BOOK REVIEW / The good but not the great

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The Independent Culture
TWO years after his death, Michael Powell's reputation has almost risen to meet his own estimation of his achievement. In this second volume of autobiography, he records his astonishment in the late Seventies at finding himself described, in a borrowed copy of David Thompson's Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, as the British director with the greatest number of 'worthwhile films to his credit', despite his continuing neglect by the critics. He quotes almost the entire entry, and concludes: 'I had taken myself at the world's valuation for so long that any praise tended to bring tears to my eyes . . . Here was the opinion of a real scholar . . . What he said about me, I knew was true . . . ' Almost penniless at the time, he still hurried out to buy his own copy of the book.

The story is characteristic, candid about his unselfconscious vanity, his faith in his own talents and his eagerness that we should share his emotions. This was the low point of his career. He wrote to Thompson, who replied offering to help him if he would like to become artist-in- residence at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. In the following pages, Powell records the death of his friend and lover Pamela Brown. He flies to Australia to appear for Robert Helpmann on This Is Your Life; directs what was effectively to be his last film, Return to the Edge of the World; basks in an NFT retrospective of his work; and becomes involved in a co- production that would result in his first meeting with his future wife. Some 10 pages later, he sets off for Dartmouth.

'As for life, it didn't seem worth living,' he writes, recording his feelings at Brown's funeral. Whether or not you accept his pretence of total recall as far as the rest is concerned, this statement is the hardest to swallow. Not that you doubt his grief - only that the hunger for life, evident in everything that he writes, should have left him, even at this juncture. The appetite is so great that it leaves virtually no room for bitterness at his undoubted mistreatment or regret at his admitted mistakes. It accounts for his worst shortcomings as an autobiographer - his tendency to ramble, his inability to select, his uncritical superlatives, his cocky self-assurance, the Latin quotations, the first-name dropping, even the lunacy of writing some passages of the book as the first-person memoirs of his dog; and it explains why you feel inclined to read and like him, for all his faults.

The first volume, My Life in Movies, took him to the height of his success, in the collaboration with Emeric Pressburger. This one records the quarrel with Rank and the disaster of Peeping Tom. 'Poor Tom': Powell shows no sign of understanding what the critics in 1960 found so distasteful about the film, quoting their reviews at length, then answering with a cheap jibe: 'We the critics say so. Thank god we are not artists, we are critics.' This tunnel vision may have been part (even an indispensable part) of Powell the film-maker, but it is an intellectual shortcoming in the man.

Occasionally, he hints at the less obvious sides of his character, describing himself as the 'executioner' of his wife Frankie, or remarking intriguingly that he and Moira Shearer had 'the most perfect relationship that can be imagined between two creative artists' - one based on 'suspicion and fear'. There is evidence, too, of his less abrasive traits, notably the love of the English countryside that his work depicts so well. In the main, however, the book reveals little: chatty, anecdotal, inclined to sentimentality, it is the reflection of a man nearing the end of a long and busy career, and

a storyteller confident of his power over

the audience.