In his Dazed takeover, Irish director and film critic Mark Cousins explores the fluidity and transience of in-between states in a series of meditative shorts based on Homer's story of The Oar and the Winnowing Fan. Cousins discovers in-betweenness everywhere in the poise of a fallen branch balanced on a fence and the peace walls in Belfast which separate Catholic and Protestant streets. Below the cut, Cousins talks about how he identifies as a film historian more than a critic, and why a ten-hour documentary about Hitchcock might be on the cards.
Dazed Digital: How did become a filmmaker and critic, and how do the two inform each other?
Mark Cousins: I've always seen my writing and broadcasting about movies as attempts at film history more than criticism - I've never been a reviewer, for example. From childhood, I watched loads of movies, and so had built a data bank in my head. My TV shows and books about cinema feel like ways of downloading or organising that data bank. Having seen so many movies helps when making them, I think. When I come to shoot a scene, I can recall how others have done similar scenes, learn from those ways, choose the best option or, if possible, come up with a new way.
DD: The Story of Film was an epic 15 hour series - are you planning to do anything on that scale again?
Mark Cousins: I thought of it as a single long film, to be honest, and we shot and cut it as much for the big screen as the small. We didn't expect it to become 930 minutes, but it grew. I said to my producer John Archer, "We're going to need a bigger boat." I've no plans to make anything that big, but you can never predict where the work will take you. I watched Alfred Hitchcock's film I Confess yesterday and suddenly imagined making a ten hour film about Hitchcock...
DD: Your documentaries aren’t ever straight talking heads-style affairs, they’re more free associative and eccentric: how did you come to this cinematic approach?
Mark Cousins: Twenty years ago, Kevin Macdonald and I co-edited a book called Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. In it, we tried to show some of the range of non-fiction film; that it can be poetic, essayistic, campaigning, observational, etc; that its formal range is way broader than the talking head/televisual current affairs norm. In my films, I've loved experimenting with different forms. In one of them, What is this Film called Love?, I turn into a woman, for example - another inbetween-ness.
DD: You worked with Tilda Swinton on a portable film festival that toured Scotland. What was working with Swinton like?
Mark Cousins: Tilda and I did five projects together - a Foundation, a flash mob, a temporary cinema, a takeover of the China film archive, and the event you mention, A Pilgrimage. In each case we wanted to have fun and experiment. In my childhood, having been brought up Catholic, we were told about religious pilgrimages - climbing mountains in your bare feet, etc - suffering for your beliefs. As cinema is a bit like our religion, Tilda and I decided to do a pilgrimage for it. Tilda is a force of nature - a child, an activist, generous, agog.
DD: A Story of Children and Film is out soon - can you tell me a bit more about that project, and why you chose to focus on subject of children?
Mark Cousins: I didn't intend to make another film about cinema, but one morning I filmed my niece and nephew, and they were such fun and so lively, that I thought, "Aha, I can see a film about childhood in their play." It's when you are least expecting it that ideas come. So I intercut their playing, fighting, biting, etc, with children doing similar things in movies from all around the world.
I looked at children because they are so creative, so uninhibited, so capricious. Picasso said that all children are artists. We can learn from their surrealism, their inventiveness.