13 December 2009

Michael Powell

Sole Man: Léonide Massine as the Shoemaker

A new production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann at the Metropolitan Opera and a screening at Film Forum of The Red Shoes evoke memories of Michael Powell, the British filmmaker (1905–90). When I met him, in 1980, his film adaptation of Hoffmann provoked me to inquire how on earth he could adapt this work without including its keystone: the revelation that Nicklausse is not merely the poet’s sidekick but also his Muse, and complicit in the sorrows heaped upon Hoffmann because she wants him (and the treasure of his art) for herself. Wannabe writers, like me, love this opera precisely because of that revelation: sure, we may be losers, but it’s worth it. Lose that theme, and all you have left is a grab bag of pointless fantastical anecdotes — and I said so to Powell.

He surprised me by instantly agreeing with me: of his collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, Powell said, “Emeric never understood that part, and he had the tendency to cut anything he didn’t understand. I probably should have stood up to him. At least I was able to keep Nicklausse’s little aria about the rooster.”

In the years since, I’ve wondered whether Powell meant what he said. It’s possible, however, that his apparent candor was merely a feint to deflect a whippersnapper who knew nothing about moviemaking and only a little about opera. At this point in Powell’s career, no longer forgotten but no longer making films, either, he toured college campuses to offer lectures and screenings, which is in fact what he was doing at the Brown Film Society when we met. Surely I wasn’t the first punk he’d run into. He must have developed keen survival skills — in this as in many other areas of his remarkable career.

Powell (foreground, far right) at work

I’d seen very few of Powell’s films, and prior to his visit to Providence, only The Red Shoes. That weekend in 1980, I saw Hoffmann and A Matter of Life and Death, as well. These films — wonderful as they are — couldn’t provide an adequate foundation for me to discuss Powell’s work intelligently, or to take much profit or advantage at all of the opportunity to meet an artist whose work I’ve grown to admire tremendously. It’s true that, even now, having seen many of his films, I’m not sure I have many questions — but I no longer have the opportunity to ask them of him.

To have seen only a few of his Technicolor extravaganzas is to risk misunderstanding him. If all you know is The Red Shoes and Hoffmann, you will (forgivably) think Powell a flamboyant showman. Digging deeper, however, we see an artist who matched an exacting pictorial imagination to (usually) the simplest storytelling means. What he leaves out of a story can be as compelling as what he lavishes on the screen: in Black Narcissus, for example, the serene face of Deborah Kerr (his muse and sometime mistress) conceals a roiling emotional subtext. A Canterbury Tale, in black-and-white, is really a shaggy dog story that derives a great deal of its suspense from a wartime backdrop: you constantly think something will happen much worse than what actually does.

The Dance of the Red Shoes: Robert Helpmann & Moira Shearer

While The 49th Parallel, in black-and-white, is a blatantly propagandistic appeal to Canadians to support the British effort in World War II (by hammering home the idea that, yes, this is Canada’s war, too), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, in glorious Technicolor, brings poignant melancholy to the fore. This war isn’t like its predecessors, Blimp realizes, and the kinds of border-blind friendship he once enjoyed with a German officer are no longer possible. (I discussed Blimp at length, here.)

Both The Red Shoes and Hoffmann, for all their riotous excess, are serious considerations of the life of the artist, and the very big, very simple question of what is sacrificed in love and happiness in the here-and-now, in exchange for immortality. But Powell pushes the questions of art and sacrifice even further in Peeping Tom, a thriller in which a photographer captures the facial expressions of his attractive female models at the exact moment of death. The film generated so much scandal that it effectively ended Powell’s career; at the time, critics compared it unfavorably to Psycho, by Powell’s friend Alfred Hitchcock. However, coming to Peeping Tom so long after it was made, I saw it as a challenge to Hitchcock — one that Hitch would attempt and fail to answer, in Frenzy, a few years later.

As Lermontov, the great Anton Walbrook,
who appeared in many Powell–Pressburger films.

Powell was rescued from penury and obscurity by the interest of devoted fans, notably Martin Scorsese. Maybe that’s why Powell showed so much patience with me, another, younger fan, who dared to question an oeuvre I but hardly glimpsed and did not understand at all.

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