October 22, 2008

Farewell Topsails

Part of the BFI's great set of DVDs which hold British documentaries from the 1930s, Farewell Topsails is one of the shortest and one of the most impressive documentaries that I have ever seen. Humphrey Jennings makes a documentary filled with the haunting melancholy notes of the accordion which is itself haunting. In Jennings' own day the trade which ran out of the southwest was dying- the sail ships were being abandoned for motorised industry and steam (this was the world before Beeching when Britain's railways spanned the country in triumph). "Once there were hundreds" he tells us "but now there are only half a dozen left. The children have even commemorated some of them stone, in the nearby harbour... others are rotting away finished, they are gone and their crews with them." The sadness and gentleness of those lines represents the tenor of the entire piece- it may be short but it is poignant- and throughout it runs this line of accordion music, a thread which connects the ships to the sailors and to sentiment.

Sentiment may not be important- who am I to say. But this is a world that we have lost- a world that was passing as this film was being made- a world that cinema came just in time to capture- ten more years and the ships would have sailed for a last time and we would not have this monument to a type of life that endured for hundreds of years. Watching it inspired me with admiration for the skill that sailing required- the number of ropes and knots, the strength of the sailors and the majesty of the ship gliding upon the still waters of the Eastern Atlantic. Obviously there are reasons that this kind of life died- but that is no reason not to admire and appreciate its beauty. Amongst the saddest sights of Jennings' film is the sight of ships rotting in harbours, sailors standing by docks in hope that the age of Drake and Hawkins will return. Captain Dudley running the Alert is filled so Jennings tells us with the poetry of the sea in his soul- for him the ship is alive- a beast for whom he feels affection. It is a nostalgic film- but it portrays something that we will never see again that cinema arrived just in time to capture and that we need to see to understand something of the experience of those who came before us.

This film raises for me one of the strengths of cinema- I'm minded of it when I read James's excellent commentaries on early football- we are incredibly lucky to have these early documentary films- they are amongst the jewels of world cinema. We are incredibly lucky to have early films at all- we can see through them a little of the world that we have lost. Seeing is important because it can tell us things that the greatest book or fullest record cannot- it can bring us face to face with the faces of the past. When I see something like 'Farewell Topsails' I am catapulted into another era in all its immediacy- of course it was authored but it is still authentically from the thirties in a way that the best modern historical drama cannot be- and that gives me a sense of how close the thirties are to us and how strange they are. But it also gives me another sense which is a sadder one- because we stand in the first eddy of the cinematic and televisual age- our great grandchildren will see centuries back. Think of what we have lost- imagine what James could do with a film of football as played before the Association drew up rules in the 1870s, think of what it would be like to see rugby as played before Rugby. Watching 'Farewell Topsails' made me aware of something- this is a film about the decline of the sail but we have nothing from the time that sail was triumphant and dominated shipping- our vision of the past is limited.

I think part of that sense is amongst the reasons Jennings made this film- the commentary definitely suggests it. There is an attempt here to capture something before it dies- so that we can remember it. And I think it succeeds- eight minutes is too short- but this is a visual poem, composed of commentary, shot and music- the accordion plays us in and plays us out, giving it a musical rhyme. The poem though tells a story of how clay made in St Austell is shipped out to Glasgow and London- and how the means of its shipping is the sail boat for now- but how that industry is dying. The story is not the point- the point is the pictures of the sailors waiting on the docks, pulling down the sails and of the proud ships making their way into the night- both metaphorically and literally.


goodbanker said...

This is a lovely piece. Without fail, among the many things I really like about these blogs is the way you pick perceptively at the historical jewels that are hidden in records that others wouldn't think to mine. It is a mark of a first-rate and entertaining historian in equal measure.

If I were to challenge you on this piece, though, it would be on two specifics:
1. the accordion may not be the best instrument with which to accompany a short film about a declining trade: in a different context, the accordion was the dominant musical influence that overwhelmed the (recessive) folk music of Eastern Europe (Romania in particular) in the early twentieth century - its fixed tonality all but wiped out a more varied music that didn't fit with the fixed semitone intervals that are the staple of modern western music.
2. you mourn the fact that "we have nothing from the time that sail was triumphant and dominated shipping - our vision of the past is limited". But, in the same way that film allows you to glimpse the early twentieth century, doesn't art (say of Turner) give you something of an equivalent glimpse of a time when sail was top dog?

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker- thanks for your comments- and thanks for the correction about the accordion- I was not aware of that! And it definitely adds a measure of irony that Jennings probably wasn't aware of.

I know what you mean about paintings- and yes you get something of that immediacy from them- though of course the art of art itself is pretty modern. Personally I don't find art as immediate as film- its a failing on my part that I've never got into art- but I think there are two reasons why film si very interesting. Firstly it gives you a real idea of movement- at least these films do- go earlier and that might become more difficult- so you get an idea of gait and mechanism. Secondly there is sound- the labour exchange film involves the accents of the unemployed in poplar at the time- again that's not accessible through art. There is something special about seeing a human being as you might see them in actual life through the lens of a camera- its something I'm still sifting inside my head- but I do think there si something special about it.