At the Harvard Film Archive, seeing — and hearing — Britain
On Jan. 25, the Harvard Film Archive begins Poets of Pandaemonium: The Cinema of Humphrey Jennings and Derek Jarman, a series surveying two of 20th-century Britain’s outstanding film stylists. The first night’s screenings include Jennings’s most musical works, the short documentaries “Listen to Britain” (1942) and “The Dim Little Island” (1949). Both leverage their soundtracks into atmospheric impressions of England, during and after World War II.
Born in 1907, Jennings took time to find his calling. Abandoning a possible academic career, he worked as a photographer and theater designer, organized art exhibitions, edited journals. Only in 1934 did he join the British Post Office’s documentary film unit — a job he took, friends believed, solely because he needed money. But film — and the war — would provide opportunity for his genius to bloom.
Jennings directed a series of documentaries promoting the British war effort, propaganda made more effective by conscious avoidance of propagandistic techniques. “Listen to Britain” is a radical example, eschewing narration for a collage of everyday sounds and music. A rollicking dance hall contrasts with uneasy quiet on the roof, where helmeted sentries watch for bombers. A group of soldiers sing “Home on the Range” in a pub; a group of female workers at their machines sing along to piped-in music. In a famous sequence, pianist Myra Hess performs a Mozart concerto in the barricaded and bare-walled National Gallery of Art, the music abruptly fading into the clanks and whirs of a tank-building factory. Jennings, a demanding taskmaster, staged and restaged supposedly candid scenes to get the poetic, precise effects he wanted. The film’s intricate evocation of wartime England keeping calm and carrying on is powerful.
In comparison, the form and message of “The Dim Little Island” seem to be fascinatingly at odds. Four monologues — by cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, naturalist James Fisher, engineer John Ormston, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams — reflect on British history and its postwar status while still insisting that the best is yet to come. Jennings’s counterpoint of images, though, strikes notes both supportive and ironic. Vaughan Williams provided the film’s score, a reworking of the English folk tune “Dives and Lazarus”: lovely, distinctly English, but also more than a little elegiac. (One wonders just how much Jennings put his own spin on the material; a few years later, after a magazine mentioned the documentary and Vaughan Williams’s contribution, the composer wrote a letter protesting that he had never heard of the film.) Jennings was killed in an accident the year after “The Dim Little Island” was released, making the film an ambiguous conclusion rather than an ongoing discussion. His theme remained the same, though: finding a sense of national identity and purpose by listening closely.
Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, screens “Listen to Britain” alongside Derek Jarman’s “Blue,” Jan. 25 at 7 p.m.; and at 9 p.m., “The Dim Little Island” with Jarman’s “The Last of England.” Tickets $9; $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and seniors. 617-495-4700; library.harvard.edu/film/index.html