Geoffrey Jones: The Rhythm of Film

By Dai Vaughan

rhythm-of-film-geoffrey-jones-2.jpgFrom the films

A magical, miniature oeuvre is celebrated


One of the founding myths of cinema, now largely forgotten, has the young René Clair emerging from some silent film show and exclaiming, “I have seen a cadence!” There have always been people for whom the musical properties of film, as a medium occupying an explicitly temporal dimension, have assumed a particular fascination, although, since the advent of sound, such people have usually employed actual music as a template for their work.  

In its day, the early ’60s, Geoffrey Jones’s Snow, made for British Transport Films, became widely admired as an example of this genre. However, a preoccupation with values of pace and rhythm do not necessarily justify our describing a film as abstract. In Jones’ case, the brief Shell Spirit may qualify but otherwise, only the early and late ‘Chair-a-plane’ duo, ‘early and late’ because lottery funding has recently enabled him to complete the editing of material shot 50 years ago, really bear out the parallels drawn in publicity material with Norman McLaren or Len Lye; and even here, it is the emphasis on one enigmatic woman’s face, persistently seen in positive even when the surrounding material is in negative, which lends the two films their vital frisson. Most of the work included here falls within the gamut of what we recognise by ‘documentary’, albeit at one extreme of its spectrum.

snow-geoffrey-jones.jpgFrom the films 

An example of the opposite end may be helpful here, and is afforded by an item on another recently issued bfi dvd, a general collection of British Transport productions. The 10 minute Snowdrift at Bleath Gill records the struggle to free a snowed-up goods train. Although clearly following an unrehearsed event, it is shot in black-and-white 35mm with a non-synch, tripod-mounted, wind-up camera - probably a Newman Sinclair - and has a professionally spoken narration in which, nonetheless, are embedded phrases which we take to have been overheard at the time. Our awareness of these technical limitations, mapped upon the harshness of the conditions shown, adds up to something simple, humane and monumental: observational cinema’s equivalent of a Giotto.  

Jones’ work, by contrast, is deft and mercurial. Not that he was the first to set locomotives to music. In 1949, Jean Mitry had made Pacific 231, an elegant if somewhat literal visualisation of Honegger’s 1923 score. But Jones’ three railway essays, held together by visual wit and structural discipline, are never simply playful for the sake of it. We leave Snow with a strong sense of underlying social relations: not just the first-class diners being served by a deferential waiter while the landscape freezes around them, but the dependency of a public service, for all of us, upon the effort of others.

rhythm-of-film-geoffrey-jones-3.jpgFrom the films 

Rail, commissioned as a celebration of the work of the BR design department, captures, more sharply than any other film I can think of, the subjective experience of travelling by train: and the secret seems to lie in the way the subordination of the shots to the demands of music echoes the subordination of our attention to the speed of the machine, details and vistas being offered then snatched from us, whether the intricacy of a station’s ironwork, a bird swooping across a field, a detail of arcane switchgear or the fanning away of streets like wheel spokes in a cold, unpeopled town. In the interview included on this dvd, Jones remarks of the railway system, “it is a world of its own, a very beautiful one.” It is also one which, severing our instrumental relations with the wider reality, consigns this to the status of dream.  

Locomotion is the story of the railways. Again without a word of commentary, it crams an astonishing amount of social history into its 15 minutes, from the time when a train was a curiosity to be greeted with cheers and bunting, through the years of near-slavery as armies of navvies piled  up gargantuan earthworks with spades and wheelbarrows, to the spread of rail transport into all aspects of life, including war. And this growth is seen as essential to and as metaphor for the accelerating development of mechanisation and of industry.  

Other than British Railways, Jones seems to have done most of his work for petroleum companies. In Trinidad and Tobago, he achieves something more difficult than you might imagine: to make a carnival filmically interesting. This he does by concentrating on masks and head-dresses, so that we are constantly trying to identify the cultural or ethnic tributaries of this complex society and, while we are about it, wondering what place the man in the BP hard-hat may be hoping to assume. It is not easy to be sure how far the apparent lack of bombast in these films may be due to the fact that the images themselves have more ambiguous connotations for us in the 21st century. Certainly it remains salutary to be reminded, as with This is Shell, how ubiquitous are petroleum derivatives in our daily lives. But it is interesting to note that only towards the close of Locomotion, mainly in the post-electrification coda, does Donald Fraser’s music fully reveal its debt to the Dies Irae.


Geoffrey Jones died on Tuesday 21st June 2005. To read his final interview, please visit http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,,1512712,00.html

Dai Vaughan was one of Britain’s foremost documentary editors and now writes fictions and short prose. His books on film have been published by the bfi, while his novel, Non-Return, is available from Seren Books.