Humphrey Jennings, 1907-1950; pt. 2

… Continued from part 1—

In 1936 Jennings helped to organize London’s first International Surrealists’ Exhibition, in which his own painting also appeared.  In addition he translated a collection of surrealist poetry by his friend, the  Frenchman Paul Eluard.  Though he was not exactly one of the faithful—he had too much regard for the arts and objects of the past to fully qualify as a surrealist—Jennings found great resonance in the movement’s incongruous juxtapositions, a grounding which added substantially to his scholar’s knack for assimilation and his ability to find patterns and correspondences that were not obvious, or even visible to the untrained eye.

In 1937 Jennings helped organize Mass Observation, a monumental project which was to coincide with the coronation of King George VI, and which was designed to take the principles of anthropological science and apply them not to far flung cultures, but to the British populace itself.  In contrast to the GPO’s customary prescribing and proscribing, the task here was to observe, to gather, and to present data without compulsory means or excessive urging.

This methodology resonated strongly with Jennings’ own sensibilities, and it informed his first major film as a director, Spare Time (1939).  But a conviction about mass observing’s validity in cinematic settings was not all that he took away from the experience.  Spare Time was shot in England’s industrial north, which Jennings had never before visited.  The exposure was revelatory; presented for the first time with the real conditions of working class life, Jennings saw that the aesthetic, cerebral cast of his previous work had been inadequate, even inappropriate.  Late events in Europe had already affected in him a substantial sensitization, and this glimpse of conditions at home confirmed to him that distance, aesthetic or anthropological, had now to give way to simple human engagement.

In 1954 the British film director Lindsay Anderson wrote a moving, loving tribute to Jennings entitled “Only Connect.”  The phrase, which was the epigram to E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End, was for Anderson the great invitation and opportunity extended to the viewers of Jennings’ films.  Connection, empathy, unity: here on the brink of war he had prepared himself for just such a communion.

On the first of September, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland.  On September 3rd, Britain declared war on Germany.  That same month the GPO film unit was taken over by the Ministry of Information.  In 1940 it was renamed the Crown Film Unit, and it was here that Humphrey Jennings began to make his greatest films.

The first of these, which begins this collection, is London Can Take It.  This1940 release is strongly reminiscent of the classic GPO productions, one key similarity being that it is not solely Jennings’ film, but rather the result of a multi-leveled collaboration.  Documentary pioneer Harry Watt was the co-director.  (Watt illuminates Jennings’ career at a number of important points.  His North Sea [1938], a dramatic reenactment of an actual incident that featured the incident’s actual participants, was a clear precursor to Jennings’ own Fires Were Started [qv].  And Watt’s Target for Tonight [1941] represents a pugnacious alternative to Jennings’ gentler war reports, which to some blitzed Brits were rather gentler than they needed to be.)  GPO stalwart Henry “Chick” Fowle photographed the images and Stewart McAllister, Jennings’ steadiest and most important collaborator, edited them.  The commentary was by Collier’s Weekly war correspondent Quentin Reynolds.

As with many documentaries of the period, this commentary leads the way, and dictates the use to which the pictures are put.  This is another echo from the GPO period, and the narration’s function further recalls the propagandistic core of the British documentary.  Reynolds here tells us what is happening, what it means, and suggests what we ought to do about it.  And as is often the case with propaganda, what we get is only part of the picture.

The thing that Londoners were supposed to be taking was the bombing incident to the Battle of Britain, and it is of course true that they did exhibit extraordinary courage under extraordinary duress.  But this is not simply an objective record of the blitz.  The film’s purpose was two-fold: to boost morale at home and, more especially, to appeal to the still-neutral Americans.  As was obvious in the first instance, and as it was felt in the second, neither objective would have been served by dwelling on the real terror of the bombing.  So instead the production team gives us superb, selected images of modest perseverance and matter-of-fact courage.   Life and leisure and commerce continue, and optimism is maintained in the midst of the rising rubble.  The suggestion, it seems, is that these people could use your aid and even your intervention.  But they’re not begging, and either way it will all come right in the end.

Of course the actual situation was decidedly more grave, and the eventual outcome was by no means certain.  And yet, though it may be selective about presenting the full facts, London Can Take It does not deceive.  A mordant wit—“in the centre of the city the shops are open as usual.  Many of them are more open than usual”—acknowledges the dread that lurks beneath the film’s affirmative surface.  We both hear and see evidence that if these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the film’s title will no longer be true.  An image of a sleeping family in an underground shelter brings Reynolds to ask, “do you see any signs of fear on these faces?”  The real answer comes with his announcement of the returning Luftwaffe—“here they come”—said with such sorrow that we come to appreciate not only the motivational intent of the film, but also the poignant depths lying beneath it.

Such depths start to reverberate even more widely with Words For Battle (1941), the second selection on this program.  This is a compilation film, which is to say that all of the footage present was actually shot for, and had been used in, other productions.  Film had been recycled and redistributed in this manner since the early days at the EMB, and reduced wartime means called for the practice to be continued.  Such thrift did not always lead to fresh filmmaking, but in this case Jennings makes out of limitation a strength, and in so doing takes a key stylistic and conceptual step forward.

In Words for Battle Jennings reuses contemporary images of wartime Britain, and to accompany them he also gathers statements and sentiments that far predate the current crisis.  With Laurence Olivier narrating, and G.F. Handel’s majestic Water Music resonating underneath, he quotes William Camden, John Milton, William Blake, Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling, and, most strikingly, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.  Their conversations alternate between the perilous moment and a history that has seen, and abided, many such moments.  In thus combining today with yesterday, Jennings conflates the epochs, and in the counterpoint of image and text erases divisions between times and peoples and places.  And to all these things he brings perspective, hope, and assurance.  This, too, will pass, he says, and we too will prevail.

What Jennings pioneered here would become a key strategy in wartime filmmaking, British and otherwise. (Much of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, produced for the US War Department, as well as Olivier’s Henry V and the Archers’ A Canterbury Tale [both 1944] derive their affects from similar juxtapositions.  Historical excavation, and the careful arranging of the things excavated, are also at the heart of Jennings’ massive textual project Pandaemonium, on the rise of industry and the death—or transfiguration—of the artisan.)  It is propaganda, pure and simple.  A continuous solidarity between past and present was real and demonstrable, but the fact could be lost in the uncertainty of the moment.  The links had to be forged and strengthened, and a degree of manufacture and even manipulation was inevitable.

Steeped as we are in the ambiguities and duplicities of modern life, propaganda may strike us today as a dirty word.  But we have seen, and it is well to remember, that propaganda has been effective, even essential in raising spirits amid dire circumstances, or marshalling appropriate action when a more reasoned and rounded (and time-consuming) debate might well lead to disaster.  Moreover, British film propaganda in WW II, with Jennings’ contributions standing at the zenith, could propagate a faith that was indeed deeply held and even life-sustaining.  Not only was this faith the substance of things hoped for by the beleaguered British, but the part of the story that the best propaganda selected was also the truest part …

… Continued in pt. 3:


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