Poetry in Motion
'The camera's eye/Does not lie,/But it cannot show/The life within'. These lines are taken from W H Auden's verse commentary for the 1962 documentary film Runner and reflect the poet's scepticism about the most powerful medium of the century, a medium to which he contributed intermittently throughout his career. Born in 1907, Auden belonged to the generation that came of age with cinema, and for which cinema became an established part of the cultural landscape. His writings are peppered with film references, and his poetry and criticism reflect a wide-ranging if eccentric taste in movies. No other poet, apart perhaps from Cocteau, can boast such a filmography.
From September 1935 Auden spent six months working for the General Post Office Film Unit, and from this period comes Night Mail, the Citizen Kane of documentaries. Film buffs and Auden scholars will also know Coal Face, Negroes (released as God's Chillun) and The Way to the Sea (an elaborate free-wheeling subversion of documentary conventions), all four films featuring brilliant modernist scores by the young Benjamin Britten. No artists of comparable stature had collaborated so closely since 1691, when John Dryden and Henry Purcell worked together on the 'dramatick opera' King Arthur.
The government-sponsored Unit, despite its prosaic-sounding title, was for five years the most exciting, innovative and progressive cultural project in Britain, staffed by a dazzling cohort of international talents. In a short-lived flurry of commitment to the cause, Auden also lectured on film, wrote reviews, provided subtitle renderings of Russian peasant folk songs for Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin, and collaborated on various other projects, even appearing in front of the camera (disguised as a department store Father Christmas in Evelyn Spice's spirited Calendar of the Year). Naturally insubordinate, however, Auden soon began to question what he saw as the compromise and hypocrisy implicit in a state-sponsored organisation that purported to criticise the state's shortcomings. He resigned from the Unit following publication of a Listener article in which he attacked the documentary movement, before Night Mail became the Unit's one great critical and popular success. The film has since tended to overshadow his other documentary achievements.
Between his 1930s collaborations and his return to film in the mid-Sixties Auden enjoyed mischievously disavowing any serious interest in cinema. In June 1957 he was invited to speak at the Cambridge English Club, an event recalled by his undergraduate host, Paul McQuail:
We sat and talked for an hour in a relaxed way, much of it about films: Auden's most memorable remark, though we didn't know how to take it, was that the films he liked most were the ones where animals talk with human voices. He mentioned Francis the Talking Mule as an example.
Despite his irreverent dismissal, Auden would re-engage productively with documentary-making thirty years after his stint at the GPO, working on two projects that have today almost disappeared from view.
The first was a commission from the 27-year-old novice director Don Owen to write a verse commentary for Runner, a lyrical documentary about the young Canadian distance runner Bruce Kidd. To Owen's bemusement Auden elected to employ Anglo-Saxon alliterations for the verse commentary and the result is beguiling - a consistently delightful film that stands up to many viewings. Sharply edited, luminously photographed, with the verse commentary laconically delivered by Don Francks over a cool jazz score by Donald Douglas, it remains the freshest and most engaging of all Auden's film collaborations. It builds on established 1930s themes of male sodality and pride in achievement, yet the emphasis is not on grimy miners and weary railway workers, but rather on youth, health and vitality. Owen's aim was to produce a Pindaric celebration of a champion athlete, and this he certainly achieves in his modest debut. He went on to become an acclaimed director and a leading light in Canada's film renaissance of the Sixties and Seventies. Auden, commissioned in 1971 by Pablo Casals to write the words for an unofficial United Nations Hymn, thriftily recycled the last lines of Runner, saying in a deadpan footnote to the published version (in City Without Walls) 'I found I needed to use these verses again':
Like music when
New notes beget,
Making the flowing
Of Time a growing,
Till what it could be
At last it is,
Where Fate is Freedom,
Grace and Surprise.
Auden's second commission was something completely different: a hugely ambitious state-of-the-nation documentary screened exclusively in a purpose-built auditorium at the San Antonio HemisFair, a 1968 trade fair and exposition. It was entitled 'U S', a play on the pronoun and the Republic's unpunctuated initials. The film was decades ahead of its time in tackling the subjects of pollution and conspicuous consumption in the land of plenty, and in exposing the grinding poverty of many black Americans. We can no longer see the film as its makers intended, as it depends for its effect on multiple projections on three large screens, recalling Abel Gance's silent epic Napoléon and anticipating today's IMAX technologies.
For HemisFair audiences it was an unforgettable experience. After queuing in the hot sunshine outside a circular modernist pavilion, the audience was ushered into the Confluence Theater, consisting of three separate 400-seat auditoria, and took their seats for what they assumed would be a conventional screening. The lights dimmed, the projectors whirred and the film began with folksy photographs of early settlers, like snapshots from a family album. This opening sequence concluded with an image of a primitive biplane struggling to take off as the roar of a modern jet engine gradually flooded the auditorium. The image grew larger and the engine noises louder as the dividing walls between the three theatres smoothly and silently rose into the ceiling, the screen becoming a vast single curved display measuring 38 by 140 feet, filling the field of vision. The combined audience of 1,200 now formed a single community and witnessed a jaw-dropping panorama of cumulus clouds towering above a landscape of mountains and forests, accompanied by a stirring score composed by David Amram of the New York Philharmonic. What followed was breathtaking and immersive. 'You were swept up together in the idea of one nation,' recalled a member of the audience twenty years later.
Shooting had begun in May 1967 and two crews spent six months travelling around the States, producing fifty miles of film that was edited into the twenty-three-minute feature. Production went smoothly until the early autumn, when one of the directors was murdered in cold blood. On 20 September, Hugh O'Connor, a distinguished Scottish-Canadian journalist and documentary-maker, was filming a coal miner at home in his rented house in Jeremiah, Kentucky. The landlord, Hobart Ison, on hearing that his tenants were being paid ten dollars for appearing on film, flew into a rage and turned up unexpectedly, ordering O'Connor and the film crew to leave. Without warning he fired his Smith & Wesson revolver at the cameras, then shot O'Connor, who died shortly afterwards.
The killing reflected widespread local resentment at the recent arrival of journalists and film crews in the area. Media interest in this photogenic backwater had been prompted a few years earlier by President Johnson's 1964 'War on Poverty' campaign, which had concentrated on the impoverished Appalachian region. The intrusion by the national press was seen by locals as an invasion, and many of them turned out to support Ison in court. Following a hung jury at the end of his first trial, Ison pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years and paroled after just one.
This shocking event overshadowed the project and informed the film's sombre mood. 'U S' was dedicated to O'Connor's memory, becoming an act of commemoration and a record of loss: not just the individual loss of a fellow film-maker, but the collective loss of the marginalised Appalachian poor.
The producers telephoned Auden after filming was complete, probably late in 1967, to invite him to write the commentary. Following a meeting at their New York office Auden agreed and set to work using a timed descriptive shot list rather than watching the film itself. According to producer and director Francis Thompson, Auden produced more material than required but insisted the producers cut it as they wished. He would later help to structure the film at the cutting stage and sided with Thompson against those colleagues who believed the film should end on a triumphant note, rather than a direct and provocative challenge to the audience and, by extension, the government sponsors.
'U S' concentrates on the dark past of the modern Republic - the appropriation of Native American lands, the forced migration of slaves from west Africa and the condition of their descendants as a contemporary underclass. It is a serious, thought-provoking and confrontational piece, entirely free from shallow feel-good rhetoric. This willingness to examine social failings, reminiscent of the GPO's 1930s documentaries exposing housing problems and malnutrition, comes from a time when America was confident enough to be self-critical. Here is part of Auden's verse commentary for the sequence entitled 'Devastation of our natural resources':
The marvellous machines we have made obey us,
And couldn't care less for the consequences:
Nothing good or evil can happen to them.
If we want it that way, they will lay waste the earth.
Loot the land and leave behind them
An irredeemable desolation.
Yes, we are free in our greed to let poisons
Befoul the streams till the fish die,
Discommodate cities, turn smiling fields
Into junk graveyards and garbage dumps,
Let noxious effluvia fill the air, polluting our lungs.
Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the president, saw the film during her visit to the HemisFair on 6 April 1968, two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Her husband remained at the White House during the ensuing period of widespread protests and rioting. She was predictably appalled and delivered her verdict through clenched teeth: 'very artistic, very stirring, but it lack[s] the element that is going on today to provide balance - the element of hope.' Auden had anticipated the inevitable reaction with relish: 'Now we've made a subversive film for the US government', he told the director.
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David Collard contributes to the forthcoming Auden in Context (Cambridge University Press).