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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

John Grierson: Drifters (1929)

still from Drifters (1929)
no copyright infringement intended

The days when herring fishing had been an idyll between brown sails and village harbors were long gone when John Grierson started working on his documentary - by then it was already an industry. And that's what Drifters is about: the whole life cycle of an industrial process. Fishermen leave their homes at dawn and go to work, the ship goes out past the headland, into open water, far to seaward, toward the places with herring shoals, the nets are unfolded and cast, left in the water for the night, next morning they are lifted full of fish, the ship goes then quickly to the quayside where the load is auctioned, the barrels with salted fish are loaded in the freight and sent away by railroad. The cinematic approach is Productionist:  art embedded in the work process, art aiming to become a tool of production, among the other tools - the belief that industry without art would be incomplete. Art giving to the industrial process its sense, telling the laborer he is a demiurge. For the Productionists of the 1920's and 1930's, industry was an epic of steam and steel, and the reason of art was to emphasize this epic dimension of production. No wonder that in almost all their movies the locomotive was present, symbol of the new universe. Drifters makes no exception, a movie about fishermen and their work on the sea that ends with the image of a powerful engine leading the freight.

And so the main character in this movie is just the industrial process: steam and steel facing the universe - a universe sometimes hostile, sometimes  indifferent, sometimes just ambiguous, sea waves and storms, clouds and winds, seagulls and sharks. Well, production is not just steam and steal, there are also the people who make it work. In some Productionist movies the approach is rather abstract, what matters is only the opposition between industrial process and surrounding universe, with people left as anonymous elements in the landscape. There are other Productionist works whose authors seem endowed with the superb gift of empathy, being able to see the people as more than simple props in the industrial equation. John Grierson belongs to this second category and his fishermen from Drifters come on the screen with possible stories of their own, their gestures suggest sometimes particular habits, two or three appear well individualized, all this going beyond the industrial process from the screen. I would say that actually Grierson shows in this movie a fascination for the natural (maybe opposed to the industrial process, or just facing it): for humans and seagulls, for the huge shoals of herrings, for the weather caprices, for their strange moods and untold stories.

Reviewers have analyzed the influence of the movies of Flaherty and Eisenstein on Grierson. He lived in the cinematic universe of these two titans, and I think I should come back to this after watching again some of their movies. Anyway, it happened that Drifters was premiered in UK together with Potemkin (this was in a private club, Potemkin was still too controversial for the big public), and it resisted very well the comparison.

Drifters was the first film of Grierson and practically the only one directed by him (there will be  a second one, Granton Trawler, of 11 minutes, in 1934). After Drifters, Grierson moved away from film directing and focused on production and administration within the British (then Canadian) documentary industry.

I found on a blog (http://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/drifters-john-grierson-1929/) an interesting comparison of Drifters with The Old Man and the Sea, here it goes: it reflects the humility that Santiago feels vis-à-vis Nature in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Showing people just doing their job is a good way to express this humility and to keep it free from taint of rhetoric. Grierson doesn’t Sovietize his fishermen with grandiloquence. Serendipitously, the increasing storm that makes their labor heavier still provides a nifty metaphor for mortal aging.

(John Grierson)



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