Humphrey Jennings, 1907-1950; pt. 3

… Continued from pt. 2

This is nowhere more evident than in the next three films on this dvd, which so refine and purify propagandistic usage as to practically require another name for it.  The urging, even hectoring tone of traditionally narrated documentary can betray a lack of confidence in the validity of the message, or of the ability of the audience to apprehend it.  It can also betray a coercive core.  Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945) make electrifying breaks from these norms, and reveal to us a higher kind of propaganda, of which we may not now be aware, and to which we may not now be used.  The message that Jennings wants to share in these films is more direct and important than any partisan position.  It concerns the simple sanctity of human life and interaction, and as his convictions about that sanctity deepen, so too does his confidence in expressing them.  Instead of protesting too much, Jennings quietly gives testimony of what he feels to be true and right.

This gentle confidence is what distinguishes Listen to Britain from London Can Take It.  In most respects their subjects are identical, but the effects could not be more diverse.  At one level Listen to Britain (1942) is Jennings’ definitive mass observation film, made up of a series of exquisitely chosen vignettes which give a vivid picture—and soundtrack—of life during wartime. Documentary had always been interested in portraying the dignity of work, and it was never so successful in this aim as it was here, when the most pressing labour was simply to survive, and to live decently in so doing.  In a time when the possibility of death or loss was constant, Jennings and McAllister, (whose contribution as editor is so central that he is credited on the same card as the director) discover the sufficiency of simply looking, which reveals how precious plain processes, and regular people, can be.

This is not to say that Listen to Britain does not have its own complex depths; for all the matter we find in it, there still remains a great deal of art.  The film’s commentary is not found within a narrator’s explicit and manipulative proclamations—it has no narrator at all—but in the much more subtle and open juxtapositions of intellectual montage.  Here we find traces of Jennings’ surrealist affinities.  The film proceeds by constant comparison, linking by mere proximity that which would at first seem to be completely unrelated.  But as a number of prospects—the ballroom dancers in Blackpool, the Canadian soldiers in the transport train, the children in the schoolyard, the whistling workers in the canteen and the concert-goers in the National Gallery—pass before us, we begin to see unsuspected correlations.

The assertion that emerges out of these correspondences constitutes one of the central tenets of the documentary idea: regardless of his role, each honest worker—including the public-minded artist—is worthy of his hire, and he is part of an interdependent community.  Listen to Britain gives us, in effect, the body of Britain, where the head can not say to the foot that it has no need of it.  In fact we come to see that each member not only has its own utility, but its own beauty as well.  The great Myra Hess, playing Mozart’s 17th piano concerto (German music, mark you), is in some ways as skilled, and in every sense only as important, as the factory girl who sings and smiles while she adeptly wraps a package of razors.

Whereas Listen to Britain illustrates these ideas across a broad canvas, Jennings’ next film, Fires Were Started, applies them on a much more limited, more concentrated scale.  (Fires Were Started is the film’s most familiar title, but it should be noted that this collection features the original, uncut version of the film, which was first entitled I Was a Fireman.)  “Fires” keys on the dynamics of a single group of firefighters, working in a single city district, over a very brief period of time.  It should be noted that this portrait as tribute is not strictly a documentary.  By 1943 Nazi attention had largely turned to other fronts—at home in England there were many fewer fires to put out.  What we see in the film is a re-creation of events and conditions that have already, in the main, passed, featuring the actual men and women who passed through them.  As such, this is a fictional feature film, but it is so utterly informed by documentary detail and ideas that one is excused if he mistakes it for the real thing.

There is an exciting tale here, heroic protagonists with clear objectives, crises and a climax and a denouement to tell us what they made of them.  But Jennings is concerned with more than just plot, and so he overlays his story with a wealth of wonderful detail, with the seemingly insignificant processes and interactions which make up the firefighters’ day.  These fulfill a number of functions.  One is to present a remarkable picture of class differences reconciled amidst conflict.  There is no speechifying or facile plot resolution in this regard.  What we see is the slow, steady building of a community, bound by the common experience of mundane tasks as much as by tribulation and tragedy.  The war brings out the deeper affinities: what these men and women do together, from receiving and rerouting information to fighting the fires themselves, through all of the myriad of moments in between, they do skillfully and carefully and above all, modestly.  For the moment, at least, social origin does not enter in.  All of this service, in this recreating and contemplating of Britain’s moment of refining, feels of the greatest importance, assuming a quiet beauty and even sacredness.  This is who we were, and what we passed through together, and these are the sacrifices we made for each other.

Another reason for the film’s profusion of detail is that this profusion effectively crowds out the adversarial element that was so typical of this period.  Lindsay Anderson has observed how unwarlike Jennings’ war films were, finding in this the source of their continued freshness.  These films do not vilify, or even particularly criticize the Nazis.  What they do suggest is that we should not allow a brutal aberration to compromise our humanity.  Jim Hillier points out that Fires Were Started does not even name those responsible for the bombings, and that the fires themselves are portrayed as if they were natural disasters.  It is as if it is not worth our trouble to identify those responsible, or to entertain the hatred that such identification would generate.

For all the deep and generous feeling in his work, Jennings was not a sentimentalist, and he did not hesitate to take on difficult questions.  A Diary For Timothy, his last masterpiece, is a complex and troubled film which counts the costs of the war and considers the uncertainty that lies at its end.  Jennings and his collaborator, E.M. Forster, who wrote the superb commentary, frame these issues in the story of Timothy Jenkins, a child born five years to the day after the war’s start.  The narrator (Michael Redgrave) speaks to the child and tries to make sense of the world which he has just entered.  But here is an explanation with a difference, and a decided change from the kind of certainty that had been typical of documentary narration.

What Redgrave explains is that conditions are confused; rather than solutions he sets forth possibilities and partialities.  Certainty, however reassuring or even necessary it may have been during more doubtful times, now becomes an inappropriate affectation, and is replaced by humble inquiry.  The imposition of a single perspective gives way to a dialogue between various positions.  These are represented by four individuals—a miner, a farmer, an engine driver, and a disabled RAF pilot—whose circumstances and circles both complement and contrast those in which Tim finds himself.  As he has done all along, Jennings is portraying a community, but one that now finds itself at a crossroads, with victory assured and yet too painfully drawn out, with fear and hope poignantly intermingled.

If “Diary” is uncertain about the future, then it is most assured in documenting a present in which British culture is utterly transformed, battered and yet full of new promise.  Through the war Jennings has been bringing binaries together: farm and city, high culture and low, the present and the past.  By this time, maybe just slightly because of his work and certainly because of the realities that his work reflected, things that have been poles apart begin to appear like they belong together.  This was nowhere more powerfully rendered than in Jennings’ use of music.  Dame Myra Hess appears again in this film, this time playing Beethoven’s Apassionata Sonata.  (Jennings assembled a separate record of this performance from the material shot for A Diary for Timothy.  It appears as a bonus on this disc, and shows that in addition to articulating complex ideas in virtuosic manner, Jennings could also step back quietly and subordinate himself to his subject.  Beethoven’s monumental Romanticism, and Dame Myra’s magisterial interpretation of same, appear in a simple, self-effacing frame, and the result is another feat of exquisite balance.)

With his customary counterpoint of image and sound, Jennings laces Beethoven, and all the other wartime sounds as well, through the diverse social fabric that he has been observing, and which he has indeed helped to weave.  In this setting classical music, that great separator and traditional emblem of high/low hierarchies, stands in for all of the miraculous reconciliations that the war has brought about.  For a brief moment we find common aspiration, mutual accomplishment, and a depth of feeling that, however glancingly, binds up the wounds of the conflict.

If A Diary for Timothy is Jennings’ most ambivalent statement, then surely it contains the deepest of these emotional expressions, and some of the most beautiful moments in British cinema.  “Out of the fog dawn(s) loveliness, whiteness, Christmas Day.”  In a montage sequence the various protagonists, whose loved ones are at best far distant and quite possibly endangered or worse, quietly raise their glasses to “absent friends,” a toast in which the viewer must feel herself hailed and embraced.  In witnessing these scenes today that viewer may be struck by powerful realizations.  If this is propaganda, then it is more valedictory than motivatory.  It looks back; one feels quite strongly that at the remove of fifty years we cannot possibly understand how very much all this would have meant to the millions recently bereaved or relieved.  And it peers forward into a future through which we have already passed.  Now we know that although hopes were high at the end of the war, they were also frail and tenuous; ultimately the coalitions broke, the Empire ended, and the difficulties that the film anticipated came in rich and overpowering measure.

Documentary teaches us that old battles give way to new, that social responsibility and social action are ever urgent and never adequate.  Jennings’ posts from the best and worst of times raise before us an ancient affirmation.  “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upwards.”  But in addition to tribulation we can also depend on the consolations of such comprehensive, clear-eyed art, and more importantly, in the love that both informs and emerges out of it …

… Continued, concluded in pt. 4



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