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Visiting Pleasantville, New York

A mini-season of P&P films in NY State
A report from Malcolm Pratt

Here at last are a few notes on "Malcolm's New York Adventure" - reveling in 5 days' worth of the Michael Powell retrospective at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY.

- The Center has 3 different auditoriums, with capacities of 70, 140, and 250. All the films I saw, w/the exception of the Sunday afternoon screening of ACT w/John Sweet, were held in the smallest theatre. On Wednesday I watched BN twice: the attendance at the 5:30 screening was fairly small - about 30 people, most of whom (as was the case for all the screenings I attended) were predominantly older (40+). A bit larger crowd at the 7:30 showing, but not more than 50. This was the first screening of BN for the day, but the fourth screening of BN during the retrospective.

- Author Kate Buford, who I was told was a great enthusiast of P&P and IKWIG in particular, had introduced this film, and TRS, EOTW, and PT, at screenings that took place previous to my arrival. She was not in attendance at any of the screenings while I was there, so I didn't get the chance to meet her. Someone on the staff told me they thought she was working on a MP book, or was planning such a book.

- The BN print was excellent, but it did have the infamous "Blue Screen of Death" at the fainting of Sister Ruth. I'm not sure what the print source was, but hope to get that info later from the Programming Director of the Center.

- The incredible experience of seeing all these films on a bigger screen for the first time more than compensated for the effort and expense of my attending. As was the chance to watch the films with other movie-goers, the first time that I had ever enjoyed the shared movie-viewing experience of the P&P films (apart from watching a few on my tv w/my wife and daughter.) It was quite interesting to hear the laughter to Emeric's humorous bits of dialogue in ACT, IKWIG and AMOLAD.

- There were 2 different monthly 16-page b&w programs available in the lobby which described all the films to be shown during the month at the Center. The July/August program contained a 2-page centerfold on "The Amazing Films of Michael Powell" while the September program contained a 1/3 page story on the Sept. films - ACT, IKWIG, and STH. Needless to say, I grabbed a bit more than a handful during my stay, and if anyone should like one, let me know and I'll send you one, while supplies last.

- PT was shown the next day and again I attended both screenings, at 5:30 and 7:45. Crowd size and demographics much the same as before. (These were now the 7th and 8th time PT had been screened). After both screenings, I lingered in the lobby and struck up conversations w/various members of the crowd. After a while, my "reputation" as the fellow who came all the way from Memphis spread around a bit, and some of the people were approaching me w/questions, while others were keeping a safe distance from such an obvious obsessive. I was practically holding court, explaining the effect of PT on MP's career, why it was so reviled by the British critics, as well as pointing out that it was MP, Columba, and Frankie in the home movies, and that it was from a story by Leo Marks, not Emeric. I was a bit concerned that my impromptu "seminars" might be misconstrued as overstepping my role at the festival, but the theatre manager, a truly delightful angel named Nancy, seemed genuinely pleased that I was able to provide some useful and informative background on the films and filmmakers.

- One truly trivial question from watching PT: when the candle is blown out on the birthday cake that Anna brings to Carl, it seemed strange to me that no smoke seemed to emanate from the extinguished flame. Did I just miss it, was it not evident on the film, did it not produce smoke for some other reason, or was it not a "real" candle flame?

- One gentleman told me afterwards how disconcerting it was for him to have the obviously German actor in the midst of an otherwise all-British cast. He wanted to know why a German was chosen for the role. He didn't elaborate further as to why it was so bothersome, and I was at a loss to to tell him how to handle such a reaction. It never really bothered me. Did/does it bother anyone else?

- IKWIG was the Friday feature, and I saw 2 of the 3 screenings. I had learned on Thursday morning - quite by accident (which will happen) - that Elvis Costello was doing one of those outdoor summer concerts on the next day's Today Show, and decided it would be a memorable event to attend. So I had to get up at 4am and catch a train to NYC, and by the end of the day, I couldn't stay awake for the final 9:30 IKWIG screening. Elvis, btw, played "Pump It Up" and "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?" twice (the first time was a rehearsal before he did them live on the air, plus "45" and "Spooky Girlfriend" from his newest CD.) It was quite crowded in the unmean but misty streets of NYC and I couldn't see EC very well, but all in all it was worth the effort. And it was definitely in keeping w/the British theme to my travels.

- The IKWIG print was quite good, and it seemed to elicit the most laughs from the audience. I was of course nearly moved to tears at the end of both screenings, when those bagpipes are first heard.

- One prototypical New York lady that I met in the lobby after PT shared an observation about MP's films that I had read elsewhere previously. She had just seen TRS, EOTW, and BN at the festival and said that in MP's films, "no cliff goes unjumped." I thought this rather astute, and suppose when you see all those films basically back-to-back, it's a bit easier to notice that recurrent "falling to death" theme in many of the MP and P&P films.

- I had the great good fortune to spend almost an hour w/Thelma at her NYC editing offices as a part of my pilgrimage. She was incredibly cordial and kind, taking me on a quick tour, showing me Mr. Scorsese's extensive video tape library w/thousands of tapes, as well as several 16- and 35-mm film canisters that lined the hallways. She also showed me various memorabilia on the walls, including huge (at least 8'x8') posters for TOH, SBR, and AMOLAD, along w/a number of foreign-language lobby cards for SIB, TOB, and others. The AMOLAD poster, iirc, was identical to the beautiful AMOLAD re-release 4-color poster that featured David and Kim cheek-to-cheek w/the stairway in the background. I had always thought this was a new piece of artwork designed for the re-release, but apparently it was not, as this looked nearly identical. Hanging on the opposite wall from this poster in a glass-enclosed case was David Niven's original flight jacket and goggles from AMOLAD, a gift to Martin for his restoration efforts. Needless to say, I was totally blown away and pretty much overwhelmed by all that I was shown.

- Thelma mentioned several things of interest: The CB DVD is indeed on the way, and she has loaned several of the publicity stills for it. A DVD of EOTW is in the works, and there are plans to perhaps have Daniel Day-Lewis read excerpts from MP's "200,000 Feet" as a part of it. She said she recently saw the restored Milestone print of EOTW, and that it was excellent, leaving the audience in a state of hushed amazement. Work on GANGS is nearly complete, w/opening date set for on or near Christmas Day. The final step is to perform, record, and mix the soundtrack, scheduled for the next few weeks. The horror stories about working w/Harvey Weinstein are definitely true. She and Mr. Scorsese are set to begin filming the Howard Hughes biopic w/Leo in the first quarter of next year in California. There is talk of MOMA doing a major Powell retrospective in 2005, the centennial year of his birth.

- On Saturday I saw AMOLAD twice. This apparently was the c. 1980 restored print by Columbia Pictures, as it opened w/the statue of Columbia, followed by the credit "Martin Scorsese Presents" in script. The condition of the print was a bit tired and scratchy (visually) in parts, probably the poorest quality print of all the films that I saw. The soundtrack quality, however, was excellent, and even though the print was not super, the richness of the colors and the details that were so much clearer on the big screen were the best of the three color films I saw. The library near the ping-pong table area was particularly rich, vivid and clear. And of course the greatest thrill was being able to carefully watch the "walking through the operating room doorway" effect twice! That is so amazing!

- On a beautiful, wet Sunday afternoon, I had the chance to watch ACT twice. As I watched it, I kept asking myself how different it would have been if MP's original choice for Culpepper, Roger Livesey, had decided to take the role. I wondered how his warm, distinctive voice and demeanor would have made a difference in how the Culpepper character was perceived by the WWII British audience. My suspicion is that it would have greatly increased the audience's understanding of and tolerance for his cruel behavior and its justification. When compared to what Roger Livesey's Culpepper might have been, Eric Portman's persona and tone elicits a much more distant, unapproachable and therefore less tolerant response from a movie audience. This is not, of course, to take anything away from Portman's performance, which was exceptional, and it never fails to move me when his voice quivers as he says, "You can almost hear the horses' hooves..." It's just a bit fun to speculate on "what-if."

- At the ACT screening at 5:30, Thelma introduced John Sweet, who said a few introductory words before the screening. The print was exceptional, as noted by both myself and Thelma, and the audience (nearly full, approx. 200 people) seemed to enjoy it very much. When the scenes were shown of the bombed-out parts of Canterbury, it seemed to particularly hit home w/the New Yorkers in light of 9/11. (I had made a visit to Ground Zero on Friday, and it hit home w/me as well.) After the screening, Thelma and John sat in chairs in the small stage in front of the screen and took questions from the audience for about 45 minutes. One of the questions was whether or not those were actual scenes of the bombed out areas of Canterbury, which Thelma said they in fact were. Mr. Sweet had some very interesting comments to make, such as "Michael Powell was often disappointed in me." He then repeated the story he had shared on the BBC radio broadcast about ACT, when MP asked him, after his scene w/Sheila on the wagon, "Why the sudden mastery?" He said that MP as a director was "an imperious man" who was very clear in his own mind about what he wanted to accomplish. When asked about his career and background, he said there were two categories - actors and behavers (spelling should be 'behavior'?). "Jimmy Stewart was a behaver. I'm a behaver." He mentioned how the audience of the time had a hard time w/the glue man story and his behavior, and he offered his own explanation for "why the glue man?": The story was about 3 young people who get a blessing, and one who does a penance. What could Thomas Culpepper have done that required a penance? What do you do with 3 young people in the way of a plot? They needed something to do, something to solve, and this was the main purpose of the mystery of the glue man. Someone asked about the effect of the film on his career - was there a fan club? He said he received a total of 3 fan letters from 3 lonesome British servicewomen. Someone asked how much he received for his work in ACT and he said the Army rule was that any outside pay must be given to a charity, and that's what he did. When asked, he said he received $2,000 from the film company and that the charity he gave it to was the NAACP. He said that ACT was something of a cult film, and when asked why that was so, he said he thought in part it was because "there's no hurry in this film", an observation that I thought was quite insightful, quite original, and also quite accurate. Afterwards, I asked Mr. Sweet if he had ever seen the documentary "A Pilgrim's Return" or heard the BBC broadcast about ACT. He said he hadn't, and I then presented him w/copies of both that I had made for him. (Thanks to Steve, for making that documentary available to us all.) He signed my Paul Tritton book, "Sgt. John Sweet."

On Labor Day morning, I had to wake up at 2:30am in order to catch a 6:00am return flight home, so that I could be present for the 10:30 am baptism of my great-niece. I've been enjoying the afterglow of my NY experiences ever since, with fond and unforgettable memories that only grow stronger w/each passing day.

Best wishes to Steve, and any other fortunate souls, who may be headed for Spain in the next few days.

- Malcolm

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See for a report of the event.

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