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Submitted by Andrew Kemp

Sunday 11 October 1992

Prospero at play
Peter Conrad
by Michael Powell
Heinemann £20

Michael Powell: 'A happy child of 80'.
Photograph by Sue Adler.
'I AM CINEMA', declares Michael Powell in this second volume of his memoirs. For all its prophetic certainty, the remark can hardly be called conceited. Powell personified the art he practised: its rampant illusionism, its liberation of visual fantasy. As he notes, he and the film business were contemporaries - 'in 1985 we both celebrated our eightieth birthday - although by the time Powell died in 1990 the cinema might be said to have predeceased him. Powell's career in England had been terminated by his scoptophile thriller Peeping Tom. He lived long enough to see his reputation restored by the advocacy of Martie Scorsese, but there was no saving the cinema, which in Hollywood had become a production line generating junk for consumption by gum-chewing teens.

Powell speaks of himself, with a hieratic dottiness, as 'a high priest of the mysteries'. He was indeed the cinema's Prospero, a conjurer of marvels made from light - the painted abysses of Black Narcissus, the expressionist binge of The Small Back Room, the camera obscura in A Matter of Life and Death. In chapel at school, Powell spent his time meditating 'on my favourite miracle, the parting of the Red Sea'. Such divine magic became the stuff of his dreamy art: he floods a theatre with crashing waves during the ballet in The Red Shoes, and photographs the incoming tide at Mont St Michel in The Elusive Pimpernel as if this were the cinematic version of Genesis.

Powell's fusion of spirituality and sensuality - summed up in Black Narcissus when the nymphomaniac nun paints her mouth an scorching red - unsettlingly exposes the perversity of cinema, whose projected fantasies are both a vision and an orgy. Everything in his work leads towards the flagrant confession of Peeping Tom, where a killer films the agonies of his female victims and enjoys a solitary consummation as he screens the rushes. Powell felt no guilt about such sacrifices: both The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann decree that 'art was for art's sake, something to die for'. Or, as Powell puts it after he moved to New York in the 1980s, married Scorsese's young editor, and began to eavesdrop on jive talk, 'all art is one, man, one'.

Such aestheticism, both lofty and libertinish, was anathema to the profiteers who control the industry, and the new volume, beginning in 1945, reveals Powell being financially duped by Korda, snubbed by Goldwyn, and hobbled by the bureaucrats of the Rank Organisation. The times, as well, had turned against his unabashed romanticism. On a trip to the Elstree studios at Borehamwood, Powell - who in A Canterbury Tale or Gone to Earth is one of the great poetic celebrants of 'the old England' and its haunted landscape - has a preview of the new England with its grim and its kitchen sinks: 'There is no wood at Boreham Wood, but there is plenty of Boreham.'

He goes on to amass a heart-breaking catalogue of unmade films: a biography of Richard Strauss; an epic about the chemist Richard Weizmann and his invention of Israel; a version of Ondine in which the nymph would disport herself on the contemporary Riviera; an anthology of short films, collectively entitled Powell's Tales in which his collaborators were to include Stravinsky, Dylan Thomas and Kurosawa; most lamentably of all, a Tempest in which he intended to cast James Mason and Mia Farrow. There are other teasing losses: Powell was offered the T. E. Lawrence story before David Lean, and attempted to raise funds for Picnic at Hanging Rock a decade in advance of Peter Weir.

Powell squanders little energy on bitterness or regret. In 1952 he visited Matisse, aged 80 and bedridden but absorbed in cutting out oblongs of paper which were pinned on the walls by adoring female helpers. 'How happy a man is,' Powell reflected; writing his book 30 years later, he too is a 'happy child of 80'.

The book itself - frisky, unihibited and joyous - is some substitute for those unmade films, because it reveals their source in Powell's larky, crazily lyrical temperament. As he says, 'There is a vein of poetry and fantasy in the English which sometimes in a man is never known beyond his family circle'.

That capricious delight surfaces here in Powell's rhapsodies about his cocker spaniel (on whose behalf he composes amorous epistles to a neighbouring bitch) and his gleaming Bentley. It is present in the testimony of his nerves when he reads Hemingway ('a shudder of ecstasy passed down my spine and into my balls'), and in a lip-smacking aside about countesses. Ageing, Powell rejuvenates himself with a series of erotic frolics which are written up in the most lush Technicolour: one of these is with a young Spaniard who 'had never known a man... Suddenly I said, I almost shouted "Now!", and she opened everything. We made love until the sun shone through the curtains.

The glee with which Powell reviews his life means that Million Dollar Movie ambles at leisure and at length. There is time for favourite recipes, for gossipy snapshots (Nureyev is seen at a restaurant in Sydney with Erik Bruhn: 'It was like watching an eagle mater with a pigeon. Nureyev is really insatiable!'). Digressions proliferate and interbreed. In the course of describing the failed Weizmann project, Powell works through a long reminiscence of childhood church-going, an inventory of the tall ships assembled in New York harbour for the Statue of Liberty's centenary, and a genealogy of his scuffed and much-loved briefcase.

The hops, skips and jumps of his acrobatic memory recall the mazy structure of Tristram Shandy. Like Sterne, Powell treats his book as a conversation with his readers ('Do you know Chesil Bank?' he enquires, or 'Have you ever been late for your wedding? Or for your funeral?'), and like Sterne he is compulsively and garrulously writing - or rather dictating - in order to postpone arrival at the end: 'Let's go back to the beginning. My life isn't over yet. How shall I start... how shall I end... ah, indeed, how shall I end?' He asks us, when we join him in the empyrean Odeon, to tell him how he died, since he trusts he'll know nothing about it.

Also like Sterne, Powell ventilates his text with a blank page, on which he invites us to inscribe the names of the film-makers we most admire. Suppressing twinges of loyalty to Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford, I was about to write MICHAEL POWELL in the empty space, using coloured pencils. Then I thought better of it: I intend to take the book with me and to ask him, after a little speech of burbling gratitude, for his autograph.

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