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Drifters, UK 1929

Posted by keith1942 on March 18, 2015

drifters_1

John Grierson directed this film in the silent mode. It is a seminal film in terms of the British documentary movement of the 1930s. The film was strongly influenced by the new Soviet film montage movement, especially the work of Sergei Eisenstein. In fact Drifters was screened at the London Film Society in 1929 along with Battleship Potemkin. It is recorded that the film society audience preferred Drifters to Eisenstein’s Potemkin. This was presumably because, whilst Drifters is a finely made film, it is also more conventional than Potemkin: for example the montage has less discontinuities and much of the film is close to the form that became the dominant mode of British documentary in the 1930s. That aspect shows the other important influence, the work of Robert Flaherty, especially Nanook of the North (1922). The narrative of the earlier film, and the emphasis on the struggle against ‘nature’ or the ‘elements’, is replicated in Grierson’s approach, as it is in much of British documentary film work. This approach appears again in Flaherty’s later Man of Aran (1934).

The film runs for just on 50 minutes. Grierson was responsible for the scripting, direction and editing and some of the filming, whilst Basil Emmott undertook most of the cinematography. The film was shot on location in a northern fishing village and at sea onboard a herring fishing boat. In addition there are a number of insert shots, many taken at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film was made under the auspices of the Empire Marketing Board, the first in a number of state institutions that funded the documentary movement. Apparently the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury was an expert on the herring industry: an example of the shrewd approach that Grierson bought to his documentary work. The Production Company for the film was New Era Productions Ltd, a commercial company. They provided technical assistance, studio facilities and distribution. It would seem that studio work was mainly based here as also post-production.

Much of the film constructs a recognisable narrative with the fishing village, the voyage, the catches, the return to harbour and the final auction on the dockside. The sequences of fast cutting or montage are placed within this at strategic points. The use of such ‘montage’ distances the film from the sort of realist feel that is usually associated with the British documentary movement. Whilst sequences in the film present and explain the techniques of the fishermen, in other sequences there is a strong, poetic feel. Both approaches can be seen in other work from the movement: Harry Watt’s films probably represent the realist approach, whilst Cavalcanti’s films tend more to the poetic. Humphrey Jennings combines both in a seamless flow, which is his particular talent.

P261-31

I have seen the film on 35mm but now the BFI has re-released the film in a digital format. Filmed in 1929 the film was silent, so the usual practice is to provide some live accompaniment. It was screened at the Bradford Film Summit in the Cinemobile, a travelling cinema from Eire. This impressive vehicle unfolds to present a 100-seat auditorium, with a proper screen and sound provision. The format, likely Blu-Ray, had the flat digital patina and rather lacked definition. Moreover, whilst the film did not seem noticeably speeded-up it certainly seemed to move fast and was shorter in terms of running times. This screening had an accompaniment by Jason Singh: a sound and ‘boxbeat’ artist. i.e. the sounds/music are entirely produced by the human voice. In this case Jason Singh had a pre-recorded track with layers of his vocal sounds and he then accompanied this with live responses. This was an impressive show: one would not have known that much of the sound was the human voice without being told. The accompaniment worked well for much of the film, but at times it rather over-powered the image. For some sequences the sound was too loud, though this may have been exacerbated by the limited size of the auditorium. However, for much of the film we also had the pre-recorded track, which was essentially rhythmic. I felt that the rhythm did not always match the changes in tempo in the film, especially when we moved from location sequences to the insert shots, a number of which tend to the non-realist.

After the screening there was Q&A with the performer. He explained the techniques he used, including in producing the pre-recorded track. This was interesting.  He remarked that the live element is affected by the factors in a particular screening and that ‘no two shows are the same’. He also stressed how he wanted to avoid literal sound accompaniments, for example bells. And he commented that he aimed to make ‘an emotional connection to the visuals’. I think this is only a partially successful approach to take. It is true that much of the film lends itself to this approach, for example the storm sequence. However, the use of montage also brings intellectual aspects to the film, and I think these needs a less emotional and more cerebral approach. Even so this was a worthwhile experience and Grierson’s film stands up to any number of showings.

Then with good fortune the film was screened again: at the Hyde Park Picture House and in 35mm. This was part of a programme ‘From Drifters to Night Mail: the British Documentary Movement’ introduced by Andy Murray. The other two films screened were Housing Problems (1936) and Night Mail (1936), both sound films. Andy filled in some useful background on the films before they were screened and he talked about Grierson’s role in the movement, quoting his line

“I look on cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist”.

Andy was also right to stress the elitist elements in this viewpoint: however, Drifters offers this in a low key, though it is clearly ‘propaganda’.

In 35mm the visual qualities of Drifters were much more apparent. The superimpositions and dissolves in particular looked very good. And the tinting for the night scenes showed up well. The title cards also showed up well. They use stills from the film, with low definition, as a backing for the words. I think some titles have been replaced, as not all the cards used this superimposition.

The screening was accompanied with the soundtrack from the bfi Blu-Ray. This was also by Jason Singh, and he is right, each performance does seem different. The volume level in the larger auditorium of the Picture House was better. As with the earlier screenings at times the accompaniment is very effective, but I still found it repetitious and there is a certain aural monotony by the end of the film.

I was able to speak to Andy after the screening. He pointed out that the sequences below deck were ‘filmed ashore’. He was not certain where, but the New Era Studio would seem likely. The title cards will presumably have been added then as well.

I also spoke to the projectionist. He ran the film at 20 fps, which gave us 48 minutes running time. He pointed out that curiously the Blu-Ray only runs for 40 minutes, seemingly the film was transferred at 24 fps. He had to loop part of the accompaniment back to match the film’s running time.

I checked some old catalogues and found only references to silent prints. One bfi listing did offer both silent and sound speeds, but the print was given as silent. On this occasion the catalogue suggested 18 fps as the silent rate – I am sure that would be too slow.

The moral of this story is hang-on till another enlightened exhibitor gets hold of the 35mm silent print. It will be worth a wait. Not only is this a seminal movie for British cinema and the wider field of documentary: it is a finely made and fascinating study.

 

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3 Responses to “Drifters, UK 1929”

  1. […] There is a posting on <i>Drifters</i> at https://cinetext.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/drifters-uk-1929/ […]

  2. Can you tell us mοre about this? I’d like to find out some adɗitional information.

  3. keith1942 said

    There are DVD versions of Drifters available online: given there is still a 35mm print available perhaps you can find a sympathetic exhibitor to screen the film. Both the BFI Online and Wikipedia have entries on the film. And there are numerous discussions in print, note the books on the British Documentary Movement by Paul Swann and Ian Aitken.

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