[29 January 2009]
In the ‘40s, Michael Powell was considered a living legend in England – a national treasure responsible for such commercially and critically successful films as I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus. But when he released the incendiary Peeping Tom in 1960, he became unanimously reviled due to the film’s shocking combination of violence and sexual perversity. His career never recuperated.
It wasn’t until the late ‘70s and ‘80s that his films were rediscovered and his reputation began to mend. Now, his name resides alongside the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean as emblematic of the pinnacle of British filmmaking.
The Films of Michael Powell features two of Powell’s films previously unavailable on US DVD: A Matter of Life and Death (1944) and Age of Consent (1969). The first feature is a collaboration between Powell and his longtime filmmaking partner, Emeric Pressburger (while the pair always shared credit for screenwriting and directing, it is understood that Powell was in charge of the directing and Pressburger was in charge of the script). The second feature marks Powell’s final film and was released over a decade after his final collaboration with Pressburger. The films have little in common aside from being products of Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation: a film preservation society that recently partnered with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment to bring lost classics back into the living room.
David Niven stars in A Matter of Life and Death as Peter, a British WWII pilot who approaches death during an air battle but winds up in a sort of limbo between life and the afterlife. The film opens with him piloting a doomed plane and giving what he thinks will be his final transmission to a luminous American radio operator named June, who happens to be operating at the nearest British airbase. Sparks fly, both literally and figuratively, during their first and what each presumes will be their last conversation. After lamenting their misfortune, Peter leaps from his doomed plane but instead of winding up in the ethereal resting place that his compatriots find themselves in, he wakes up ashore on the British coast, not far from June’s airbase.
While Peter and June are giddily parlaying their sonic attraction into a physical relationship, a spiritual transporter referred to as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) is being reprimanded for the discrepancy between invoiced arrivals and confirmed arrivals. Conductor 71 takes the metaphysical trip from his Heaven-like dwelling down to Earth and visits Peter in time-halting visions in which he explains that by all accounts, Peter should not be on Earth and that there will be a trial to judge his fate. Peter enlists the help of a doctor to make sure his time on Earth – and more importantly with June – isn’t cut short.
The shell of the film may sound like a rote fantasy plot seeping with sentimentality, but in actuality the film is incredibly experimental in terms of both its narrative structure and its cinematic exercise. That Powell and Pressburger chose to shoot the scenes on Earth in marvelous Technicolor and the scenes occurring in the great beyond in striking black and white is indicative of their inspired approach to the material.
More to that effect is the stunningly surreal and phantasmagoric imagery that anticipates the work of Ingrid Bergman and Wim Wenders. Pressburger peppers the script with metatextual jokes that could have ruptured the film’s affect, had they not been employed with such confident virtuosity. Prime example: after descending to Earth, Conductor 71 remarks to the camera, “One is starved for Technicolor up there.” The line is followed by a lengthy tracking shot highlighting an iridescent string of flowers.
Another incredibly bold narrative choice is that the film nearly concludes in a 20-minute philosophical debate about national prejudices and the types of relationships that form during wartime – all of which is delivered not by the lead characters, but by a supporting character and a previously unseen character. If it weren’t so artfully written, the film would buckle under the didacticism of this debate but as it is, it’s only toward the end that the intentions to mollify British-American animosity become noticeable. But as momentarily heavy handed as it may be, you can’t really fault such efforts; after all, the film was released only a year after World War II ended.
On the DVD’s special features, inveterate cinephile Martin Scorsese describes Powell & Pressburger’s films as propaganda in the best sense. He commends their passion and conviction in creating pro-UK films that were critical enough not to become jingoistic. He also recounts how difficult it used to be to see Powell & Pressburger films in the United States. Even if Americans were lucky enough to catch them broadcast on television, they were often crudely edited and re-colored in black and white.
Scorsese credits the late ‘70s resurgence of Powell & Pressburger’s films to the British Film Institute’s efforts to redistribute the films in their original prints. Renowned academic and archivist Ian Christie, who played an integral role in that original restoration, also provides an audio commentary track for the DVD.
From Age of Consent
Age of Consent represents a very different collaboration for Michael Powell, one forged with British actor James Mason, who starred in and produced the film. Powell’s last feature film concerns aging artist Bradley Morahan (Mason) and his effort to rekindle his artistic sensibility on a secluded island along the Great Barrier Reef.
Very much a product of the swinging ‘60s, the film initially resembles an inferior companion piece to Antonioni’s Blow-Up in that it is also about a skirt-chasing, financially successful artist’s growing disillusionment about choosing art as both a lifestyle and a profession. But any such comparison to Antonioni’s masterwork is short lived and with limited conflict, a cringe-inducing score and Mason’s bizarre attempt at an Australian accent, the film is an embarrassment to all involved. And not just because it’s incredibly dated.
The film’s sole strong quality is its use of location. The Great Barrier Reef looks absolutely gorgeous in the film and what’s even more impressive is that it looks entirely natural. One need only contrast it with the garish, synthetic glow heaped upon the Greek Islands in the recent Mamma Mia! to appreciate the virtues of letting a location speak for itself.
Age of Consent is notable for being Helen Mirren’s first major film role. She plays Cora, the impetuous island girl whom Bradley becomes obsessed with translating into a work of art. The film doesn’t seem too concerned with exploring the ethical nature of Bradley’s regarding Cora as object – in fact, the filmmakers photograph Mirren even more lasciviously than Bradley’s intentions indicate. If ever there was a film to justify Laura Mulvey’s theory about the existence of the male gaze in cinema, it’s this one.
The special features, which include separate introductions by Scorsese and Helen Mirren, do an admirable job of tiptoeing around how poor the film actually is and focusing on the undeniable talents of Powell himself. Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones provides an incredibly well-researched audio commentary track that wisely focuses on the film’s production background and crew biographies rather than trying to elicit any potential interpretation or analysis.
Having these two films adorn the same DVD package makes for a rather incongruous sight and implies some crafty marketing tactics by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. By withholding the films from individual DVD releases and forcing consumers to purchase both films at a greater price than single disc releases, it persuades consumers who likely would have only bought one of the films to buy the both of them. Auteur fanatics aside, the two films appeal to separate audiences. Viewers lured in by Helen Mirren’s nubile sensuality will have little interest in David Niven or ruminations on the afterlife whereas the film buffs eager to own Matter of Life and Death will likely already know that they should steer clear of Age of Consent.
Age of Consent is, sadly, a rather unfortunate swan song for Powell and it’s unfortunate that this release has to remind viewers of that race. But at any rate, the occasion for A Matter of Life and Death’s overdue arrival on region one DVD just about makes up for its inclusion in this package. The new DVD transfer is impeccable and does justice to the film’s remarkable special effects and storytelling. While it would be better if the consumer had the option to purchase A Matter of Life and Death on its own at a reduced price, the silver lining is that at least the Age of Consent disc offers some strong Powell-driven special features to take the attention away from the film itself.