Humphrey Jennings, 1907-1950; pt. 4

… Continued from pt. 3

The common wisdom about Jennings is that the end of the war also signalled the end of his relevance as a filmmaker.  Certainly he had some trouble finding his cinematic bearings at first, and he also returned to the eclectic interests (painting, Pandaemonium) that he had set aside for the duration of the war effort.  But the greatness of his most celebrated films can blind us to the very real merit and interest of some of his so-called minor efforts.  Family Portrait (1950), Jennings’ last film, and the final selection in this collection, fully belongs in the company of its more celebrated fellows.  In some ways it is even more representative of its maker than the wartime pictures.

Here we find familiar things in place: the beautiful compositions, the carefully chosen musical material, the complex relationship between sound and image, the acute sense of history.  It is in this latter respect that Jennings reveals something that we have not seen quite so clearly in the films before.  He is both writer and director now, and the face that he exposes in these capacities is that of the scholar and the anthologist.  Family Portrait contains the most dazzling examples of Jennings’ conceptual counterpoint, his exceedingly elaborate, yet wholly accessible interweaving of complex ideas and images, quotations and concepts.  This presentation of the poetry and prose of English life, the relationship between vaulting vision and plain sense is perhaps the most representative of Jennings’ films, the one in which his sensibilities are most plainly, unadulteratedly revealed.  As inflated as the use of the word may be it is still, undeniably, the work of a genius.

This was to be the last film.  In 1950, while scouting locations in Greece for a film on public health, Jennings was killed in a fall from a cliff.

Since the cinema is in many ways a combination and a culmination of all of the arts, it is appropriate that a man of Jennings’ broad background should finally have found his calling in films.  His versatility is manifest in the movies themselves.  He was a modern painter able to see that there is more to an object, or a subject, than what presents itself to the naked eye.  He was a surrealist poet who found that a direct line is not the only link between a cause and its apparent effect.  He was an observer of the masses, and of the individual within, willing not only to tell, but also to hear.

His work provides powerful pictures of the times in which it was produced, and it also quite clearly prefigures many of the important innovations that would change the cinema in the next decades.  The observational documentary, the self-reflexive film, Challenge for Change, even neo-realism—all are quite strikingly suggested by and in his various productions.  But ultimately it is not innovation, but the substance, even the goodness of these films that serve as their final recommendation.

Where documentaries before Jennings had for the most part directed and even manipulated the viewer to particular ends, his films began to openly invite the viewer into the process of comprehension and interpretation, not incidentally making him a more active agent in the subsequent action that documentary would often demand.  And though not an activist in the Griersonian sense, Jennings’ films were nevertheless calls to action, and they were calls that he himself answered.  His ability, and willingness, to put his great talent in the service of the public good, his successful reconciliation of the desire for personal expression and the responsibilities of citizenship makes him a rare and exemplary figure in film history.  In the best of Jennings’ work artistry and responsibility were perfectly balanced, the felicitous result being that in addressing with his own voice the specific concerns of a specific moment, Jennings was able to transcend that moment and speak for all time.  This collection of films affords us the opportunity to join that wonderful conversation.


Calder, Angus, The People’s War, London: Cape, 1969

Calder, Angus and Sheridan, Dorothy, Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937-49, London: Cape, 1984

Ellis, Jack, John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influences, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000

Harrisson, Tom, Living Through the Blitz, London: Collins, 1976

Hodgkinson, Anthony W,. and Sheratsky, Rodney E., Humphrey Jennings: More than a Maker of Films, Hanover: Clark University Press

Jackson, Kevin, Humphrey Jennings, London: Picador, 2004

Jackson, Kevin, The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Manchester: Carcanet, 2005

Jennings, Humphrey, and Madge, Charles, ed., May the Twelfth: Mass-ObservationDay-Surveys 1937, by over two hundred observers, London: Faber and Faber, 1937

Jennings, Humphrey, Pandaemonium: the Coming of the Machine in the Industrial Revolution (ed. Jennings, Mary-Lou and Madge, Charles), New York; Free Press, 1985

Jennings, Mary-Lou, ed., Humphrey Jennings:  Film-Maker/Painter/Poet, London: BFI, 1982

Remy, Surrealism in Britain, Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999

Sheridan, Dorothy, Street, Brian V. and Bloome, David, Writing Ourselves: Mass-Observation and Literacy Practices, Creskill: Hampton Press, 2000

Winston, Brian, Claiming the Real, London: BFI, 1995

Winston, Brian, Fires Were Started, London: BFI, 1999


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