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Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings was a British film director, editor and writer.


  • Humphrey Jennings was born on 19 August 1907 in Walberswiek, United Kingdom.

  • Career

    • Jennings wrote poetry and painted. In 1936 he helped to organize an important surrealist art exhibition in London. His own work was not as extreme, but it used imagery with the same combined emotional and intellectual force. Jini Millier has drawn attention to the way Jennings employs the images of Tarot cards and stressed how far the compositions in his films are reinforced by such a code, which is not apparent to many viewers. Or not immediately so. In fact, Jennings's image is not simply more elegant than most, but more contra-dictory and poignant. He has an eye for absurdity, for the beauty of violenee, the oddity of the every day, and the disruptive liberation that ean come from pictures of a city—like London—suddenly made naked by war. His images of blitz are not only documentary but examinations of the potential for discovery in circumstances that dislodge us from fixed systems and responses. Houses torn open disclose inane domestic interiors: no doubt about the violence that has been done, but Jennings also seems to ponder over those once neat containers of soft civilization. War acted for Jennings like the high-pressure inspiration that carries the surrealist into the subconscious.

      He joined the GPO unit in 1934 as designer, editor, and actor. After a period with Len Lye, at Shell, where he was in charge of the color work on The Birth of a Robot (36), he returned to the GPO and began directing. His early work is conventional, although it shows an unusual visual awareness. His most creative period was very brief: Listen to Britain. Fires Were Started, and A Diary for Timothy.

      Perhaps it was Jennings’s intuition of pandemonium that makes those three films the most vivid and accurate account of civilian Britain at war. But it is the artist’s awareness of the threat of chaos that gives them a very moving feeling for all culture threatened by destruction. They are war films without an enemy. There is something anonymous and all-pervasive in the dangers that hover over London and from which "fires were started.” Of course, London seldom saw its enemy face to face, and the films record that long-distance battle. But, philosophically, Jennings sees war as an inevitable ordeal that binds people together. In Fires Were Started, for instance, the Germans who drop fire bombs are barely referred to. The loss of one fireman is not harped on sentimentally, but treated with resignation. There is something almost quietist in the view of human figures battling the blazes, just as Jennings never quenches the wild beauty of fire. A Diary for Timothy ends with a dissolve from flames to the face of the babv Timothy and with a worried question about what peace will mean. Just as Fires Were Started was made after the blitz, but retained a sense of possible apocalypse, so Diary was made when victory was undoubted but as Jennings grew' more fearful of the consequences of peace.

      As an artist he faltered after the war, unable to escape the declining system of documentary patronage or to maintain the passion of his wartime films. It is difficult to imagine what feature films Jennings might have made. His view of people was fond but impersonal, like Japanese paintings. But, had lie lived—he was killed in an accident in Greece—he could not have condoned the ugliness and lazy socialism of Free Cinema. In the subdued caution of postwar Britain, he might have found sufficient anger to become a Bunuel- like figure. His fires were, like Blake’s, a condition of the soul and might even have burned down English good manners.


    • A Diary for Timothy
    • The Birth of a Robot


    Most of Jennings’s work was commissioned by the guiding patrons of the British documentary movement—the GPO Film Unit, the Ministry of Information, and the Crown Film Unit. Nor is there much doubt that Jennings’s rather hesitant initiation in film was confirmed by the experience of war, which was the vindication of the whole documentan' movement. His films were made for patriotic purposes, and belong to the climactic period of British documentary as inspired by Grierson. It would seem to be difficult to function as Jennings did and not belong to the documentan brotherhood. Yet, the lasting distinction of his work emphasizes the ways in which he was a private if not solitan figure, an individual artist inspired by a nation at war and able to take advantage of the artistic opportunity it provided.

    When Grierson spoke of the “creative treatment of actuality” he was aspiring to some fusion of filmmaking and social action. He wanted, at the least, to educate the public into a greater involvement in the ordering of its own affairs. By contrast, Jennings is much more fatalistic and aloof, even if he had deeper insights into the British. In retrospect, one can see how far his wartime films pursued a personal vision, rooted in English life but full of intellectual and poetic reference, so that he seems now to rise above war and the immediate circumstances of his films. In short, he looks like one of the few major English directors, a true war artist in the way that Henry Moore’s drawings in the Underground and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy transcend war and reassert the primacy of the human imagination.

    It is important to stress the background that led Jennings to him. East Anglia offers one of the most self-contained and enduring of educations in English social history and art: it is the world of agricultural peasantry, of Constable, Benjamin Britten, and Akenheld. Jennings went to Perse School and Cambridge, where he won a starred first in English. He stayed on to do research into the Elizabethans and became a member of an exceptional intellectual and artistic circle that produced the magazine Experiment. It was as concerned with science and history as with the arts, and Jennings conceived the project of a vast anthology of readings in British history, to be called Pandemonium. The scholarly book speaks for his academic training and for a mystical involvement with the idea of England. It is not too much to call it Blakean: Jennings viewed industry and the machine with a mixture of wonder and mistrust. Like Blake, he measured the span of civilization in England and was wary of the future. This accounts for the pessimism that hardens in his work, especially after the war.

    Humphrey Jennings
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    Born August 19, 1907
    Died September 24, 1950
    (aged 43)