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Criticism: New challenges: sound and documentary by Geoff Brown


Covers of Cinema Quarterly and Sight and Sound

Paul Rotha's opposition to talking pictures, vividly expressed in The Film Till Now, was no lone phenomenon. In the late 1920s most critics who championed cinema as art decried synchronised dialogue for attacking the purity of the silent film's visual discourse. "Where is the gain?" asked Robert Herring in the London Mercury (November 1926) after sampling British Phonofilm shorts. Faced with the impending reality of talkie production, Ernest Betts in his book Heraclitus (1928) could only hang his head in despair: "The soul of the film - its eloquent and vital silence - is destroyed. The film now returns to the circus whence it came, among the freaks and the fat ladies". This wasn't a view that could be sustained as talkies took root and flourished, least of all when Betts in 1935 became the film critic of the Daily Mail. Of the more thoughtful newspaper critics, C.A. Lejeune, now settled at The Observer, immediately valued the public appeal of Hollywood stars actually talking: "the millions of picture-goers who are willing to pay for personality have discovered a new way of getting value for money" (December 1928). The bulk of her colleagues eventually moved from distaste to acceptance as the films reviewed grew in sophistication. In June 1929, James Agate at The Tatler might still refer to "these wretched and preposterous things known as talkies", but within another year he had turned the corner, helped by two play adaptations, Hitchcock's Juno and the Paycock (1930; "nearly a masterpiece") and James Whale's Journey's End (1930; "better as a film than as a play").

Theory played its part in the debate over sound. Close Up fired the starting gun by publishing in October 1928 the collective Soviet statement on sound, signed by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov. Gazing into a crystal ball, the trio foresaw "photographic performances of a theatrical nature": a bad future. The article also looked toward better times, with experiments in non-synchronous sound, "a new orchestral counterpoint of sight-images and sound-images", and the positioning of sound as a key component of montage. The statement's theories duly spread: Kenneth Macpherson wouldn't have talked about the 'unification of sound-sight' in Blackmail without its help. But as sound films developed, cinema's intellectual flag-bearers in and outside Close Up could find very few cases of the Soviet theories ripening in action. Depressed about talkies in The Film Till Now, Rotha was scarcely any more cheerful in the book's sequel, Celluloid: The Film To-day (1931): cinema, he wrote, had "practically reached a state of stagnation through its crazy pursuit of speech".

Britain's film aesthetes had a far smoother time assimilating the cinema world's second new arrival of the late 1920s: documentary. John Grierson first used the English term in a film review of Robert Flaherty's Moana, published on 8 February 1926 in the New York Sun ("Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value"). Thereafter, Grierson and the young hopefuls gathered round him at the Empire Marketing Board's Film Unit and its successor, the GPO Film Unit, regularly used film journalism as a means of promoting the new movement. Aside from straight scientific films, and the workers' film groups surveyed by Ralph Bond, Close Up remained largely antipathetic. The last issue, December 1933, featured an Oswell Blakeston blast against 'pseudo-documents' - films strung out with their "obscene dramatic over-layer", their "filtered skies, 'Russian' montage and other vulgarities". Instead, documentary champions gathered round Cinema Quarterly (1932-35), edited from Edinburgh by Norman Wilson. Forsyth Hardy, critic for The Scotsman from 1929 and Grierson's eventual biographer, served as reviews editor; Basil Wright, one of Grierson's first EMB recruits, served as its London correspondent. Grierson himself wrote key articles expounding, describing and exhorting. The proselytising continued in muted form under Grierson's auspices in the magazine's lively successor, World Film News (1936-38).

Grierson, always fascinated by newspapers and public opinion, also took active steps to find friends in the wider critical world. Lejeune, in her 1931 book Cinema, singled out Grierson as "the most considerable intelligence" working in British cinema. Regional critics also gave the movement strong support, among them Ernest Dyer (Newcastle Chronicle), Charles Davy (Yorkshire Post), and Robert Herring (Manchester Guardian). Both sides benefited in the exchange. Grierson secured encouraging paragraphs on his own Drifters (1929) or quality GPO product like Wright's The Song of Ceylon (1934). Critics could use documentary as a useful way to boost British film-making while decrying the unrealities and excess of studio product - a tactic often used by Graham Greene in The Spectator.

The documentary movement also picked up Paul Rotha, both as filmmaker and writer. He nuanced his thoughts: cinema's capacity to record the actual, belittled in The Film Till Now, moved into centre position in his 1936 book Documentary Film, though Rotha still wished its treatment to be 'cinematic'. Film as an educational and social tool dominated other outlets, particularly after the establishment of the British Film Institute in 1933. The magazine Sight and Sound began its career in spring 1932 as 'A Review of Modern Aids to Learning, published by the British Institute of Adult Education, before moving under umbrella of the BFI eighteen months later; Rotha was on its first advisory board, and contributed early reviews. The BFI's own Monthly Film Bulletin emerged in February 1934 with an initial focus on educational and documentary films, though commercial entertainments crept in. "Films," the first issue declared, "have been examined in every case by persons appointed by the Institute as specially qualified for the task. The commentaries may therefore be regarded as unbiased and reliable descriptions of the films in question". These were rash statements, considering human frailties, though the magazine led a useful life for another 58 years.

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