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« Tout ce qui bouge sur un écran est du cinéma. » (Jean Renoir)

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Humphrey Jennings, Listen to Britain, 1942

Source : http://blip.tv/file/2951967


de Humphrey Jennings.

1942, Grande-Bretagne, 20 min, Noir & Blanc

Sans dialogue ni commentaire, porté seulement par une bande son réelle ou rêvée, Listen to Britain est une association d'images, une forme de propagande poétique d'où ressort ce flegme britannique, ou plutôt ce sentiment de made in London difficilement définissable, alors que la ville essuie le plus dur des bombardements nazis. Quelque chose comme une symphonie sous les bombes.

For the surrealist Humphrey Jennings, everyday images of life were not so much documented as dissected and reassembled. He understood the power of juxtaposition in montage and working with his editor Stewart McAllister, created this classic of wartime propaganda.

The power of the film is almost entirely in its editing. Cleverly, Jennings and McAllister made the sounds of daily wartime life the central theme of the film. This liberated the narrative from the constraints of conventional storytelling and although it could have simply ended up as a list of scenes, their contrapuntal skill gave the documentary a poignant whispering heroism that made the British appear stoical and dignified as they faced the danger of totalitarianism. Despite the rather clumsy opening sequence telling the audience how to view this innovative documentary, it remains one of the most celebrated - and poetic - films of British spirit during the Second World War.

Humphrey Jennings’ style in Listen to Britain where voice-over and interview is abandoned in favour of a seamless flow of images, sound and music. With neither interview or narration to present a narrative, Jennings uses a continuous juxtaposition of images and sound spanning all ages and class in both rural and urban Britain to portray a context in which war seems almost a natural disaster which fosters a single spirit of unity binding the whole people together.

The interviews are conducted direct to camera, with no voice of the interviewer. This helps the verité feel of the film, giving a reality to the people and their surroundings. The camera tends to keep a distance from the subjects, varying from medium long shot to medium close up, but never closer. The interview with Mrs Hill is lit strikingly from beneath, sending shadows up the wall behind her. In this case the wall takes up a disproportionate amount of the frame, and the effect is a sense of her being overwhelmed and diminished by her surroundings. This method of composition is common throughout the film, with subjects often taking an unnaturally small proportion of the frame, hence giving the viewer an emotional distance from the interviews.

Listen to Britain opens with pastoral images of trees and a field of corn. A sense of foreboding is created as the rumble of spitfires interrupts the song of birds. As the planes pass overhead it is clear that the threat of war is not stopping Britain at work as we see workers pull up potatoes and a tractor continue to mow the corn. This theme is continued throughout, juxtaposing unhindered work and leisure with preparations for an attack. A ballroom of dancers in Blackpool is contrasted with soldiers on the sea front on the lookout for attack; a playground with children innocently playing against images of tanks driving through a quiet town.

From the introduction, the viewer is told that they shall be hearing the music of Britain at war. Jennings sets out to show how throughout Britain music is a unifying factor across boundaries of class, age and position. In a particularly clever cut we move from a performance by Flanagan and Allen before servicemen, women and workers to a Myra Hess recital before the Queen; the music blending seamlessly between the two contrasting styles. The queen is shown only in passing, and with the same regard Jennings has for the nameless faces in the worker’s canteen. We see soldiers on a railway carriage singing along to a guitar, and women at work singing to the radio. This helps emphasise that the people of Britain are setting to their work fearlessly and in good spirit, and that it is music which unites them. A sense of Britain as an industrial machine which continues to operate regardless is gained from the sounds of steam engines, signals and the factory.

A Fresh Framework

Third Cinema is a term commonly credited to two Argentine filmmakers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Following completion of their film La Hora de los Hornos (Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), they wrote the manifesto hacia un tercer cine (towards a third cinema). The manifesto lays out three categories of cinema, explained as:

First Cinema

  • The Hollywood model of production (the same large-scale production values in other countries also applies i.e. Bollywood). Importantly for Solanas and Getino, this mode of production corresponds to an ideology which "posits a particular relationship between film and spectator, where cinema is conceived as pure spectacle" (Chanan, 1997 pp375). First Cinema conveys the messages of the dominant ideology through its iconography, its content and its mode of production and exhibition. This is, to me, the clearest definition of First Cinema, and is as such, the primary status opposed by Third Cinema.

Second Cinema

  • There is much theoretical writing that simply equates second cinema with cinema d'auteur, but it is vital in understanding the oppositional stance of Third Cinema to look at the political essence of what the manifesto defines as Second Cinema, as it was after all intended as a manifesto of political instigation. Second Cinema can include not only the cinema d'auteur but also art cinema, independent American cinema, and the various new wave cinemas. Second Cinema started to produce its own structures (of both filmmaking practice and of narrative), it's own distribution and exhibition structures, and its own political structures - to Solanas and Getino, it became a bourgeois institution in it's own right; "a misplaced ambition to develop a film industry to compete with First Cinema, and this could only lead to its own institutionalisation within the system, which was more than ready to use Second Cinema to demonstrate the democratic plurality of its cultural milieu. These groups were politically reformist - for example in opposing censorship - but incapable of achieving any profound change. They were especially impotent in the face of the kind of repression unleashed by the victory of reactionary, proto-fascist forces." (Chanan, 1997 pp375-376). This illustrates that Third Cinema is not only opposing First Cinema, but that it is directly oppositional to Second Cinema as well. Indeed, Second Cinema, in both content and production, can be looked at as subservient to First Cinema.

Third Cinema

  • "What determines third cinema is the conception of the world, and not the genre or any explicitly political approach. Any story, any subject can be taken up by third cinema. In the dependent countries, third cinema is a cinema of decolonisation, which expresses the will to national liberation, anti-mythic, anti-racist, anti-bourgeois, and popular." (Solanas & Getino, 1969 pp23). Third Cinema is a direct alternative to First and Second Cinemas. It counters the common production and reception of First and Second cinemas on an ideological platform; the films of Third Cinema are both political in content and practice. Third cinema is not Third World cinema, although it is commonly attributed as such. Despite being subtitled 'Notes and experiences on the development of a cinema of liberation in the third world', Solanas and Getino's instigating essay sets Third Cinema as a reaction to the First and Second Cinemas and not as a reaction to First and Second Worlds. First Cinema includes Bollywood cinema - made in a Third World country - and Third Cinema can include films made in First World countries (as I aim to substantiate); "Newsreel, a US New Left film group, the cinegiornali of the Italian student movement, the films of the Etats Generaux du cinema Francais, and those of the British and Japanese student movements" (Solanas and Getino, 1969 quoted in Chanan, 1983 pp17). To place Third Cinema within a more contemporary environment I would suggest films by Alan Clarke and Michael Haneke as examples of Third Cinema over the past 20 years. In particular I believe that Clarke''s film Elephant, and Haneke's Funny Games are the two finest examples of a Third Cinema response to screen violence. Both films challenge the viewer to look beyond First Cinema's formal cinematic structures and question oneself, and both films challenge society itself; Elephant the culture of killing in Northern Ireland, Funny Games the audience's acceptance of violence on screen.

I will be looking at what I consider three of the key elements in defining Third Cinema, and using them as more productive ways of discussing Jennings' work. The areas I will be analysing are; Political Opposition, using Fires Were Started; National cinema in his wartime films; and Narrative opposition, questions of the audience and interaction utilising Listen to Britain.

Narrative Deconstruction

Third Cinema is more than just a confrontation to the ideological concepts of dominant cultures on a 'message' level. The films of Third Cinema challenge the films of First and Second Cinema on a multitude of layers. The films of the dominant cultures are seen as transmitting the dominant ideologies through their content, but also through their production, their distribution, their exhibition and their secondary life in the response media - news, film magazines and reviews. In challenging the control over the spectator by the First and Second Cinemas, Third Cinema looks to review the structure of the films themselves, in a visual, aural and most defiantly, in a narrative sense.

Third Cinema looks beyond both the conventional primary narratives that dominate First Cinema and the natural controlled responses of the Second Cinema, to constructing narratives that deconstruct the notion of the passive audience. "We realised that the most important thing was not the film and the information in it so much as the way this information was debated. One of the aims of such films is to provide the occasion for people to find themselves and speak about their own problems. The projection becomes a place where people can talk out and develop their awareness. We learnt the importance of this space: cinema here becomes humanly useful" (Solanas & Getino 1973). I believe that Solanas and Getino are here defining a key ideology in Third Cinema and an often overlooked aspect of it; the need for a new approach to not only film production, but to film projection. This is not to say that Third Cinema aims to create a "non-narrative" form, instead, it acknowledges the desire of the audience to construct its own narrative and utilises this to form a two-way discussion between the film and the audience. The film asks the audience to question itself, but also asks the audience to question the order, form, and content of the film.

Listen to Britain

Jennings' Listen to Britain is, I believe, a very direct example of the kind of narrative that Third Cinema wishes to create. Jennings co-directed and co-edited the film with Stewart MacAllister - his usual collaborator and editor of Fires Were Started and others. The film is a masterpiece of sound mixing; it uses natural sounds and music to create the sound of Britain. The introduction, voiced directly to camera by Leonard Brockington, touched many of Jennings key themes in a way that invites the viewer to share. Indeed the invitation comes from outside of any narrative, directed straight at the audience. "I, am a Canadian. I have been listening to Britain. I have heard the sound of her life by day and by night. Many years ago, a great American, speaking of Britain, said that in the storm of battle and conflict, she had a secret rigour and a pulse like a cannon. 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." (Humphrey Jennings, 1942). Past this introductory invitation, the film eschews either a commentary or a story. It creates an audio landscape of Britain during the war, with images both accompanying and conflicting with the multitude of sounds.

The Listener

Yet Listen To Britain is not merely an early popular music compilation. Jennings asks the audience to take the sounds so familiar to them and to reflect upon their overall value within the world around them. He does this with a consistent blending and emphasising of the sounds of war time Britain. The audience, through its familiarity with the sounds and images of the film are given the time (in terms of narrative demands) to turn the questions raised by the films juxtapositions back into questions about the individual. The audience is the shaper of the narrative; the films dynamism comes from the familiarity of the soundscape. It is in this subconscious comprehension of what is in the film, that the audience can begin to question why it's in the film, and what relevance it has to the audience member watching. The belief behind this ethos of Third Cinema is that the audience, rather than incapable of moving towards these concepts, are denied them by the restrictive narratives and the closed screen-audience relationship of the First and Second Cinema. "The effectiveness of the best films of militant cinema show that social sectors regarded as backward (in terms of the dominant ideology) are perfectly capable of grasping the precise meaning of a visual metaphor, a montage effect, or some linguistic experiment as long as it relates to a determinate idea" (Solanas & Getino, 1973 pp10). The audience are given the space and time, both of which are restricted and controlled in dominant cultures, to imbue the film with their own meaning. This action then extends the openness of Listen To Britain; it is no longer a film with a single reading, it has become a film dependent on its audience for its specific meaning.

Narrative / Non-narrative

However, Listen to Britain is not a non-narrative film, it does not have a "non-narrative style" (Lovell and Hillier, 1972 pp89). It has a narrative of images and, to a much greater extent, sound that propel the viewer through the film. The audience are not necessarily pushed forwards in a linear sense, but against the conventional narrative parameters of cinematic time and space into an aural dimension, an aural depth. It also clearly demonstrates Winston's "Chrono-Logic"; the film has an internal narrative - the time span that the events on screen are occurring within - but also an external narrative of the duration of the film within its screening. Jennings utilises time as a cyclical emblem, reinforcing his ideas around the unstoppable recycling of events. He starts and ends at the same time of the day, drawing us into the idea that this is happening every day. He is giving his films a level of ordinariness and denies the audience the concept of narrative resolution - there can be no resolution in a cycle of events. In this way, Jennings is further substantiating his position of 'other' to the ideologies and films of the First and Second Cinemas.

This is not to say that Humphrey Jennings eschewed narrative form, instead he was entirely aware of the constraints that it imposes on the way the film is viewed. He uses these constraints on the films as a way of recognising the problems that a tight narrative structure can impose on Third Cinema. When he uses conventional narrative, as he does in A Diary for Timothy, he does so on an ultra simplistic level. He is acknowledging the presence of a contrived external control on the film, by reducing it to one of the most recognisable forms of story - the diary or memoir. By placing a basic narrative framework around the film, he again escapes the need of the audience to follow the narrative, and instead allows the film to be a continuous interaction between viewer and the film screening.


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 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.

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.”


1. Opening montage includes the following shots: low angle of trees, their branches swaying in the wind; CU of grasses waving, then we hear roar of planes and see overhead two spitfires roar past. Then low angle of grass again. Three people at work in a field, two women look up. Then two spotters in a bunker watch planes through binoculars. Notice small tractor and combine at work next to the bunker. Extreme long shot looking up into the sky, formation of planes against the clouds. Long shot of house and white fence. We hear radio broadcast, then see a small lantern lit against the darkness. Waves gently lapping against the beach. Two men at the shore. They sit on a park bench and are silhouetted against the sunset. Sounds of ballroom. CU of man, wearing helmet, putting on his coat. He stands above the city. CU of poster, "Members of Armed Forces, one half price." Long shot ballroom scene, filled with dancers. Inserted two shots of couples interacting off the floor. Stationary shot of dancers as they move past the camera. This shot continues for several seconds. Sounds of "Roll out the barrel." Two men silhouetted on top of building, both wear helmets.

2.Series of night shots—workers in single file, carrying lights. Factories at night. Steam locomotive starts out at night, its lights off. Interior shots of troops singing, talking, playing instruments. "Home on the Range." Back to locomotive, exterior shots, smoke against the dark sky. Interior of aircraft factory. Workers assembling a bomber. Then to a night scene of bomber taking off. Interior of ambulance station. Woman serenades workers (all women) with piano and singing. All listen intently.

3. Exterior of Big Ben at dawn. Radio broadcast. Houses of Parliament, the Thames, "This is London calling." Broadcasts in various languages, montage shows scenes of sunrise, studios, electronics. Exterior of wooded area, birds singing, then clip-clop of horses in an urban setting. Smokestacks in b.g. Cut to people walking to work. Then two shots from high angle showing the city laid out below. A man in a business suit walks down the street and turns the corner. He wears a business hat, but carries his helmet on a strap around his shoulder. We see a woman fixing tea. She looks out her window onto a school ground, where a circle of children dance to stirring music. Note editing—CU of woman looking out window, long shot of children dancing happily. Woman again—she looks away from the window at something; then close-up of photograph next to the window, showing her husband (presumably) in military gear; then medium shot of children dancing. Several shots of military vehicles moving down the street. A child watches them.

4. Calling all workers." Exterior moving shots, lead to interior of factory. Women at work. Many sing along with the piped-in music. Exterior moving shots again. Railway station, soldiers standing around. Entertainers in the canteen. Cut to long shot of crowd watching them. All are intent on the performance. Several inserted shots show individual reactions. People seem to be enjoying themselves. Most whistle along to the well-known tune the entertainers are singing

5. Symphony Hall scene. Interior shot shows orchestra of military men performing a piece. Inserted close-ups of some exterior damage to the building, loss of windows. Audience is intent. Queen Elizabeth is shown in the audience. Inserted shots show large windows boarded up, sandbags, and buckets at the read. More CU's of people in the audience. Another shot of the Queen. Exterior shots of trees, leaves, people enjoying the lunchtime. Shots of traffic, architectural details.

7. Factory exterior. Inside all is busy. Symphony music continues. Women hard at work. Assembly lines of tanks. Marching band on the street. Behind them is rows of soldiers dressed in battle gear and carrying their guns. Cut to men in steel mill—symphony music continues—we see them pounding out steel parts. Choir comes onto the sound track singing from "Rule, Brittania." Shots of smokestacks, wheat field, and last shot from an airplane, looking through clouds at the vast landscape below.

Summary written by Robert E. Yahnke
Professor, General College, Univ. of Minnesota
Copyright by Robert E. Yahnke, © 2001
Permission granted for reprinting for educational use only

A voir aussi: "Housing Problems" d'Edgar Anstey et Arthur Elton, 1935

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