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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Listen To Britain and Other Fims by Humphrey Jennings
Listen To Britain and Other Fims by Humphrey Jennings
Image // Unrated // June 18, 2002
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by D.K. Holm | posted June 26, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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6 18 02 $29.95 The Movie:

The subtle—and not so subtle—differences between documentary films and propaganda are perfectly in evidence in Listen to Britain and Other Films by Humphrey Jennings,a collection of wartime films by one of the most beloved early British documentarians. For students of the genre this is an invaluable disc.

Humphrey Jennings made documentaries for the Crown Film Unit during the war years and after. He died in 1950. An upper middle class Englishman of the type who ended up in the Crown Film Unit, a division of the Ministry of Information, and its predecessors, and/or working for the BBC, Jennings was a painter by early ambition, and brings a solid and sometimes poetic compositional style to the films he actually shot (some were compilations of already existing footage set to words or music).

Something of a cult figure today, at the time Jennings didn't get along all that well with other masters of the British documentary school, such as John Grierson, who moved to Canada and formed the film board there. And in fact, the films that Jennings made were not what today we call documentaries, although they were called that at the time. Jennings and the documentarians of the time had no problem staging events, as long as their research told them that the incident had actually happened at one time. Also, he spearheaded the use of ordinary people playing characters like themselves. Today, something of the Jennings tradition lives on in the work of Ken Loach and even in certain ways Mike Leigh, among a host of others, notable and less.

Listen to Britain ... comprises seven films, The first is London Can Take It!, a nine minute inspiration propaganda film from 1940 rallying the forces of public sentiment. Next is Words for Battle<, a compilation film with inspirational quotes from British and American literature and speeches, recounted by Laurence Olivier. Listen to Britain is one of Jennings's more famous films, an 18 minute collation of sights and sounds of British life, again designed to rally the spirit of a beleaguered people. I Was a Fireman [also known as "Fires Were Started..."], is the longest effort here, and at 70 minutes (this is the long version; Fires were Started ..." was the renamed shorter version) is the most substantial work presented on the disc and basically tells the story of the day in the life of a volunteer fire fighting unit during the Blitz. A Diary for Timothy is widely believed to be Jennings's masterpiece; it's a 39 minute tone poem again celebrating the pluck of a people under siege, told in poetic diary form as a record for a child in the first months of life to perhaps read or see later. If you are in the spirit for it, the film is a heart-rending portrayal of a people maintaining their daily lives while the world all around them goes mad, and Jennings's "rhyming" images would shame a contemporary music video director. Family Portrait, released posthumously, is another celebration of British life. Myra Hess Playing the First Movement of Beethoven's Sonata in F Minor Op. 57 (Appassionata) is a "bonus" film and it is simply a nine minute straightforward account of the pianist performing a bit of music.

Though these films sound perhaps dry and uninvolving summarized straighforwardly like this, in fact they are very emotional works. Though Jennings appeared to be a cold, calculating intellectual to his colleagues, the films here portray a very emotional man, with a knack for capturing the moments of British daily life that would make these movies so moving to their intended viewers. Surely, Thomas Pynchon utilized them as part of his research for the passages in Gravity's Rainbow that convey such a convincing portrait of British life.

You can track Jennings's trajectory from strict reporting to almost surrealistic juxtapositions of images in these seven films. Sophisticated modern viewers may come away from Jennings's work unimpressed, but in fact, closer inspection reveals a profoundly wild component to Jennings's editing and camera framing. Yes, the films are "dated," but beneath the surface there are interesting tensions and subtexts.


The DVD

VIDEO: Image Entertainment had its hands full with this array of old films, derived from the Blackhawk Films collection. The source prints have everything possibly imaginable wrong with them: scratches, grit, dirt, hairs in the gate, specks, flickers, and so on. No attempt is made to clean up these prints digitally, and in a way that makes sense—their ancient quality contributes to the surface honesty of these works. The black and white photography by a team of DPs is frequently beautiful, with compositions and lighting effects that you just don't see anymore.

SOUND: The audio is Dolby Digital mono, and it doesn't help much. These prints are scratchy and raw, and often inaudible. Given the accents and the rough audio tracks, going just an extra distance to provide English subtitles would have contributed to a fully appreciation of these films..

MENUS: The primary menu is the menu. It consists of two silent, static screens, with each film's chapters available in list format.

PACKAGING: Complete packaging was not available at press time, but if consistent with earlier Image films, the disc comes in a keep case. An eight page brochure with small, tightly printed text by Brigham Young University prof Dean Duncan, which gives a thorough account of the man and his films. [Further info can be found in the BFI Film Classics book "Fires Were Started..." by Brian Winston {BFI Publishing, 1999, ISBN 0 85170 773 4} which also contains director Lindsay Anderson's poignant appreciation of Jennings.]

EXTRAS: The disc is supplement free.

Final Thoughts: Listen to Britain and Other Films by Humphrey Jennings is a valuable disc that gathers in one place some of the more influential quasi non-fiction war time films by a controversial figure in the documentary tradition.


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