Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Night Mail

The Night Mail is a poetic documentary produced in 1936 by the British film group led by John Grierson.  The picture is 24 minutes long and quite interesting.  Unfortunately, techniques and esthetic strategies pioneered in this film have now become common-place and so the film isn't particularly exciting to watch.  The movie's ecstatic approach to the facts has been much imitated to the point that this picture that established some of the principles of lyrical documentary now seems a bit pallid and tentative.  As with Werner Herzog what you see is, often, not what you think it is -- the most important example of this film blurring the edges between fiction and documentary is the fact that all the interior shots in the picture showing mail-sorting as the train roars through the countryside were filmed in a studio.  (Apparently, the real train's lurching and lunging was inimical to the images of smooth, understated postal efficiency that the film promotes -- the performers were told to sway a little from side-to-side to simulate the train's motion  But I noticed immediately that the scenes in the sorting car were preternaturally smooth and free of any sense of motion -- a serious defect in the picture in my view since the film celebrates the locomotive's power and formidable speed.) 

The movie is mostly shots of the handsome locomotive, the Royal Scotsman, roaring through England and Scotland on its nightly route from London's Euston Station to Edinburgh and Glasgow.  The train's speed is emphasized -- indeed, at time the train moves artificially fast, an effect achieved by slow-cranking as seen sometimes in silent films.  There are interesting details as to how the mail is collected by the train that slows and stops only once on its route -- in fact, some of the imagery of big pouches of mail scooped up by the train or hung outside to be caught by other stanchions along the rails is fairly hair-raising.  The postal workers are ciphers to an American, mostly because we can't understand their accents and because the soundtrack features, most prominently, the rush and bustle of the train clattering over the tracks.  Although about 20 minutes of the film is conventionally informative, featuring various facts and figures (or instance the tonnage of mail moved nightly), the movie ends with a visual and aural aria -- Auden's poem commissioned for the film, "The Night Mail" a tour-de-force that uses onomatopoeic effects to simulate the train's headlong rush combined with a lavish, percussive score by Benjamin Britten.  This climax is undeniably impressive, although a big over-ripe in the manner of Vachel Lindsay -- Auden's train poem is a sort of proto-rap with many internal rhymes and propulsive consonants.  The picture reminded me, at very points, of Turner's great canvas showing a train blurry with motion blasting through the mist and terrifying a small rabbit in a meadow -- it's called "Rain, Steam and Speed:  The Great Western Railroad" (1844).  "The Night Mail" ends with a characteristic dying fall -- Auden notes that the night mail is important because "no one wants to feel forgotten"; it's a slight melancholy tint coloring the film's final images of several men, dwarfed by the mighty engine caring for the locomotive as if it were a savage and all-powerful god.

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