DRIFTERS (John Grierson, 1929)

Commercial fishing is a humble occupation; herring fishermen, among the most humble of the humble. What I love most about John Grierson’s poetic (not poetical) documentary about North Sea herring fishermen—Britain’s Grierson, incidentally, coined the word documentary—is that it reflects the humility that Santiago feels vis-à-vis Nature in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Showing people just doing their job is a good way to express this humility and to keep it free from taint of rhetoric. Grierson doesn’t “Sovietize” his fishermen with grandiloquence. Serendipitously, the increasing storm that makes their labor “heavier still” provides a nifty metaphor for mortal aging.
     Drifters is a silent film. (Turn off the sound of your television, if there’s musical accompaniment, to refresh the suggestion of time’s silence, which swallows us all up.) Its opening extreme long-shot is magnificent: an overhead view of the fishing village in which the twittering of birds in the sky, moving screen-left, ironically comments on the illusion of human permanence that a sturdy man walking at dawn, screen-right as if in denial or indifference, projects. A closer long-shot shows a quartet of fishermen walking screen-left to their ship to recommence their labor. Other fishermen join the four. Shots of the sea’s tumultuousness, and close-ups of birds fishing for breakfast, follow. By associating the birds with the fishermen, Grierson subtly transfers the ephemeral impression from the opening image of birds to the humans. Grierson edited as well as directed.
     The rolling rhythm of the sea, in which the ship and its laborers participate, is one aspect of the film; onboard, the division and concert of labor are two other aspects. Grierson harmoniously unites our divided engagement; we identify, imaginatively participate, and we objectively observe. We’re onboard the ship and in our seats.

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