An Open Letter To The BFI…

Friday, August 26 2011
An Open Letter To The BFI…

We found this on MovieMail’s website, in the section selling the forthcoming BFI release The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume One The First Days (due on September 19) and loved it. Yes, it’s a little over the top, but it illustrates so many things – the devotion that a film-maker like Jennings inspires, as well as the kudos that the BFI gets for its work and the efforts it puts into its excellent releases. So here, in full, is “An Open Letter To The British Film Institute”, posted this week by a user called MarcDavidJacobs (we don’t think it’s the designer, incidentally)…

Dear British Film Institute heroes, 
It has been probably two decades since my first VHS tape, and perhaps a dozen years since my first DVD; I’ve even had a second-hand LaserDisc or two in my day. Home cinema has always been a lifeline for me, being one of that first generation which has not actually been introduced to either most or all of its favourite cinema in a cinema itself. Yet, in a way, home cinema has also been merely a convenience, a way to satisfy the seemingly over-growing need for instant gratification, and a way to speedily and faithfully fulfil the recommendations of friends – and, just as importantly, to indoctrinate others in turn. And it has also been a tool, a way to truly engage with a beloved (or even an initially-despised) film in a way that – for all its otherwise-unimpeachable superiority – simply cannot be provided by the physical filmhouse. 

But all of this, in my humble view, goes entirely out the window with the arrival of The Complete Humphrey Jennings. Until now, home cinema formats have always been mere substitutes: a reproduction, as of a painting, however faithful to the original this might be. But this collection – as will be the others similar to it now surely to come – is, for the first time, the artefact ITSELF. Ever since I first was acquainted with the great Lindsay Anderson’s essay on Jennings, Only Connect, I have sought out Jennings’s works through dozens of different releases, from the extraordinary anthologies of Panamint to the dodgiest dubbed cassette tapes. Even now, I can look over at a ridiculously-overpriced 16-minute DVD-R, apparently produced by no less a body than the US National Archives And Records Administration, which consists of an endlessly-repeating loop of A Defeated People: apparently the only available source for this crucial post-War work, despite neither its packaging nor the print itself mentioning Jennings’s name anywhere! 

All such dross, all these endlessly repeated purchases of the canonical works in myriad, unpredictable edits – all that maddening effort now mercifully at an end. 

But, as I say, it is not merely this one aficionado and avid collector who has you to thank, nor is it even just the devotees of British cinema in general or Humphrey Jennings in particular; rather, it is – and I feel I can say this without exaggeration – the entirety of film history. No longer now need the majority (let alone the totality) of the work of ANY great cinematic artist, whether established or merely waiting to become so, remain inaccessible save only to a few select scholars; no longer need the budding or curious, committed amateur cinephile resort to several contradictory filmographies and secondary sources, pouring over what amounts in the end to merely a list of titles which he suspects he’ll never have a chance to see, and which thus must and shall remain all but meaningless to him. 

The day that absolutely anybody can access for themselves the complete output of ‘the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced’ – including several works that even Anderson, his greatest champion, himself probably never saw – shall be a red-letter day for ALL those who truly love film. And, if there is any justice in this world, it will change the way we think about the appreciation and enjoyment of cinema altogether. 

It will, in short, be the moment at which home cinema at last comes into its own, when it shall have finally discovered its real purpose, the one for which it was truly invented: the creation of a portable filmic archive – of a self-contained LIBRARY – as the singular, indispensible reference for an invaluable body of work which, without it, would only continue to languish in total obscurity, having might as well never been created in the first place. 

Bless you, BFI, and all those who sail in you.

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