Back on Earth - as it might be in Heaven

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE last 30 years, Michael Powell has gone from ostracism to apotheosis, from rejection as a pornographer (the first critical consensus on his 1960

masterpiece Peeping Tom) to celebration as patron saint of cinematic daring, whimsy and high camp. This month offers an opportunity for reassessment with a season of 14 of Powell's finest films, all from his collaboration with the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, at the Barbican, and the re-release of Peeping Tom, the film he blamed for ending his career - he directed one other in 1961, and then nothing before his death, aged 84, in 1990.

The centrepiece of the season is A Matter of Life and Death, Powell's 1946 tale of an English airman (David Niven) falling in love (with Kim Hunter, by wireless) and out of the skies at the same time. The film has rarely been seen since the 1980s, when an American studio optioned a re-make with John Travolta. The mind boggles: this is not the sort of film Hollywood goes in for these days. It has two settings: Heaven (pearly monochrome), where they are waiting for Niven, and Earth (gorgeous Technicolor), where a celestial Conductor seeks to persuade Niven to follow him to his fate. The Conductor scenes happen in space but not time, so when Niven talks to him the action freezes - a table-tennis match is suspended in mid-point. The climax is a battle in the court of Heaven for Niven's soul.

The trial turns into a debate on national differences and a timely plea for conciliation. This forensic tour de force reminds us of the key contribution of Pressburger to the Archers' cinema (their films open with arrows thudding into a target). He provided solid structures and metaphysical wit. And if the Archers understood England better than any other film-makers, it may be because they looked at it through Emeric's sceptical- amused Hungarian eyes. His love of verbal plays is similar to that of the Czech-born Tom Stoppard. When the Conductor, who died in the French Revolution, is asked whether it was a natural death, he confesses: 'I lost my head.'

But Powell's greatest film was made without Pressburger. Peeping Tom is the story of a shy young man, tortured as a child by his father's experiments into fear, who films women as he murders them, confronting them with their own terror. Paul Schrader has written: 'Every pale, overweight, lonely film student who has spent hours in dark rooms watching old movies cannot help but identify with this film.' That is too complacent: the film touches us all, not just cineastes. It is about the indifference in watching, and how film destroys feeling. Having fallen in love, the young man begs his beloved not to let him film her: 'Whatever I photograph I always lose.' The words are reminiscent of Kafka: 'We take photographs to forget.'

Peeping Tom can be read as Powell's renunciation of cinema. Yet sourness was not his style. He gloried in art: Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes mix music, dance and gaudy sets to resemble pure joy stamped on celluloid. And he relished the perverse: erotic nuns in Black Narcissus, human Germans in 49th Parallel, and an attack on etiquette rather than the enemy in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which had Churchill seeking a ban. Above all Powell was a romantic: rhapsodising England and true love in A Canterbury Tale, forever mocking with mysticism anyone saying I Know Where I'm Going. He was our cinema's Prospero. Take this opportunity to explore his

enchanted isle.

'The Films of Powell & Pressburger': Barbican, 071-638 8891, to 22 Sept. 'Peeping Tom' opens on Fri: see Review, page 58.