Andrew Higson / “‘Britain’s Outstanding Contribution to the Film’: The Documentary-Realist Tradition” / All Our Yesterdays / 1986

Song of Ceylon (1934), dir. Basil Wright.

Opening sentence of 1947 survey, The Factual Film: “The documentary is Britain’s outstanding contribution to the film.” Documentary movement rooted in 1920s and 1930s. Documentary and feature film-making style renewed with New Wave cycle of films in late 50s, early 60s. British cinema is thought through/constructed by the terms of documentary filmmaking. Other traditions either little known, or largely ignored (gothic, fantastic, melodramatic). This chapter will: reconstruct a familiar map and simultaneously de-familiarize that construction.

THE DOCUMENTARY MOVEMENT and the DOCUMENTARY IDEA. Late 20s, John Grierson founded documentary movement. Stephen Tallent, secretary of Empire Marketing Board. Problem of communication in a mass democratic society. Documentary style foregrounds communication over entertainment. Framed vs. “escapism” of dominant HOllywood. Documentary film posits public sphere, naturalizes particular citizen. One technique: montage. 20s, 30s, big interest of British film culture circles in Soviet montage cinema. Three dominant forms of period documentary: 1) poetic documentary, foregrounding montage, sometimes with totalizing voiceover. Industrial Britain (1933), Song of Ceylon, Basil Wright (1934), Coal Face , Alberto Cavalcanti (1935). 2) story documentary; day in the life. North Sea. 3) instructional documentary, e.g. Housing Problems.

THE DOCUMENTARY REALIST TRADITION. The creative interpretation of actuality. War years of 40s, Golden Age, when documentary and feature film momentarily come together, truly national cinema (see Ealing). Night Mail. 1950s often skipped as “dead” period, except a couple by Ealing, some Grierson, Baxter at Group 3, and Free Cinema films and related polemical literature. Then, tradition returns as New Wave– Woodfall, the social problem pictures, the “kitchen sink” films (Room at the Top 1958, Sapphire 1959, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning 1960, A Taste of Honey 1961– all British Film Academy best films). Documentary-realist tradition –> British television. Repressed traditions of gothic, expressionist, melodramatic, “magic” realist. History of British realism as history of changing relation between public/private, political/personal, state/citizen. John Caughie: “The figures of the drama exchange and reverse looks, the figures of the documentary are looked at and looked on.” [See Third Man ferris wheel scene.] Developing form of British documentary realism depends on how these 2 modes of looking are combined. Until 1937, uneasy separation between documentary film movement and film industry narrative film. At 1937, a break within the documentary movement. 1) section was Grierson’s, pure instructional/propaganda. 2) other section, Cavalcanti, Watt, not severance of documentary and narrative cinema but convergence as story documentary –> The Golden Age.

WORLD WAR 2 and the GOLDEN AGE of BRITISH CINEMA. National cinema left the individual citizen doubtless of the importance of his own role to play. Private, particularly romantic, interests less important than national interest. Narratives of teamwork and goals. Nine Men 1943, North Sea 1938, Target for Tonight 1941, Fires Were Started 1943, Western Approaches 1944. Narrative is not organized around central protagonist, but uses montage to map fuller world. Thus, combo of montage and continuity editing; combo of distance of establishing/group shots (the public gaze), with psychologisation of p.o.v. shot (private gaze); combo of episodic montage and tightly causal narrative flow. Millions Like Us 1943. Always tension between nation as responsible community and individual desire. DUring war years, we also see best films in poetic documentary mode, Humphrey Jennings, Spare Time 1939 onwards, Listen to Britain 1942. Mostly montage. Instructional films criticized during period for lack of narrative involvement.

POST-WAR DEVELOPMENTS. Success of documentary/narrative film marginalizes documentary filmmaking. Mainstream of documentary-realist filmmaking, end of war through mid-60s, was the narrative feature film. Two immediate postwar strands: 1) struggle to reproduce wartime conditions/community– Whiskey Galore! and Passport to Pimlico (both 1949). 2) assume community, then represent threats toward its destruction via violent/erotic. It Always Rains on Sunday 1947, The Blue Lamp 1950. In 1950s, interest of British film critics turned to Euro films, especially Italian neo-realism. Late 50s, early 60s, 2 movements renew interest in British realist tradition: Free Cinema and New Wave (Room at the Top, This Sporting Life, A Kind of Loving) documentaries. They admired Humphrey Jennings. Anderson, Free Cinema: Wakefield Express 1952, O Dreamland 1953, Every Day Except Christmas 1957. Reisz: We Are the Lambeth Boys, 1959, w/Richardson, Momma Don’t Allow 1955. New Wave films acknowledge gulf between individual and decision-making process, and use generic form to explore that gulf in psychological terms (alienation) and sociological terms. Montage in these films no longer constructs common social sphere; rather, articulates private personal experience. 1966-1986, rise of independent British Cinema.


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