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Much Could Be Done

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

We are a picture-craving people. We go on our own steam to see the movies, as few of us go to books, once school is over. We are Hollywood almost as much as we are Washington, and there are Afghans and even Irish who think Hollywood is our capital. The great inclusive audience in America is the crowd that sees the pictures, not the crowd that goes to church. The great listening audience is in the front room, the back room, the bed room, listening to the more than seven hundred privately owned radio stations in the United States, or to the short waves of all the world. It isn’t at the New England town meeting—God rest its give and take—or really getting its money’s worth about its own interests and its own affairs from the daily press. Should we not, then, use the pictures, still and moving, to build up common knowledge and common feeling, the broad bases of democratic living? Hollywood having got the voters out and assembled, open-minded and starry-eyed at Shirley Temple and Clark Gable, it seems a pity not to let Washington communicate some solid facts about how the ninety per cent do live as addenda to what is going on amongst the stars.

All this I set down because only this morning I had a letter from my Republican friend in Minnesota who is very much upset at the news that the United States government has set up a film unit, to make films for the purpose of recording government work and communicating government policy. I cannot quite make out whether she is galled that a Democratic administration proposes to make good films (I doubt if bad films would trouble her), or whether she is still angry at “The River.” For that film, which Pare Lorentz made for the Farm Security Administration as part of the campaign for flood control of the Mississippi, said plainly that we the citizens of the United States had been worse than Esau—that we had sold our birthright of forest for a mess of pottage, and had not even collected the pottage. My friend is the inheriting kin of timber barons, and is loathe to be, as they say, “objective” about the good old days.

We are too accustomed to think of the movies as the great escape diversion, the place to go now that there is no frontier with free land and easy money (was it ever easy?) beyond the blue horizon. I am not ungrateful to Hollywood for these movie houses and palaces where at the end of a farm or factory, an office or kitchen, or even a drawing-room day, the cost is so little to get to Broadway, China, or Paris; and in the dark, to mountains and deserts and battlefields, boudoirs, beaches, and Scotland a hundred years ago. I like machine guns and horses; wisecracks and croonings do less for me.

Of news reels, even in the days when the navy putting out to sea was a safe one-quarter of every program, I am never tired. And until “The March of Time” began to use its immensely dramatic and plastic technique to make films like its recent one on social medicine, which was no better than a fixed fight, with Dr. Fishbein of the American Medical Association warning the audience against government control, and one of those appendicitis operations with a vast display of shiny instruments and a stage doctor, you could get me to give up dinner and go through sleet to see their snatches of the world.

But we have been tardy, I think, in seeing what a means of communication we had, between classes and regions, and finally between the people and the leaders, whether their leaders are dictators or duly elected and conscientious representatives of the masses.

It is a two-way line of communication. Never before has an audience of this size been assembled to look and listen. Never before have leaders been able to send out any instrument or agent comparable with this one, to note conditions, causes, and effects, at home and abroad. The camera, to be sure, can distort, omit, avoid the very point of a matter; it can be obsequious to taboos and it can make fiction; but by and large, it is the great new instrument of record and communication. The Department of Agriculture, for many years the largest manufacturer of “educational” motion pictures in the United States (the use of films was started in a Republican administration), has long been making pictures of country problems, grasshopper plagues, the feeding of pigs, the identification of the Japanese beetle, et cetera; and county agents all over the country have been grateful to have films, as well as eight- and ten-point bulletins from the Government Printing Office, in their effort to get the scientist’s information to the layman, the often illiterate owner or cropper. But even Department of Agriculture officials would admit that the films they have made, on the whole, lack zest and talent, any camera art, and emotion. They have little dynamic quality.

At one time or another, several other departments of the government have had a shot at the movies; the Department of Commerce, the National Parks, the Works Progress Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The War Department (in whose Signal Corps files the Brady stills of the Civil War are one of the priceless possessions) was quick to follow the French military college of St. Cyr in using the camera both for recording all engines of war and for teaching. And the head of the Signal Corps, by special arrangement, always has carte blanche to keep an inspector in Hollywood who examines every new lens and development of technique. The Labor Department, perhaps because Secretary Perkins does not like the movies, is miles behind the Department of Labor in France, which has documented most of the historic handicraft and machine techniques of the past and present, and has put them at the service of the French schools to assist teachers of history and geography, and to be used in vocational guidance.

Hollywood, of course, has kept an eye on government and some of its activities. G-Men, and an Annapolis that left doubt in people’s minds whether the navy had time for anything but love, and plenty of aviators, have figured in Hollywood films. But on the whole, few of the facts of government life, certainly not in the sense of showing what a united and wilful people could do to create a commonwealth, have been part of the Hollywood statement.

Other countries and other governments have made other uses of films. From the Soviet Union, from Italy, from Nazi Germany, but most of all from Great Britain, we can learn what to do and what not to do. All four are concerned with a broad base of homogeneous common knowledge for their people; all four have embarked on policies of film reporting and film exposition of government achievement and apparatus. When the Soviet government built the Turk-Sib railway, it was as much a part of the plan of its building to have a film record of the achievement and its relation to the economy of the whole country, as the very laying of the tracks. In Russia, films have been of incalculable power in convincing the people that they themselves are making history. T. V. A. and the Coulee Dam are not less important for us than the Turk-Sib was for the Russians, but no films of the epic quality of those contemporary achievements are under way to galvanize the people to fresh effort. Engineers on both jobs, of course, have thousands of feet of progress record. But I am talking about something else—about films that would be works of art, to make us both feel the achievement and begin to understand the possibilities of our engineering age. We have plenty of scientists doing the people’s work; and the politicians in their way were supposed to be the artists who carried the people with them, but what we need now is the dramatization of the job. We need a new patriotism that harmonizes and realizes regional relations and obligations, and gives us again what we seem to have lost—that continental consciousness that once made us so cheerful and so envied. The continent is still ours to husband, though no longer ours to pursue in the old way. But even that statement is inaccurate. Once we were a people continually on the move to free land; we are a hundred times more on the move than ever before, but we understand less the forces that push us and the dreams that guide us. We need artists. And we have them.

The two films made by Pare Lorentz have attracted worldwide attention—criticism too—but each has tackled a great social theme; and both of them, by their experimental technique and by their success in telling a story, opened our eyes to national tasks in a way that no speech could do. “The Plough That Broke the Plains” told the story of the Dust Bowl in such a way that even Vermont farmers, hearing and seeing that story in a damp and lush summer, joined in the tragedy of mistaken policy and hideous weather and were in some measure willing, as tax payers, to tide their brothers over. They may not have liked the Resettlement Administration, but they understood that some sort of doctor was needed, and they saw what the sickness of their fellow citizens was. They were drawn out of the circle of too local politics.

“The River” has had even more success, and of course more criticism, too. Where is the school book that could give children such a sense of the waters of that river and the valleys which it drains ? I agree with the critics who want a more exact account of what the engineers are going to do about the problem; I would like to know if any domesday book of the land titles in that valley will ever be made; I know that the story is told in broad sweeps and not in precise pictures of individual relationships to the big story. But “The River” is memorable not alone for its pictures, but for its poetic narration. A querulous photographer I know scoffed at the verse Lorentz wrote for his picture—”ham singsong,” he called it. I laughed, because on that very day I had a letter from Paris from someone who had taken the nearly blind James Joyce to listen to the film, and Joyce had asked to have the film over and over again. “What poetry,” he said, “the epic of this century.” But he had brought to the film an Irish ear accustomed from aforetime to hear the troubles of a people from the lips of a bard.

From as far West as Idaho—

Down from the glacier peaks of the Rockies— From as far East as New York—

Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies— Down from Minnesota, twenty-five hundred miles,

The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf. Carrying every drop of water that flows down two-thirds the continent—

Carrying every brook and rill—

Rivulet and creek— Carrying all the rivers that run down two-thirds the continent,

The Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico.

No, I like it. It tells the people, it tells me something. Whitman would have liked it. The hired man can get it, and the method will last a long time, in spite of the inevitable maudlin imitations that have already begun to whine on other screens.

The British, too, are beginning to use verse in their documentary films, and a new line of communication is opened. Poets and narrators on the radio too often, almost always, are wraiths of the old bards chanting to the people. Too much modern poetry is written for the eye and not the ear, and is stopped at the head before it ever reaches the pulse and heart. Not so the waggish verses of Wystan Auden, jerked out to the rhythm of the Postal Special hurrying from the Euston Station, up through Crewe, through the night, to Aberdeen.

This is the night mail crossing the border

Bringing the check and the postal order

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor

The shop at the corner and the girl next door;

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb—

The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton grass and moorland boulder,

Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes

Silent miles of wind-bent grasses;

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,

Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches;

Sheepdogs cannot turn her course

They slumber on with paws across,

In the farm she passes, no one wakes

But a jug in a bed room gently shakes.

Auden’s verses are on the sound track of my favorite British documentary, made by the film unit of the General Post Office. “Documentary” is a word that Americans will have to learn. The British crowd who established the word, and who have half discarded it in favor of “realist,” are a cheerful group, going new places; they define their field as picturing “the world of men and women at work and at leisure; their responsibilities and commitments to the world in which they live.” They reproduce cross sections of British life on the screen.

As a group, under the leadership of John Grierson, the British makers of “documentary” films have fought to keep clear of the British commercial film companies, which are less talented and just as commercial as Hollywood, and whose financing has been one of the greatest British rackets. The group gained its foothold when Sir Stephen Tallents was head of the government body, the Empire Marketing Board. American audiences served by the Film Library of the Museum of Modern Art may have seen one film sponsored by that agency, Basil Wright’s “Song of Ceylon,” a lyric film into which was woven the story of the tea plantations.

In “Drifters” was told the story of the men of the herring fleet. From the Empire Marketing Board Sir Stephen and John Grierson moved to a second acre on the public domain, the General Post Office. They worked within a not too generous budget. Their business was to make the people aware of the Post Office—its functions, its services, the character of its devoted personnel. Not a little of the confusion of modern life is that so many simple services have grown to immense size and developed complicated relationships. The Post Office is a great administrative staff running an intricate piece of machinery, touching the lives of men and women in war and peace, in their personal and working lives. I forget who said that advertising was of two sorts, the loud reiterant statement of the powers of the article, or the proving of the pudding. The Post Office film unit set out to convey to the public what the Post Office did in the public service, and as they have exhibited, picture by picture, the wonders of Post Office technique and dramatized the daily services of its enormous staff, they have proved that it was worth every shilling of its budget. Englishmen know vastly more than they did, not merely about the Post Office, but about the British Isles, about the civil servants who work in all branches of the Postal service, the Savings Banks, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. They know how the telephone book is printed and how the Empire air mail is carried. The Post Office film workers have not always made successful films: good camera work, expert cutting, and the perfect sound track are not always easily come by. But as a group they have held together, and to one end: to build up the use of film to mirror the real world, and to socialize our life by making the public aware, not of cabinet ministers and stars, but of daily work and public policy. They see in the use of film not merely a great technique of reportage, but a dazzling way to propose change, the moving blueprint of possibilities, for a world bogged down in precedent—a world forever moving if we would only let it.

The zest (with a dash, of course, of factional theorizing) of the British documentary group is like that which I recall in the Mexican mural painters in the early days of the Mexican revolution. There has been the same willingness to work at any price, the same anxiety to recruit talent and to build for a team. They were the first in London to shout for the enormous vitality of the technique of “The March of Time,” and the first to show their disappointment when its subject matter became shallow. They have influenced British broadcasting, and they know themselves as the fathers of many a regional broadcast and of the fresh use of the people of England on the air. They have played the game of trying to get as much commercial money as possible for their crowd— which they use to make films that are not “commercial.” For example, they have made films on nutrition, on crowded schools, and on British slums, backed by the Gas Light and Coke Company, a corporation accepting the principle that to promote a good work is to lay a brick toward an edifice of good name. (Coca Cola, please note. Mr. Ford, why not make a film about the fifty million more cows the children need?)

Grierson has now embarked on another job. The empire will be only “the empire,” and not a commonwealth of nations, until its parts behold each other at daily living. The Empire Fair at Glasgow was the occasion for the making of a covey of documentaries, but those who see them do not see merely more travel films, picturesque scenes, but the dramatization of relationships, of trade, of industry. The speech in these films, instead of being ironed out to some synthetic semi-Oxford norm, is kept in all its rich diversity. Words on a page lose much of their cadence. Sound tracks of the people speaking (even in Brooklyn maybe) remind us of infinite variety.

One question interests me. What about the “propaganda” in these films, and of what use in international exchange are films made for internal consumption? To hear people wince at the very word, you would think that propaganda always worked, or that it was illegitimate. It may be true, as Mr. Dooley said when he tried to explain pragmatism, that “if a lie works, it’s so.” But frank knowledge of the source of any statement and any picture is like vaccination against a polluted message. And then, what does capture the heart of the beholder? I remain dazzled but unrecruited by Hitler’s pageants and by Mussolini shouting that he has raised Rome from the dead. “Half phoney,” I mutter, and accept that part of their message which says that whole peoples can be bamboozled to die for a place in the sun. But envy and irritation often follow on the heels of the other fellow’s grandest displays. That is human. Certainly, the Coronation Parade down the Mall last May did not kindle in me the amount of affection for Great Britain that I got from “Night Mail,” which left me so beholden to the workers of England who brought my daily letters.

And I think it fair to say that, abroad, “The River” has engendered more affection for and understanding of the United States than any other single circumstance in the last five years. It was, to be sure, a grand album, with the sweep of a continent in it; but it was also a confession of a sorry problem, of neglect, of stupid waywardness with the good earth. And the effect? I have had a dozen letters about it from London, and it was as if the ice had gone out in the spring. It was wonderful to them to hear of our troubles. We became not the envied lost colony, but a clumsy, strong people, strong enough to take hold of a terrific problem, admitting failure, preparing for something new. Old M. P.’s, men up from the city, workmen, all sorts of Britishers, loving the narration for the beauty in it, catching the emotion in the film, were in communication with their fellow men. They too have exploited peoples and places. Perhaps that is why they were moved.

A good film surpasses, in this day, any book’s possibility of building common knowledge and common feeling. The film-makers must have the books, to carry on to the larger circle. There is no competition here, but enlargement.

The United States government is going to have a film unit. It will have a thimbleful of backing compared to the Government Printing Office; but by far more than a thimbleful will the government print be enhanced by its operation. The experiment is worth watching; and one wonders which cabinet officer will see in the unit his chance to make plain to the people what he has never been able to show before. First, the people must see what is going on; then will come mandates to act. Suppose the sorry story of the migratory workers who, homeless or housed like refugees, follow the sun and endure the rain for the sake of the American standard of living they do not share, were put upon the screen? Suppose the history of housing in the past, or the ownership of land as we left New England and moved across the plains, were really to be shown to us?

If with four men and their still cameras Dr. Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration has been able to create, for the public and for students, a vast documentation of the condition of the people in the South and in the Dust Bowl, what presentation of facts and revelation of the flow of our national life, region by region, occupation by occupation, can we not hope for from a film director who throws his report on the screen? Hollywood has made us rich in technicians; the audience is organized; why shouldn’t the government catch us between Valentino and Hepburn, for an hour of reality?


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