Article in Film International · November 2006 doi: 10. 1386/fiin

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Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) influenced many British directors including

Grierson. The documentary movement also attracted support from such

luminaries as E. M. Forster, W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. This reinforced

its intellectual credentials and ensured that it continued to have a

disproportionate influence on notions of what the feature film should achieve.

The risk was that the documentary became out of touch with the population it

was supposed to reach. Night Mail (Basil Wright and Harry Watt, 1936) with

contributions from Auden and Britten might be now considered a seminal work,

but this does not mean that it was popular at the time.

Realism was not so much a fully-fledged philosophy as an aspiration.

Elements were found in feature films which were by no means realistic,

examples being the Blackpool scenes in Sing as We Go (Basil Dean, 1934)

and the Isle of Man TT races in No Limit (Monty Banks, 1935). The stylistic

disparity between realism and genre comes out clearly in Sons of the Sea

(Maurice Elvey, 1939). This moral-boosting story of a spy who tries to discover

British naval secrets relies heavily on location shooting around the Royal Naval

College at Dartmouth. While this anchors the film in real locations, a laboured

scenario and some leaden acting make the story spin into melodrama. 

With the Second World War came a deluge of documentary films to explain

war aims and exhort the population. That strange hybrid the documentary

feature was supported in Britain by a government which perceived its value in

blending propaganda with entertainment. The fictionalised documentaries Fires

Were Started (Humphrey Jennings, 1943) and Western Approaches (Pat

Jackson, 1944) are almost indistinguishable in approach from commercial

feature films which utilise documentary elements such as The Bells Go Down

(Basil Dearden, 1943) and San Demetrio London (Charles Frend, 1943). The

interesting questions, never completely answered, are whether audiences

responded to such films as entertainment, propaganda or information, and how

their responses varied geographically, demographically and by occupation. 

With the ending of the war, many documentary film-makers moved into

feature films, so it is not surprising that documentary techniques were carried

over into their films, the crowd scenes in Ken Annakin’s Holiday Camp (1947)

and the cattle drive in Harry Watt’s The Overlanders (1947) being obvious

examples. Other directors including Thorold Dickinson and Cavalcanti

sloughed off their documentary credentials and showed a willingness to play

with the medium as in Cavalcanti’s ‘Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ episode in Dead of

Night (1945). Dickinson’s Pushkin adaptation The Queen of Spades (1949)

might have pleased critics, but audiences were reluctant to follow them on this

artistic journey. The film was expensive to make at £232,500, but twelve

months after its release in April 1949 it had not recouped its costs at the box




Interest in realism was reinforced by the neo-realist films produced in Italy.

In part the style was a response to shortages of power, studio space and film

stock, but there was also an ideological commitment to portray ordinary people

which must have gratified documentary film-makers in Britain. Although neo-

realism is now regarded as a key development in cinema history, the films were

little seen by British audiences, who showed scant enthusiasm for films without

English dialogue. The appeal of neo-realism was to a metropolitan elite who

could attend screenings at specialist cinemas. One rather shaky bridge across

this cultural divide was Children of Chance (Luigi Zampa, 1949), a neo-realist

film shot in Italy but with British principals speaking English. This story of two

girls who are sent back to their home village in Ischia by the Allied

administration was re-shot by Zampa as Campane a Martello (1949), with Gina

Lollobrigida in the lead role. Unfortunately the British version was little seen, so

this intriguing experiment in co-production was never repeated. 

With the wartime blurring of any distinction between the documentary and

the feature film, the movement of film-makers between the two forms and the

influence of critics like Edgar Anstey and Paul Rotha, both former documentary

directors, it is hardly surprising that the documentary maintained its status in

the postwar world. It was an article of faith that film should be true to life,

though this ignores the question of what audiences wanted. The success of

Gainsborough melodramas such as The Wicked Lady (Leslie Arliss, 1945) and

the escapist comedies of Herbert Wilcox suggests that the paying public had

other ideas.

Several film-makers set out their attitudes towards realism, even if they

strayed from their declared path. The Paris-trained Cavalcanti wrote in 1947: 

‘We [junior technicians in France] backed the straight commercial film

and we were right. They survive today while all the “Art” has been

forgotten... We took refuge in the Documentary Film. And that to us was

not art either. We wanted to tell simple stories in a simple way. Realism

seemed the slogan that we cherished above all, though later this too

became an experimental ground.


Here realism is elided with simplicity to distinguish it from art, yet the final

sentence suggests a desire for something closer to Vertov’s playfulness which

is apparent in Cavalcanti’s contribution to Dead of Night already referred to.

Though Went the Day Well? (1942) might be described as a fantasy in

documentary style, his other work of this period strays far from realism: a salute

to the music hall with Champagne Charlie (1944), an adaptation of Dickens’

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