screened Friday January 12 2007 on DVD in Brooklyn NY
TSPDT rank #307 IMDb
From the opening title graphics Jennings makes his dialectical approach plain as day: violin/music/culture vs. cannon/war/destruction. Civilization, specifically British but generally all peace-loving humanity, is under threat of extinction. The tension is also implied in the soundtrack, as a bugle reveille plays over ambient everyday sounds of children, dogs and birds.
Indeed this contrast between Britain at war and at peace is the theme Jennings spends the next 17 minutes finding as many variations as he can, leading to the quintessential British Stiff Upper Lip movie, a panorama of Brits carrying with their lives in the face of history’s most terrible war. Here’s one war vs. peace montage right off the bat:
That’s just within the first minute. The film then moves deftly through a number of scenes, mostly involving instances where music and/or singing is heard: a dance hall, a vaudeville stage, soldiers at rest, a symphony concert, and even a schoolyard. Listen to Britain is every bit as much a documentary about music in Britain circa 1942 as it is about life during wartime. The brilliance of this film lies in how these two themes run so fluidly alongside one another, thanks to Jennings’ ingenious use of sound to give the film its smooth, stream-like motion.
To my knowledge, at this point in film history, only the opera sequence in Citizen Kane (TSPDT #1) could compare with the layering of sound Jennings achieves here. In one transition, by fading sounds of flying fighter planes into a BBC broadcast and then into dance hall music, Jennings is able to take us from a military outpost to a ballroom scene and not miss a beat.
Regarding the many dialectical tensions explored in the film, there may be one that underlies all of them: that between the film’s function as art vs. propaganda. My favorite parts of this film are when it doesn’t seem to have any overt purpose but to aspire to a rhythmic intercourse of sound and image. It’s these moments that the film proves itself a leap beyond earlier “city symphony” films such as Berlin: Symphony of a City (TSPDT #718) by demonstrating a masterful intermingling of sound and image – and looks 20 years ahead to the brilliant urban-experimental coda of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (TSPDT #149).
In such moments he’ll have images and sounds that have no apparent connection but are more evocative for their disjunction. A panning shot of London’s dirty cityscape combined with a tinkling piano and man’s singing that could be from any number of sources: an audition, a recording playing in someone’s apartment, a rehearsal, it’s open to so many possibilities. Cut to a man walking down a sidewalk and the instructional, deliberate quality of the singing somehow synchs with the man’s walking:
And we go from this lovely, indeterminate mini-sequence to this one:
which starts off as a delightful, seemingly spontaneous dance sequence, until we cut to that shot of the woman looking a the soldier, which all but ruined it for me by reminding me that I was watching a lecture. The shot of the woman, so obviously contrived, detracts from the spontaneous beauty of the dancing children, causing us to reflect on how much that was choreographed by the filmmakers as opposed to a discovered moment of joy. And inserting the girl amidst the footage of tanks is just insult to injury.
This issue of naturalness vs. artifice is always important when it comes to documentary, and it’s something that bothers and fascinates me about Jennings. Having previously seen his other two entries in the TSPDT 1000, Fires Were Started and Diary for Timothy, one thing that really impresses me, even as it seems to compromise his credentials as a documentarian, is his ability to stage and re-enact moments of real life with remarkable authenticity. This is especially true of Fires Were Started which in my mind is an even greater achievement than Listen to Britain in terms of speaking truth to power. There’s no overt attempt to inspire or propagandize; we just see these firefighters living and laughing until it’s time to react to emergency. They live and die with no fanfare, and that’s the great tragedy of it. Diary for Timothy may be as great an achievement, but in the completely opposite direction: here, Jennings’ intentions are laid bare, as an extended voiceover openly ruminates on the fate of post-war Britain, weaving an awesome tapestry of scenes and images to make a vivid picture of where the nation is headed.
Getting back to Listen to Britain, I feel more qualified in my praise. There’s simply something at the heart of this film that feels reductive. The propagandistic elements are stronger than the later films. And even the formal brilliance of weaving together these different scenes and exploring the sounds of Britain in each one feels repetitive after a while. But perhaps some historical context is in order. Given the overtly didactic newsreel approach (stentorian narration and all) that was the norm at the time, one can imagine just how radical a film like this must have seemed — to the point that scenes like the schoolyard would have seemed downright subtle. (Given that a film like Crash can win Oscars, perhaps they’d still come off as subtle to most viewers today.) In fact there was originally an on-camera introduction that preceded the short:
“In the great sound picture that is here presented, you too will hear that heart beating. For blended together in one great symphony is the music of Britain at war. The evening hymn of the lark, the roar of the Spitfires, the dancers in the great ballroom at Blackpool, the clank of machinery and shunting trains. Soldiers of Canada holding in memory, in proud memory, their home on the range. The BBC sending truth on its journey around the world. The trumpet call of freedom, the war song of a great people. The first sure notes of the march of victory, as you, and I, listen to Britain.”
I think I’m grateful that I didn’t see this version on either of the two DVDs of Listen to Britain that I watched (the version found on the Criterion supplementary disc to Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale is indeed superior in resolution and sound quality to the one found in Image Entertainment’s collection of Jennings films).
I haven’t read enough about Jennings to have a full sense of just how he considered his work as a propaganda filmmaker during WWII, whether he felt it enhanced or compromised his vision as either a truthful documentarian or a cinematic artist. But there’s no question the degree of resistance to convention evidenced in his films, among which Listen to Britain may seem, at least at first glance, the most radical of all.
Some links on Jennings and Listen to Britain:
A detailed scene-by-scene synopsis.
Screen Online’s bio of Jennings
Useful website for BBC’s documentary Humphrey Jennings: The Man Who Listened to Britain.