Special Delivery: The GPO Film Unit on DVD

Ken Russell reviews a DVD box set of works by the GPO Film Unit in today’s Times. The director appears to be a remarkably sober writer for someone who made Ann-Margret wallow in a tub of baked beans and asked Vanessa Redgrave to do unspeakable things with a crucifix. Well, almost unspeakable.

In writing about We Live in Two Worlds, he makes the case that the GPO united a truly unique cast of characters: among them were pioneering animators Len Lye and Norman McLaren, surrealists Humphrey Jennings and Alberto Cavalcanti, the poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, and the zealot John Grierson, who coined the term “documentary” in a review of Robert Flaherty‘s Moana. At work during the Depression producing the images by which modern England would define itself, they collectively cry out for a contemporary British filmmaker to give them the Laissez-passer treatment.

Bertrand Tavernier‘s film was an attempt to rescue pre-Nouvelle Vague film from the enfant terrible critics clearing away the detritus of an earlier age. The new thing combined documentary footage and cinematic playfulness in a manner not dissimilar to the GPO filmmakers. Although their idea of documentary was less verite and more an attempt at creating a simulacrum of idealized existence, they combined realistic standards with poetic treatment. Their efforts are as key to an understanding of what it means to be English as the Nouvelle Vague is in understanding France’s post-war ferment.

The GPO films fused the mundanity of British life with the fecundity of its imagination. There’s no better example than 1936’s Night Mail, which marshals together Auden’s poetry, Britten’s music and the sharp editing of Basil Wright. It’s a film which not only emphasizes the important role the post office plays in British communications, but communicates the serenity of night work and the demands of a profession with a Hawksian acuity.

Russell notes the touches which might make the GPO’s work seem quaint, such as the exchange of letters in Len Lye’s N or NW. “Dear Jack, I was furious with you. You were simply beastly.” “Dear Evelyn, who was that stranger you were with? You are impossible, an absolute twerp.” We can giggle at the archaic Salad Days-style language, but should pay closer attention to the quotation marks. Just as the surrealists built their daydream nation out of torn headlines and fragments of other films, the GPO Film Unit attempt to make the familiar strange by placing it in a frame.

The method is writ large in Book Bargain. Rather than attempt to overwhelm the audience with mere statistics, the GPO film unit seeks imaginative visual counterparts. As Russell explains it:

“Directory [sic] shows how in 1937 the London telephone directory contained enough paper to circle the globe. Articulated metal cups, whirling conveyor belts, grabbing claws and blades zip through the ever-expanding London directory. Women juggle, men struggle with 56 tons of ink – enough to fill a swimming pool.”

With the British empire at its zenith, the film shows how Herculean effort is put into the production of a modest marvel, the phone directory. The image of vats of ink and world-girdling paper manages to transform the Yellow Pages into an achievement right up there with the Pyramids. Envelopes zip around the world to deliver meta-narrative gags when all the recipient really wanted was the football scores. The telephone is such a magical device, that fairies tread along the wires.

We Live in Two Worldsonly covers the years 1936-1937, and so doesn’t contain great examples of Humphrey Jennings’ work. He would only find his focus with the onset of war in 1939. But these films are worthy of study for anybody interested in how the dreamlife informs a nation’s march towards utopia. It’s film-making for troubled times that insists any ill can be overcome through imagination. Grierson may have insisted on the Unit’s films being documentary, but their realism is inspired by another great British image-maker … William Blake.

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