A radical, but not a revolutionary
December 26, 2011 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Grierson believed strongly that the filmmaker had a social responsibility, and that film could help a society realize democratic ideals. His absolute faith in the value of capturing the drama of everyday life was to influence generations of filmmakers all over the world. In fact, he coined the term "documentary film."

This feature film is a portrait of John Grierson, the first Canadian Government Film Commissioner and founder the National Film Board in 1939. Interweaving archival footage, interviews with people who knew him and footage of Grierson himself, this film is a sensitive and informative portrait of a dynamic man of vision.

Grierson was a radical, but not a revolutionary, he always insisted on working within the system, with ideas ahead of their time, with programs launched before there was the machinery to handle them; his continuing battle against the inevitable frustrations seemed to have finally broken his spirit.
posted by infinite intimation (4 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
(Some selected highlights for people preferring reading to listening and watching)

In 1968, Grierson was invited to lecture at mcgill university, it may have saved his life.

He had been critically ill, and he had been told that if he didn’t give up drinking he would be dead in two months. He arrived in Montréal a tea-totaller and never took another drink in his life.

Word of mouth is the first mass media transmission technique. -John Grierson

John Grierson tended to want to understand, interpret, study and critique “action” journalism; grierson wasn’t interested by the “good journalism”, but rather, by the Hearstian, or “yellow” journalism, and finding trends in the wording or presentations of stories… a precursor to todays Communications Studies scholars.

How he died:
Surrounded by noise...

In the 1930s and 40s, a unique collection of creative talents was assembled under the tutelage of Scottish-born producer John Grierson. Broadly young, middle-class and left-leaning, they shared an interest in documentary film (a term coined by Grierson) as a means of putting ordinary British life on the screen and helping to improve social conditions.

Grierson established the first of a number of documentary film units at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), later moving to the General Post Office and ultimately (as the Crown Film Unit) to the Ministry of Information. From these units there emerged such classic films as Night Mail, Spare Time and Target for Tonight and such diverse talents as Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt and Len Lye.

Born in Deanston near Doune in Stirling on 26 Aprill 1898, Dr John Grierson CBE is, according to popular myth, believed to be the first person to have coined the word “documentary” when he described the non-fiction film, “Moana” the very first documentary in cinema history.
His father was a head schoolmaster, his mother a suffragette and very active in the Labour Party and both parents brought up all 8 of their children to believe that education was essential to individual freedom. With the outbreak of World War I, his education was interrupted when he joined the Royal Navy serving on a minesweeper at the tender age of 16.

After the war Grierson went to Glasgow University ending up with a Masters Degree in philosophy and literature. He took up a temporary appointment at Durham University but didn’t complete the research fellowship he was awarded. Instead he moved to the United States to examine immigration problems there in 1924. Grierson returned to the United Kingdom in 1927.

Grierson spearheaded the British Documentary Film Movement in the years before the second World War. Being involved in two World Wars, there is a noticeable absence in his work to these two huge and life changing events.

In 1938 the Canadian government invited Grierson to come to Canada to counsel on the use of film. With the outbreak of the second World War, Grierson would use film to instill confidence and pride in Canadians. He was general manager of Canada’s Wartime Information Board at the same time and thus had extraordinary control over how Canadians perceived the war. As the war came to a close, Grierson grew weary of Canadian bureaucrats and resigned and moved to the United States. After a short time while in Paris, many of Europe’s documentary filmmakers flocked to his door. Thereafter, Grierson returned to his native Scotland in the mid-1950s.
Grierson was nearly broke when McGill University in Montreal invited him to lecture in 1968. He began as a curiosity but soon was attracting up to 800 students to his lectures. Indira Gandhi called him to India to find ways to spread the principles of birth control to the villages. Sick with cancer, he returned home to England where he died at Bath on 19 February, 1972.

In the documentary "Night Mail" (1936), John Grierson narrates the opening scene with WH Auden's poem of the same name, "Night Mail." Auden wrote the poem specifically for the film.
To make the poem's rhythm better sound like a chugging train, Auden's text was slightly altered for the film.

Night Mail, WH Auden (as read by John Grierson)
posted by infinite intimation at 12:27 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this. A quote from Grierson appeared on the back of Henry Cow's album In Praise of Learning. "Art is not a mirror – it is a hammer". Nice. I know the Night Mail but little else, so looking forward to seeing more.
posted by peterkins at 3:53 PM on December 26, 2011

Thank you for this lovely post. I saw this almost 30 years ago during a brief, ill considered time in film studies. The course, though, did give me an appreciation for Grierson and the NFB amongst other non mainstream cinema.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 5:40 PM on December 26, 2011

I wanted to thank y'all for the kind words and personal insights (and since I had you here, I figure you might enjoy viewing the source driving me to post this [it really didn't seem right to make multiple posts on the NFB separately, but I don't want these videos to go away and not have shared them]).

It was this timeline and history of the NFB page which brought me back to questions about the 'immanent truth' and the 'historical truths', the interplay of the lens of a 'documentary' and the documentary audience.

Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary investigates a unique cinematic genre though encounters with some of its most influential filmmakers. Over 30 luminaries — including Albert MayslesErrol MorrisAlanis ObomsawinMichel BraultNick BroomfieldKim Longinotto and that great iconoclast Werner Herzog — offer insight into how and why they make documentaries, while reflecting on the nature of representation and the perennially contested status of the “truth.”
The Capturing Reality website features over 4 hours of interviews with these filmmakers beyond what you’ll find in the documentary film. The clips below offer just a sample of the reflections on ethics, risk and becoming a filmmaker you’ll find on the site.

If you liked the original link (at all), definitely watch "The Universal Clock"

This feature documentary is a portrait of Peter Watkins, an Oscar®-winning British filmmaker who, for the past 4 decades, has proved that films can be made without compromise. With the proliferation of TV channels, documentaries are enjoying an unprecedented boom fuelled by audiences seeking an alternative to infotainment. But now documentary filmmaking, too, finds itself constrained by the imperatives of television. However, there is a rebel resisting this uniformity of the spirit. Pre-eminent among today's documentary filmmakers concerned about this mind-numbing standardization, Peter Watkins has never strayed from either his principles or the cause.

(Watkins whole web-presence is impressive, in scope and conceit).
posted by infinite intimation at 7:08 PM on January 1, 2012

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