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A History Of The Avant-Garde:
Britain In The Thirties

directors: various

177 minutes (E) 1934-9 BFI VHS retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton
This collection of 13 short films encompasses a broad reach of material from travelogue documentary and industrial endorsement to social anthropology and abstract fantasia, in a laudable jumble of the educational and the artistic. The use of montage and fast cutting, alongside the dramatic use of light and shadow is ordinary in the pop videos and TV commercials of today, but back in the 1930s such visual flamboyance was still innovative.

Basil Wright's Song Of Ceylon briefly examines the culture and traditions of what's now politically troubled Sri Lanka. The sour and silent Bread looks at means-tested poverty, and features the sight of a heroic bobby on his bicycle, chasing down a starving shoplifter as if the thief is public enemy number one. Richard Massingham's Tell Me If It Hurts is a lively comedy-horror about a trip to the dentist's that anticipates familiar genre imagery once the victim of tooth decay gets into the seat of ultimate misery. Vivian Braun's silent Beyond This Open Road sees city workers enjoying the countryside, and benefits enormously from nifty handheld camerawork. Alberto Cavalcanti's exceptional, though stats-heavy Coal Face was definitely not an NCB recruitment film.

Housing Problems reveals the dreadful living conditions of Britain's terraced slums circa 1935, before showing us quaintly optimistic models for tower block designs and village estates. Len Lye's work on two colour films: The Birth Of The Robot (a wonderful model animation promo reel for an oil company), and Colour Box (hand-painted animation onto the film stock) showcase both charming fancy and postmodernist concepts. The latter was turned into a GPO ad for "cheaper parcel post" - costing only a shilling to send 15 pounds in weight!

The great Norman McLaren's Camera Makes Whoopee celebrates music and dance, and demonstrates just about every animated and optical technique in the filmmaker's bag of movie tricks. It's one big arty party, unlike his follow-up, the well intentioned yet na�ve antiwar docudrama, Hell UnLtd, with its chilling shots of young children in gas masks. Love On The Wing is a cute animated poster for GPO airmail, while N or NW is a romantic prompt about postcodes. Spare Time catalogues an array of working class leisure pursuits, with a fuzzy emphasis on marching bands.

On the whole, then, an admirable package of history and talent with the single mistake that no suitable music or commentary accompanies the two silent films.
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