Mark Cousins is ubiquitous figure of modern cinema. Both an academic and a filmmaker in his own right. His latest film Stockholm My Love, sees him turn his camera to the titular city. What follows is a story of one woman’s journey through trauma. Mark took some time to sit down with me and chat about this new film, the future of cinema and some of his classic writing.
This is a very unique film, where does the inspiration come from?
I love films about cities and I love cities in general. I also like films about solitary people. I’m not so keen on these big ensemble films. I also love Neneh Cherry; she’s a star in my mind. Also the city of Stockholm; I’ve been going there for a while and really enjoy it. So for those reasons I guess it was perfect for me: wandering person, solitude, Neneh Cherry and a degree of sadness that recovers into something more optimistic. These were all grist to my mill.
Talk to me a bit about city symphony films and how they relate to Stockholm My Love.
Well let’s just forget about cinema and think about a symphony for a minute. It’s not something that has a lot of story but it has a lot of structure. And I like that. I like a bit of story in films but sometimes I feel there’s too much. It’s like it strong-arming me along the timeline. So I like the idea of a kind of symphonic film that’s structurally powerful but narratively loose. In Stockholm My Love you can see a clear three act structure of three different people, three different voices and three different styles of music. So it’s almost like a symphony. In films like Man with a Movie Camera you see cites are like visual thinking. In the city I am now (Edinburgh) I can see local ideas, national ideas, international ideas. I can see ideas in the buildings, in the streets – the way they’re laid out. I can see class, power, the enlightenment, and I love all that stuff. And I love training my camera on that stuff.
What are you drawn to when you first find yourself in a new city, is there anything you find yourself returning to across different locations?
Yes I do, in fact I have a tattoo on my arm that says ‘Eisenstein’, and do you know what he did? When he went to London, he thought ‘fuck all this monumental centre stuff’, and he took a bus to the outskirts. He thought he could find out as much about a great city like London at the END of a bus route as in the centre. I think there’s real wisdom in that.
I can’t imagine you ticking off tourist traps in a new city.
No, I like the non-famous bits of town. I like the places that aren’t swarmed by people. I like urban desolation! David Lynch would say there’s a kind of unconscious life to a city and you can see it in bus stations much more than in the ‘show-off’ parts of the city. It’s the bit of the city that’s trying to hide itself that I really like.
The film uses some inventive camerawork that feels very playful but also assured and meaningful. I imagine you and Christopher Doyle running through Stockholm really inspired by the city. How was it working with him?
This is the second film I’ve done with Chris. I shoot for a year or two and then he comes along and does a number of days. So in Stockholm My Love he did six days. On the previous film I think he did two ½ days. So it’s a proper visual collaboration. By the time he’s got there about two thirds of the imagery is in place. Bu then we do the magic moments. In Stockholm My Love it’s the central sequence where she goes to the scene of the man’s death. That was all shot with Chris’s big fancy camera! But a lot of the rest is shot with me and my little camera. I really like working with him because he’s like my older brother in a way. He and I look quite alike. A number of times I’ve been walking around Hong Kong and people will say to me “Mr Doyle I love your work” and I’ll say “Thanks very much, I’m particularly proud of In The Mood For Love!”
I think we speak a similar language. We’re both better at imagery than words, so we can exchange visual ideas with some rapidity and economy. Which is useful as we both work really fast. The principle photography on Stockholm My Love was six days. As you know it’s usually 28 days or round about. It’s an unusual way of working but he seems to quite like that.
It certainly has a sense of presence and vitality, was any of it captured using a smart phone?
No, but on my previous film I Am Belfast, there was one point during shooting where Chris shouted ‘Get your fucking phones out!’ because the light was changing really fast and we were in a great location. I’m always trying to use the most extreme micro technology.
[Mark then goes on to show me his collection of handheld shooting equipment, and to his delight, a new Osmo-ProIt]
Everything has to fit into my rucksack, and Chris is really into that as well.
How do you envision cinema will be embraced by a generation with smartphone cameras? And that, in a very real sense, the next Scorsese is probably using snapchat right now.
It’s totally true. For your generation it’s the first wholly democratic time for filmmaking. Of course there are those in Africa who can’t afford mobile phones, so we’re not totally there yet, but for the first time in history anybody can make a film. Walter Murch said that, until recently, cinema was the art of the fresco. You needed loads of people and loads of money. It’s meant that throughout film history some of the most talented people have not made it to the screen because there were not well connected, they came from the wrong social class, or they didn’t have enough money or access to the equipment. Now that is, in principle, dead. So it’s a great time to be a filmmaker, right now, not ten years ago.
With that being said do you feel smartphones tether us to a social world too much? To the extent that long periods of self-reflection, such as what’s portrayed in the film, become more difficult?
That’s a very good question. Today desires are different. I remember swimming in the sea in Santa Monica naked with dolphins and I and thought ‘My God, I wish there was some way I could communicate this’. It was a big thing for me, to be a boy from Belfast suddenly within this kind of paradise. And so because I couldn’t communicate it visually or message somebody I had to make the effort to store the information, the poetics of it, in my brain. So you’re right, it has changed. You no longer have the hunger or desire or appetite to communicate something because everything is communicable. That sounds pessimistic, but it’s not. I think it’s mostly an optimistic thing. I would rather everything was communicable than the era I came from where almost nothing was communicable. However, each has its downsides and in the modern era the ‘hit’ of the moment can easily be missed through communication. You can miss the poetics, awe and enchantment of a moment, either because you’re beaming it out to your friends or it’s simply too easy. I think that kids today still have to ask the question about enchantment and self-loss. While a smartphone can help it can also be a hindrance. It an extremely ambiguous piece of technology.
I agree, it feels almost too easy to memorise and store moments.
But it is still a magical thing. A moment is complex and it takes time to expand so the problem with smartphones is you feel as if you’ve got it when actually you haven’t. There’s still creative work to do to REALLY capture a moment.
Talk me through the process of casting and directing Neneh Cherry, who puts in a fantastic performance may I add.
I was already a big fan of her. I remember seeing her on Top of the Pops. She’s young and pregnant but still dancing and singing. The way she stood, her confidence, her ‘buffalo stance’. Her being Swedish meant she was naturally one of the first people I thought of when beginning this Stockholm project. When it came to work with her she had this great combination of total calm and a kind of alertness. I don’t know about you but when someone puts a camera on me I get very shy. Neneh doesn’t. And that’s an amazing thing. Think of Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. They can just stand there. It sounds simple but it’s not. And on top of that she’s just the nicest person. So, I took a risk with her and I think it paid off.
Neneh’s character goes though trauma in three distinct stages. Do films help people work through trauma, or perhaps even discover their trauma?
Absolutely. Pasolini said that ‘cinema is recovery’. Watching a film you experience a surrogate sadness, and I think that’s extremely useful. You’re safe, but it allows you to play with those raw emotions. Before I was ever in love, I saw Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing. Before going to New York I saw films about it. So cinema is very good at laying the groundwork for real experience. But I do think cinema is bad at the worst experiences. I don’t think it captures war very well. War is too all enveloping. But the relatively medium sized problems of trauma like those in Stockholm My Love can be handled well.
Is there an art form that can capture war, and the truly worst of human experience?
No. By definition representational art is only a proxy experience. I was in Sarajevo during the siege where ten thousand people were killed. And no art form I know can capture that fear. That feeling of your nervous system being under attack. Art is always going to be a reduction of life.
I suppose if there was we would have no need for art?
Perhaps, but that’s not to decry the value of these things. Art and cinema are pathfinder experiences. A good filmmaker will say ‘give me ninety minutes of your time’ and only grab you by the hand when you’re really lost. It’s almost parental. You’re both exposed and safe.
I really love your articles in Sight and Sound. You mentioned in a previous one that there’s great joy in bunking off to watch films. What was the last film you saw in this vein?
People think I go to press screenings but I don’t. I buy my ticket and go to the pictures like everyone else, usually on a Tuesday afternoon at the cinema down the road from me. However, I do work too hard. I’m currently editing a film on Orson Wells alongside a twenty two hour (!) film. So I don’t go as often as I like. I think it been about ten days since my last trip.
Does there come a point when you just HAVE to see a film, almost for your own sanity?
Totally! I get antsy and nervous if I don’t. Being a director means I’m in charge, and when you’re the boss all the time you want to do the opposite. Its dominance vs submission. Going to the cinema is a quintessentially submissive experience. I want to go the cinema, sit down, and have something much bigger than life appear. I always sit in the front row to be truly enveloped. I say ‘here are my emotions, do something great with them’.
You wrote a brilliant article entitled ‘50 weeks to Learn Film’ where you lay out a kind of anti-film school syllabus. What might a week on Mark Cousins involve?
It’s funny you mention that, as a couple of organisations around the world have asked if I could actually do it! I gave a talk in LA about it. This was in the Oscars academy cinema and I spoke for three hours. I was exhausted. I felt like I was just going on and on but I got a standing ovation! I even saw people were crying. With the article I wanted to write something that was bigger than film school and more about rejuvenation and placing yourself in the world. I wanted to capture the wired excitement of leaning visual culture.
It’s still an inspiration to me. I’ve kept a copy for many years and take a look every now again to pick up something new.
But I hope you know it’s not really about art. My advice is to not only use your mind but switch it off and use your body. I say go volunteer. Take acid! Encountering the world is a physical thing as well as an intellectual thing. In a lot of film schools where you sit in seminar rooms week after week you feel learning is happening everywhere BUT here.
You have a week entitled ‘Be Someone else’. My idea was to cross dress for a week. It would teach you so much about yourself and others.
That’s exactly what I was after. As a white male you have to constantly try and understand what it’s like NOT to be white and male. The reason I do all this shit is to help others catch up. I grew up in a conservative background without access to ideas about creatively and identity. I’m extremely omnivorous, I can ingest lots of information quite quickly. I felt it took my culture too long to provide me with interesting ideas. I wanted ’50 Weeks to Learn Film’ to be a kind of acceleration of one’s own mental, physical and spiritual life.
Is there anything you’d like to you tell your younger self, not as a writer or director but purely as a moviegoer?
I didn’t see an African film until I was 23 and I think that’s my loss. I wish I’d seen Djibril Diop Mambety’s Hyenas. It’s so enriched and punk, like many national cinemas I was late to. So that’s really why I do what I do. To try and push, and with some passion, the love of cinema. I hope people won’t have to play the same waiting game I had to.
Stockholm My Love is in cinemas from 16 June and released on DVD/Blu-ray by the BFI on 26th June.