CANNES, France — It’s not hard to find people at the Cannes Film Festival dedicated to the big-screen, theatrical life of movies. But even among the devoted flocks of Cannes, Mark Cousins stands out as a true believer.
The Belfast-born, Edinburgh-based filmmaker and critic has a boundless affection for movies, and tastes that stretch around the globe. He has made pilgrimages in the footsteps of beloved films (like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “I Know Where I’m Going!” which he turned into a documentary ) and composed mammoth, hourslong documentaries on the art form’s history propelled as much as anything by his own romantic, inquisitive sense of wonder.
So great is his ardor that he literally drapes himself in movies. Directors’ names typically adorn his clothing. He has tattoos of Orson Welles and the Japanese actor-filmmaker Tanaka Kinuyo. The tie he brings to Cannes has “EP” scrawled on the inside, for Pressburger. With him wherever he goes, as a reminder to preserve a childlike perspective, is a laminated still from Herz Frank’s “10 Minutes Older” of a boy with mouth open in awe.
“I was brought up Catholic and we were of course all into devotional objects. So why not?” Cousins says of his bodily props. “Life’s tough in a way. It’s easy to forget or get ground down or under imagine life. So if you’ve got enough visual reminders, it helps.”
Cousins is very close to movie passion physicalized, and given an Irish accent. So it was fitting that the Cannes Film Festival turned to him to help raise spirits, and set the tone for the festival, on opening day. Cousins premiered his “The Story of Film: A New Generation,” a new installment to the epic undertaking of his “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” a 15-hour project spanning the history of movies.
It may be an epilogue, but in addition to contemplating advances and new visions in 21st century film, the documentary, narrated lyrically by Cousins, is also occupied with cinema’s uncertain present. It was made under lockdown with, he says, “that feeling that we’ve all had this sort of forced dream together.”
“When we go inside our heads, what do we find?” he says “One of the things is cinema.”
For anyone feeling down about the state of movies after a pandemic year that shuttered theaters around the world and heightened doomsday forecasts, talking to Cousins is like an elixir. To him, cinema is an unstoppable artform — one forever mutating, adapting and evolving.
“The people who think it’s coming to a crawl aren’t looking in the right places. If you really look around the world, cinema is always evolving in an almost Darwinian sense,” said Cousins. “It’s getting new branches and trees.”
“The reason I think it’s not dying is because when cinema came along unexpectedly in 1895, it was quite close to how our brains work,” he adds. “Shots and cuts almost feel like neurological events. I don’t mean that in a fancy, intellectual sense. I mean just how emotionally we react on a day-to-day basis. Our brains do shots and cuts. They visualize and they jump.”
Cousins is also premiering in Cannes “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas,” a profile of the prolific British producer of films like “The Last Emperor,” “Sexy Beast” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” He made it partly on a road trip with Thomas to Cannes two years ago.
There are also restorations of some films near and dear to Cousins playing at Cannes — a restored “I Know Where I’m Going!” and “El Camino,” the 1964 by the Spanish filmmaker Ana Mariscal, one of the many directors Cousins celebrated in “Women Make Film,” his lauded 14-hour documentary on female filmmakers that ran on Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Channel.
In “The Story of Film: A New Generation,” he describes movie theaters as where “our lives get relit.”
“That’s exactly what happens,” says Cousins. “When you go into the cinema, you go into a moment of darkness and then there’s illumination. It’s like you go through a brief winter and then come into summer. I will switch off because I want you to switch me on if you’re the filmmaker. I will close down and go into sleep mode so you can wake me up again. If somebody else wakes me up, they can shine a different light on it.”
When Cousins goes to the movies (which he does almost daily, “like breakfast,” he says), he sits as far forward as possible. He’s lately been enamored with the lavish musical “In the Heights” and the Autism documentary “The Reason I Jump.” “It did to me what cinema at its best does which is: I felt different after having watched that film,” he says. “What more can you ask?”
But for someone as omnivorous as Cousins, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to be worthwhile. Any movie will do.
“Even if a film is really terrible, there’s going to be, like, a tree in it, or a sunshine, or a chicken or something,” he says, laughing. “There will be something.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP