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'The Story of Film: An Odyssey' gives a non-Hollywood history

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Hollywood is not the center of the cinema universe in film critic-historian Mark Cousins' acclaimed 15-hour documentary, "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," which has its U.S. television premiere Monday evening on Turner Classic Movies.

Cousins, 48, said he didn't want to make a film about show business or celebrity or box office. "I think I mentioned the Oscars twice in 15 hours," he said.

In fact, Cousins, who hails from Northern Ireland, looks upon the dream factory as less dream and more factory.

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That's not to say American movies and filmmakers are given short shrift in the 2011 documentary, which will air weekly through early December on TCM. Several innovative directors, including Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, are explored by Cousins, who also narrates the film.

But international cinema receives the most attention in the documentary, which is based on Cousins' book "The Story of Film."

"It's a very personal vision," said Charlie Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM. "It is not a TCM documentary. It's definitely Mark Cousins' personal vision. When I first saw it, it made me curious and interested in seeing the films. I never went to film school. I felt like I learned a lot."

TCM host Robert Osborne will introduce each episode of the documentary with Cousins.

"I liked the fact that that he points out that it wasn't just Hollywood that invented film," Osborne said. "The French did. The Italians did. It's an international film community. Mark Cousins is such an interesting fellow. He's so knowledgeable about film and so passionate about it all. He's seen everything."

Cousins shines the spotlight on the pioneers, masters and contemporary international filmmakers, including France's Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, Abel Gance, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut; Japan's Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu; Sweden's Carl Theodor Dryer; German's Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang; Russia's Sergei Eisenstein; India's Satyajit Ray, as well as African, Iranian and South American directors.

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One of the most poignant stories Cousins relates in the documentary is of Ruan Lingyu ("The Goddess"), who was not only China's Greta Garbo in terms of popularity in the 1930s but also an accomplished actress, whom he describes as having extraordinary "quietude." She committed suicide in 1935 at age 24 and has almost disappeared from film history books.

"The story of her funeral was front page news in the New York Times," said Cousins. "But if you look in the film guides — even the ones written by women — mostly she doesn't happen [to appear]. If you love the history of movies, you have to fight against that forgetting."

Cousins, who describes himself as having a "proper wanderlust," spent five years making "The Story of Film," traveling the world to where the films were produced and to conduct interviews.

"I was working very independent on a very small budget, so there was no one telling me you have to get Brad Pitt for this," said Cousins. "I wanted people who were either eyewitnesses to movie history and movie magic or who could paint a picture of the world."

Among the 35 people Cousins interviewed are Norman Lloyd, who worked with and was friends with Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Renoir; film historian Cari Beauchamp; directors Stanley Donen, Gus Van Sant and Lars von Trier, and actresses Claudia Cardinale and Kyoko Kagawa.

TCM has also lined up films screening Monday and Tuesday evenings that complement the series. In fact, more than 30 films are making their TCM premieres, including Kenji Mizoguchi's "Osaka Elegy'" from 1936, Ray's 1955 "Pather Panchali" and even the once controversial 1967 Swedish import, "I Am Curious Yellow."

"We have a great deal with Janus [distribution], and we can get access to their entire library, but the challenge was getting stuff that isn't in their library," said Tabesh. "We hired someone as a consultant to track down international rights holders. We paid for subtitling and remastering."

"When I saw the list of films that Charlie had selected, I have to tell you I shed a tear," said Cousins. "I was extremely moved. 'The Story of Film' was a lot of work. You try to share your passion, but you don't even know if people will be interested in what you are doing. It means the work is not in vain."

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'The Story of Film: An Odyssey'

Airing: 7 p.m. Mondays on TCM through Dec. 9

Information: http://www.tcm.com

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susan.king@latimes.com

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