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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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Twin Cities Reader, MN, June 11-17 1981

Enchanter in Residence
By Brad Roberts

    Vladimir Nabakov was speaking of writers in the following quote, but it applies equally to filmmakers:

    "There are three points of view from which a [filmmaker] can be considered: He may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major [filmmaker] combines these three - storyteller, teacher, enchanter - but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major [filmmaker]."

    Michael Powell is predominantly an enchanter, a sensitive gentleman poet of formidable technical skills who uses them without apparent effort to delight, to inform, to enchant. As director of two personal favourites, The Thief of Bagdad and A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), Powell seamlessly integrated complex effects with charming and fantastic stories to yield sublimely balanced entertainments.

    In a recent phone interview regarding his career and upcoming appearance at the Walker (June 19 and 20) as part of their month long retrospective, Powell spoke of magic, the current state of filmmaking and his current project, The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, whose Lathe of Heaven recently was produced by PBS.

    "The first book [in the trilogy] was about a young wizard with great powers and the second book was about a young priestess who's caught in an old, moth eaten cult and they have to save each other. [Ms. LeGuin] agreed to combine the two books and we're very pleased with the result. We've just finished the final revision of it. And I hope the magic will spring out of the earth without any trouble."

    I mentioned that there are scores of films now incorporating vast quantities of effects and Powell gently interjected, "And you feel the effort. I could name one or two recently ... I might, but I won't. I think it's important if you're going to make a big, magical sort of picture, there shouldn't be any effort about it.

    That aptly describes A Matter of Life and Death, one of Powell's personal favourites, wherein David Niven plays a bomber pilot who should have died when his plane crashed, but thanks to a fog, couldn't be found by the messenger sent to fetch him. By the time he is found, he's fallen in love with Kim Hunter, an American girl, and she with him. This creates problems which lead to a trial in heaven where the primary piece of evidence is one of Kim's tears, brought to the courtroom in a rose.

    "You know why it's my favourite, of course? It's a lovely, fantastic idea treated realistically and all the tricks come off very easily. There's no apparent effort, is there? That's why I like it ... It's a big picture apparently made by a turn of the wrist."

    A lesson George Lucas took to heart in shaping Star Wars. There is a "you're-one-of-us" camaraderie between Powell and the young directors Lucas, Scorsese and Coppola. An obvious question is whether Powell is excited by the kind of toys Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic has to play with: computerized camera systems, multiple headed optical printers and so on.

    "It really doesn't make, for real magic, a hell of a lot of difference. When you're dealing with outer space, where there is no scale, then I agree with George Lucas, everything is in the timing and the speed. I mean, when he showed me the trick shots for Empire Strikes Back, I think there were about 250 of them and some of them were only 10 frames. But in that 10 frames, the most immense movements happened. And of course he established in a way a sort of invisible scale in space which nobody has ever done before. But in a story like The Earthsea Trilogy, you're dealing with the real earth, the real sea, and the real sky and you're dealing with real falcons, and real eagles. Natural magic, really, and there I think I can do almost as much by just a straight cut as George does with his wonderful computerized movement. I think George uses it brilliantly and I'm sure he'll keep a pretty firm control on it ... But of course it is a plaything that once you've invented it you have to be careful it doesn't play with you [laughter]. Am I right?"

    Powell's work is characterized by a highly theatrical flair. There is no question that we're watching a film. But, like any enchanter worth his robes, Powell is also confident - sure that we are prepared to enjoy watching his work as much as he enjoyed doing it. Sure that we are willing to suspend our disbelief and relax into the world he is creating.

    A recurring theme in Powell's conversation is the near limitless power possessed by film and those who know how to work with it. That happens to be a belief I share, yet lately one does not so much enter most big budget films as be assaulted by them. The concept of being inside or outside of the picture would probably be lost on the producers of these amusement park rides masquerading as films."

    "Well, the trouble is, the Americans have established the idea of making a film by argument and films are made by harmony. All these smart aleck think 'Oh, we'll have two people who don't agree and between them they'll produce something wonderful.' I don't agree at all. I like to have harmony amongst everybody and agreement ... then you can do anything. Pass that on to Reagan."

    Powell won't name the lemons he's seen, but he will name the films he's enjoyed, such as Thief and Excalibur.
[John Boorman's "Excalibur (1981)"]

    "I thought Excalibur was very showy. Everybody will enjoy it. It's a bit too showy, that's all, for my taste. I think from an audience point of view, it's terrific. Not a film I'd like to miss. Of course, to a Briton ... the Arthur legend is pretty old hat [laughter]. That's why I'm so fascinated with the chance of a completely new world to be discovered."

    The world of The Earthsea Trilogy. For Trilogy to come together, Powell needs a few more years of unimpaired health - he's less than five years from 80 - and financial backing. It would represent the first major film he's directed in over 20 years and would likely be done through Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios where Powell is Senior Director in Residence.

    Why the 20 years hiatus? In 1960 Powell directed Peeping Tom, a highly personal film, perhaps too personal for the times and perhaps too close to where most critics live, which was so savagely attacked by the British critics that the film was barely seen in Britain and, in its original form, only since 1979 in the United States. Peeping Tom is a study of the invasion of privacy represented by film and an examination of a man who relates only through imagery.

    The "peeping Tom" is Carl Boehm, a young camaraman who spends his free time killing young women while photographing them watching their own terrified faces. Critics found the watching movies/rape/killing equation too strong. I suspect, because it made explicit something they would rather not think about. After all, if your livelihood consisted of spending hours emotionally responding to colored shadows, contemplating those experiences in print and taking home with you God knows what, might it not be a little too frightening to have someone intimately familiar with and in control of the film medium examine all that?

    "I certainly didn't think ... and this is probably the only mistake I made ... I didn't think of the audience at all when I was making [Peeping Tom]. I thought only of the young man and myself. I had immense sympathy for the young man and compassion. Probably my mistake was ... [Powell's voice trails off] I don't know if it was a mistake or not."

    All of that is past and Powell is a man who looks forward, confident that anything is possible. It would be only fitting that he have the opportunity to enchant us once again.

.     .     .    

    Michael Powell, joined by the British film historian William K. Everson, will introduce two of his most well-known films as part of the Walker Art Center's month long retrospective of his work. On Friday, June 19, it's The Red Shoes, the ballet film which Powell considers a highly professional piece and which is the film most commonly associated with him and his long time collaborator, Emeric Pressburger. On Sunday, June 20, it's Black Narcissus, the story of how the chilling solitude of the Himalayas unhinges a group of nuns attempting to establish a school and hospital.

Very nice, did Micky miss any opportunity to plug The Earthsea Trilogy? :)

Historical footnote:
The Earthsea Trilogy never did get made apart from as a part of a student project on the course he ran at Dartmouth College.