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Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings

Keith Beattie
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Humphrey Jennings
    Book Description:

    Humphrey Jennings has been described as the only real poet that British cinema has produced. His documentary films are remarkable records of Britain at peace and war, and his range of representational approaches transcended accepted notions of wartime propaganda and revised the strict codes of British documentary film of the 1930s and 1940s. Poet, propagandist, surrealist and documentary filmmaker – Jennings' work embodies an outstanding mix of startling apprehension, personal expression and representational innovation. This book carefully examines and expertly explains the central components of Jennings' most significant films, and considers the relevance of his filmmaking to British cinema and contemporary experience. Films analysed include *Spare Time*, *Words for Battle*,* Listen to Britain*, *Fires Were Started*, *The Silent Village*, *A Diary for Timothy* and *Family Portrait*.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-268-6
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Series editors’ foreword
    (pp. ix-x)

    The aim of this series is to present in lively, authoritative volumes a guide to those film-makers who have made British cinema a rewarding but still under-researched branch of world cinema. The intention is to provide books which are up-to-date in terms of information and critical approach, but not bound to any one theoretical methodology. Though all books in the series will have certain elements in common – comprehensive filmographies, annotated bibliographies, appropriate illustration – the actual critical tools employed will be the responsibility of the individual authors.

    Nevertheless, an important recurring element will be a concern for how the...

  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    ‘It might reasonably be contended that Humphrey Jennings is the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced’, wrote Lindsay Anderson in the early 1950s.¹ Jennings’ friend and colleague, the poet and sociologist Charles Madge, said that Jennings’ work had a ‘ meteoric quality’.² The cultural and media theorist Stuart Hall, who became professor of sociology at the University of Birmingham, a position earlier filled by Madge, called Jennings a ‘film-maker of extraordinary talent – one of the very few authentic exponents of cinematic language in the British cinema’.³ Ian Dalrymple, the producer of a number of Jennings’ films,...

  6. 1 Modernity, myth, colour and collage: the early films
    (pp. 14-30)

    The early stages in a career are problematic. Biographers and other writers seeking to assess the work of creative individuals either pass over the formative years in a subject’s career on their way to discussion of the ‘mature’ work, or scrutinise the early work for signs of burgeoning creativity. Generally, assessments of Jennings’ career fall into the former category, and his early films are either ignored or noted only briefly. According to Kevin Jackson, Jennings’ biographer, Jennings’ early work ‘seems almost hermetically sealed … from his private intellectual concerns’.¹ Contrary to such an assessment, Jennings’ foundational films do connect with...

  7. 2 Work and leisure: Spare Time
    (pp. 31-46)

    Alberto Cavalcanti, the film’s producer, calledSpare Time‘one of the best films the GPO ever made’ and Dai Vaughan, in his portrait of Stewart McAllister, calls the film ‘a curiously important [film] in the history of British documentary’.¹ Jennings rejoined the GPO Film Unit just prior to makingSpare Time, which was his first major film and the last major film of the GPO Film Unit before it became the Crown Film Unit late in 1940 under the auspices of the Films Division of the Ministry of Information. This important though sometimes neglected work was one of two films...

  8. 3 Sound, image and nation: Words for Battle and Listen to Britain
    (pp. 47-81)

    George Orwell’s Blitz-inspired ruminations on the conditions of the ‘English character’ in his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) are prefaced by a pervasive anxiety of terror from the skies: ‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me’.¹ The connection in his depiction between national identity and the experience of war – and the essay form of that representation – forces a question relevant to all home-front accounts of World War II: how to adequately portray a nation at war? The question centrally motivatesWords for Battle(1941) andListen to Britain(1942),...

  9. 4 Documentary reconstruction and prognostication: Fires Were Started and The Silent Village
    (pp. 82-102)

    After the experiments with sound and image relations inListen to Britain, Jennings’ next films,Fires Were Startedand TheSilent Village, involved a different variety of experimentation in the form of dramatisation and re-enactment. Such practices were ingrained within the British documentary movement, though a heightened degree of dramatisation, especially in FiresWere Started, raised issues of authenticity.¹ The question of authenticity in representation received further attention within considerations of the nature of wartime propaganda and its connection to experience. Studies of authenticity in literature have identified the concept in relation to a sense of legitimacy, sincerity, the genuine...

  10. 5 ‘What will befall Britain?’ A Diary for Timothy
    (pp. 103-117)

    Jennings began location work on ADiary for Timothyin the autumn of 1944 and shooting was complete in April of 1945. During this time Basil Wright had joined the project as producer and was bewildered by Jennings’ filming methods and concerned by what he perceived to be a lack of structure to the film. According to Wright, when he queried Jennings on these matters Jennings replied that ‘when we’ve finished shooting we’ll find out what it’s all about, won’t we?’.¹ The off-hand remark – in all likelihood intended as a way of keeping an anxious producer from interfering with...

  11. 6 An ambiguous national iconography: Family Portrait
    (pp. 118-131)

    A critical shibboleth concerning Jennings’ work holds that his best or most accomplished films were produced during the war years. Reflecting this position Lindsay Anderson opened his well-known reappraisal of Jennings’ career with the argument that the war ‘fertilised [Jennings’] talent and created the conditions in which his best work was produced’.¹ In the same vein another critic has insisted that ‘war unmistakably brought out the best in Jennings’.² Within the terms of such assessments Jennings’ pre-war and post-war films are viewed as impoverished or irrelevant. In this way the position sidelines among other worksFamily Portrait, a film which...

  12. 7 Legacies
    (pp. 132-142)

    Summarising the legacy of what he called Jennings’ ‘precious handful of films’, Lindsay Anderson wrote in 1981 that while the films ‘may not seem directly dedicated to our dilemmas … they can still stir and inspire us with their imaginative and moral impulse’.¹ More appropriately, to rephrase Anderson’s observation, Jennings’ films continue to ‘stir and inspire’ precisely because they continue in various ways to raise issues relevant to the present: among them, forms of representation capable of effectively expressing everyday experience and national identity. Within acknowledgments of the importance of Jennings’ films to the history of documentary representation, certain assessments...

  13. Afterword
    (pp. 143-144)

    A certain effect of Jennings’ mode of documentary filmmaking is evident inSpare Time. The film has minimal voice-over commentary spoken in quiet tones, a soundtrack in which sounds are often used contrapuntally to the images, and a narrative composed of individual vignettes which gives the appearance of a series of snapshots in which lives and experiences are captured at discrete, well-timed moments. As such, Spare Time stands apart from the realism of numerous films of the British documentary film movement. Not coincidentally, perhaps, traditionalists within the Griersonian documentary movement dislikedSpare Time.¹ The example says a great deal about...

  14. Filmography
    (pp. 145-153)
  15. References
    (pp. 154-166)
  16. Index
    (pp. 167-171)