Tag Archives: michael powell

Viewing Diary 2016 #1

Gone to Earth (1950), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

In the hands of most artists, this would play as stale melodrama. Its romantic triangle would succumb to moral binaries. But P&P were not most artists, and in their long joint career, they rarely left a binary intact. Nature vs. civilization, paganism vs. Christian orthodoxy, woman vs. man: the rapturous visual storytelling in Gone to Earth complicates every single one of these seeming dichotomies. The developments in Hazel’s magical life are not weighted strictly toward “good” or “bad.” Instead, they’re built up out of hills, trees, tightening two shots, passion-twisted faces, and a palette of Technicolor excess.

In this film’s cosmology, heaven and hell are not abstract destinations but immediately within reach, and Jennifer Jones plays Hazel as a girl-turned-woman who’s too aware of their proximity for her own good. The knowledge is in her voice, iffy accent or no. It’s in the squiggly cursive handwriting on the farewell note she leaves her husband: “I am a bad girl.” And it’s in the shot that gazes up at her in her yellow dress from deep within the Chekhov’s abyss before rotating to watch a stick plummet deeper still into the darkness. Powell and Pressburger knead a wealth of unspoken implications into an image of a simple Shropshire well.

Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

Here’s what I missed most from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt while watching this adaptation: (1) the lengthy opening portion of the novel detailing Therese’s drudgery at Frankenberg’s before she runs into her dream woman and (2) the hotel-hopping game of cat and mouse the couple later play against the private detective employed by Carol’s vindictive husband. Compressed versions of both remain in the film, but only as narrative ligaments, helping push the story into its next act. Much as I adored these bits on the page, though, I still appreciate the necessity of screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s cuts, not only for the sake of time but also because they sharpen the film’s focus. For Carol really isn’t about working retail while pursuing your vocation in your off hours, nor is it even slightly a paranoid thriller. From stem to stern, on every level of craft, it’s an evocation of the soul-deep yearning these two women have for one another.

What is it like to be one whole cleft by circumstance into two aching halves? As it turns out, it’s like gazing out of windows at the snow globe of wintry Manhattan or receiving a call you have to drop while anxiously clenching a cigarette. It’s trying to carve out a sliver of space for you and your beloved within doorways and hallways and hotel restaurants; it’s encoding your love into a glance or gesture only she will be able to decipher. As with Haynes’ other period melodramas, the costuming and set design in Carol act not as value-neutral recreations of ’50s style, but as essential aesthetic components of Carol and Therese’s relationship. Every item in Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe—gloves, earrings, nail polish, fur coat—has been selected and shot with the knowledge that a woman’s self-presentation can function both as a tool and as a trap.

(In this respect, and in the consistently off-center framing, Carol reminded me of Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills series. It’s an impression bolstered by Therese’s passion for photography; by Haynes’ actual collaboration with Sherman on her feature Office Killer; and by the haze of self-conscious old movie glamour that hangs over this movie.)

A Bronx Morning (1931), directed by Jay Leyda

“The city” is an overwhelming subject, especially for a ten-minute silent short. Leyda wastes no time. His dizzying montage zips from mass transit to shop windows to kids playing in the street. Across this whirlwind tour of the borough, the filmmaker slyly draws visual patterns out of public phenomena. The weaving diagonals of fire escapes and elevated train tracks; the aerial trajectories of pigeons and stray newspapers—they make the Bronx morning seem like a series of abstract compositions just waiting to be caught on camera.

How Men Propose (1913), directed by Lois Weber

A single joke that’s all build-up, build-up, build-up, then wham! Absurd proto-feminist punchline! Running half a reel, this splits its time between three gullible suitors and the female trickster who promises each one in turn her hand in marriage. As she hurries to hide the rings she’s been given and prepare for the next beau in line, the story plays like a preemptive spoof of the still-nascent romcom. The men’s pantomimed proposals are just as broad as the looks of shock they plaster on their faces when their phony fiancée reveals her charade. The woman breaks the fourth wall in every other shot with a cocky grin. She’s sharing a conspiratorial laugh with us, her audience, at matrimony’s expense.

News from Home (1977), directed by Chantal Akerman

Lucky coincidence that I should watch this so soon after both Carol and A Bronx Morning. Together, the three films measure out myriad angles of approach toward a pair of shared subjects: Love and The City. News from Home is roughly as far from the former film’s classical melodrama as it is from the latter’s montage. Akerman’s tack is minimalism, as she juxtaposes voiceover readings of her mother’s letters from Belgium with footage of New York streets and subways. So simple, conceptually. Yet every word she speaks in her mother’s voice and every avenue her camera traverses deepens the trans-Atlantic story she’s telling. She’s never explicit about anything, never tells the viewer how to feel, but even so News from Home broke my heart; is still breaking it a couple days later. I think it’s because of Akerman’s conspicuous absence—because I can glean the outline of the artist as the “you” in her mother’s letters, as the eye taking up space in the middle of these subway cars, the camera-eye with which bold commuters will sometimes exchange a glance. Between the audio and the images of News from Home lies this woman who’s invisible, dislocated, lonely; who’s a daughter, a foreigner, and a human being.

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Link Dump: #88

This week’s kitty is gazing ominously at the title character of Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper, which I wrote about recently. Never have I seen a cat with more accusing eyes. And now, some links:

This week’s sexual search terms include “slippery teen twat first time with looney toons” (ewww…?) and the amusingly self-censoring “bondage mind-effing.” Mind-effing!

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Chaucer Redux

Six centuries elided by a single cut

FYI: I’m now a writer at the brand new site Movie Mezzanine, and I’ve started an annals-of-film-history column there called “Looking Back.” The first movie under discussion? Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), which deals sensitively with love and land and locating yourself in history. You can read about it here.

Had I more time, I would’ve delved into a few other aspects of the film. (It’s so rich and digressive; I’ll be revisiting it for years hence.) For example: Eric Portman’s performance as local authority Colpeper, which demonstrates much of the same ambiguous, low-key villainy that Portman brought to Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel a few years earlier. He creates a fascinating character in Colpeper and seriously complicates the film’s relationship with England’s distant past.

Further points of interest: the film’s visual style, which makes special use of both the undulating landscape and the faces of its stars shot in mesmerizing close-up. And then the ending, in which a soldier from London gets to play some “Toccata and Fugue” on the organ of Canterbury Cathedral and feel music, religion, and war converge along his fingertips. It’s an unconventional climax, but a powerful one, which I suppose could double as a description of the whole film.

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My Favorite Movies: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

A title that acknowledges England/Candy's royal history and modernized present

Now, to conclude my totally unintentional string of WWII-related posts, here’s the second installment of my series about my favorite movies. This is an underrecognized film by an underrated duo: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). (Viewable here, 163 minutes long.) I guess it’s not too surprising that it’s a relatively unheard-of film. It’s very distinctly British and, to an extent, pretty topical and specific, made to comment on the progress of the Allies’ war on Nazi Germany. But on another level, it’s a beautiful, universal film about the effect of historical events on individual lives and relationships, and about maintaining personal honor amidst of national dishonor. It recognizes human nature as repetitive and unchanging from decade to decade, yet also singles the Nazism out as a special case – “the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain.” It’s these many sides of this great film that I want to examine.

David Low's boorish, hypocritical Colonel Blimp

Colonel Blimp, first of all, is not the film’s main character. He was a satirical cartoon character created by David Low in the 1930s, an exaggerated representation of the jingoistic old English army officer. The film, meanwhile, centers around Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (who goes by a number of other names and ranks throughout the film), a Blimp-like figure who is given a life and dynamic personality of his own. This genesis of the central character starts to show, I think, the film’s intent, and one of the reasons why its production was opposed by Churchill: in the midst of a worldwide struggle between good and evil, when one-dimensional political cartoons were the ideological currency in America, England, and Germany, it dared to take a cartoon and turn him into a human being, and dared to do the same with a German, of all people.

Colonel Blimp‘s plot is fairly epic, covering 3 hours and 40 years, and earning every second with its humane, sympathetic storytelling. It begins in 1943, as a group of young Home Guard soldiers decide to make their war games “like the real thing” by taking the elite old officers, resting in a Turkish bath, hostage 6 hours before the exercise was set to begin. The leader of the young men, Spud, is knocked into the water by the incensed Wynne-Candy (who is, at this juncture, intimidatingly walrus-like, identical to the Blimp caricature), who begins a memorable tirade against Spud’s youthful pride:

You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my moustache, but you don’t know why I grew it! How do you know what sort of man I was – when I was as young as you are – forty years ago…

At this point, the movie segues (without even so much as a cut) into 1903 at the very same bath, where the Major-General becomes the young Clive “Sugar” Candy, no mustache and a full head of hair, on leave from the Boer War. This initiates the film’s chronologically circular structure, told mostly in flashback, through which it’s able to connect three wars, along with England’s (and Candy’s) role in each of them. The story essentially involves Candy, his German friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (of whom Candy at first says, “nobody could invent a name like that”), and three different women who come into their lives. All three are played by the very pretty, redheaded Deborah Kerr, whom Michael Powell described as “both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for.”

Deborah Kerr, a work of art in Technicolor's marvelous pallette

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, who play Candy and Kretschmar-Schuldorff respectively, are the fire and ice, the enemies-turned-friends who keep the movie going, but it’s Kerr who’s the glue that holds it all together. She fills in the blank spaces in their lives (she’s married to each of them during much of the film’s temporal gaps) and is the locus of desire that both unintentionally brings them together in the first place and seals their bond of friendship. In Colonel Blimp, Kerr is a fiery woman in three eras and three wars, with her final role as Wynne-Candy’s driver, Angela “Johnny” Cannon, marking a change in women’s positions during the present war [WWII]. Kerr may be better-known for singing opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I, but I think she ought to be recognized for her triple role here; she’s the active force that sets just about every stage of the plot in motion, directly or indirectly, in war or peacetime.

Amidst the film’s cyclical plot are some great scenes, too, observing the backs and forths of international relations and their effects on human lives. There’s the duel between Clive and Theo that causes their friendship, set on a wintry morning in a gymnasium in Berlin; the camera pans away just as the fighting begins and lets us see the results from Ms. Hunter’s (Kerr) point of view. There are the montages illustrating Candy’s activities between wars by mounting one trophy after another on the walls of his home, exotic animals whose origins trace out a map of British colonial possessions in Africa and India. There is the desolate no-man’s-landscape of Flanders at the tail end of World War I, where Candy meets Scottish and American soldiers, in addition to a crafty South African officer named Van Zijl. He ominously tells a group of German POWs, “I assure you that I have means to get what I want,” an early example of the film’s interest in fair vs. unfair combat.

As Powell & Pressburger train their camera on England in the first half of the 20th century, they’re able to show one interesting character after another, each reacting differently to the difficulties history has thrust upon them. It’s hard to do justice to a story that wide and deep – it covers so much, yet never feels like it’s hurried or touching too briefly on any one time period. And the whole time the viewer’s receiving this crash course in the aftermath of English imperialism, they are also treated to the lush Technicolor reds and greens of the London surroundings that turn to oranges and yellows as Clive and Theo reach the autumns of their lives.

Roger Livesey gives a monumental performance as Clive Wynne-Candy

It’s impressive that a movie so much about the causes and effects of war can also say so much about the ebbs and tides of normal life – about youth, aging, and all the in-betweens. I think that’s largely because war – and the consequent destruction – necessitates rebuilding, which is what the characters spend much of the film doing. Rebuilding houses, friendships, memories, lives. The title mentions the “death” of Colonel Blimp, and I think this can be interpreted a number of ways; although Candy himself doesn’t die at the end, it’s the death of what he represents and the ideals to which he clings, the death of British military supremacy, the death of the Old Guard, and the death of that cartoonish blowhard Blimp. The tapestry that begins and ends the film has a motto that’s a play on an old Latin phrase: “Sic transit gloria Candy.” Thus passes the glory of Candy. It’s an epitaph for the old colonel (or Major-General, or whatever) whose old world has given way to a new one.

I think I’ve done a little bit of justice to Colonel Blimp‘s mixture of emotion, artistry, and grandeur. Once you get swept into the story – which, unlike many similarly epic stories, never degenerates into overly melodramatic plot twists and unearned sentiment – you find yourself won over by its enchanting characters and, by the time they’ve aged several decades, they’ve become old friends. Despite its deep roots in British colonialism and 1940s debates about fair play in warfare, it remains accessible (and, you’d think, very relevant in the light of current politics). I wish I’d had more of a chance to talk more about the careers of Powell & Pressburger, but please read for yourself; they were incredible but underappreciated filmmakers. Wikipedia quotes David Mamet as describing Colonel Blimp as his idea of perfection, and he has a point. With its personal, bittersweet narrative running through a whole colorful world of multinational, multidimensional characters, addressing the private and public costs of war, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favorite movies.

Clive and Theo meet during a duel framed with beauty and humor

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