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Film And Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement

By David Wilson

Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement
By Ian Aitken Routledge

"He was more concerned with the representation of fish than with the representation of a labor process." Thus wrote the American critic Harry A. Potamkin in 1930 of Grierson's Drifters. Is there anything more to be said about Grierson and the British Documentary movement? Ian Aitken thinks there is and has written a book which sets out to challenge the multifarious accounts of Grierson on the ground that they fail to take account of his intellectual formation.

In Drifters, then, "the subordination of naturalistic verisimilitude to symbolic expression... was a product of the influence of idealist thought, and of the idealist distinction between the real and the phenomenal." The words, rather than their appearance. Or what Grierson himself referred to as the "really real ", by which he meant a "reality" or a "truth" which exists at a level of abstraction beyond empirical observation. Ian Aitken's book published in Routledge's scattershot "Cinema and Society" series, roots this motion in what he argues was the abiding influence on Grierson of philosophical idealism. The book aims, in so far as a coherent objective is detectable, to demonstrate that Grierson's world view, and by extension, his idea of documentary, "can be defined as a neo-Kantian social democratic version of Bradley's absolute idealist philosophy. "

A mouthful of ideas. To which, moreover, is added the parallel objective of an investigation of the relations between the documentary film movement and social democratic reformism in Britain between the wars and a potted cultural history of the 30s. Aitken's ambition is admirable in times of narrow textual analyses which ignore the context that produced those texts. It is also, clearly, self-defeating. What sets out as an intellectual biography of Grierson wanders into so many disorienting by-ways of cultural history that long before it ends the book has lost its way.

The fault lies, not without irony, in Aitken's increasingly breathless attempts to extract larger ideas from a mass of empirical observations. His chapters on the documentary movement itself—the work of the Grierson film units at the Empire Marketing Board and the Post Office, the offshoot Strand and Realist units—are a rush through familiar territory and a list of titles. Night Mail is treated in a few lines and Housing Problems as a passing illustration of the move from state to corporate sponsorship. Roth's (surely well attested) partisan view of the movement is taken on trust. Grierson's own criticism of Jennings' Spare Time as patronizing of working class culture was "misdirected" because the film "ranks with the best in the documentary movement." Q.E.D.

Except that these are contentious areas of direct relevance to Aitken's general argument about the gulf between Grierson's original idea of socially purposive filmmaking and the films themselves. Ranking the documentary movement films as more or less significant—a severely overused word in this book—Aitken stumbles to a limp conclusion that Grierson's model of the relationship between documentary and the state, derived from a background of idealist philosophy, was unrealistic and utopian.

Aitken argues that during the interwar period in Britain "the establishment attempted to reestablish the more hierarchical society which had existed before the [First] war." From any political perspective this is a gross oversimplification, begging a number of questions which are here only cursorily examined. Instead, the book wanders into detours such as a chapter on the rise of corporate capitalism after 1870 and the concomitant development of the public relations industry—where we learn that during a coal-mining dispute in 1906 the Pennsylvania anthracite industry hired a Mr Ivy Lee as Public Relations Consultant. The disadvantage of this all-inclusive approach is only too evident in a chapter in which Aitken attempts to connect the roots of British documentary cinema to a cultural history which invokes, among a teeming multitude of references, such "documentary" fiction as Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox­ Hunting Man and Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (!)

Far more persuasive is the first half of the book, which provides a commendably detailed account of Grierson's intellectually formative years—the influence of his schoolteacher parents, the academic stimulus of Glasgow University, the Scottish legacy of economic liberalism and the dying but still glowing embers of Calvinism. There is a determinist slant to Aitken's insistence that Grierson's interest in idealist philosophy helped form the conceptual core of what later became his theory of documentary film. But the many quotations from Grierson's own early writings indicate that there is at least some truth in this.

Aitken links this notion to Grierson's political ideas, which he characterizes as "social democratic constitutional reformism." He dispels the myth that Grierson was actively involved in the politics of Red Clydeside. And he offers an informative account of Grierson's two years in America: his encounter with Chicago sociology, his study of the yellow press', and his research into the audience reaction files at Famous Players Lasky which was the spur to his interest in cinema.

It is when the book begins to apply its account of Grierson's philosophical and political ideas to the documentary movement itself that it begins to falter. It signally lacks a guiding editorial hand, which might have exercised its repetitions and steered its argument on a more coherent course. And might also have queried the need for more than a thousand footnotes, which litter the pages like windblown confetti—a pedant's dream, but a reader's nightmare. As it is, the book is sloppily edited and poorly printed. And at £30 it is extortionately priced, effectively putting it beyond the reach of the students whose interest the publishers appeal to.