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The Symphonic Film by John Grierson*

Berlin Symphonie. Walter Ruttman

The symphonic form is concerned with the orchestration of movement.
It sees the screen in terms of flow and does not permit the
flow to be broken. Episodes and events if they are included in the
action are integrated in the flow. The symphonic form also tends
to organise the flow in terms of different movements, e.g. movement
for dawn, movement for men coming to work, movement for factories in full swing, etc., etc. This is a first distinction.
See the symphonic form as equivalent to the poetic form of, say,
Carl Sandburg in “Skyscraper,” “Chicago,” “The Windy City”
and “Slabs of the Sunburnt West.” The object is presented as an
integration ofmany activities. It lives by the many human associations and by the moods of the various action sequences which surround it.
Sandburg says so with variations of tempo in his description, variations of the mood in which each descriptive facet is presented. We do not ask personal stories of such poetry, for its picture is complete and satisfactory. We need not ask it of documentary. This is a second distinction regarding symphonic form.
These distinctions granted, it is possible for the symphonic form
to vary considerably. Basil Wright, for example, is almost exclusively
interested in movement, and will build up movement in a
fury of design and nuances of design; and for those whose eye is
sufficiently trained and sufficiently fine, will convey emotion in a
thousand variations on a theme so simple as the portage of bananas
(Cargo from Jamaica). Some have attempted to relate this movement to the pyrotechnics of pure form, but there never was any such animal, (i) The quality of Wright’s sense of movement and of his patterns are distinctively his own and recognisably delicate. As with good painters, there is character in his line and attitude in his composition. (2) There is an overtone in his work which—sometimes after seeming monotony—makes his description uniquely memorable.
(3) His patterns invariably weave—not seeming to do so—a positive
attitude to the material, which may conceivably relate to (2). The
patterns of Cargo were more scathing comment on labour at 2d. a
hundred bunches (or whatever it is) than mere sociological stricture.
His movements (a) easily down; (b) horizontal; (c) arduously 45
up; (d) down again—conceal, or perhaps construct, a comment.

Flaherty once maintained that the east-west contour of Canada was
itself a drama. It was precisely a sequence of down, horizontal, 45
up, and down again. I use Basil Wright as an example of ‘movement in itself’ — though movement is never in itself—principally to distinguish those others who add either tension elements or poetic elements or atmospheric elements. I have held myself in the past an exponent of the tension category with certain pretention to the others. Here is a simple example of tension from Granton Trawler. The trawler is working its gear in a storm. The tension elements are built up with emphasis on the drag of the water, the heavy lurching of the ship, the fevered flashing of birds, the fevered flashing of faces between waves lurches and spray. The trawl is hauled aboard with strain of men and tackle and water. It is opened in a release which comprises equally the release of men, birds and fish. There is no pause in the flow of movement, but something of an effort as between two opposing forces, has been recorded. In a more ambitious and deeper description the tension might have included elements more intimately and more heavily descriptive of the clanging weight of the tackle, the strain on the ship, the operation of the gear under water and along the ground, the scuttering myriads of birds laying off in the gale. The fine fury of ship and heavy weather could have been brought through to touch the vitals of the men and the ship. In the hauling, the simple fact of a wave breaking over the men, subsiding and leaving them hanging on as though nothing had
happened, would have brought the sequence to an appropriate peak.
The release could have attached to itselfimages of, say, birds wheeling high, taking offfrom the ship, and ofcontemplative, i.e. more intimate, reaction on the faces of the men. The drama would have gone deeper by the greater insight into the energies and reactions involved.
Carry this analysis into a consideration of the first part of Deserter,
which piles up from a sequence of deadly quiet to the strain and
fury—and aftermath—of the strike, or of the strike sequence itself,
which piles up from deadly quiet to the strain and fury—and aftermath—of the police attack, and you have indication of how the
symphonic shape, still faithful to its own peculiar methods, comes
to grip with dramatic issue.

Walter Ruttman on set at Berlin

The poetic approach is best represented by Romance Sentimentale
and the last sequence of Ekstase. Here there is description without
tension, but the moving description is lit up by attendant images.
In Ekstase the notion of life renewed is conveyed by a rhythmic
sequence of labour, but there are also essential images of a woman
and child, a young man standing high over the scene, skyscapes and
water. The description of the various moods of Romance Sentimentale. is conveyed entirely by images : in one sequence of domestic interior, in another sequence of misty morning, placid water and dim sunlight.
The creation of mood, an essential in the symphonic form,
may be done in terms of tempo alone, but is better done if poetic
images colour it. In a description of night at sea, there are elements
enough aboard a ship to build up a quiet and effective rhythm, but
a deeper effect might come by reference to what is happening under
water or by reference to the strange spectacle of the birds which,
sometimes in ghostly flocks, move silently in and out of the ship’s
A recent sequence done by Rotha for his new film indicates the
distinction between the three different treatments. He describes the loading of a steel furnace and builds a superb rhythm into the
shovelling movements of the men. By creating behind them a sense
of fire, by playing on the momentary shrinking from fire which
comes into these shovelling movements, he would have brought in
the elements of tension. He might have proceeded from this to an
almost terrifying picture of what steel work involves. On the other
hand, by overlaying the rhythm with, say, such posturing or contemplative symbolic figures, as- Eisenstein brought into his Thunder Over Mexico material, he would have added the elements of poetic image. The distinction is between (a) a musical or non-literarymethod; (b) a dramatic method with clashing forces; and (c) poetic, contemplative, and altogether literary method. These three methods may all appear in one film, but their proportion depends naturally on the character of the director—and his private hopes of salvation.
I do not suggest that one form is higher than the other. There
are pleasures peculiar to the exercise of movement which in a sense
are tougher—more classical—than the pleasures of poetic description, however attractive and howrever blessed by tradition these may be. The introduction of tension gives accent to a film, but only too easily gives popular appeal because of its primitive engagement with physical issues and struggles and fights. People like a fight, even when it is only a symphonic one, but it is not clear that a war with the elements is a braver subject than the opening of a flower or, for that matter, the opening of a cable. It refers us back to hunting instincts and fighting instincts, but these plainly do not
represent the more civilised fields of appreciation.
It is commonly believed that moral grandeur in art can only be
achieved, Greek or Shakespearian fashion, after a general laying
out of the protagonists, and that no head is unbowed which is not
bloody. This notion is a philosophic vulgarity. Of recent years it
has been given the further blessing of Kant in his distinction between
the aesthetic of pattern and the aesthetic of achievement, and

beauty has been considered somewhat inferior to the sublime. The
Kantian confusion comes from the fact that he personally had an
active moral sense, but no active aesthetic one. He would not otherwise
have drawn the distinction. So far as common taste is concerned,
one has to see that we do not mix up the fulfilment of primitive
desires and the vain dignities which attach to that fulfilment,
with the dignities which attach to man as an imaginative being.
The dramatic application of the symphonic form is not, ipso facto,
the deepest or most important. A future consideration of forms
neither dramatic nor symphonic, but dialectic, will reveal this more
Kinematograph Year Book, i 934. (London: Odhams. ios.)
An essential book of reference for all connected with the cinema.
The year’s events, films registered, who’s who, and a classified
directory are included, along with other useful information.
“The Cinema” Buyers’ Guide. (London: Cinema Press. 155-.)
Contains brief reviews of the year’s films with details of production
and cast. A valuable handbook for students and secretaries.
For Filmgoers Only. (London: Faber. 2s. 6d.) Lectures
delivered to the London Y.W.C.A. Central Club. Paul Rotha on
the development of the cinema ; Andrew Buchanan on propaganda;
Mary Field on educational films; R. S. Lambert on “Why we get
the films we do” ; C. A. Lejeune on what to look for in films. A
useful guide for those who have just “discovered” cinema.
The Cinema and the Public. (London: Nicholson and Watson.
is.) An ‘exposure” of the British Film Institute. Contains both
opinions and facts, which the discerning reader may separate to his
own satisfaction.
Express to Hollywood. By Victor McLagen. (London:
Jarrold. 12s. 6rf.) The life-story of a star. A feast for fans and an
interesting sidelight on the inside of the commercial movie world.
Picture People. By Olga Rosmanith. (London: Long. ys. 6d.)
A novelette of Hollywood life in all its absurdities. May help to
disillusion star worshippers.
The Stranger’s Return. By Phil Stong. (London: Barker.
js. 6d.) Here we find in words the atmosphere and characters of
the American Middle West which Vidor re-created in his film.
Lionel Barrymore’s Grandpa Storr did justice to Stong’s powers of
characterisation. Two novels written, two novels filmed: perhaps
Stong will cast his next in film form and not wait for adaptation.

(Copy Left) *Film Quartely, vol. 2 Num. 3, Spring 1934, Uk. pages 155-160.

Pudovkin on Sound by John Grierson*

Vsevolod Pudovkin

Pudovkin sums it up by saying that we Occidentals have failed to
use sound dramatically. We have not yet learned to make sound an
essential factor in our film construction. Our dialogue is derivative
of the stage, our songs of the music hall, our recitals of the lecture
room, our natural sound of melodrama; and sound film seldom
conveys any fuller sense of the object than mute film did before it.
A worse sense if anything, for dialogue has depraved the sense of
action. Pudovkin generalises perhaps too readily; forgetting, or not
knowing, the split choruses of Lubitsch and Clair, the unemployment
sequence of Three-cornered Moon, the gossip sequence of The
Night of June 13th, and the other occasional ingenuities of our
technique. But on the whole he is right. We do not use sound to
develop the art we discovered with silent cinema. We use it so
much for its derivative values—in dialogue, in interlude—that it
slows our pace, makes image and sequence of image incidental to
literary meaning, and diminishes the peculiar power of the screen.
Much of Pudovkin’ s theory, as set out in the new chapters of
‘Film Technique’ (London: Newnes, 3s. 6d.), is no more than
common sense; and we hardly need a special discourse on asynchronism
(not even the longer word explains it) to tell us that the
sound should complement the mute and not merely repeat it. The
first function of sound, says Pudovkin (or his translators), is to
‘augment the potential expressiveness of the film’s content.” It
widens the scope of the film; it allows more things to be said; and
more variously; and more shortly. The sound strip and the silent
must each follow its own rhythmic course. The synchronous use of
sound is only “exceptionally correspondent to natural perception.”
In so far as Pudovkin is exclusively interested in story values (he
always is in his theory, if not in his films) his examples of asynchronism
are curiously shallow. He thinks of a town-bred man in
a desert accompanied by city noises ; of a cry for help which silences

the natural sound of traffic and cakes its place; of a total cessation of
sound in a period of tension; and, in general, he makes a great ado
of the difference between objective fact and its subjective interpretation
by his characters. This, of course, is a sufficient gambit
for an elementary dissertation on sound, and it is proper in Bolsheviks
to regard us as imbeciles. But the interplay of subjectiveobjective
is not a sufficient theoretical platform for sound film if we
for a moment imagine the orchestrational possibilities of a complementary
Bach or Beethoven. There is only passing excitement in
the notion of a sound film “made correspondent to the objective
world and man’s perception of it together, where the image retains
the image of the world, while the sound strip follows the changing
rhythm of the course of man’s perceptions; or vice versa’ . . . only
passing excitement when the two might so easily go off the earth
Such subjective-objective distinction may be real from the
characters’ point of view, but it is unreal from the artist’s point of
view. For him all elements of sound or mute are materials which
together—together orchestrated—create his transfigured reality.


They do not interpret as across a barrier, but are images together
–give a meaning together—in a common recreated world. Mute and
sound may swell together in a single symphony; silent images may
join with sound images in a single poetry; a Greek chorus in sound,
whether in formalised vers litres or in documentary bits and pieces,
may join with narrative mute in a single recital. It is only misleading
to make one a special interpretation of the other; sound film is
thereby reduced to the wheezy psychological mechanics of people
like Ibsen.
One should not puncture a man’s theory by his own
creative example, but Deserter is a better account of Pudovkin on
sound than these chapters under review. The trouble with Pudovkin
is that he performs like a poet and theorises like an elementary
school teacher. As a theoretician, indeed, he very successfully
makes inexplicable the very mature beauties he, as a creator, represents.
How on a subjective-objective theory can he explain (a)
the chorus of steamer whistles which attends his procession of ships
(they are both orchestrations of perception) ; (b) his waltz-time
accompaniment of waltz-timed traffic cops (they are both fancifications
of perceived reality); (c) the triumphant march which
accompanies his defeated street demonstration (they are both
mounted in processional); (d) his cutting of rivetting machines into
workers’ applause (they are both rhetorical) ? These are the high
lights of sound accompaniment as he uses it, and it would be false
analysis to say that the accompaniment in any one of these cases
is an interpretation of the mood or meaning of the mute (or viceversa) .


The effect they give is given together, the interpretation is a
single interpretation. They are not two separate rhythms—or they
ought not to be—but one single rhythm in which sound and mute
are just so much imagistic raw material. The black and the white
notes (the ” Oban Times” said it more wisely than Pudovkin) must
be played upon with an equal facility.

film quartely, *Film Quartely, Vol. 2 No. 2, Winter 1933-34. Pages 106-110

The function on the director by Paul Rotha*

Paul Rotha


A director goes documentary by choice and not coincidence. In
so doing he seeks to serve his conscience and avoid the cupidity of
story-film as it flourishes under most studio conditions.
Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach.
It denies neither trained actors nor the advantages of staging.
Ir justifies the use of every known technical artifice to gain its effect
on the specator.
Two courses are open to the director of documentary. He may
seek themes and material at the ends of the earth in the manner
of a Flaherty; or he may face the problems of the community around
him in the manner of a Grierson. The choice is personal. These two
names plot the extremities of the dramatised documentary as distinct
from the descriptive style favoured by the lesser lights of the racket.
To the documentary director the appearance of things and
people is only superficial. It is the meaning behind the thing and
the significance underlying the person that occupy his attention.
To the documentary approach every manufacture, every organisation,
every industry, every craft represents at one point or another
the fulfilment of a human interest.
Documentary approach to cinema differs from that of storyfilm
not in its disregard for craftsmanship, but in the purpose to
which that craftsmanship is put. Documentary is a trade just as
carpentry or pot-making. As a trade its technique must be mastered
if the product is to be valuable and have meaning. But technique
alone is not sufficient.
A film must serve a purpose beyond itself if it is to survive. It
may serve entertainment (as the studio producers dictate), it may
serve propaganda (as the publicists demand), or it may serve art
as the highbrows pretend), but it cannot be an end in itself.
Because documentary is in its infancy and because production is
largely (but not wholly) made possible by serving propagandist ends,
the publicist himself is the main enemy of the director. Because
cinema is everyone’s plaything to criticise for good or bad, your
publicist will demand the inclusion of this or the exclusion of that
to the prostitution of your conscience.

Frederick Wiseman – High School

Therefore, three demands must be made by the documentarv
director: the right to theorise, the right to experiment (time and
footage), and the right to attempt to satisfy his conscience. He mav
have to travel to sacrificial lengths to obtain these rights. Becauxhe
must look to the future he will try to satisfy the publicist’s demands,
perhaps produce a bad film thereby, and get kicked in the
pants just the same. It is at present a matter of compromise, of bluff
as bluff can. If he is ambitious he will hope to get away with a
number of second-rate films, goaded on by the belief that one day
he will turn out a top-notcher.
The documentary director must remember that his theme (or
message) alone compels audience interest. There is nothing personal
in a documentary with which an audience can identify itself. Perhaps
there are mass or social instincts, but not individual emotions.
But in story-film the audience can assume a personal interest in
characters or incidents, often projecting itself into the position of a
participant. Because there is a story to divert attention from
realities, the task of making story-film is more simple than that of
documentary. In fact, the audience will accept deliberate misstatements
of truth in story-film, but to lie in documentary demands
infinite skill, perfect craftsmanship and an accurate knowledge of
audience psychology.

Frederick Wiseman – Meat

Unlike the story-film director, the maker of documentary has
yet to gain the full co-operation of the trade. The renter and the
exhibitor do not understand documentary, and I am not sure that
they have tried. They search for established publicity angles and,
finding none, invent them. Yet their habits are retrogressive.
Moana was issued as “the Love of a South Sea Siren.” Documentary
must always go forward. It needs new distributions and new
publicities. These will come.
Meanwhile, production becomes specialised, demanding mentalities
capable of approaching a multitude of treatments, from
the school-film to the dramatic industrial.
But, if it is not to go the way of story-film, documentary musl
be protected against exploitation for commercial profit alone. Its
directors must retain freedom for their ideals.

The famous Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, has been re-opened
with a programme of repertory. J. S. Fairfax-Jones, one of our
London correspondents and a prominent member of the film
societies’ movement, is a director of this new venture. Among the
first films to be shown are Le Million, Tabu, and Cimarron.

*Film Quartely, Vol. 2 no. 2, Winter 1933-34, Pages. 78-79