Monday, June 15, 2009

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 (2004)


THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (1951)

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.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946)

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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9 comments:

John said...

R.D., as usual, your article is eloquent and exquisitely written. Powell is an amazing filmmaker and I can clearly understand Scorsese’s fierce admiration for his work. I have only seen two of his films, “The Red Shoes” and “Peeping Tom”, both of which are amazing. It was Scorsese’s influence that made me watch “The Red Shoes”, which in my humble opinion, is the greatest film ever to be made on the struggle between pursuing one’s art and the sacrifices one makes, on personal relationships and life in that pursuit. I cannot recommend this film highly enough to anyone who has not seen it. I currently have two other Powell films in the house that I have yet to watch, “Black Narcissus” and “Age of Consent.”
“A Matter of Life and Death” sounds like a fascinating film and one I will have to look for, however like you, I am not a great fan of Opera, and I believe I would have a hard time sitting through “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Then again, in the right mood, I can probably give it a try.

R. D. Finch said...

John, I try to watch everything by Powell that TCM shows or that I otherwise run across. I also love "The Red Shoes" and "Peeping Tom." In the WitD decade polls, "Peeping Tom" fell between the cracks because it was listed as a 1959 release, and I didn't know that until I had already submitted my list; otherwise it definitely would have been in the top 25. Then in the 60s poll it was also listed as a 1960 release, and again I didn't find out until I had already submitted my list. If I had known in time, it would have been in the top 25, probably up there somewhere with "Psycho."

"Black Narcissus" wasn't quite as good as I had expected, but a wonderful movie nonetheless. TCM frequently shows "The Edge of the World," and although made in a more straightforward style than his later movies is still very good. If you get the chance, don't miss "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" and especially "I Know Where I'm Going," a wonderful romantic comedy with Roger Livesy and the great Wendy Hiller.

It's always good to hear from you, and thanks for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Another great job, John! You sure choose movies that are worthy of review. This is another outstanding film.

"Stairway To Heaven" is my favorite Michael Powell movie. It's a big colorful visually stunning idea-packed film.

25 or so years ago in L.A., I was invited to a party of recent school grads...we were all going to a screening of "Peeping Tom." Michael Powell was in town and attended...and, I kid you not, we invited him to join us for a drink that night, he gladly said yes, and it turned into an all-night pub crawl. With Michael Friggin' Powell! Lord, why didn't I write it all down then.

Thanks for writing so eloquently about such wonderful filmmaking, and about one of the great filmmakers.

Tom Ruegger

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed Tom is quite right. There is real passion here at the Movie Projector and its humble, effervescent proprietor is a perfect fit for these enlightening discussions!

Well R.D., I must confess that opera is my favorite cultural interest, and I am a huge fan of the Powell and Pressburger film you astutely review here, as well as the the magisterial Zeffirelli film you cite as well as the magnificent Bergman. Other "opera films" that rate as master-class entries would include Zeffirelli's "Otello," "La Boheme" and "Cavaleria Rusticana," Rosi's "Carmen," and especially Losey's "Don Giovanni." And of course there's Sylberberg's "Parsifal," Weigl's "A Village Romeo and Juliet" (Delius) and Ponelle's "Rigoletto" and "Il Barbiere di Siviglia."

But enough, this is YOUR review not my love of opera. My boasting will get me nowhere but entrance to the poor house!

I think you do a wonderful job in disecting this work, and here is the most spectacular passage in your review right here:

"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."

R.D. you are quite the perceptive writer my good friend! You could never tell you weren't an opera fan after reading this!

By the way, both you and John would be most interesting in knowing that this film is the central thematic device in Francis Ford Coppola's new film TETRO, which I saw over the weekend.

As far as A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, well that certainly contends with BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES and COLONEL BLIMP as P & P's masterwork.

This is a dead on assessment here:

"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."

It's a timeless classic.

John said...

Sam,

I anxiously wait it release of TETRO here in FLA……hopefully. With independent films like this, it is a crap shoot if it will get a release here or not. Being it is Coppola, I am hoping it will get some kind of release here.

Sam Juliano said...

Ah, John it is the Sunshine State that stole your heart from the Big Apple! I have lost count of the number of good people that relocated to your present home.

But I would speculate that TETRO will be with you very soon, and I'd love to hear what you think of it.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, it's always good to get your comments on what I write; I really look forward to them. It's actually because of you that I watched "Hoffmann" in the first place. Even though I love Powell-Pressburger, in the past I had given this one a miss. But when I learned it was on your list of the best operas on film, that was all the convincing I needed, since I so respect your judgment in both areas! This is not the first great recommendation you've made, either. Thanks so much for both your input and your recommendations for viewing. And thanks also for the word on the Coppola film, the first I've heard of it. I know that of Powell-Pressburger's movies, "I Know Where I'm Going" is atypically unspectacular (although it does have that Corryvreckan sequence), but I'm forever singing its praises. I once heard that Paramount executives pointed it out to their writers as an example of a perfect screenplay.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks so much for that R.D. You are way too kind.

movieclassics said...

Your article is as deeply stimulating as I've learned to expect, RD. I love 'A Matter of Life and Death', which I've seen several times over the years although not recently - I'm another one who isn't an opera fan and so I don't think I'd go for 'The Tales of Hoffman', though, like John, maybe I would give it a try in the right mood. Judy