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 Archer at eighty
British director Michael Powell
Profiles section in
Cinema Papers (Australia) July 1986
Michael Powell's critical star has been enjoying a healthy rise in the last ten to fifteen years, as the grip of realism and moralistic cinema has finally loosened in Britain, to be replaced by something more playful and imaginative. Ten years ago, the quirky, sometimes fantastic films of the Powell and Pressburger team were still being dismissed by mainstream critics as too frivolous.
But, as TV's sponge-like soaking up of 'true stories' continues, a space is being cleared for visions in the cinema. It would be about time for Michael Powell who said in 1968: "I distrust documentary. I have no interest in what people tell me is the truth. How do I know it is the truth?" And, to those critics who disliked his use of caricatures and fantasy, accusing him of showy surrealism, he responded: "All films are surrealist, because they're something that looks like the real world but isn't."
Powell was part of the 'British presence' at Cannes this year - though, in an era of simultaneous British national pride and xenophobic whining about American colonization, Powell, who doesn't have a bad word to say for the Americans, points out that "God didn't create the British film industry".
In any case, Michael Powell isn't in Cannes with a new film. All the many eagerly reported plans since the two Australian features They're a Weird Mob (1966) and Age of Consent (1969), have come to nothing except a credit as 'Western version supervisor' on the forgettable Anglo-Russian biopic, Pavlova. Instead, he is there accompanying an old favourite: as part of British Film Year's final fling, the festival is screening Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and presenting them with a special award.
The Michael Powell rehabilitation machine has been running ever smoother since the mid-seventies when American directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola repaid their childhood debts of gratitude from TV matinees. Scorsese financed a 1979 American re-issue of Peeping Tom (1960). And, in 1982, Coppola invited Powell to be 'senior director in residence' at his ill fated Zoetrope Studios. There, Powell "pottered around", but didn't make the hoped-for feature. He is, however, still intent on making movies, and currently talks about making a silent horror comedy.
There was an example of Powell's mixture of modesty, shrewdness and charm when, at a London lecture to celebrate the relaunch of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Powell and Pressburger together presented their adoring fan, Martin Scorsese, with a signed copy of the script for The Red Shoes (1948). Then, as Scorsese wriggled, Powell told the audience how the younger director made him watch Taxi Driver and kept eagerly asking "Did you spot the quote?". And Powell had to keep saying "No". Robert de Niro gave Powell an air rifle for his 80th birthday so that he could shoot the squirrels that plague his Gloucestershire home. De Niro, according to Scorsese, watched Blimp over and over again, to prepare himself for the ageing process in Raging Bull.
The thirteen films Powell made with former Hungarian journalist Emeric Pressburger - some during the war, when Pressburger was classified as an 'enemy alien' - are credited as "Written, produced and directed by" the two of them, leaving a permanent puzzle for those fed on auteur theory. But, as Michael Powell snappishly asserts: "Anyone who thinks they can make films alone needs their head examined".
In his time - he has been working in movies since he was eighteen, one of his first jobs being as stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's 1928 film, Champagne - Powell has broken most of the expected norms of autorship. Although his films, with or without Pressburger, often share cast and crew credits, no two are alike. "I'm difficult to categorize," he says, "I never want to make the same sort of subject twice." So his films range from the early, quota-quickie thrillers to regional romances, from big-budget ballets to sly wartime propaganda, from benign and fantastic fairytales to darker explorations of people's fantasies, which question the very nature of cinema.
It was that 'morbid' element in Peeping Tom (made without Pressburger) that stopped Powell's film-making career for a long time and, in terms of major features, possibly for ever. The critical scandal surrounding the film's sympathetic portrayal of a disturbed young photographer/filmmaker who kills people while they watch themselves die in a mirror on the front of his camera, has become something of a myth now, with various still-working critics cringing when their horrified condemnations are dragged out again.
But certainly, in what Peeping Tom implied about the voyeurism of cinema, and the capacity of the director/spectator for evil, it severely damaged Powell's cuddly, elder statesman image. "I didn't understand the fuss, either then or now," he says. "First, it was treated as a piece of pornography, then as a great work of art. I don't think it is either. I never understood why it shocked so many people. maybe it's because the British lead such sheltered lives."
Today, he is more than a little tired of the subject, and doesn't take at all kindly to the suggestion that it might be autobiographical - after all, Leo Marks wrote it. But he's still wary about naming names. "After I made Peeping Tom, I seemed to have made one or two enemies who were important people. And I found I could no longer make films." Very calm.
Yet, if you look at the impassioned statement he made during a 1968 interview with Kevin Gough-Yates, the sense of waste he must feel can be guessed at: "I chose the cinema when I was very young, sixteen years old, and from then on my memories virtually coincide with the history of cinema. I have worked actively in cinema for the last 40 years, and I live equally for the future, since I am profoundly dissatisfied with what has been done so far... I am not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema. I have grown up with and through the camera."
In the past year in Britain, more and more of Powell and Pressburger's work has been held up for wider viewing than that afforded by dark corners of repertory cinemas and chopped-up afternoon TV schedules. The creative work of 'The Archers', their nom décran, has been removed, not always without complaint, from the sole care of film buffs and students. The National Film Archive has restored tatty negatives lingering in the vaults; and, in the case of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, pieced together the original version, which was cut shortly after its release in 1943.
Churchill was not amused by its wry portrayal of the British army as gallant old duffers, nor by its 'good German'. The film had originally been commissioned by the Ministry of Information, but, when Churchill saw the script, he tried to have it stopped and withdrew all help on it.
Colonel Blimp was a success as a cause célèbre, but a shortage of the materials needed to make Technicolor prints, and the refusal to grant it an export licence, made it a victim of the scissors. The relaunch in London last year was a critical and financial success for the British Film Institute who hyped it heavily on the political contretemps.
Now, Powell enjoys telling the story of Churchillian censorship, but he wasn't so happy at the time. "After seeing the script, we were told: 'The Old Man doesn't like it', We said: 'So what?' And they said: 'We can't tell you to stop it because this is a democracy, but you'll never get a knighthood!'" They still haven't, remaining plain Mr Powell and Mr Pressburger. Tories have elephantine memories.