Documentary evidence of a life in the movies

John Grierson
January 12, 2001

John Grierson's photograph on the dust jacket and inside cover of Jack Ellis's biography is the perfect visual complement to the book. Grierson looks at us with arms folded, head cocked to the side, tight lips, penetrating gaze, relaxed yet combative.

The photograph and the book's subtitle suggest no conventional biography. Coming upon a spate of books and articles about Grierson's life and achievement, ranging from the appreciative to the acrimonious, Ellis's large book is exemplary: a meticulously researched, even-handed account of a controversial but rich life, paying equal attention to the man and his ideas. Amid his ever-proliferating artistic, political, administrative and commercial engagements, Grierson kept up a full pace of publications about film, literature and society throughout his life.

His now-famous definition of the documentary ("the creative treatment of actuality") pointed the way to a critical evaluation of his work from his own early days to the present. Ellis treats Grierson's contributions and influence fully, giving equal weight to his polemics, institution-building on two continents, film production and promotion of films throughout the world. The book also provides long extracts from Grierson's speeches, reviews, reports and articles, with numerous references to letters and the testimonies of his associates.

The biography is divided into 15 chapters and an epilogue, each chapter dealing with a distinct phase of Grierson's work, presented in chronological order. So we have Grierson's early years in the United States, 1924-; the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, 19-33; the National Film Board of Canada, 1939-45; Unesco, 1947-48; Group 3 in the United Kingdom, 1951-55; Scottish Television, 1957-68, and so on, till the end. Grierson died in 1972 in his 74th year after a brief illness, three years after he characteristically embarked on a new career as professor of film at McGill University.

Despite its welter of detail, John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence is never confusing. It organises its vast material clearly, providing us with Grierson's own account and estimate of his impact, as well as those of his associates and contemporaries. Throughout the book, Ellis provides his own brief, balanced evaluation of each phase in Grierson's work. As if this were not enough, Ellis follows the careers of Grierson's friends, colleagues and acquaintances (and the subsequent fate of the institutions involved) beyond their immediate contact with Grierson.

The biography thus becomes also a history of documentary film during Grierson's life and beyond, the portrait of an age in many respects, and a microcosm of 20th-century history. Ellis concludes with a postmortem on Grierson scholarship from 1972 to 2000. The discussion is clear and generous, separating the "traditionalists" from the "revisionists", the former following largely Grierson's and his close associates' own assessments, the second group taking a much more critical (even rejectionist) stance.

Here, Ellis lets the supporters and critics speak for themselves, adding an evaluation of the most critical arguments. He gently chides the most extreme among them yet admits the value of sharp criticism in uncovering evidence from outside Grierson's charmed circle. Nevertheless, he comes down on Grierson's side, a critical "traditionalist" throughout the book, not just at the end. A brief epilogue draws the lessons from Grierson's life and work.

The book is not above mild criticism. I would have liked to see more discussion of the films themselves. Ellis mentions numerous films and offers pithy, insightful comments (from a film-studies point of view) on many of the productions Grierson was most centrally involved with. But Drifters, Nightmail and other key films could have borne more extended study. Although it is clear that Ellis knows a lot about the films, his emphasis is on the production circumstances, organisational contexts, and the ideas and discussions that went into Grierson's multifarious activities.

A man of unbounded energy, wit, intelligence, commitment and generosity, Grierson emerges as difficult and combative, a man of great ambition (although never for personal gain) who came inevitably into conflict with those around him. Yet his closest associates were loyal and appreciative. Ellis's labours leave no excuse for considering Grierson from separate, selective points of view: as publicist, public servant administrator, film-maker/producer, critic, educator or propagandist alone.

Ellis's warts-and-all portrait provides ammunition for detrators and admirers alike. But it also allows us to place Grierson's contribution in a complex, multifaceted context. Film-making was a part of education for citizenship (a form of propaganda) in Grierson's view, and he never wavered. We still have much to learn from Ellis's account of Grierson's prodigious energy, successes and failures. Students and makers of film and media, and all those interested in 20th-century culture, will be rewarded by his book.

Sponsorship (as Grierson insisted) is still crucial, and non-fiction film-makers cannot ignore the relation between film and subject, film and audience.

Likewise, the relation between aesthetics, knowledge and economics. Here context is all: both in making and understanding films, Ellis's cautionary tales warn us about how we should film now and who makes use of the product.

There is no "correct" stance in viewing a film, no Archimedean point from which films (or the world for that matter) can be viewed serenely above the fray. But knowing what we know today, we can engage with the world through film and increasingly video, producing many different genres in different contexts and contemplating the results from many points of view.

Ákos Östör is professor of anthropology and film studies, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, United States.

John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence

Author - Jack C. Ellis
ISBN - 0 8093 2242 0
Publisher - Southern Illinois University Press
Price - £47.95
Pages - 441

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