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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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"The daring of an adventurer" 1

By Bertrand Tavernier

Translated from the Portuguese, which in turn was translated from the original French, by Google translate so it's little wonder if some parts aren't too clear. Don't blame Bertrand.

     Michael Powell, this name might tell you something, as the title of some of his films: Peeping Tom, Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes ... Four only, out of over fifty that he made.

     How to explain that British filmmaker, some of which we are devoting a true worship, so little is devoted to the point that their memories were only formidable in a French edition published ten years after its appearance in England and most of his films have been released only much later, making France one of the last countries to remain impervious to this great work?

     The films he made between 1937 and 1951 are a testimony of originality, of a freedom of tone. Deeply rooted in national culture, they give evidence, at the same time, a curiosity and an almost unique breadth of vision. His work, that much of it is "written, directed and produced" by Emeric Pressburger, is ambitious, tumultuous, wide, shaken by cataclysm, pierced by lightning, dazzling nature of plans, mysterious. And his collaboration with Pressburger, Hungarian talented writer who had written Robert Siodmak's memorable Abschied (1930) and Max Ophüls Dann schon lieber Lebertran (1931), proves ideal. The national consciousness of Powell marries the irony of Mittel Europa Pressburger, skepticism with the spirit of adventure, intelligence literature with visual invention. Its purpose goes beyond naturalism everyday life, often leads to metaphysics of a cosmic intensity, which holds numerous visions. We do not follow a more intrigue, instantly plunged into a universe. And then we put ourselves there again, with passion. This adventurous film surprises with his demand, his unparalleled imagination, its variety, we sometimes in the same film, the fable of realism, the fantastic documentary, outside of the actual special effects. The confrontation between two religions, two civilizations, two cultures can become the engine of a single script (Black Narcissus and very unique and exciting A Canterbury Tale) the same way as the anguish of creation are the main feature of the dramatic The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom. All these bets visual dramaturgical prove a great confidence in the powers of both film and on the ability of public curiosity. Today, the film will mark the author as such and the spectators are "prevented". At the time, the works of Powell and Pressburger were distributed by Rank or by Korda, and nothing distinguished them in the eyes of the spectators from the rest of the production other than the famous brand of its producer, a target with an arrow. His innovations, his boldness was not known beforehand. And yet, it never would end the list of Colonel Blimp: rotate during the war under the guise of advertising, a movie whose hero is a British officer just intelligent, brave but limited, that is wrong all the time and whose supervisors did not are nothing more lucid, all based on the outcomes of the script errors, the blindness of that character, constantly lagging behind the history; give a gesture of supreme elegance, the only Taken to England to celebrate a German officer ("Strangely I remembered the beauty of the English countryside "), lucid witness and disenchanted that the authors rely on the moral of the work ... a sublime shot sequence worthy of Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, with which it shares the Blimp sophistication, the spirit of civilization, the heartbreaking irony of all this indicates an incredible freedom of spirit, a civic generosity that we find in A Canterbury Tale, meditation on cultural identity, on the roots in I Know Where I'm Going! and A Matter of Life and Death.

     When Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell wrote to me announcing that Michael was very ill, I failed to believe. I confess that I thought he was immortal. In our last meeting, it was still bright and passionate. We had celebrated his eighty-two years in New York with Irwin Winkler and Martin Scorsese and he was still full of projects: a film adaptation of a Philip Glass opera inspired by The Fall of the House Usher. He even made trips to search for locations in Finland. To credit him with insurance companies, he had asked three directors to sign a paper covering it in case of illness and making sure they were ready to resume the movie and the three had accepted. It was Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and me.

     "All my life I have loved running water ..." 2. Thus begins A Life in Movies. Powell indicating an openness to the world, a taste for adventure unique in British cinema, which Powell had definitely not the spirit of the islands. Down the course of a stream, pass through the stream, denotes a taste for risk, a passion for exploration. Huston also has confronted since his early childhood with dams, waterfalls. It is curious that these two experiments have produced two globe-trotters, two adventurers, two experimenters who launched the incredibly ambitious themes, promoted metaphysical and real travel call into question the relationship with the color, the nature of Technicolor.

     The open-mindedness and curiosity prompted Powell to Victorine, where he could work as an assistant photographer on Mare Nostrum with Rex Ingram. The pages he writes about Ingram on the way he worked with his director of photography John F. Seitz ("I felt the difference between brutal realism and impressionism Billy Bitzer Johnny Seitz, who would reach its most complete expression thirty years later in Blood Pact Billy Wilder") are fun and exciting. For Powell know how to stay concrete, and the many anecdotes he recalls with real joy in writing are never free. They refer to an entire season and he knows to be sharp as evidenced by the sharp portraits he paints of Alexander Korda, Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick.

     Korda, according to Powell, saved the film industry during the war, thanks to his friendship with Winston Churchill, whose importance he had felt too early and that made ..him, during a voyage, writer: "Their friendship, as they became fast friends, sharing even a taste for cognac and the Coronas would have important consequences for British cinema and the mobilization in the war." Since 1939, Korda managed to convince Churchill of the importance of cinema as an instrument of propaganda. This resulted in multiple official orders after the war, as A Matter of Life or Death, you should celebrate the Anglo-American reconciliation, ordering and austere teaching of the coming ministry of foreign affairs, and Powell and Pressburger made ..a brilliant, fiery and disturbing fantasy dream. Several filmmakers participated in the war effort itself and Powell found himself engaged in aeronautics, a Superfortress aerial filming, because the sequences of the flying carpet of The Thief of Bagdad, who had snatched the military.

     Hitchcock, Powell says he "was the bastard, more inventive, more malicious, more inspiring film, and film owes a lot. The movie industry (as it is called rightly) would not have been the same without him. He was the great debunker. Three great artists saved the film industry a total failure in my time, great humanist and great craftsmen: Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch's greatest strength is that he never pretended to be a master of thought. On the contrary. He was the eternal cockney merchant of the four seasons, with a sardonic eye watching the passing world, calling their clients 'Guv'nor', a tone that combined statement of independence and subtle insult. So it was Hitch."

     Powell gives an escape, whenever possible, to the islands of Scotland or India. He even made ..a trip very long and very painful to the Himalayas at the expense of Korda, to discover, upon returning, the movie that was the reason for this expedition was canceled. From his early films, he shoots away from the studios. Michael Powell put in place this taste for adventure in their first films choosing exterior impossible to achieve, especially when one considers the weight of the cameras, the material of the time. Achieving Phantom Light lighthouse on the island of Foula demanded efforts insane. I know I was three years ago in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull where he was shot I know where heaven. In the DVD of the film released by Criterion, we can see the scenes filmed by Powell, who loved to ride twenty or twenty-five miles a day in the most unusual addresses. A BBC documentary also shows the efforts of the team carrying an ark dauntless heart to the top of a hill, across a stream.

     This spirit of adventure drives the opposite experiments: he thinks, despite all realistic option, the scenarios of Indian Black Narcissus imposes monochrome tones, the symbolic stylized, the trompe-l'oeil of The Tales of Hoffmann (the stunning staircase "flattened"), inventing trickery, unmatched special effects, which influenced a whole generation of American directors, George Lucas Martin Scorsese. Numerous scenes of Blade Runner are openly inspired by The Tales of Hoffmann, and are a beautiful tribute to Powell. He has not stopped me repeat: "The film should be magical, should cause the dream. You have to experiment endlessly with the sound and image, with the speed ... Twenty-four frames per second is boring. I was constantly changing speed in the same scene. In The Red Shoes, I used forty-eight to six images per second, which allowed me to perform all the trickery in direct registration, on the set. "Scorsese had already been inspired by it when filmed close-ups of Taxi Driver in slow motion, something Powell was doing constantly. It is not clear, because the face is almost motionless, but it gives the image a different texture.

     In each film, he pursued these creative experiences, these challenges: the brave I Know Where I'm Going! and can not take Roger Livesey to Scotland, where he spends most of the filming, he mixed with an art desbundante plans outdoor shot with a double, in the studio with Livesey. Colonel Blimp is filled with visual innovations, such as that used entirely in half-tone Technicolor. Powell suppressed, "desaturate" certain colors, thus obtaining almost monochromatic sequences that illuminate the glow of a red uniform. Thus, the duel and its preparation appreciate a whole range of grays and black (very difficult to obtain in current films) a great delicacy, highlighting the scenarios pastel Alfred Junge.

     Other changes swirling around the film, which continually changes its point of view, where a filmmaker shooting a filmmaker who shoots another person who dies when watching movies: Peeping Tom, as Rear Window, with which it shares the moral, means this game mirrors the viewer who becomes the true voyeur, at the risk of challenging the "good taste". It is the very subject of the film what Powell described to me with a smile as "an autobiographical film, very tender, almost romantic, the story of a character with which I could easily identify me because I live the movies."

     Michael Powell was a fanatic admirer of Jean-Pierre Melville, who spoke to me of Colonel Blimp grandly: "The most beautiful flash-back in the world ... the most beautiful dialogue in the world ... It was said at the time that was so smart he should have been written by Aldous Huxley." Melville wanted to actually go to England to review Blimp he quoted frame by frame! "In France, the film was shot, reassembled, amputated," he said.

     By writing these lines, I think back to the small office in 4 Albemarle Street, where I was received first. I can see the pictures on the walls, the letter of Cecil B. DeMille congratulating the authors for The Tales of Hoffmann, the famous target of The Archers, reminiscences of past glories. Since our first meeting in London, we became friends. When I became a filmmaker, he did act as the banker Law Que la fête commence..., unfortunately cut to a scene in the assembly. Each of my movies was done in a way for him. Like Martin Scorsese, I expected his reaction, his verdict.

     At the time of our last meeting, had talked of his dreams unfulfilled, like an adaptation of Homer written by Dylan Thomas in the form of poetic cantata whose music should be made ... by Stravinsky. He fought years to fund this project, almost succeeded in creating a production that included Picasso, Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas! There were those adjustments to the fantastic tales of Kipling (They), the author that he is very close (this sense of mystery that speaks of Borges), Ursula Le Guin. And then Usher.

     During that time he was rediscovered in England after the United States, and Martin Scorsese had a festival with his best movies in stunning prints on Bravo and the Z Channel in Los Angeles. French television did not follow suit. She came to pass The Wild Heart, but as a tribute to Selznick, who had no role in the production of the film unless the sending memos that Powell ignored and to be content to cut it to distribute it in the U.S., making it be reassembled by Rouben Mamoulian. Colonel Blimp, back to The Small Back Room, I Know Where I'm Going!, Black Narcissus, the stunning and so unique A Canterbury Tale, are reissued later and thanks to Simon and the Sims-Ciné Cinéma. However, when the obituaries of the Cesar Award, Powell's name was not even mentioned. Throughout A Life in Movies and Million Dollar Movie, Powell returns to the present, he confronts his old age and memories never to pity, never to be bridge, a bit like his master, Bunuel, "the only filmmaker on which I would be inclined; An Andalusian Dog up for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he knew from the start what most of us learned in only brief moments of insight and lucidity. "

     No whining, none of these litanies about the degradation of the film that clutter up three quarters of memoirs. Just the grief of having reached "an age in which we realize that certain things we've always had the intention to do - read all The Human Comedy, climb Kilimanjaro, follow the river Douro to the Atlantic Ocean - will not be possible, mostly." The opportunity to ask if it was lost or not during these sixty years devoted to an art that he refused to write with a capital "since this January morning in New England, I assume they have nothing to regret! It may be that at the end of my contract I've changed my mind." I'd bet otherwise.

1 Translated from French by Luiz Carlos Oliveira Jr. Text published in the booklet accompanying the DVD of the French edition of The red shoes (Collection Institut Lumière, 2006).

2 See POWELL, Michael, A Life in Movies: an Autobiography, New York: Faber and Faber, 2000. (N.T.)

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