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What Is This Film Called Love?

The Sound of a Different Drum


The great Scottish documentarian John Grierson might not have approved, but throwing one’s personality into non-fiction filmmaking is commonly done. However, what exactly constitutes one’s personality here? Is it the voice, the body, the camera, the boom mike? Is it a voice on the screen, or a voice-over to the film images? Is it evident in the words used in the voice-over, but where the voice itself is somebody else’s? To unpick some of these choices as we look at Mark Cousins’ What is This Film Called Love?, let us muse over some of the options more concretely. Nick (Biggie and Tupac, Kurt and Courtney) Broomfield is a deliberately obtrusive presence in his films as he appears in front of the camera, carries the boom mike and can be heard in voice-over. Chris (Sans soleil, The Last Bolshevik) Marker was so private that there are hardly any pictures available let alone appearances in his own films. He remains one of the most literary of documentarists, however, and his musings, quickly moving from subject to subject, throwing up questions and sceptical about the image, carry a density of perception that make them singular no matter the bodily absence. Werner Herzog, meanwhile, is a messianic presence, never more evident than in the Teutonic tone that demands, in Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we see the universe as wondrous and dangerous. In Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, she usually tucks herself behind the small digital camera she works with, only occasionally peeking out to show her aged hands, her thinning hair, as she interviews numerous people about contemporary forms of gleaning. Ross McElwee rarely appears on screen, but his presence is constant in Sherman’s March. As he follows Union General Sherman’s journey through the south today, he searches at the same time for love. Where Sherman’s purpose during the American Civil War was to defeat the confederates, McElwee’s is merely to find a wife. As McElwee turns his camera on ex-lovers, lovers and possible lovers to be, the director often turns his camera into a loving gaze, unable to look away as it implicates the viewer in McElwee’s infatuations.

All our examples come from what is usually called the ‘essay film’, or more especially first-person cinema, a type of non-fiction work that incorporates the subjectivity of the filmmaker, and unequivocally. One Day in September, The Thin Blue Line, Enron, The Corporation and An Inconvenient Truth are all accounts that are slanted, but their slant doesn’t incorporate the personal: first person cinema usually does, and whether the personal focus happens to be political (Marker’s), sociological (Varda’s), egotistical (Broomfield’s), emotional (McElwee’s) or spiritual (Herzog’s), the personality comes through as readily as the issue. In this sense Cousins’ What is This Film Called Love? is a work of personality cinema, with Cousins holding to Nietzsche’s notion of the sovereign right of the ego as he impose himself upon the image. As he decides to make a film while kicking around Mexico for three days he puts to the test an assertion made by literary theorist Elizabeth H. Bruss that “film lacks the capacity for self-observation and self-analysis that we associate with language and literature”. (‘Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film’) Putting his body at the centre of the work, Cousins even gives a new meaning to the term flashback as he utilises footage from months before where he walks naked through Monument Valley. At another moment, in his hotel room, he wonders whether he can be bothered to go out and explore the city and decides that “he can’t be arsed”. We stay in the hotel with Cousins going to sleep and dreaming of Moscow, going wherever Cousins’ consciousness or unconscious take him. Out of this desire to do what he likes comes the wish to spend his three days in Mexico City with Sergei Eisenstein for company, a director of course long since dead but someone that Cousins will resurrect as his peripatetic amigo, the friend who will accompany him round the capital. Eisenstein worked in Mexico in the thirties, and Cousins muses on how much the metropolis has changed since the great Russian filmmaker’s time there. He even gets an Eisenstein tattoo on his bicep.

There have been plenty documentaries sharing Cousins’ yen for self-indulgence contained within movement through space, with the journey mitigating the egoistic need to put oneself at the centre of the film. Examples include Life Without Death where Frank Cole crosses the Sahara alone except for the aid of camels as he muses over mortality in voice-over, and Walking to Werner, where a young filmmaker Linas Phillips hopes to meet his idol Herzog in LA and walks from Seattle to the city of Angels. But where Cole’s achievement is monumental (the Sahara crossing made it into The Guinness Book of World Records) and Phillips’ walk more modestly arduous, Cousins offers up his film as a record of a non-event, as if he filmed little more than his attempt at alleviating boredom. This is less wanderlust than ennuilust, a desire to absorb the potential for boredom into one’s life and allow for the possibilities of drift. As artist Alison Watts’ accompanying voice-over says, “Suddenly he had a quest; he was turning nothing into something”. It comes just after Cousins explains in voice-over, as he sits in a café, that at a party recently someone gave him an ecstasy tab by way of thanks for enjoying one of his films. Cousin’s own voice-over informs us that ecstasy is a drug, and that Eisenstein could have invented it. He decides that he needs to explore the city and find five things to do with ecstasy, Eisenstein and Mexico.

This urban stroll is of course also the difference between a metropolitan dérive and the adventurous rustic exploration. In Wanderlust – A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit talks of the long walk, the demanding journey undertaken usually because of three motives: “An extremely long walk is often taken up as a sort of pilgrimage, a proof of some kind of faith or will, as well as a means of spiritual and practical discovery.” An urban dérive, however, is adopted more as a game, as a ludic rejection of the pace of contemporary urban living, and often has, within it, a subtly political intention. As Guy Debord says “One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll” (‘Theory of the Dérive’). What can come out of it, however, is a counter rhythm to capitalist urban expectation. The apparent arbitrariness of the walk (dérive translates roughly as drift) gains its meaning not through distance, destination or spiritual growth, as one often finds in the epic journey, but through new perceptual possibilities within a familiar over an alien environment. Cousins’ walk through Mexico City isn’t quite known terrain (Mexico City isn’t to Cousins what Paris would have been for Debord) and it is isn’t quite a stroll either: at one moment Cousins’ voice-over announces he has walked sixteen miles so far that day. But the point isn’t to exhaust himself in alien territory, but refresh his perception with the aid of an ‘amigo’. As he walks with an image of Eisenstein to accompany him, so he wonders what the Russian filmmaker might have been thinking and feeling as he would have walked round the city many years before, a director Cousins reckons is amongst the greatest in film.

This perceptual generosity extends occasionally to adopting Eisenstein’s framing. Cousins films a straight on medium long-shot of a street from behind a tree, and says this is how he would usually frame an image in his own work. Then he cuts to a shot in low angle, indicating how Eisenstein would be inclined to frame it: “like you’re on your knees worshipping, as if with a touch of ecstasy”. This is Jean-Luc Godard meeting Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence. In Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Godard asks why he should film one way rather than another: what is it that motivates a shot choice once you escape from ready narrative coordinates? Bloom, meanwhile, accepts writers are haunted by the influences upon them, and part of their freedom resides in rejecting the power of these major predecessors, and forging a strong vision of their own. Cousins has always been more interested in the ‘ecstasy of influence’; positioning himself as a very modest figure in the astral firmament (to use a Bloomian metaphor): a small planet happily orbiting much larger ones. Eisenstein is one such planet, and here functions like a sun by which Cousins can navigate. As he talks to the picture he walks around with, Cousins illustrates his love for the great filmmaker by seeing the city partly through his eyes: he basks in Eisenstein’s ecstatic vision as if the director were a pill he’d just popped.

Cousins has made much of the film itself as being something out of nothing. Giving a talk at Edinburgh University months before its release, he announced that he’d recently made a film very different from the one he was ostensibly there to talk about: The Story of Film. Where The Story of Film was a fifteen hour epic running through cinema history, covering several continents, with Cousins interviewing numerous film people, and that took “the best part of a decade” to make, What is This Film Called Love? was three days with one man and a camera, a film that could easily never have left Cousins’ laptop. Where The Story of Film was full of external imperatives – with Cousins travelling around the world interviewing people for a project of inevitably great length – What is this Film Called Love? is a work of liberation.

In the introduction to his collection of essays from Prospect magazine, Widescreen, Cousins says the reason he doesn’t direct fiction films is “because, judging from what I’ve seen on the set, or from what I know from fiction director friends, you need to have the determination to insist on a retake when everyone is tired, cold and hungry, the actress’s feet are killing her in her high heels and the crew is about to go triple time. I don’t have the determination.” Equally, maybe the external imperatives would be too great, as if even the luxury of fiction filmmaking contains within it the rhythm of oppressive expectation. The something that comes out nothing in What is This Film Called Love? is the pleasure of creating one’s own pace, the sovereign right of Nietzsche’s ego meeting the existential rhythm that counters industrial expectation, as illustrated by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. “Rising, tram, four hours in the office, or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm”. But travel can force upon one a different rhythm. As Camus says in his Notebooks, “Man is face to face with himself: I defy him to be happy…And yet this is how travel enlightens him. A great gulf between himself and things. The world’s music finds its way more easily into this less solid heart.”

Travel and the escape from the nine to five allows one to find rhythmic freedom, the opportunity for a certain rhythmanalysis, for what Henri Lefebvre (in Critique of Everyday Life, Vol.3) sees as “a new science that is in the process of being constituted, [and] studies these highly complex processes. It may be that it will complement or supplant psychoanalysis. It situates itself at the juxtaposition of the physical, the physiological and the social, at the heart of daily life”. Vital to it might be looking at some of the films we’ve mentioned: ‘documentaries’ unhindered by narrative expectation, and predicating themselves on the lightest of conceits. Whether it is McElwee repeating Sherman’s journey but this time searching out a potential loved one, Cole determined to live freely by pushing himself to the point of death, or Cousins filming three days alone in a foreign city with a dead filmmaker for company, the films search out a rhythmic ‘self-indulgence’ to the detriment of more conventional modes of being.

The word self-indulgence comes up a lot in reviews of Cousins’ film. Miles Fielder in a favourable piece in The List calls it “supremely self-indulgent”, while blogger Barnaby Southcombe says the “film often comes across as self-indulgent”. However, self-indulgent is one of those unpacked phrases in contemporary life,  like ‘cool’, ‘shy’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘stressed’, and it is a word (or rather a hyphenated word) that can be usefully investigated through personal documentary. What such films insist upon is the presence rather than the absence in one form or another of the person claiming responsibility for the project; and so in a work like Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Encounters at the End of the World, it is not an encounter with the edge of the world or the distant past, but Herzog’s. When in the latter Herzog asks questions about the sexual desires of Penguins, it is as much an encounter for the person being asked, as the interviewee looks bemused at the nature of the questioning, but the viewer expects nothing less from so singular and absurdist a figure as this German auteur. If we didn’t know who was asking the question, much of the humour would be lost. Equally, when Nick Broomfield turns up late for a meeting with Eugene Terre’Blanche in The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, he does so because he wants to aggravate a man who hates lateness, but we accept it partly because Broomfield has a habit in his work of presenting his documentary style as chaotic and a bit haphazard. In each instance the self is indulged: if we didn’t have a clear sense of Herzog or Broomfield as personalities, many of their scenes wouldn’t work; they might even seem inexplicable.

Perhaps for some the self-indulgence Cousins shows lies in the assumption that he is a name not so much to be reckoned with as recognized. However, years presenting Moviedrome on BBC2, and also interviewing Lauren Bacall, Jeanne Moreau, Roman Polanski, Jeff Bridges, Jack Lemmon and numerous others for Scene by Scene on the same channel, makes him one of the most recognizable faces and (undeniably) voices in film criticism: only Jonathan Ross and Mark Kermode can compete in terms of media presence. The assumption that here is a recognizable self to indulge seems justified. However, perhaps it is the self not only as a public personality but (more intriguingly) as a person without expectations or responsibilities. In an interview with David Cairns on Cairns’ website Shadowplay, former Edinburgh Film Festival director Shane Danielsen shows irritation with Cousins (another former director). “It’s what annoyed me about Mark’s interview here. ‘The worst bit was the routine, how locked my diary was – I had to be somewhere specific or do something specific each month.’ Golly, yes, it’s awful, isn’t it – having to actually do a job, like normal people, to a set schedule? When presumably one would rather be able to pause, perhaps for weeks on end, to admire the dew glistening on a cobweb, or show an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film to an Afghan child whose mother just stepped on a landmine. All the while, collecting your pay cheque – which, we might note, is delivered monthly.” This isn’t the place to get involved in a spat between two former directors of the festival, but Danielsen’s comment does reflect, in Nietzschean terms, his resentment against his nemesis’s affirmation. Where Danielsen insists Cousins should accept life is all about people having jobs to go to, a rhythm placed upon them, and a pay check at the end of the month, Cousins takes advantage of what we could temporal privilege and decides to live according to a rhythm that is much more his own than that applied by society’s expectations. Self-indulgence indeed.

By extension, Cousins decides to make a documentary that is the filmic equivalent of this rejecting of societal demands. Central to the sovereign right of the ego is the determination to create a space for oneself against the onslaught of the socially expected, and are some of the films we’ve mentioned, Sherman’s March, Sans Soleil, even The Gleaner’s and I and Encounters at the End of the World self-indulgent rather than issue-indulgent in an attempt to search out this kind of space? Recent issue-indulgent films include examining the motives behind the Iraq war in No End in Sight, investigating the mobile phone company Nokia in Blood in the Mobile, the suspect dealings in the financial industry in Enron and Inside Job, and the shortage of fish and oil in End of the Line and A Crude Awakening. But to call them issue-indulgent would be slightly oxymoronic (as self-indulgent might, if one thought about it, seem tautological). They could be jaundiced, biased, lop-sided, but the assumption is that they are taking a socially political position more than a personally evolutionary one. But we might wonder whether the personal interventions in The Gleaners and I and Encounters at the End of the World, in The Leader, His Driver, and the Driver’s Wife, and Life without Death, aren’t only incorporating elements of the self-indulgent, but acknowledging through “self-indulgence” the trials and tribulations of making documentary. When for example Inside Job looks to interview key figures in the financial industry held responsible for the collapse, like Alan Greenspan, and the film cuts to an intertitle saying they were unavailable for comment, we are left to muse over how hard the director tried, since Greenspan’s absence resembles that of a bully who finally doesn’t turn up for the fight they all but started. Broomfield would show us that process; self-indulgently presenting himself in front of the camera, but at the same time showing how hard he tried to get that interview – evident for example in Kurt and Courtney, where he struggles to access Courtney Love, and in his film about Thatcher, Tracking Down Maggie. This isn’t at all to condemn Inside Job; merely to say the film’s approach can leave us asking questions that seem too easily answered in a person’s absence: the notion that people like Greenspan’s position is indefensible so he doesn’t even try to defend it, and the film accepts the failure to get the interview as a certain type of victory.

The self-indulgent film, though, usually acknowledges the nature of its procedures as readily as the nature of the person making it, and Cousins’ film, like those by Broomfield, Varda, Herzog and the other directors mentioned, could be called just as easily process docs, with the directors finding the film as they are making them and using obtrusiveness of camera, boom-mike, their voices and their bodies to illustrate the means of production. More especially, and maybe more importantly, taking into account our comments on rhythmanalysis, such an approach can give to documentary film a rhythm based not on a metronomic approach of thesis and antithesis leading to an apparently objective synthesis, but to new rhythms of thought and feeling. One of the problems with objectivity (pseudo or otherwise) in documentary is the need to show both sides of an argument, and the approach can create a fair stab at the truth, but often provides a mortal blow to distinctive rhythms.

One might not much care for Cousins’ film, but it is rhythmically its own, determined to find its own patterns without any obligation to truth and fairness. As Cousins films from across a street in Mexico City he says, “everywhere I look, Sergei, it’s as if the street scenes have been directed by Jacques Tati”. He watches two women whom he initially thinks are sisters apparently helping each other. They are both disabled; one with a walking stick; the other in an electric wheelchair. As the women in the wheelchair pulls away from the other, Cousins sees her “burn rubber” – accelerating off at what must be no more than the about eight miles an hour. It is a non-event, but turned into a purposeful one out of its own paradoxical irrelevance as Cousins leaves Eisenstein behind for a homage to a rather different sensibility. It is an example of temporal luxury – taking the time, possessing the time, to observe whatever passes in front of his eyes, and consequently the camera’s. One might be bored by such moments, but they are not predictable even if they might seem irrelevant and arbitrary.

Yet vital to the personal non-fiction film is the risk of arbitrariness to the detriment of predictability. Boredom surely has two poles – the consequentially predictable and the inconsequentially unknown: the nine to five, on the one hand, its empty absence on the other. If many documentary films like Inside Job, Enron and No End in Sight understandably follow the first approach as they try to generate a plausible argument and illustrate a healthy work ethic, the latter seeks out of ‘unemployment’, out of ‘doing nothing’, a new rhythm in thought and feeling, as if in keeping with the filmmaker’s own life rhythms.

This returns us to our initial question concerning the filmmaker’s personality: is it a property first and foremost of their bodily presence (as in Broomfield), their voice (as in Herzog), the camera’s gaze (as in McElwee), a combination (Cousins’ film is nothing if not a panoply of self-disclosing devices)? But what we find most clearly evident in the personal non-fiction film is this attempt to generate a new rhythm. Here we see the sovereign right of the ego marches to the sound of its own drum, as the Nietzschean idea gives way to Thoreau: “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” Cousins’ film is in a healthy tradition of keeping pace with one’s own drum, no matter if some might see such works as blowing their own trumpet. Cousins may say in the introduction to Imagining Reality, a book on documentary he co-wrote with Kevin Macdonald, “John Grierson has a lot to answer for. Not only was he the populariser of that most dreary and off-putting of terms, ‘documentary’, but he proceeded to convince us that the only type of documentaries worth making were the type he approved of: utilitarian, pedagogic and impersonal”. But he adds “the primary aim of this book is to demonstrate how diverse and fascinating our documentary heritage can be”. What is This Film Called Love?, made fifteen years after the book first came out, adds another voice to documentary dissidence.


©Tony McKibbin