Wednesday, September 24, 2008

NIGHT MAIL



NIGHT MAIL
Directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, England, 1936, 25 mins.

Night Mail is an unusual piece of filmmaking. Made in 1936, it’s a documentary following the life and times of a mail train that runs between England and Scotland. In many ways, it seems entirely unremarkable: the film is interspersed with scenes of the train on its route while the employees of both railway stations perform their daily tasks. In fact, I was bored out of my mind until the last 5 minutes of the film, when its relevance finally becomes clear. As it turns out, poet W.H. Auden wrote a poem specifically for the documentary, and renowned composer Benjamin Britten composed the score. Neither of these elements comes into play until the end of the film, but talk about a crescendo. As the train picks up speed, so does the narrator’s recitation of Auden’s poem, as does Britten’s music. In fact, I found Auden’s poem, or at least the way it was delivered, to be a bit creepy; in a weird, sing-song voice, we hear lines like “In the farm she passes/ no one wakes/ but a jug in the bedroom/ gently shakes."

The film is a rare glimpse into the daily lives of the 1930s working class. Today, nearly all of the screen representations of people from this era are from the glitzy films of Hollywood’s golden age, few of which portrayed everyday people. In one particularly poignant scene, we see the workers at a London station chatting with the barmaids at a local pub after a long day of work.

After watching Night Mail, I wondered whether or not a similar documentary could be made today. Though there is certainly a market for “slice of life” shorts and features, a freight train is a difficult subject to examine; I doubt many filmmakers would be willing to study the daily trials and tribulations of a Red Line train. Then again, modern technology is absent of the human element that makes a film like Night Mail so compelling. But stylistically, it represents one of the earliest efforts to blend artistic content with the documentary format, which we almost expect in modern docs, from exercise in anthropomorphis March of the Penguins to the animated sequences of Bowling for Columbine.

11 comments:

Ben said...

In a way, the whole craze for Reality TV has led us into the modern day equivalent (think ice truckers in Canada and Crab Fishing in Alaska ... anything remotely dangerous), but this is both artful in its use of Britten and Auden and meaningful in that it's taking a "routine" job and trying to find something meaningful with its short film format. Interesting stuff.

Ashley Joyce said...

That's a great thought about reality TV, I hadn't made that connection. It's also similar to a lot of photography that was done of working-class people at the turn of the century. Average people were so rarely the subject of art until the 20th century.

Jen said...

i didn't realize they made documentaries this early, which i guess shows that i'm not a film person. but that was interesting. the poem made it kinda creepy, actually.

Anonymous said...

I read an article one time about working on early railroad cars for a US history class, and there are some insane stories. This reminded me of how hard that job was/is.

-Rob

Anonymous said...

I love the rhythmic quality of this short, and the fact that they include so many closeups of the workers' faces. I've seen so little documentary footage from this period, it was fascinating!

Rachel said...

Who knew train operation could be so epic? Really cool example of early movies.

Jocelyn said...

To be honest, I found this one kind of boring. But if your topic was early short films, it definitely fits the criteria. And I love W.H. Auden, so the poetry was enjoyable to hear.

troy said...

i agree with the guy who said this is kind of like deadliest catch on the discovery channel. dangerous jobs make good movies and tv shows.

Leiha said...

Saw your LJ post, hope this is not too late. I'm a sucker for poetry, so I really loved this. I also didn't think about the connection to reality tv until I read Ben's comment, cool idea!

RYAN said...

I liked your other short films but that one was kind of boring honestly...the guys seem like they are acting out the stuff thats happening even though its supposed to be real.

Anonymous said...

THIS WAS HYSTERICAL. I loved your commentary. So different from how things are today!