These films are screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in a special event this coming Sunday (March 15th 2015) From Drifters to Night Mail: The British Documentary Movement. The screening will offer 35mm prints from the bfi. The films are all seminal contributions to the British Documentary Movement and its work for, first the Empire Marketing Board, and then for the GPO Film Unit.
Drifters 1929, black and white, silent – originally 56 minutes.
This study of herring fisherman in the North Sea was directed, edited and partly photographed by John Grierson, the filmmaker who led the documentary movement until he moved to the National Film Board of Canada. The main cinematography was by Basil Emmott, who had already contributed some fine location work to the 1927 drama Hindle Wakes. The film commences in a fishing village, follows a fishing vessel out to sea, observes its catches, and then follows it back to harbour where the caught fish enter the national and international markets. Much of the film relies on location shooting, on land and at sea in the fishing vessel. There are also insert shots filmed at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film demonstrates the influence on Grierson and his colleagues of two of the outstanding innovators of the 1920s. One was Robert Flaherty, whose new form of ‘documentary’ (Nanook of the North, 1922) influenced the treatment and the narrative of Drifters. The other influence is Soviet montage and in particular Sergei Eisenstein. The latter’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin. 1925), along with Drifters was, part of a triple bill at the London Film Society in 1929, together with an early work by Walt Disney.
Grierson’s use of montage is more conventional than that of Eisenstein and his film has a linear narrative. But it also offers symbolism and abstract motifs for the viewer.
The film demonstrates not only Grierson’s cinematic talents but also his shrewd manoeuvres within state institutions. The film’s topic played to the interest of a key civil servant in the Treasury regarded as an expert of the British Herring Industry.
Housing Problems 1936, black and white, sound film, 16 minutes.
This study in social reportage was sponsored by the gas industry. However, apart from a final comment, this is not a paean to a capitalist corporation but a hard-headed and powerful piece of social observation and implicit criticism. Directed by Edward Anstey and Arthur Elton the film presented scenes of squalor in slum housing and, fairly uniquely for this period, working class people were seen describing their own world and situation. Other work by the documentary movement did offer such voices, but the situation and voices in this film are the most compelling. The film ventures into the ‘other world’ of ordinary lives paralleled in the work of Mass Observation and the writings of George Orwell. There is a positive message at the end, featuring in part the Leeds Quarry Hill Development of the time: a note of posthumous irony. If John Grierson returned today he would be hard put to produce a film on herring fishing: but Anstey and Elton would have no difficulty in presenting again a world of slum housing and exploitation.
Night Mail, 1936, black and white, sound film, 24 minutes.
This was the most popular of the 1930 British documentary films: it actually enjoyed screenings in commercial cinemas. The directors, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, followed the night mail train from London to Glasgow, ‘carrying letters’ for all and sundry. The film used extensive location work with some striking cinematography. I especially treasure a travelling shot as a Border collie vainly chases after the speeding train. Some of the interiors were filmed in a studio setting, carefully simulating the rocking motion of the train. The first 20 minutes of the film are in fairly conventional documentary style, with an authoritative voice-over. The final four minutes follow a different form, with poetry (W. H. Auden) and music (Benjamin Britton). The credits list Alberto Cavalcanti as sound director. Cavalcanti had worked in the European avant-garde cinema. One version I heard suggested that in fact two films were in preparation by the Unit. And they were finally amalgamated to make this complete film, [there are two earlier sequences that bear the inprint of Cavalcanti and his team]. This certainly makes sense of the final form of the film. Moreover, whilst the last four minutes do have the touch that one finds in Cavalcanti’s work the bulk of the film has the established approach that one can find in other films by Watt and Wright. If this was the case, it was a happy marriage: though as with Drifters we no longer have a rail system to inspire this sort of filmmaking.
There is a posting on Drifters at
As an addendum to my earlier post about the centenary of Keighley’s Picture House Cinema, the cinema operator Charles Morris decided to hold a centenary celebration (some two months late) on July 10 in conjunction with the town’s Film Club which began to screen films at other venues earlier this year.
Wednesday’s film programme put together by the Film Club comprised a free afternoon programme, part of which was then repeated in the evening alongside a screening of The Artist (France/US 2011) for which tickets were sold. The afternoon programme was introduced by Charles Morris, fresh from lunch with invited guests. He quickly handed over to the Film Club’s Secretary Bob Thorp who explained that the Film Club would in future be showing films once per month in the cinema. We then watched a short film by one of the film club members on the history of early cinema and also a documentary on the Picture House itself made last year (see it here). The main part of the programme which I want to comment on here was the selection of Maya Deren’s At Land (US 1944) and Episode 1 of the Fantômas serial directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Renée Navarre as Fantômas and which was released in five episodes each of 54 minutes in 1913.
At Land was shown first with a musical accompaniment – a piano in front of the small stage, played very well (but the pianist’s name wasn’t given). However, I’m not sure whether Maya Deren ever intended that her silent films should have accompaniment. Some of Deren’s films had music soundtracks created by her collaborators, but not this one to my knowledge. Music does change the experience of watching a silent film. Commercial film screenings of films without soundtracks up to the early 1930s usually had some form of accompaniment but later avant-garde films (often shown in non-theatrical spaces) might be shown silent. Anyone who has watched a film in a cinema without any sound at all knows what a strange experience it is, so perhaps accompaniment here was a wise decision. As an aside, the three major texts on Deren and the 1940s American avant-garde that I consulted all failed to discuss soundtracks (or at least to include a reference in an index).
Maya Deren had arrived in the US from Ukraine as a small child in 1922 and by the mid 1940s she was becoming a leading figure in the ‘New American Cinema’ as the group of avant-garde filmmakers working out of New York became labelled. Her collaborators included the composer John Cage and her husband Alexander Hammid and others who appear in At Land. Hammid co-directed and photographed Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Deren’s first film (but not Hammid’s first). At Land was photographed mainly by Hella Heyman. This creative collaboration is just one of the reasons why Maya Deren has been so celebrated within feminist film studies. She effectively controls her own liberated image on screen – ironically, she photographs so well that her image equals if not surpasses those of the artificial Hollywood goddesses of the period. Her background was in anthropology and poetry. She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was interested in dance cultures which featured directly in her later films and her work generally acquired the tag of ‘trance films’. The films are indeed ‘dreamlike’, not just in the strange juxtaposition of sequences but also in their rhythms which through careful camerawork and editing create almost seamless transitions and a sense of swooning. At Land begins with Deren washed up on a beach, but as she pulls herself up on a tree stump she climbs directly onto a long dining table where she is seemingly oblivious to the diners. Later she enters a building with an array of doors to open. There is clearly a relationship with surrealism, but most critics of avant-garde film see Deren as an original rather than simply a follower of Buñuel and Dali.
Maya Deren’s work is now easily accessible on DVD and much of it is also on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it before, it is well worth seeking out. I always assumed that Kate Bush must have been a fan.
The selection of Fantômas was announced as simply an example of a film released in 1913. Bob Thorp said he didn’t yet know whether Fantômas ever played in the Picture House at the time. Nevertheless it was an interesting choice and given its great influence on subsequent filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock it reminded us of some of the thrills and spills that cinemagoers of the next forty or fifty years would have enjoyed. I haven’t seen the serial before but from the little I’ve read the first episode was perhaps not the best to show since it is mostly setting-up the battle between Inspector Juve and the mysterious criminal Fantômas. The vision behind the adaptation of a successful novel is such that at first it is easy to forget that the film is 100 years old. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that most scenes are still conventional tableaux with a more or less static camera. The main movement comes in the sequence detailing a remarkable prison escape. At the end of the episode is a piece of Méliès camera trickery, matching some of the promotional footage for the series which emphasises Fantômas as a master of disguise, constantly changing his appearance – and demonstrating what we would now term ‘morphing’ on screen.
The Film Club programme was enjoyable and it showed imagination and enthusiasm from what is essentially a volunteer group. There were a few problems in the projection of the films but the projectionist assured us afterwards that these had been sorted in time for the evening screening. The next step is to attract audiences to the monthly screenings being organised by the Film Club in this grand old venue and we wish them well.
Festivals always pose difficult choices, so I only caught part of this programme early films and comics. Fortunately I arrived at the right moment – Dog Outwits the Kidnappers (UK 1908). This starred the two leads of the more famous Rescued by Rover (UK 1905), the young Barbara Hepworth and the family dog Blair. As in the earlier drama the intrepid canine rescued the Hepworth’s daughter. Notably the rescue utilised an early motor vehicle, demonstrating that at his period dogs were the safest drivers on the road.
It was followed by The Elusive Pickpocket (France, 1908) who proved not only light-fingered but possessed of magical powers. He was also an anarchic character, as were the maids in the two following comedies. Cunégonde’s Family is Coming Over (France, 1912) in which the maid used her family, fantastic zeal and a huge volume of water to clean and then wreck the home of her bourgeois employers. A Nervous Kitchenmaid (France, 1908) was sadly incomplete, but had an exhilarating sequence of plate smashing.
The quality of the prints screened was exceptionally good: a friend confirmed this was true of the whole programme. This was the result of obtaining new prints from four major European film archives. Good work by the Festival staff. The rest of the programme included the Italian clowns Tontoli and Kri Kri: the home-grown Tilly: the aforementioned French films: and several dramas and actualities.
Accompanying this varied selection at the piano was one of the UK’s premier accompanist of ‘Silent Film’, Neil Brand. The selection that I viewed and heard ranged from the suitably rumbustious to the more quietly evocative. And the Town Hall auditorium provided a great venue for live music. It seems Neil was accompanying some of these films for the first time: playing ‘blind’ so to speak. He claims that this is a challenge that he enjoys.
The programme was a particular pleasure given the infrequency of Early Film screenings on good 35mm prints in our Northern climes. Hopefully, more next year.