Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

The Complete Humphrey Jennings

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

The Complete Humphrey Jennings

Article excerpt

The complete Humphrey Jennings? What a tantalising and exciting prospect that would be - and it is one still not properly fulfilled, even with the emergence over the past three years of these three "dual format" releases (each formed of two discs, one a DVD, one a Bluray), presenting all of Jennings's known work in Britain as a film director. To be truly complete, a Jennings collection would need to embrace his parallel work as a surrealist painter and poet; as a founder member of the Mass Observation group, dedicated to observing the behaviour, thoughts and dreams of ordinary British people; and as a visionary cultural historian who laboured long over researching the emergence and impact of Britain's Industrial Revolution for an unfinished book, Pandoemonium - one of the declared points of reference for the overpraised opening ceremony designed by Danny Boyle for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Jennings's private papers, now held at his alma mater of Pembroke College, Cambridge, offer further material for investigation. No, this is not the complete Humphrey Jennings.

Even so, these attractively packaged sets from the British Film Institute, containing a total of 35 items ranging from his first exercises in 1934 to The Good Life (1951), the film on which he lost his life falling from cliffs in Greece, present what will probably always be regarded as Jennings's core achievement. In 1954, Lindsay Anderson famously praised him as "the only real poet that British cinema has yet produced" in an essay reprinted in the booklet for Volume Two, and as we watch films like Listen to Britain (1941) and Fires Were Started (1943), idiosyncratic documentary masterpieces forged in the heat of the Second World War, the claim still seems entirely justified.

Print quality varies. We are informed that these remasterings, chiefly from the BFI National Archive's sources, were made "using the best available film elements", though a proviso is carefully added in each booklet warning us to expect signs of dirt, scratches, and audio defects. They duly arrive. Numerous end reels conclude in a snowstorm of flecks and speckles (particularly vivid on the Blu-ray discs); a few bothersome hums come and go. The print of Fires Were Started (or as we should properly call it, following the credit titles, "Fires Were Started -") appears particularly tired. But rather the human imperfections of films run through many projectors than the glacial, unreal surface of material subjected to an extreme makeover from digital cosmetic surgery.

Whether major or minor, familiar or esoteric, the films in these sets gain considerable interest from being grouped in chronological order. Item by item we can watch an artist grow, developing favourite themes, imagery, and techniques while flirting with and abandoning others. The first volume is especially valuable in this respect. Consider the first film of all, the 1934 Post-Haste (the booklet drops the hyphen), made for John Grierson's GPO Film Unit. An eight-minute summary of three centuries of British postal history might seem an unprofitable beginning for Britain's "only real film poet". Yet its audiovisual mix of contemporary quotations and engravings clearly points toward the cultural historian of Pandoemonium and the masterful film collages of Listen to Britain and its wartime companions. The narrator's voice tells its own interesting story. Those quaint upper-class vowels! They make the word "bags" sound like "begs". "Sacks", heaven forbid, emerges as "sex". Such vowels continue to reverberate through Jennings's soundtracks, positioning him definitively in a time and country marked by fierce divisions of class (gender too) - divisions that remain in place for all the humane regard in his later films for Britain's ordinary workers, especially miners. The first volume also offers three Dufaycolor presentations of 1937-38, charming enough if you like gambolling lambs (The Farm, 1938) or a fashion show of dresses designed by Norman Hartnell (Making Fashion, 1938): though they're hardly a match for the mordant observations of Spare Time (1939), the film when Jennings really starts being Jennings, or the urgent images of The First Days (1939), the GPO Film Unit's vivid initial response to Britain at war. …

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