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Drifters by John Grierson

Historians have tended to rely on long periods in revealing indestructible systems. The tools used by the historians can either be inherited or originate from own making. The film Drifters can be evaluated from a historical point of view. The mid-1920s were a time when a notable culture alternative arose within the British film industry. Historians were and are still known to be important because they relive an era. The period saw the creation of a broad group of intellectuals who tried to re-invent cinema as a new and modern art form, which could be defined according to its unique properties. The intellectuals were referred to as the cinephiles, and with their cultural formation, they created what came to be known as the modernist view. Modernism was characterized by artistic self-consciousness, internationalism, a move away from realism, and a shift toward formal experimentation. As the 1920s drew near to the end, critics of British films began to complain about the incorporation of international modernist cinema elements that were not inspiring. Consequently, appeals were made to create a modernist cinema, which would address modern British symbols of life while still retaining the international modernist markers. Eventually, John Grierson was provided with the chance to propose the most coherent vision regarding the new form of British international cinema. Therefore, a study to compare Drifters, which was one of the earlier films by John Grierson, to titles from other films, specifically focusing on how it could have been overlooked, is important.

Drifters is a simple film; indeed, after the introductory titles, the men can be seen heading downwards to the harbor where they prepare their ship for catch. The film then follows one of the ships that can be seen leaving the harbor. The camera is mounted on this ship to help in recording its view as well as the actions taking place in it. In the end, when the men finally manage to land what they had caught, the ship is seen returning. The catch was sold, packaged, and loaded ready for transportation to the market. The men initially used traditional methods of fishing herring; but this seemed to be changing, for instance, the once idyll brown sails as well as village harbors. What followed was an epic steel. Similarly, the fishermen still had their old time homes, but that did not stop them from going down every season to the harbor to labor in a modern industry. Therefore, Drifters must have been concerned with progress and modernity; as such, it should not be overlooked as a major break with the past. Soviet montage, particularly the Battleship Potemkin, must have widely influenced the Drifters. Undoubtedly, the montage acted as the motor that moves the action ahead. Furthermore, instead of focusing on psychological characterization, the film provides the type of characterization that is particularly essential for this film that was for the most part made outside of studios. As a consequence, important themes have become evident, such as the theme of industrialization. The theme is also identified in many other montage films from the Soviet times such as The General Line by Einstein and The Man With the Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. 

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Meanwhile, the deviation of Drifters from the Soviet film models comes in various important ways. For instance, Drifers has a more moderate pace compared to most of the Soviet films of the time, which many may have overlooked. The choice for a moderate pace is very important because it reflects the decision by Grierson to infuse Russian intensity with the English moderation. Whereas the Drifters has fast montage sequence in certain instances; for example, at the point when the storms rise, the pace of editing and the movement within the frame as a whole remains less intense. Similarly, as opposed to many of the Soviet films with radical tendencies, the Drifters does not present with a sense of the working classes that are known to force revolutionary actions. It would be appropriate to acknowledge that Grierson was not a revolutionary, but a reformist, an important aspect that have been overlooked in many analyses. He seems to have directed his efforts towards producing a film that is not only less radical but is also non-revolutionary. As a consequence, the modernist aspect of the cinema becomes evident. This modernist form is English-based, a reflection of the pressures that people undergo when they work for the government. Even though there is a possible argument that the film evaluates modernity, especially with reference to the last section of the film where the men’s work is being marketed and corrupted by commercialism, this is undoubtedly an aspect that can be easily overlooked. This argument about corruption and marketing is not prominent in the film and remains ambivalent, therefore easy to overlook. All aspects considered, Grierson was an outstanding advocate for industrial progress although he did not like some of its aspects such as mass commercialism. Therefore, it is appropriate to say that the film seeks to defend modernity while attempting to alleviate fears regarding the troublesome technological processes. The film sought to portray existing links between modernity and tradition, but what may easily be overlooked is the role of the fishermen within this overall unity.

Drifters, to some extent, relied on the conventions known as city symphony films such as Mannahatta by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler and Berlin Symphony of a City by Walther Ruttman with documentary collages of modern metropolis (Barnouw 87). The film employed editing as well as compositional strategies in the creation of abstract portraits. It is important not to overlook the correlation between Drifters and the other films, especially in their combined use of abstraction and social documentation. Drifters and the other films both poetically describe various aspects of daily lives by relying on abstract patterns instead of character or narrative motivation. The concern of Drifters is not the contemporary urban world; instead, its focus is much more on human being as well as nature compared to the city symphony films (Barnouw 87). Drifters combined mechanization with human interests; for instance, belief in significance and perfectibility of humanity to make social experience universal.

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Constant emphasis is created in the Drifters regarding the link between the man, the nature, and the machine. Therefore, one should not overlooke the significance of the use of symbolic association such as in the editing sequence where there is flitting between abstract sea and surf views followed by emission of billowing smoke from the ships’ funnel. The editing sequence acts as an associative montage that highlights the connection between industry and nature. Moreover, the swarms of birds grouped together with fish as well as interposed men casting their nets to catch herring may be overlooked; however, all this symbolizes the patterned or organizational resemblances between the various species. Similarly, the abstract and flowing characteristics of machinery, including the mechanical movement of the engine as well as the revolving pulley, may be overlooked. Still, they remain an essential part of the whole process that the fishermen take part in and at the same time are admired for their abstractness. Significantly, the sea over the close up of one of the engines with the accompanying superimposed patterns not only signifies the fascinating abstract forms, but is also a pattern of the globe. From a formal point of view, the Drifters appears to be ambiguously machinelike because editing series are structured with mechanical uniformity while both human and nature are presented in an impersonal manner signifying that the reality is as impersonal as a machine. This aspect of the film makes the working classes appear impersonal, that is, as mere objects that should be looked at aesthetically.

The emphasis of Drifters on machinery, industrial progress, humanistic concerns, and the British articulations has contributed to its general approval. Grierson combined traditional and modernist trends, which are widespread within modern-day film discourse. Indeed, the representation of objective events in a manner similar to that of machines achieved special approval. The film incorporated different crap materials based on their own merits, specifically encompassing evocative forms, whether in the form of a man or a machine.

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Additionally, Drifters has managed to bring working classes to the screen, which is a worthwhile endeavor. It is telling how the images are brought to the screen, even though it was done mechanistically. Ironically, while trying to change from a modernist to a humanist film, Drifters eventually deals with the working classes as machinery. In the film, the bodies of the men appear fragmented. Besides, the bodies are represented in a manner that makes them appear like machine parts. The working classes become uncovered of their emotional content; instead, they are placed as parts within a large device of visual and rhythmic machinery. Therefore, it is not surprising that Grierson had thought of an existing difference between the various working classes, particularly the lower and working groups, even though the classes think fundamentally differently. Einstein’s use of archetypes influenced Grierson’s portrayal of various working classes. However, it must be noted that the classes are postulated as agents of change in Potemkin, a trait that they are deprived of in Drifters. Indeed, the success of Drifters created a new career path for Grierson, particularly when he became a creative organizer at the Empire Marketing Board, where he brought together untrained recruits and later trained them to become remarkable filmmakers.

Drifters, along with other documentary films, which followed its era, was built on a selective and masculine modernity. There were many challenges to the agreements and checks, which were used to define femininity resulting in what was known as the crisis of masculinity. For Grierson, along with other documentary filmmakers, the machine was a symbol of mobility, masculinity, and efficient production. The machine cannot be overlooked because it showed that cinema could leave the theatrical studio for the real industrial environments. Documentary is used to show recorded reality and to view whatever is being documented as happening in a particular way. The documentary filmmaker is independent in some way.

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Drifters is an abstract documentary film with unique cinematic strategies and modernist film making patterns. Machine aesthetics heavily influenced the Drifters. The film can be considered as a reaction to the traditional content of British filmmaking; nonetheless, it relied to a lesser extent on traditional signifiers. It was a union between tradition and modernity, strongly siding with modernity but depending on and heavily respecting the tradition. The movement for the British documentary filmmakers was celebrated because of how it represented cinematic artistic integrity. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of the major films from the movement depended on the strategies that were founded by Drifters. Some of the films of the British filmmakers that merge tradition and modernity include Song of Ceylon, Industrial Britain, and Coalface. While these films have differed in some of their aesthetic strategies, the two important themes of tradition and modernity remain present.