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Thursday, 2 August 2018

On Powell & Pressburger - Reproducing an interesting Facebook conversation for the enjoyment of all

As I always do, with David Hare’s agreement, I tidied his piece on Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death up and reposted it here on my Film Alert 101 blog.  And as usual with David’s pieces it has since had dozens of page views and will likely have hundreds over time. 

Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell - a photo from the UK National Portrait Gallery
What followed then on David’s Facebook page was an outpouring of comments, reflections, nostalgic recollections and more about the film, about Powell & Pressburger and much else. So, hoping that nobody minds me gathering their published thoughts, I’ve gathered up the comments and in some cases very lightly edited them for spelling etc and posted them up again, in the hope that once more dozens and hundreds will enjoy them. 

Because its mentioned I’ve also added in a link to David’s superb CINEMA REBORN  note on Max Ophuls’ Sans Lendemain  (see below where it gets mentioned).

So start with the link above to get a measure of David’s enthusiasm for the Powell & Pressburger film and take it from there….. 

Daniel Kremer: Blimp is first for me. I'm a big P&P head.

James Steffen:I just watched a chunk of it on my friend's new 4k projector. It is indeed gorgeous!

David Hare: Curious to know what was the projector, James?

James Steffen‪: I'll have to ask!

Ian Christie: Just one factor omitted in your ode to AMOLAD (which is covered in my BFI book): that the film started life before I Know Where I’m Going as a quasi-commission from the Ministry of Information to tackle anti-British feeling in the US. Which helps explain that history lesson and harping on about US identity. Otherwise it's pure poetry, with Marvell and Shakespeare (added as an improv!) for good measure. And full marks to Jack Cardiff that it holds up to 4k Blu-ray revival.

David Hare:Thanks Ian. Of course the legions of fans will be able to hear your own audio commentary from 2009 which Criterion ported from the Carlton DVD. Thelma also mentions the politics behind the filming as well.

David Hare:The Shakespeare episode in which the couple meet with Livesey in the room where the kids are preparing for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the most intensely concentrated composition and imagery in the picture. Powell and Cardiff stage deep reds in tiny blobs of color in the back left and right of the set, to signal back to the hellish cockpit opening. And Cardiff stages two bursts or orange in the mid-range, like the amber light bathing Frank’s house, from the magical camera obscura. The staging, audio design, Allan Gray’s fantastic music, the hard surfaces of black and white on the piano keyboard, and the chessboard are superbly woven into an alchemical, unsettling sequence.

Andrew Moor: That’s beautifully put, and spot on, David, and I really admire Gray's music throughout, and also in Blimp..

David Hare:I started investigating him when I was researching for Max Ophuls’ Sans Lendemain. His scores for P&P seem to have just perfectly distilled their personalities. I think he’s a terrific composer.

David Niven, A Matter of Life and Death
Kevin Molony: Re MP`s politics I was at the NFT for the signing of his first volume of memoirs and a Q&A chaired by the gent above (Ian Christie) and I am pretty sure he referred to himself as a High Tory and favoured a sort of benevolent paternalism bordering on feudalism ( my encapsulation not his) I also saw P&P together which predated that I think; perhaps Mr Christie can correct me if wrong. AMOLAD ranks third in the Pantheon for me behind Blimp and IKWIG. I did the trip to Mull many times when I lived in Argyll and the old farmer that lived nearby had been brought up in Colonsay and claimed to have been used as an extra. At last visit the infamous phone box next to the waterfall was still there and I have a photo of my wife in it as well as a reconstruction of her with valise on the quay at Carsaig a la Hiller

David Hare Wonderful Kevin.

Todd Baamonde: I'm going to speak entirely for myself. This was always one of those films in the past where I would defend it against criticisms--precisely of the kind that David mentions here--that I wasn't being entirely honest with myself, and that I had a special blind spot for the film's ability to fully function as a standing narrative, removed from the era of its construction.

I can recall first seeing this film as Stairway to Heaven as a teenager. I caught it about 1/3 of the way in, and the staggering visuals of the film just obliterated me. I was completely entranced, I had never seen a film do those sorts of things before, use color in that fashion, be so bold and bravely creative, like the film was made by a bunch of sincere poet beatniks. . . so even in that ancient washed out late seventies public television broadcast telecine, received thru my big old tube color TV thru a roof antenna, I made it a mission to manage to see the whole thing... I kept my eyes out for it (this is pre vhs days by years)-- but it just never happened.. it would take decades and my ultimately forgetting about hunting for it until I found a home video copy of it (as Stairway) somewhere around 2003. But in the intervening decades my memory of those awesome visuals and hugely creative screenplay loomed large in my memory. I wasn't yet, when I first saw the film on TV, what you'd call a bona fide cineaste, but was definitely obsessed with vintage horror, and lived for screenings of old German silents (especially Nosferatu, whose star gave me my forum name).

Cut to all these years later-- I have to put down my intense nostalgic adoration of the film and it's wonderful visuals. I pretty much find that any time I've shown it to people, they have the same mixed reaction that I do deep down inside... Marveling at the intense creativity of its construction, while sighing for its heavy handed (and somehow--let's face it--odd) cultural mission. The proselytizing for trans-Atlantic relations doesn't export out of the era of its making without some scratching of heads, or a feeling in the average viewer that the message feels forced and a little klunky.

And yet, it remains very watchable and highly cherished in my mind. Its charms are enormous. The level of originality and invention are staggering. The fact that this is what would be considered a "weaker" title in the P&P canon demonstrates how powerful these filmmakers were. Directors should be so lucky to have such gems constitute their "weaker" efforts!

The film will always occupy a special place in my heart. But does this film rise to the heights of The Red Shoes, IKWIG, ... Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, Peeping Tom?

Tom Dannenbaum: Agreed -- you speak for more than you think. That trial sequence lands on the screen like a lead balloon.

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