Portrait of an invisible man

Dai Vaughan, from Vertigo magazine

There have been many warm tributes recently to the late Andrew Sarris, the great film critic. Sarris was renowned for his advocacy of the auteur theory, in which the director of a film is judged to be its primary author when considering a film’s status as a work of art. Not all film directors can be auteurs, however, or so the argument goes – it is predominantly an elite whose distinctive stamp marks out those films that are truly great.

Well, may be so, but if there are film auteurs out there I do not think that they have always to be directors, or creators of fiction films, or indeed exclusively filmmakers. A case in point is the late Dai Vaughan, who died last month, to somewhat less recognition from the film world. Vaughan was a film artist – or perhaps more properly an artist who worked within film – whose commitment to that art was every bit as notable as a Hitchcock, a Ford or a Hawks. But Vaughan was a documentary film editor, and consequently an invisible man, to use the phrase that employed for his outstanding study of the editor behind Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries, Stewart McAllister, Portrait of an Invisible Man (1983).

Dai Vaughan (1933-2012) worked in the heart of film for over thirty years. He discovered the medium at the National Film Theatre in London in the 1950s, and joined the London Film of School Technique, going on to make films for the Labour Party, including the documentary Gala Day (1963) and a number of party political broadcasts. Establishing himself as a documentary film editor, he worked on some of the most notable British television series of the 60s and 70s: Granada’s social affairs World in Action and the great anthropological Disappearing World, the BBC’s arts series Omnibus and Roger Graef’s pioneering fly-on-the-wall series The Space Between Words (1972) and Decision (1975-76).

Vaughan’s social and political commitment, and his deep interest in how film can document, came out equally in his films and in his writings. His study of Stewart McAllister (practically his alter ego) is an inspired recovery of a lost life and a buried art, demonstrating as it does with what subtle artistry McAllister turned the wartime documentary inspirations of Humphrey Jennings into such exceptional works of arts as Listen to Britain and Fires were Started. However his greatest work is a collection of essays, For Documentary (1999). Were I to be restricted to just ten books on film in my library, then For Documentary would be one of them; and were I then only allowed to keep one, For Documentary might be it. For ideas that grip you and stay with you, fine style, knowledge based on practical experience and depth of undertanding, there is little in the field that surpasses it.

The book covers such subjects as ethnographic film, films of the Olympic Games, fabriciation in documentary and a prescient essay from 1994 on the digital image bringing about the death of cinema. But my favourite piece, and the reason for writing about Vaughan in a blog concerned with silent cinema is the opening essay, ‘Let there be Lumière’.

This exquisite piece of writing is concerned about the beginnings of cinema, specficially that extraordinary moment at which point cinema came into being, something which for Vaughan is equivalent to “what happened to the universe in the first microseconds after the big bang”. Vaughan analyses one film in particular, the Lumières’ Barque sortant du port (A Boat Leaving Harbour) (1895), a film whose mysterious beauty Vaughan unpicks by reference to its absolute spontaneity, a moment on film before film understood itself to be an art, before the arts of fiction (and of editing) intruded, before rules are introduced that make the mysteries of film comprehensible. He writes (also referring to the fascination leaves moving in the background had for audiences of the the first Lumière films):

As audiences settle for appearances, according film’s images the status of dream or fantasy whose links with a prior world are assumed to have been severed if they ever existed, film falls into place as a signifying system whose articulations may grow ever more complex. True, the movement of leaves remains unpredictable; but we know that, with the endless possibility of retakes open to the filmmaker, what was unplanned is nevertheless what has been chosen: and the spontaneous is subsumed into the enunciated. Even in documentary, which seeks to respect the provenance of its images, they are bent inexorably to foreign purpose. The “big bang” leaves only a murmur of background radiation, detectable whenever someone decides that a film will gain in realism by being shot on “real” locations or where the verisimilitude of a Western is enhanced, momentarily, by the unscripted whinny of a horse.

A Boat Leaving Harbour begins without purpose and ends without conclusion, its actors drawn into the contingency of events. Successive viewings serve only to stress its pathetic brevity as a fragment of human experience. It survives as a reminder of that moment when the question of spontaneity was posed and not yet found to be insoluble: when cinema seemed free, not only of its proper connotations, but of the threat of its absorption into meanings beyond it. Here is the secret of its beauty. The promise of this film remains untarnished because it is a promise which can never be kept: a promise whose every fulfilment is also its betrayal.

‘Let there be Lumière’ is a standard text on some film studies courses, and it has been much quoted down the years since it was first written in 1991. Yet its insights remain as fresh as ever, and its analysis of the workings of the first films as hypnotically entrancing as the endlessly watchable Barque sortant du port.

You can find the full essay reproduced on World Cat, but I warmly recommed the complete book. Vaughan knew his silent films, and throws in references to E.J. Marey, Laurel and Hardy, The Battle of the Somme and Charles Urban, alongside such diverse artists (film and non-film) as Federico Fellini, Adrian Cowell, David Hockney and Dorothy Richardson. Film for Vaughan is related to everything else in our culture, and all that we are may be illuminated through film.

Vaughan was also a poet and an experimental novelist, who with works such as Cloud Chamber, Moritur and Totes Meer, explored the mysteries of recovering the past in a form profoundly analogous with that of the filmmaker (the protagonist of Moritur is a film editor). As filmmaker, editor, essayist, reviewer, critic, novelist and poet, Vaughan’s work was consistent, interconnected, profound, auteurist.

(Examples of Dai Vaughan’s writings for Vertigo Magazine can be found online at http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/dossiers/dai-vaughan.)

3 responses

  1. There’s a fine obituary for Vaughan by Martin Smith in The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/dai-vaughan-film-editor-hailed-for-his-work-on-numerous-hardhitting-tv-documentaries-7904281.html. It has these memorable words from director Michael Darlow: “It wasn’t until 1968, when he started editing the film “The First City – London” in my Granada series Cities At War, that I began to understand why he was held in such very high esteem. No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect.” Much like his writing.

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