What, exactly, is What Is this Film Called Love? Mark Cousins calls it a film about the nature of happiness. After spending five or six years writing, filming and editing The Story of Film, an epic, 15-hour documentary about the history of innovations in cinema, Irish filmmaker Cousins shot footage without a plan during a three-day stay in Mexico City. The result, which plays Telluride this weekend, is a love letter to Cousins’ hero, Sergei Eisenstein, that also covers a few other of Cousins’ likes (beer, the Telluride Film Festival, kids…) and dislikes (the Pope, capitalism, …). It’s a film that shows the possibilities of filmmaking in the digital age—its excitement, spontaneity and poetic rapture. The low-budget or, more likely, no-budget twin to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film ignores the boundaries of an art form to capture the essence of an elusive era. I spoke with Cousins upon his return to Edinburgh.
Keyframe: What happened after the monstrous The Story of Film that you went for one of the most personal, of not the most personal, of your projects?
Mark Cousins: During the making of The Story of Film, especially in the last two years of editing, I lost any sense of what free time meant, because I didn’t have any free time. Suddenly TSOF was finished and I was spending time on planes, travelling around the world showing it, publicizing it. And I not only found free time again but it was free time on the move. I loved this sense of freedom and I wanted to capture it. Hence What Is this Film called Love? What I didn’t foresee is that in making a wee film about free time, I’d start to think about past time.
Keyframe: It is not a documentary, and definitely not a fiction, and not an experimental film, at least from the film history point of view. What is this film?
Cousins: I called it What Is this Film Called Love? because I didn’t know what sort of film it is. During the edit I tweeted my worries about its genre, its categorization, and people kindly tweeted back suggestions: an autobiopic, a psychogeographic doc. I think it is a documentary, in the way that Virginia Woolf’s diaries and essays are documentaries. Her great writing captures the motion of the mind in that modernist stream of consciousness sense.
Keyframe: You call your film an ‘ad lib,’ which immediately becomes anonymous with jazz improvisation. But the difference between ad-lib in music with a solid art form like cinema is that you can always use the editing room to shape your free-form, improvised piece. So how much was improvised and how much was polished?
Cousins: This film really feels like an ad lib to me, in that it was entirely unplanned, spontaneous, felt through. Certainly the three main days in Mexico City were like that. The production process as an ad lib. And, like in jazz ad libs, I was responding to things. Not other musicians, but street scenes, tiny events that I was seeing in Mexico City. Ad libs are similar to day dreams, minds ticking over, etc., and that’s what was happening to me. Ad lib is also an idea used in stand-up comedy. Comedians try to switch off their conscious thoughts so that they, in an uncensored way, can just feel funny. I tried to do something similar (and there are, I hope, funny things in my film!)
Cinema was made for bodies in movement. Look at how Muybridge films himself moving, naked, the first director to do so as David Thomson says in his forthcoming book on movie history. Call it kinaesthesia, if you like. The art of movement. Chaplin, Gene Kelly, Anne Miller, Amitabh Bachchan dancing…these people define cinema. They could have done their dances, their joyful movements, without clothes of course. That would have been amazing. As for being naked in my own film, I wince slightly when I see that scene!
Then, yes, of course, we structured in the edit. My regular editor, Timo Langer, is brilliant with the ‘blue pencil’—i.e., telling me what shouldn’t be in the film. He’s also great with language, helping me with the script. That’s why he has a script adviser credit.
Keyframe: How did your collaboration with PJ Harvey happen?
Cousins: I had admired PJ Harvey’s work for years, and loved it. Then, out of the blue, I heard from her. She had seen and liked my film The First Movie. We corresponded a bit and met briefly, after which I admired her even more. When we were cutting this new film, we used her song ‘Bring You My Love’ as a guide track at the end. I loved its attack, its maleness almost. It contrasted with the rather female film. When we looked at the rough cut we realized that we loved the track. Not only was it solid, it was tenebrous and beautiful. So I sent her a rough cut of the film. She wrote back a lovely response and sent two further pieces of her music, neither published before. The first, a resonating guitar track, we used in a sequence filmed in Utah (it had a certain American-ness), which came after a Berlin sequence about memory. Her guitar’s echoing sounded like memory to me. The second track was, coincidentally, about Mexico and love, as is the film. We put it up front as a kind of little prologue, and added a shot of deer on a road that I’d filmed in Scotland. They seemed to work well together. I don’t know how PJ Harvey does what she does. She conjures landscapes, textures.
Keyframe: Your attention to the body and the pleasures of setting it free—which reminds me of Stan Brakhage—is an important part of the film; there is even a scene of you, naked in the Valley of the Gods. Was it a difficult decision to include that in the film? What connection you see between the body, dance and cinema?
Cousins: I confess that I’ve seen only one or two Brakhage films. My loss. But certainly the radical intimacy of his films impressed me a lot. I was also thinking a bit of Johan ven der Keuken. As I say in the film, I think that our bodies are the most modern thing we’ve got. I was brought up very religious, so taught that the body should be veiled, that it is a sinful carcass that imprisons the soul. This is a damaging thing to teach kids. I was also very skinny at school and taunted for being so. I was beat up because of my scrawniness. For years I hid my body. Then, on holiday once with friends, on Mull in Scotland, I just thought fuck this, so I took my clothes off, swan naked, etc. And it felt good. More than good. Maybe it was the adrenalin that being naked produced, but I actually felt very alive, like I was taking everything in, like I was a camera in a way. Ewan McGregor talks in a similar way about being naked.
Cinema was made for bodies in movement. Look at how Muybridge films himself moving, naked, the first director to do so as David Thomson says in his forthcoming book on movie history. Call it kinaesthesia, if you like. The art of movement. Chaplin, Gene Kelly, Anne Miller, Amitabh Bachchan dancing…these people define cinema. They could have done their dances, their joyful movements, without clothes of course. That would have been amazing.
As for being naked in my own film, I wince slightly when I see that scene! I don’t know why. It was done purely spontaneously, and I loved doing it. I also filmed a scene of me having a piss, but Timo said we shouldn’t use it. Such scenes are trying to say, ‘This is not a straight doc, this is not objective, this is naked, honest, there’s nothing hiding here.’
Keyframe: Well, I cannot think of any other film which shows the director in his most intimate moments: alone in a hotel room, naked and filmed by his girlfriend; also there is a sense of honesty and straightforwardness when you explain why you don’t have a spectacular camera movement or any Elvis music on the soundtrack. Do you think cinema is a medium that can reveal and expose or as some directors like Bresson and Welles believe, it should, or it does hide?
Cousins: There’s a new intimacy in cinema. This is a result of digital cameras that can poke around in dingy hotel rooms in low light and because, perhaps, social change is making intimacy less of a taboo.
I like the repressed cinema of Sirk, Nick Ray, Visconti, etc.—films that contain secrets, desires, that they can’t fully express. But since the cinema screen is so big and public, luminous and square before our eyes, it is great to put really intimate things on it.
Keyframe: Unlike your other films, this one has a second voice, a female narrator, and also alluding to a woman growing inside you. How do you explain this change, if there is any change?
Cousins: I love writing a semi-fictional commentary for documentaries. I stole this idea from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil—the invented woman. I knew from the start that there should be two voices, mine and a woman’s. Only when I get home did I hit on the idea that the woman should be me. I liked this and thought that, given his bisexuality, Eisenstein might too. The film is about ‘the rapture of self loss,’ as Joseph Campbell put it, i.e., getting out of yourself. One of the best ways of getting out of yourself is changing gender. I’ve never really felt like a woman, but always wanted to, so thought that this little film would be a chance to imagine being one! Timo suggested that the woman’s voice should be past tense, from a future place, an idea I liked at lot.
Keyframe: Why do you have a tattoo of Eisenstein on your left arm?
Cousins: I got the tattoo after filming in Sergei Eisenstein’s wife’s apartment in Moscow—the last bit of filming we did for TSOF. I had always thought of Eisenstein’s films as technically brilliant but ideologically shrill. Seeing all his stuff in that tiny apartment moved me and humanized him for me, so the tattoo is a small apology to him. I want to get lots more tattoos…maybe readers can suggest which film-related things I should write on my arms and legs!
Keyframe: The camera you have used to film your three days of wander is the same as those you gave to Iraqi kids in The First Movie?
Cousins: Yes it’s the same camera. It cost £100. I love it because it’s so simple, so child-like. I feel that my relationship with the movies is quite child-like.
Keyframe: I haven’t seen your early film about neo-Nazism, but everything else I’ve seen can be described as road movie, even your 15-hour history of cinema. What does the road mean to you?
Cousins: The neo-Nazi film is a road movie too. I love the picaresque, the unraveling of self that the road movie affords. Road movies are the best films at identity, I think, which is fluid and starts to dissolve on the open road.
There’s a new intimacy in cinema. This is a result of digital cameras that can poke around in dingy hotel rooms in low light and because, perhaps, social change is making intimacy less of a taboo.I like the repressed cinema of Sirk, Nick Ray, Visconti, etc.—films that contain secrets, desires, that they can’t fully express. But since the cinema screen is so big and public, luminous and square before our eyes, it is great to put really intimate things on it.
Keyframe: What about Frank O’Hara, as you quote him now and then?
Cousins: I love the casualness, the jazziness of O’Hara’s poetry, and its everydayness. ‘I want to be as completely alive as the vulgar,’ is a fantastic line, I think. His poetry captures what it feels like to be on the road. And there’s loads of humor in it too.
Keyframe: You are constantly referring to mobile phones, YouTube and new forms of communication and receiving moving images. Obviously you are not cynical about the changes in the cinema. How do you see the effect of the new media on cinema?
Cousins: Digital hasn’t changed cinema. It’s still torn between the reality imperative and the dream imperative. If anything, digital has allowed film to be more real and more dreamy. What the digitizing of life has done has changed our human relationships with landscape, other people, etc. It sometimes feels like online is the norm and the original offline world is exotic, something to be reached for through the thicket of screens. My film tries to reach for that.
Keyframe: For you, is What is this film? the beginning of something or the end?
Cousins: It’s an interlude, and entr’act. A breather between bigger things. But I hope that some of the filmic freedoms I’ve enjoyed in making it (doing dream sequences, fictional commentaries, nakedness, musical structure, etc.) will influence what I do in the future. That’s the point of an ad lib isn’t it?