene by Scene, classic cinema was a myth for me. After it, it was intimate, discrepant.
Q: You famously used an axe to destroy your own film, Bigger Than the Shining. So much of film history is the story of vanished films—silents lost to the ether, nitrate prints gone up in flames, etc. Why add one more title to the list of movies we’ll never see again and your own work, at that?
MC: I wanted to make another miserable film because rumor is exciting, theatrical. It fuels our imagination. The unseen is a crucial aspect of cinephilia.
Q: Last question. The award this year is dedicated to producer and Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy. Would you care to say a few words about him?
MC: Did Tom exist? Did he really bring so many people into the movie tent? Did I really talk to him about Mexican melodrama and Leni Riefenstahl and Abel Gance in a hotel in London eating peanuts because we forgot about dinner?
If so, and if my memories of him are only a tiny corner of the picture, then wow.
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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