2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Mark Cousins’ 50 Week Film Course


In 2014, Mark Cousins wrote an article for Sight & Sound Magazine outlining a 50 Week Film Course. “Lots of good things happen in film schools and on film courses, which are often taught by great people,” he says. “But they have often, too, lost their senses.” Cousins emphasizes the focus on technical skills over experiential ones as a problem — not because technical skills aren’t important, but that they fail to promote creativity. While his philosophy applies to film as an art more than it does as a craft, the underlying implication of his commentary suggests a system of inequality currently built into most higher education institutions. 

The problems that Cousins addresses are multi-leveled and take aim at the system of disparity built into the art world. In most countries, the current educational system has been stacked against those who cannot afford to pay and similarly perpetuates a system of self-congratulations and illusionary entitlement for those who can. Is film school the best place to learn cinema? Is it the best place to learn to be a critic? In recent decades, film schools have been especially limited by the transition of universities from a public entity to a private one. Universities that are run like companies (rather than places of learning) are short-changing the personal growth of students.

Film schools have their definitive advantages and Cousins points to a few of them, as it can be a great opportunity to interact with great minds and great teachers. Film schools often provide access to equipment and resources that might be difficult to procure on your own. They also offer the chance to build friendships and working relationships that can extend deep into your personal and professional life. 

The idea of setting up an alternative school, one built around themes and experiences, has an obvious appeal. Cousins presents his film course as 50 individual themes which will be laid out in a random order (though, quite evidently, week 49 and 50 — which reflect on the previous year and look forward to the next one — are stuck in place). While some entries engage directly with film history, such as Week 42, “Costume and story: In the Mood for Love, The Conformist, Jezebel, The Red Desert, Throne of Blood,” many other entries step outside the confines of cinema.

For Week 32, Cousins suggests the following as a project: “The frontier: students go and live for a week on the island of Lampedusa, or another place of migratory movement where human rights are being abused.” Again, let’s cast aside for a moment the potential for such an adventure to fall into activist tourism and look at the potential questions that such an adventure presents. Who are you and what kind of films will you make? As a one-week experience, how do you make the most out of the frontier without appropriating someone else’s life or experiences? What role does art have under the pressures of survival?

Cousins doesn’t outline the specifics of the organization for his school, like the costs or how often they are meeting as a group, but that does seem partially intentional. Since this has been framed as an alternative to a university, one can’t imagine that this would be a high-cost adventure. But, the idea of the group remains a central facet of Cousins’ syllabus that emphasizes communal experiences and cooperation. Flowing through this experiment, the communal aspect of filmmaking remains, as it should.

How can you adapt Cousins’ film school to criticism? Personally, it seems no changes would be necessary at all. At the heart of film criticism is cinema itself, therefore, to shy away from aspects of filmmaking involved seems unnecessary. Critics are not failed artists, and many don’t ever aspire to make films on their own, but understanding the process and mindset for the development of creative ideas can only be an asset to a writer. My only demand of a writer undertaking this film experience would be to write until your hands bleed, with the knowledge that, once you’ve completed the course, you’ll need to burn it all. That final step cannot be underestimated since letting go might be the hardest part of writing. The idea that you have to “kill your family” on the page before you can move forward may seem hyperbolic, but any writer can attest to how hard it can be to even let a single sentence go.

While this course seems targeted to young people who might not have jobs or families, it can easily be adapted to conform to various lifestyles. You might not complete it in 50 weeks as planned, but the end goal of changing the way you see the world seems like a worthwhile undertaking. If you are unable to go to some of the locales that Cousins outlines, such as a visit to Esfahan in Iran, how would you work towards finding an alternative that would be feasible? How would you maintain a level of community engagement by bringing on friends and colleagues to help explore film and art? And how, finally, would you lay out your own course for someone else to follow?

Cousins’ film school doesn’t directly address the systems in place that favor those who go to conventional universities. This alternative school might not open up professional opportunities, but perhaps we need to rethink the value of art school. Vocational and trade schools exist to teach you a professional craft, but it’s only in the past 50 years that universities have shifted towards “preparing people for the workforce” (which many are woefully unqualified to do). We’re long overdue for an educational overhaul to rethink learning as something that doesn’t just have an economic end-goal.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.