Caution: steps

Thanks to Mark Cousins’ electrifying 15-part Story Of Film on More4, its sister channel Film4 is showing pivotal films from his “redrawn map” of cinema history – albeit for my money not enough of them. (One a week? Each of the three chapters of Story Of Film so far have made me want to watch about a dozen films!) It’s only when a supposedly intelligent, offbeat movie channel shows Battleship Potemkin [pictured] or Orphans On The Storm or Ordet or La Regle du Jeu that you realise how very rare it is that you see films that are this old or exotic.

It shouldn’t be a “treat” to see silent movies, or foreign-language movies on TV – not in a multi-channel, narrowcast world – but even on Film4, it is. If you look at its schedules, most of what the channel shows is in English, and in colour, for a start. Yes, you get “old” films, but very rarely something you haven’t seen before. I know, I know, it’s a commercial channel – they run ads in breaks during films, which is a necessary evil, I guess, but annoying – but since it’s the only free digital-terrestrial film channel, it has a lot of responsibility to deliver. I just wish that more corners of the cinema-loving populace were catered for by the film channels, and the non-film channels. Mark Cousins told me when I interviewed him that people who hadn’t seen a 1960s Japanese documentary or an 80s film from Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé no longer had the excuse of not being catered for by TV, as such films are “a click away on the internet.” This is true enough – Cissé’s films are on YouTube, in full and in pretty high definition, including his most celebrated, Yeelen, from 1987 (although beware, it starts with the death of a chicken which some viewers may find disturbing) – but what about those without broadband? Or those who don’t like watching entire feature films on a computer screen (which includes me)?

When I was growing up, in a three-channel world, we saw silent movies on TV, and I actually made no distinction between colour and black-and-white films, old or new, partly because we didn’t even have a colour telly when I was very young. I suspect youngsters today, spoiled as they are, would turn their noses up at a film if they felt it was old, or if it wasn’t in colour. (Some of them will assume that all films are in 3D if we’re not careful.) I watched anything that was on. I realise now how lucky I was.

It’s easy to see why modern channels might play it safe. They’re after an audience. An audience wants new. An audience wants big. An audience wants famous. An audience doesn’t want surprises. I love the way Mark Cousins expresses surprise on our behalf as he uncovers unexpected new twists in the history of cinema (“a surprise indeed”). He delights in them. As should we.

Remember when Film4, or FilmFour as I think it was branded at the time, used to have specialist offshoots: FilmFour Extreme and FilmFour World? They didn’t last long. Unless you’re happy watching films online, or have the bottomless funds to buy the abundant DVDs that are now handsomely available, exploring cinema backwards, or outwards from the English-speaking world, is not made easy. (There’s a nice, 24-hour oldies channel called MGM HD on Sky, but you have to pay extra for the movies package to access it.) When I was a bit more flush and presented Back Row every week on Radio 4 in the early noughties, I invested in a lot of foreign-language DVDs and these form a vital chunk of my existing library. But that kind of profligacy is hard to justify in a recession, especially this really shit one. (I tried hooking my laptop up to my HD TV by the way, before you suggest it, but I have a monthly limit on my wi-fi that gets eaten up by downloads, so it’s not practical, really.)

The Curzon cinema chain do an On Demand service, whereby the very arthouse movies they show at their London cinemas are available to download for £8 for brand new ones, and £4 for back catalogue, including my favourite foreign film of last year, Of Gods And Men, for instance (discounts with membership, too). It’s a fantastic service if you have the facility to run your computer through your telly, or are planning on watching a film on your own, on the laptop. There are loads of more obscure foreign titles in the tank here.

Which brings me back to Battleship Potemkin. Cousins’ section on Soviet silent cinema was enlightening in chapter three, and if you saw it, you will have been as desperate as I was to see Potemkin again, in full. And thanks to Film4, we could. Despite interruption by ads, it was amazing how easy it was to get into the 1925 silent groove. The music was stirring, too. There’s no excuse for broadcasters not showing old, foreign films like this. Stick them on in the middle of the night! We’ll record them! It’s fine! They surely can’t cost as much to buy in.

In related news, I had my annual email from BBC4’s World Cinema Awards this week. Now in its eighth year, it’s an admirable initiative from a channel that will hopefully still be able to continue to invest in foreign and arthouse movies after its budget has been mauled. They basically poll critics and assorted academics and festival directors to come up with a shortlist of six films each year from the available pool of around 200, and a jury selects the winner. It’s broadcast this year on November 20. Once again, when they send round the full list to pick from, it’s always a) amazing how many foreign movies find a release in the UK, and b) how many I haven’t seen, and that’s after a concerted effort to see as many as possible, and under a scheme of affirmative action. I won’t tell you which two I voted for, although if you’ve followed my blog, you might be able to guess. (Their Wikipedia entry has all the previous winners, if you’re interested. Jonathan Ross has previously hosted the awards, but I guess it won’t be him this year. Who will it be?)

The Story of Film is all up there on 4OD if you haven’t caught it yet. You have to love Mark Cousins’ voice – and indeed, if you don’t, it may be a barrier (I find it soothing) – but the content is king.

Sighs. I feel as if I bang the gong a lot for foreign movies. I make no apology for it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Hollywood movie; and I love it when this country shows the world how it’s done (saw the trailer for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights last night, and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur is coming soon: I cannot wait!); but you miss so much if you steer clear of subtitles. Or films with no talking in at all, like the one about the battleship. Back me up on this.


6 thoughts on “Caution: steps

  1. I cant get enough of these film documenteries. I love them.
    Thanks for pointing me in the way of The Story Of Film. Because of the wierd shifts I worked I rarely get to see TV and usually watch things on the Iplayer or 4oD, because of that I also dont see too many adverts for programmes that are of interest to me.
    Cheers Andrew!!!!!!! Im headed off to see The Story Of Film .

  2. I’m no card-carrying film buff but I do like a portion of foreign fibre with my popcorn.
    I share your pain but it’s a first-world problem complaining that no-one will show films for free on your TV and without adverts.
    LoveFilm are pretty good. For £5/month I’ve seen Battleship Potemkin, Rashomon, Tokyo Story, The Illusionist alongside Attack the Block, Social Network etc

  3. Following switch-over I was unlucky enough to have to replace one of my Freeview boxes so I bought a Humax HD one. I’m not sure whether it can work with mobile internet (it has a usb socket but I haven’t read the manual), but I can plug it into my landline router and it can access the iPlayer directly- no computer required. It also has limited access to YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, and internet radio. Vaguely interesting. I still have a 4:3 CRT TV – the iPlayer looks pretty reasonable on that.
    I now have a bundled broadband package and landline from Kingston Comms. I noticed I was paying a total of just over £30 a month for the separate phone and a 20GB monthly download internet service. And 20GB was starting to become limiting – sometimes at least. Now I’m paying £40 a month for both, with a 150GB monthly download limit (unlimited between midnight and 8am). I don’t have any choice other than KC; how does this compare with what companies are offering in BT land? It seems crazy to be stumping up this much cash, but it’s rapidly becoming the most important utility.
    Regarding the old films thing: it seems to me more that modern films have become devalued. If the BBC could have shown more newish films when you were growing up, I guess they’d have done it. There seem to be more films on now and they seem to go from cinema to DVD to TV in no time. And no one’s particularly bothered when they’re on TV because we’ve seen them already. (Well, I usually haven’t.) Which is why there are more of them: because they’re cheaper; because no one cares. If films became more of an occasional treat on TV again, I think we’d soon start seeing more of those old classics. But there’d still be hardly anyone watching.

  4. I’m working my way through the Guardian’s 1000 films to see before you die list (,,2108487,00.html). Four years after starting my endeavour I’m on 571, but I’m determined to get to the end. I haven’t got a TV but I have a Lovefilm account, a Blockbuster account, and I make use of the occasional free trial from other DVD rental companies. I also get DVDs from libraries, Cash Converter, eBay, charity shops etc. Once watched, I sell them on and make most of my money back. If I can do it, even without a TV, you can do it too!

    I do agree that “proper” film fans are underserved by TV, but music fans have an even worse deal. It annoys me, because sports fans are SO overserved. Grrrr.

  5. I was completely unaware of the Story of Film too. Will check it out. Last time I saw Mark Cousins was hosting Moviedrome.

    I’ve used Curzon on Demand three times and on two of those it didn’t work properly, so be warned. Bit of a shame because in theory it’s a great service.

    Nice post. Thanks.

  6. Hi Andrew,

    I totally agree with you about the lack of foreign films being shown on both terrestrial and digital tv particularly with the endless channels Sky dedicates to ‘film’. If it takes a proclaimed critic like Cousins to re awaken interest in the classics of silent cinema that’s a really good thing. I studied film at university in the mid noughties and was exposed for the first time to films such as Broken Blossoms and Birth of A Nation and rather more interestingly purchased a book entitled ‘The Story of Film’ by none other than Mark Cousins which covers silent, sound and digital cinema. This was back in 2004. Make of that what you will.

    Thanks for the blog and this particular post.

    Mark (not cousins)

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