Cinematic Vocabulary – The Opening to Went the Day Well? (1942)

In my recent piece about Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008) I discussed the difficulty of attaining genuine cinematic realism.  But this makes a number of largely unwarranted assumptions about realism as a concept.

It assumes that there is a difference between something being factually correct and something being realistic.  Johnny Mad Dog might well express true stories about what it is like to be a child-soldier but this does not necessarily mean that it is ‘realistic’.  In fact, in my piece, I chide Sauvaire for allowing an editorial tendency to creep into the film.  I reasoned that because the world does not contain neat little truths, any attempt to present a cinematic audience with neat truths is unrealistic.  This suggests that realism is an entirely different formal quality than factual accuracy.  It assumes that ‘realism’ also carries with it certain aesthetic demands and formal demands.  This is, to put it bluntly, an idiosyncratic view.  It presents realism as an aesthetic and moral ideal that can be aspired to but almost never achieved :  Art, being artificial, is necessarily in some sense false.

For this piece, I have decided to look at the issue of realism from an entirely different perspective.  To present it not as an ideal but rather as an affectation, a stylistic quirk.  A quality that has only a tangential relationship with factual truth and almost no relationship whatsoever with the moral imperative to speak the truth and present the world as it really is.

What better place to start then, than with propaganda?  Art that is conceived precisely not as a means of telling the truth, but rather as a means of convincing people that a false vision of the world is in fact correct.  One way in which propaganda can be made more believable is if it chimes in some sense with the world-view of the people it is aimed at.  Propaganda films are works that are false but have that ring of truth.  They rely upon that ring of truth to be effective.

One of the best examples of this kind of film-making (along with 1942’s In Which We Serve by Lean and Coward) is Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well? An absurdly fantastical every-day tale of valiant little Englanders banding together to fight off a cohort of brutish Nazi paratroopers dressed as British soldiers.

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