Geoffrey Jones: The Rhythm of Film Review

Only days before the release of this DVD, Geoffrey Jones passed away following a battle with cancer. The Rhythm of Film therefore becomes not only an insight into the work of one of British cinema’s unsung heroes, but also a fitting tribute. It may not offer a complete retrospective, yet over its 86-minute duration we are able to experience nine startling visions from a man who was clearly at the top of his game. Indeed, the term industrial filmmaker – for that is what Jones was, having worked for Shell, BP and Edgar Anstey’s British Transport Films (BTF) unit in his time – need not be seen as a derogatory one, but rather as a means of producing personal, distinctly singular works.

Following a non-chronological approach, the BFI open the disc with Jones’ three most widely seen and widely acclaimed works: the Oscar-nominated Snow (1963), Rail (1966) and Locomotion (1975), all made for the BTF. Watching this trio of brisk works (their durations range from eight to fifteen minutes), Jones’ modus operandi becomes apparent: these are not ordinary, run-of-the-mill documentaries, but meditations; there is no voice-over and only minimal context (Locomotion opens with a brief note to proclaim the 150th anniversary of the Stockton-Darlington railway), the only accompaniment being strictly musical, but deeply rhythmic at that; plus there is Jones’ credit of “director editor” as opposed to “director and editor”, as though Jones is telling us that both are of equal importance.

Indeed, this compilation’s title couldn’t be more fitting for Jones combines sound and image like few others; only Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care, an abstract animation set to the music of Oscar Peterson comes to mind. What’s most immediate is his ability to match the sounds no matter what the accompaniment. Snow favours a re-arrangement of Sandy Wilson’s pop instrumental ‘Teen Beat’, Rail has a more grandiose (not to mention wonderful) orchestral score from Wilfred Josephs, and Locomotion’s combination of electronically enhanced rhythms with flute and guitar has a brooding yet melodic quality which recalls (unexpectedly) Brad Fiedel’s score to The Terminator. Yet in all three cases the precision of the editing is absolutely perfect, producing continually astounding results.

Moreover, Jones has a clear knack for juxtaposition. Taken in isolation many of the shots from these BTF efforts appear as nothing more than standard documentary fare: a passenger waves from a train, another eats a meal, etc. etc. Yet their perfectly timed combinations produce something altogether more different and abstract. These are films as much concerned about shapes and compositions of shapes as they are their intended industrial purposes, and in this respect Jones demonstrates his presence as someone more than a mere director-for-hire. Just consider the logistics behind mounting a work such as Rail and it isn’t difficult to appreciate the sheer effort put into it.

Next on the disc is Trinidad & Tobago, a BP funded piece from 1964 and thus made in between Snow and the completion of Rail. Loosely speaking this film is a travelogue and as such possesses a different flavour to Jones’ BTF film. Indeed, the rhythms are no longer those of locomotive engines but rather those of the local wildlife who kick start the film before it heads around the titular countries with its observation eye. And it is worth noting that Trinidad & Tobago is merely observational; a British documentary from this period could easily face accusations of being hideously dated to modern eyes or of being politically incorrect, yet Jones sidesteps either by refusing to impose anything on to the short other than his own stylistic impulses.

In this latter regard it is also worth mentioning that Trinidad & Tobago is the longest entry on the disc and perhaps the most fulfilling as a result. Over its 18 minutes Jones is able to continually provide tonal shifts making it a truly involving piece. (As a side note it consequently becomes a difficult film to review as instead of allowing me to make notes it draws me in each time to such a degree that I completely forget myself.) Not that length is necessarily the guiding factor to quality, however, as Shell Spirit (1962), the next short on the disc, proves just as infectious at less than two minutes. Scored by South African Kwela music, this is easily the most abstract piece which The Rhythm of Film has to offer and as such more readily reminiscent of the works of key influences Len Lye and the already mentioned Norman McLaren, animators both. It was also one of three adverts which Jones made for the company that year, but sadly the only one to be included here, although it does find a companion in This is Shell made almost a decade later in 1970.

Watching these two pieces consecutively, though they are in some ways opposite courtesy of This is Shell’s comparatively more sedate score from Donald Fraser, you can’t help but notice how the level of abstraction correlates with the overall obviousness, if you will, of the remit. In the case of the eight-minute This is Shell it is often questionable as to whether Jones actually sees an oil rig, for example, or simply an exciting shape for his camera and editing techniques to explore. Indeed, as with the BTF films you don’t need an inherent interest in either of these shorts’ official subject, just cinema in its purest form.

It’s a theory we’re allowed to test out as the disc concludes with three of Jones’ personal works, unshackled from advertising and promotion. Seasons Project, incomplete and here in the form of a rough edit constructed in 1980, tracks the progression of the seasons in a manner akin to Trinidad & Tobago, and the two Chair-a-Plane titles - Chair-a-Plane Kwela and Chair-a-Plane Flamenco (both 2004) – which transform footage shot of the titular ride in the fifties into abstract forms, all fit in neatly alongside the rest of the work on the disc. As well as Trinidad & Tobago, Seasons Project could also serve as a companion to McLaren’s A Phantasy (it even appears to share some of its animation techniques), whilst Chair-a-Plane Kwela borrows the score from Shell Spirit. Indeed, the quality of these latter efforts is likewise the match of those which have come before (though, if we’re naming favourites, I’d have to single out Trinidad & Tobago, This is Shell and Rail in that order), and thus round off a truly wonderful package. All we need now is for the BFI to issue the fabulous soundtracks.

The Disc

All nine shorts are presented over one disc and come in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. In each case the quality of presentation is generally fine. There are signs of age and minimal (though never distracting) print damage, but it’s worth considering that we are seeing the films in as good a condition as we are ever likely to – certainly, I’m assured that the three BTF efforts look far superior to their previous VHS incarnation. Jones himself was involved in the disc’s manufacture whilst the BTF films are housed by the BFI in their own archive. Likewise, Trinidad & Tobago was provided courtesy of the BP Video Library and the various Shell films courtesy of Shell International. As such it would be churlish to complain about any flaws.

The same is very much true of the soundtracks, though in this regards any damage due to age is in some cases more immediately apparent. Nevertheless, each is presented in its original mono form (spread over the front two channels) and sounds impressive enough to allow each short to achieve its requisite effect.

As accompaniment to the nine shorts, the disc also finds space for a 31-minute interview with Jones himself recorded last year. During his allotted time, he proves himself to be a hugely agreeable presence as he takes us through his career and the individual pictures. We also get a discussion of his influences, plenty of anecdotes (Aaron Copland was approached to do the score Rail) and, best of all, more film clips including a pair of adverts for milk and Jackson the Tailor respectively which without shadow of a doubt confirm the McLaren fixation. Such is the depth of this interview, however, it produces the unfortunate side-effect of making Steven Foxon’s liner notes (contained in a lovingly produced 16-page booklet) appear a little repetitious. That said, they do plug in any gaps and nonetheless make for a fine read. As a final note, it is also worth mentioning that the filmed interview comes with optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired.

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