Thursday, March 5, 2009


Owen Hatherley in the New Statesman on the film unit of the General Post Office:

Although they were very different from each other in their style of work, both men favoured an unstable combination of wild experiment and sober realism. Here, after a decade of tradition­alist torpor, modernist aesthetics finally entered British public life with the anglicisation of Weimar Germany’s innovations (the great animator Lotte Reiniger was hired by the GPO) and the Soviet directors’ fierce, fast-cut polemic. Audiences were either non-paying and captive, with the films being distributed to public bodies, or, more rarely, paying customers, with the films acting as shorts before the main feature at the cinema. Curiously, the unit’s greatest success in theatres, Harry Watt’s North Sea, is a straight­forward drama-documentary, duller to contemporary eyes than the experiments in realist and surrealist montage.


Conventional wisdom has it that the Film Unit, and the British documentary movement in which it played a central part, were products of a middle-class obsession with mythologising the working class and “improving” its taste, luring workers away from Hollywood escapism.

Though this is not the whole story – Len Lye, its most extreme experimentalist, was from a poor family in New Zealand and had left school at 13 – it is undeniably the case that most Film Unit employees, such as Wright and Auden, were from upper-middle-class Oxbridge stock. One work that shows the GPO’s class paternalism at its most blatant is Evelyn Spice’s Job in a Million, where an underdeveloped working-class youth is nurtured by the GPO as an apprentice. Even though the poor here are never patronised, and speak eloquently in their own accents, it is rather unnerving to see line upon line of neat proletarian boys in shiny uniforms being trained by benevolent patricians. Yet why this should be considered more dubious than today’s depiction of the working class as dirty, stupid, racist and violent (from How Clean Is Your House? and the BBC’s White season to Guy Ritchie’s prole-face fantasies) is a mystery. Certainly, the postal workers’ unions supported the Film Unit more actively than did the GPO’s wary bureaucracy.

the rest here

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