John Grierson the Documentary Film Developed Term Paper

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John Grierson

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The documentary film developed alongside the narrative film, though largely during the sound era. It was shaped most profoundly during the 1930s as filmmakers began to record sociological an anthropological studies of different populations. Some of the early films were treated much as narrative films were and were widely released in theaters, achieving some popularity. In the early 1930s, this included such films as Nanook of the North and Moana, both by Robert Flaherty. These films were different not only because they presented real people in real situations but because they were filmed on real locations and not in studios. The silent film had sometimes gone outside the confines of the studio, but the advent of sound tied the camera to the soundstage again, at least for a time. These new reality films took the camera in the field and took the audience to places it would never see otherwise. These films gained an audience, and some of their techniques were carried over into some Hollywood films, such as Trader Horn, partially filmed in Africa, and Eskimo, partially filmed in the snows of Alaska and Canada. Some filmmakers recognized the possibilities inherent in these films and began developing an aesthetic that would serve as a guide for other filmmakers. A key figure in the process was John Grierson in Britain, a man who saw the possibilities of the documentary film and also possessed a strong social sense that made him want the documentary to serve the needs of the people, to promote democracy, and to serve the national interests of Britain and later of other countries that could use the form to reach an audience. Grierson was also key in the creation of a number of documentary film units in Britain and Canada over the next two decades or more. He wrote widely on film and taught a number of documentarians how to achieve their goals. He inspired more than one generation of filmmakers and came to represent the documentary to most of them. Many of his ideas would continue to infuse the movement and still serve as keystones for documentary filmmakers to this day.


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John Grierson would become associated with the development of the documentary film in the 1930s. The term "documentary" was first used in France as docamentaire and referred to travel films. Grierson did not necessarily like the term, but her introduced it in America in a review he wrote for the New York Sun in February, 1926, using it to describe Robert Flaherty's Moana, an account of the South Sea islanders. He would later define the term as "the creative treatment of actuality," and over the next few decades, this film form would "come to represent a vast and far-reaching use of the film for social analysis" (Hardy 11). Grierson was not the only theorist or practitioner of documentary filmmaking, but he would be the central driving force and inspiration for the movement. He recognized the value of this type of film, understood the medium enough to give "skilled and persuasive form to his ideas" (Hardy 11), and served as a teacher for others. He would also serve as a political force promoting the documentary film.

John Grierson was born in 1898 at Deanston, a village near Staling, in Scotland. His father was the schoolmaster at nearby Cambusbarron, and the elder Grierson believed that learning was power, an idea his son took to heart as well. He would also bring the first film show to the classroom, the first ever given in Scottish educational circles. John entered Glasgow University as a Clark Scholar, though his studies were interrupted by three and a half years of war service in the Navy during World War I. This time also confirmed Grierson in his love of ships and the sea. He returned to Glasgow University and graduated in philosophy. For a short time, he lectured at Durham University before being appointed in 1924 to a Rockefeller Research Fellowship in Social Science. He then spent three years in the United States and studied the press, the cinema, and other media affecting public opinion, and he also worked for short periods on many American newspapers, including the New York Sun. He went to Hollywood and first met Chaplin, von Sternberg, and other leading film figures of the period. He began to write on film aesthetics because it interested him, but his main focus at the time was on the analysis of the reactions of the film-going masses to the films they saw. As Hardy writes,

It is important to remember that Grierson's interest was aroused first in the cinema, not as an art form, but as a medium for reaching public opinion. Grierson has never sought to disguise this approach and has often firmly emphasised it. (Hardy 12)

Grierson would write in 1933, for example, have no great interest in films as such. Now and again shapes, masses and movements so disport themselves that I have a brief hope that something of the virtue of great painting may one day come into cinema; but I have but to consider the economic bases of production to suspend the hope indefinitely. For the absolute pleasures of form a man would more wisely look to painting and be done with it. Outside considerations of commerce do not so frequently distort; the skill is more intense because more confined; and the artist, on a cheaper canvas, can more easily command the bewildering perfections of harmony. I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist; and this I put unashamedly because, in the still unshaven philosophies of cinema, broad distinctions are necessary. (Cited by Hardy 12)

Grierson made a distinction among such purposes as entertainment, education, and other uses to which cinema may be put. He also saw a reason why the professional propagandist might be particularly drawn to cinema because it gives access to the public, is capable of "direct description, simple analysis and commanding conclusion, and may, by its tempo'd and imagistic powers, be made easily persuasive. It lends itself to rhetoric, for no form of description can add nobility to a simple observation so readily as a camera set low, or a sequence cut to a time-beat. But principally there is this thought that a single say-so can be repeated a thousand times a night to a million eyes, and, over the years, if it is good enough to live, to millions of eyes" (cited by Hardy 13).

Hardy indeed finds that Grierson's time in America was key in the development of his thought on film, stating that when Grierson left Britain, film was simply one aspect of a fascinating subject, while when he returned to England in 1927, "he was deeply absorbed in the possibilities of its use as a medium of education and persuasion" (Hardy 13). He needed to find a department which might be convinced of the service films might render, and he found one in the Empire Marketing Board, a group already using posters, newspapers, exhibitions, and school classroom walls and was only beginning to use film. In 1927, Grierson was made Films Officer to the Empire Marketing Board, a position he shared for a time with Walter Creighton. His first work was on the North Sea herring fisheries, a subject on which Grierson made his first film. That film was Drifters in 1929.

Hardy emphasizes the long-term effect of this film. When first made, Drifters aroused immediate interest because of its subject-matter and its technique alike. Cinema in Britain was then studio-bound, and here was a film that drew its drama at first-hand from real life.:

Grierson's simple story of the North Sea herring catch brought what were then new and striking images to the screen: drifters swinging out to sea from small grey harbours; nets flung wide from restless vessels; fishermen moving about their everyday tasks. Here was workaday Britain brought to the screen for the first time: what has become familiar to-day through a thousand documentary films had then the impact of startling discovery. In technique also Drifters struck a note which was new in Britain. Grierson had studied the work of the Russian directors -- had indeed helped to prepare the version of Potemkin shown in America -- and he applied to his own film the principles of symphonic structure and dynamic editing evolved by Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Drifters might have broken new ground in its theme and remained technically dull; in fact, its form was little less exciting than its content. (Hardy 14)

In the long-term, however, the film vindicated Grierson's belief that in film he had found the most useful medium for his purposes as a sociologist. He would write that the documentary film movement "was from the beginning an adventure in public observation. It might, in principle, have been a movement in documentary writing, or documentary radio, or documentary painting. The basic force behind it was social not aesthetic. It was a desire to make… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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