June 15, 2009

0 Two by Michael Powell

"There is not a British director with as many worthwhile films to his credit as Michael Powell."
—David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film


Generally speaking, I'm not a great fan of opera. Because of the inherently realistic nature of movies, with the camera's ability to bring the viewer close to the action, the very things that make me wary of opera—its slow pacing, rather static dramatics, and high level of artifice—would seem to make it a difficult art form to turn into a real motion picture rather than just a recording of a stage performance. Yet I have seen two filmed operas that succeeded brilliantly as real movies. Franco Zeffirelli took a completely realistic approach with Verdi's La Traviata (1983), filming it like a real drama taking place in real locations. Ingmar Bergman filmed The Magic Flute (1975) as a performance of Mozart's opera that includes both backstage and audience scenes. Both approaches worked beautifully.

The great Michael Powell, one of the most visually creative of all film directors, chose to film Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann with little attempt at realism. What he did instead was to use the full range of cinematic effects—and his mastery of those effects was astounding—to turn the opera into a highly stylized example of pure cinema. One reason the movie succeeds so well is that the opera itself is ideally suited to such an approach. For one thing, it is divided into three discrete episodes, which immediately solves the problem of lagging pace. The movie is nearly 2 hours 20 minutes long yet certainly doesn't feel like it. And the three episodes, each based on a bizarre tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann of a supernatural encounter with an otherwordly woman by the poet himself, seem to call for a non-realistic approach to emphasize their eerie nature.

Moira Shearer as the automaton Olympia

In the three tales, Hoffmann first falls in love with a life-sized mechanical doll named Olympia (brilliantly danced and played by Moira Shearer of The Red Shoes) in Paris. Next he travels to Venice, where he is bewitched by Giulietta, minion of the demonic Dapertutto and collector of souls for him. Finally he sails to an isolated Greek island where Antonia, a gifted singer who loves him, lives under a deadly curse that she is hypnotized into fulfilling by the sinister Dr. Miracle. Appearing to great effect as the villain in all three episodes is Robert Helpmann, who makes a strong impression in all four of his guises. (He also appears as Hoffmann's nemesis Lindorf in the framing episodes at the beginning and end of the film.)

The movie combines ballet and singing; there is no spoken dialogue, and the libretto is in English. The physical action within the frame may at times be stately, but Powell has a firm grasp of the purposeful use of stillness as a counterpoint to motion. On the visual level he never allows the film to stop moving, continuously engaging the viewer's eye with his hypnotic and constantly shifting images, created through the inventive use of his entire cinematic bag of tricks—set decoration, costumes, makeup, camera placement and movement, editing, color, and special effects. At the same time, he uses these elements to emphasize and enhance the dream-like quality of the tales. The result is an eye-popping, almost hallucinatory phantasmagoria that makes Fellini's most extravagant exercises, like those in Juliet of the Spirits, seem restrained.

The only real complaint I have is that the third tale is dramatically and cinematically a bit less compelling than the first two, although it does make up for this by leading into a dazzling finale. In the Powell-Pressburger canon, The Tales of Hoffmann is not as well known as their masterpieces of the 1940s. This is unfair. It is one of their strongest, most daring, and most memorable movies and a must not only for fans of the great Powell-Pressburger team, but also for anyone interested in ballet, opera, or cinema as an art form.


As I write this I've just finished watching A Matter of Life and Death (original US title: Stairway to Heaven), and I just can't praise this movie enough. Powell's greatest movies, of which this is one, show his astonishing skill and creativity in presenting the story in the most strikingly visual terms possible. His command of the language of film easily equals, and possibly even exceeds, Alfred Hitchcock's. Like Hitchcock, he was fascinated by the technical challenges of expressing moments of heightened sensation through filmic means and habitually punctuated his movies with mind-bogglingly original and glorious set pieces that linger with the viewer as eidetic memories long after the movie has ended.

Powell's amazing visual creativity is on full display in his movies with the most unconventional subjects—movies like The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann, Peeping Tom, and this one, the first to showcase the real extent of his cinematic imagination. A Matter of Life and Death, released in late 1946, the year after the end of World War II, is saturated with a sense of the collective and personal loss caused by that war. The movie's response to that melancholy is an almost desperately mystical optimism that with the aid of the transcendent power of the cinema, Britain can somehow exorcise the grief of the war and heal its wounded national psyche.

This hope is expressed through the story of Peter Carter (David Niven, who has never been better), an airman who miraculously survives a suicidal jump into the sea without a parachute from a flaming Lancaster bomber off the coast of England on May 2, 1945, just days before the war in Europe ended. Before he bails out, Carter has a brief conversation on his radio with a stranger, a young American woman named June (Kim Hunter) working as a radio operator at an air base in England. After washing up on shore and finding he is alive, he wanders toward the base and immediately meets June riding home on her bicycle that morning after her shift has ended. The two instantly fall in love. The only problem is that his survival is the result of a heavenly error, and an emissary is sent to retrieve him. But Peter refuses to go, insisting on an appeal in a heavenly court of justice, where he will argue that because his love for June has negated the heavenly edict that he must die, he must be returned to life.

The plot is constructed in a fascinatingly ambiguous way: Are all these supernatural events really happening, or are they actually elaborate visual and auditory hallucinations caused by a head injury Peter received two years earlier? Is the climactic sequence of the movie really a trial in heaven to determine if Peter will live or die, or is this a hallucination occurring under anaesthesia while Peter is undergoing neurosurgery that will determine if he lives or dies? As in the best fantasy movies predicated on ambiguity, and specifically on the ambiguity between the subjective and the objective interpretation of events, the plot functions simultaneously on both levels without any apparent contradiction. Near the end of the movie, when the neurosurgeon removes his surgical mask and his true identity is revealed, it is a stunning revelation that underscores vividly this fundamental ambiguity between the real and the imaginary and the film's seamless blending of the two.

Is it all just a dream? The heavenly court observes the operation

The exceedingly clever plot (I have only hinted at its many twists and turns) is only part of the movie's fascination, though. What really makes the film so memorable is the inspired visual ideas Powell devises to show us these events. From the moment the film opens, with a view of the cosmos ("This is the universe," the narrator says as the film begins. "Big, isn't it?") that gradually reduces itself to Niven in the cockpit of that flaming bomber, we know we are in for a unique experience. And when Peter comes to on the beach and encounters a naked young goatherd playing a flute, we know this is a movie where something unexpectedly weird and mythic might happen at any moment. The film is crammed with similarly imaginative sequences based on the creative use of sets (that stairway to heaven is unforgettable, as indeed are all the sets for the afterlife), lighting, photography, and editing. The sequence in the camera obscura of the village doctor, played by Powell stalwart Roger Livesy (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going), is especially noteworthy. Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff's use of tricks like stop-motion, slow motion, double exposure, reverse motion, back projection, matted images, and alternation between black-and-white and Technicolor constitutes a virtual catalogue of pre-CGI special effects.

Peter encounters the goatherd on the beach

Powell and his collaborator Emeric Pressburger wrote the original screenplay, which seems influenced by three notable fantasy movies of the early 1940s. It resembles Here Comes Mr. Jordan in its use of a heavenly error to drive the fantasy elements of the plot. But here the situation is reversed and instead of being taken before his time like Robert Montgomery in that movie, Peter is inadvertently left behind. Powell's film is also reminiscent of both The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), which I wrote about recently, and Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (1943) in its idea of the protagonist pleading his case in a supernatural hearing that will determine his fate. The details of the fantastic plot of A Matter of Life and Death and their visualization on the screen are so conceptually intertwined that to watch the movie is to journey into the mind and imagination of one of the greatest geniuses of cinema.

In the end, all I can really say about this movie is watch it and marvel at the way it suggests simultaneously the ineffable, vast, and timeless mysteries of existence and a specific story about a small group of people experiencing very human emotions in a situation clearly delimited in time and space. A Matter of Life and Death is more than merely worthwhile: It is an essential masterpiece that will kindle the ardor of anyone who loves movies.


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