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Kevin Jackson
Humphrey Jennings

By Henry Miller

Humphrey Jennings (1907-50) has long been recognised as one of Britain's finest filmmakers on the basis of his wartime documentaries, which, for many of his followers, reveal a rare poetic sensibility despite being ostensibly propaganda. Kevin Jackson, as editor of the somewhat inaccurately named but essential Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, recently reprinted, has made a forceful case for Jennings's work outside of film, placing his involvement in the British surrealist movement and his role as one of the founders of "mass-observation" near the centre of considerations of his work. Jackson's new biography consolidates this project, drawing together all of his subject's diverse achievements into an (almost) unified whole.

In some ways the half-century of the Jennings cult that Lindsay Anderson inaugurated has dulled or at least made his films over-familiar, and Jackson's book is at its most evocative when it deals with Jennings's pre-war career. The first half takes in the early years of English studies at Cambridge (where Jennings was a friend of William Empson and a pupil of IA Richards), the frenzied world of surrealism, and the no-less-bizarre origins of the m-o movement. Like Jennings, Jackson is something of a "polymathic magpie-scholar" and his book is by no means an easy fit for the film studies ghetto.

War gave Jennings a subject and artistic focus, but rather thinned out the life, and while Jackson's readings of the films are exemplary, Jennings himself falls somewhat out of focus in the second half of the book. There is something in Jackson's claim for Jennings as "cinema's Orwell" in that his films propose the same kind of national mystique found in The Lion and the Unicorn, but politics in the narrow sense were never as central a concern as they were for Orwell.

A more obscure but perhaps more telling comparison is with the novelist Henry Green. It isn't simply a matter of shared subjects – like Jennings' Fires Were Started, Green's Caught (1943) deals with an East End fire crew in the Blitz. The two also have a similar manner, if one can compare film and prose styles, in their treatment of class (central to Fires and Caught alike). Theirs was the (Auden) generation of sometimes shallow commitment, in which real, direct contact with the working class became the ineffable object of many a political odyssey. Green and Jennings came closer to this even than Orwell: Green by working in a factory, and then allowing the voices of his co-workers to dominate the resulting novel, Living (1929); Jennings by revolutionising the British documentary in comparable fashion.

Empson included Soviet cinema and the documentary movement under his idiosyncratic definition "covert pastoral" – about, but not really for and certainly not by "the people". What really sets Jennings apart, as has been recognised in different ways by most of his admirers, was the quality best expressed by Lindsay Anderson: rather than being figures in the pre-determined class struggle conjured by the mass of socially conscious British documentaries, the real people in Jennings's films are "ends in themselves". In making The Silent Village (1943), Jennings enlisted a whole village for the production, working in such close co-operation one could say that the film marked a transition: the subjects of the documentary became its participants. It's a tribute to Jennings and Jackson both that this book manages to perceive the work as a totality, but still leaves you wanting more.
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