Friday, February 11, 2011

Michael Powell

I recently rewatched, after a long time, two of the great British films directed in the 1940’s by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, and it reminded me that I saw Powell in the flesh once. This was around 1986, and he came back to Canterbury, where he was born, to talk to a class of film students. In his seventies, he was accompanied by his wife, Thelma Schoonmaker, whom he’d met through his friendship with Martin Scorsese (whose films she still edits). I’m ashamed to recall that the majority of questions he received were actually about Scorsese (I was too shy to speak up, and probably still would be today). But then at the time Scorsese was hotter than hot, whereas Powell, although certainly esteemed by many, was an old man, his best days not universally appreciated and in any event long behind him.

Powell’s Reputation

I’m fairly sure Powell, if he were still around (he died in 1990), would receive a more enthusiastic welcome nowadays, partly due to Scorsese’s efforts on his behalf – he cites The Red Shoes in particular as one of the five films that mean most to him, and slips surreptitious visual references to it into a number of his own movies. More generally, his films (and in this article I’ll refer to Powell alone as shorthand for him and Pressburger –that’s a bit unfair of course, but there’s no doubt he was the dominant of the two artistic personalities) have held up incredibly well, possibly surpassing the reputation of contemporaries like David Lean and Carol Reed, who had much more mainstream respectability, and far superior access to funding, during their careers. By the end of the 50’s, Powell’s working life was substantially over, particularly because of his 1959 Peeping Tom, about a voyeuristic murderer who kills women with a knife attached to the leg of his camera tripod. It’s now regarded as a groundbreaking psychological horror film, but at the time it repelled people. Powell directed only a few more minor pictures - the most notable, Age Of Consent, features a young Helen Mirren (1969!) swimming in the nude – and episodes of minor TV shows.

In A Biographical Dictionary Of Film, David Thomson notes that Powell was once “written off as an eccentric decorator of fantasies…(and) against persistent British attempts to dignify realism…must have seemed gaudy, distasteful and effete.” But then he notes how this has turned: “The work looks better and better, simpler yet more ambiguous. The great Powell and Pressburger films do not go stale; they never relinquish their wicked fun or that jaunty air of being poised on the brink.”

Of the two films I rewatched, this especially applies to A Matter of Life and Death (sometimes called Stairway to Heaven), which is literally poised on the brink of life itself. David Niven plays a WW2 pilot who, as the movie begins, is in his last minutes on earth, hopelessly stuck with no parachute in a busted plane headed for a crash landing. He has a final exchange with an American radio operator he’s never seen (Kim Hunter), and when he somehow survives, waking up on a beach near her home, he pursues her and they fall immediately in love. But Heaven has bungled – the collector of souls missed him in the fog, and turns up now to bring him back. Niven refuses to go, and ends up before a celestial court of appeal, arguing his new love for Hunter warrants an extension of his term on earth.

A Matter of Life and Death

As you can see then, the movie is plain weird, although there have been plenty of others, before and subsequently, dabbling in broadly similar material. But the film is a perfect exhibit for Powell’s iconoclasm. Niven’s case ultimately becomes intertwined with the case for England itself, for its quaint country villages and clipped speech patterns and odd formality – but also for its entitlement to supremacy in the post-war world. Heaven, unsurprisingly, feels very much like England of the time too, heavily defined by procedure and by class, but the film exhibits an utter belief in the system’s integrity, in its ability to weigh individual entitlements against the collective good. But in case this sounds like a rather grim and limited vision, the movie – which presents the real world in colour and the next one in black and white - is a gorgeous, glowing vision of heightened reality.

Thomson points out that The Red Shoes, in many respects a much more grounded tale, “underline(s) the search for respectability in his work” while also sharing the earlier film’s great truth “that creative dreams easily surpass reality.” This is the story of a young dancer who shoots to fame in a ballet of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairytale (about the shoes that when she puts them on won’t stop dancing); when she alienates the impresario by falling in love with the young composer, she must choose between life and art, ultimately with tragic consequences. The film, I believe, still enchants young girls, but it has a sense of madness barely held at bay: even at her moment of triumph as she performs the ballet, the dancer suddenly has flashes of the men in her life intertwining with the fictional characters, presaging the price to be paid for this creative summit.

The Red Shoes

It’s probably not quite right to say that creative dreams “easily” surpass reality in Powell’s work, because any such sense of ease is merely transient: whether through the forces of our own world or the world beyond, there will have to be a reckoning, and you may stand a better chance with the negotiators from the other world than with those from our own (Powell doesn’t convey anything like the same faith with the hierarchy of the ballet world that he does with the legal processes of the afterworld).

These two films, although surely both among Powell’s best, nevertheless can’t adequately sum up the span of his work, which spans wartime action, intense eroticism, political satire and much intense psychological observation, and a restless confounding of expectations, sometimes through astonishing complexity, sometimes just through playfulness. Like many of the greatest filmmakers, it’s hard to imagine he would have flourished quite as much in any other time and place: he thrived on end-of-Empire England, validating its funny old ways even as he relentlessly probed what might lie beneath. He’s just about the only filmmaker who can actually make me nostalgic for those times; I wish I’d said that to him when I had the chance.

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