Book Review: Humphrey Jennings (British Film Makers)

| October 4, 2011 | Comments (0)

Humphrey Jennings (British Film Makers)

Title: Humphrey Jennings (British Film Makers)
Author: Keith Beattie

Humphrey Jennings is Britain’s patron saint of the documentary form. A former Surrealist with a background in the visual arts, Jennings joined the likes of Robert O’ Flaherty and Dziga Vertov among the ranks of the great innovators of documentary by using subtle juxtapositions of sound, music and images to create powerful collages which explored, among other things, the nature of British national identity and the rapidly-changing face of modern society. A fearlessly inventive filmmaker, Jennings blended dramatic re-enactments of real events with ethnographic studies of the British population to gather together a body of work which forms the best extant documentary study of the nation during the extremely trying years of World War 2 and its aftermath.

Jennings’ legacy rests primarily on his extraordinary work of the war period, when his elegantly-styled propagandist films served to fill audiences with a sense of hope and national pride. Never a jingoistic sabre-rattler, his films avoided the subject of the enemy and instead mainly focused on Britains’ preparedness for war, as well as the quiet determination and defiance of the ordinary working man. His most widely-known film remains Fires Were Started (1943), a re-enactment of heroic efforts by auxiliary firemen to extinguish a raging London fire during the Blitz. Combining naturalistic acting by a mainly amateur cast, with a scrupulously realistic simulation of the actual warehouse fire, the film’s dramatic images of fire-fighters silhouetted against a chaotic backdrop of smoke and flames in the night sky provide the most memorable images of Jennings’ career, one of which adorns the cover of this superb study of his filmography by Keith Beattie.

Jennings’ died tragically young, at the age of 43, after a freak accident while filming in Greece in 1950, robbing British cinema of one its most poetic and innovative voices. However, his unique aesthetic was to exert a huge influence among successive generations of British filmmakers such as Mike Leigh, Lindsay Anderson and Terence Davies, who have all acknowledged their debt to Jennings and his work.

This book by Keith Beattie is part of a new series focusing on the work of several under-appreciated British filmmakers of the 20th century; a series which combines a rigorously academic approach with a strong focus on the development of each filmmaker’s craft over the course of their respective careers. Beattie’s book eschews surplus biographical detail to critically re-appraise each of Jennings’ films, addressing the myth that his only important works were those seminal films of the war period.

By looking at his pre-war attempts to forge a new, poetic documentary style while making shorts for the General Post Office service, to his post-war work which looked forward to the future of a Britain recovering from the deep wounds of the wartime experience, Beattie offers a complete overview of his filmography, refusing to give a lop-sided shape to his work with unnecessary over-emphasis on the WW2 films. Beattie perceptively draws our attention to Jennings’ use of ambiguity in his editing techniques and juxtapositions of sound and image, clearly demonstrating the way this most vital facet of his approach set him apart from the straightforward certainties advanced by the more prosaic, rigidly realist style of his contemporaries, such as John Grierson. This ambiguity provides the central thesis of Beattie’s extremely thorough study of Jennings’ work – his poetic impulse drove him to create a complete portrait of his beloved Britain as a country full of contradictions, but united through its diversity and common desire to preserve regional characteristics and national pride.

Beattie keeps the reader aware of the context of the times, in both historical and cinematic terms, alluding to works of contemporaneous filmmakers who tackled similar ground to Jennings. The contributions of key collaborators, such as editor Stewart McAllister and Alberto Cavalcanti, are explored in detail – though at all times we are kept aware of Jennings’ auteurist vision as he went about constructing his visionary films.

One of the more impressive aspects of this study is its forensic attention to detail, including a meticulous shot-for-shot guide to Jennings’ WW2 masterpiece, Listen to Britain. This level of scholarly research results in a study which is undoubtedly too in-depth for the casual reader. However, Beattie’s book is absolutely indispensable to any student of Jennings’ work – or indeed of the Britain of this period – and will surely provide the last word on this great innovator of British cinema, and his all too brief life and career.

Martin Cusack

Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press (19th April 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0719078555
ISBN-13: 978-0719078552
Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 14.4 x 2.2 cm

 

 

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Category: Book Reviews, Reviews

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