MICHAEL POWELL FEATURE
chosen medium as the most important thing in the world. yet I’m not writing about the cinema per se. but as an artist and his experiences in his chosen art.’ ln today’s money-grabbing production line that passes for the movies. such attitude might seem a whimsical anachronism. but it is the core on which Powell’s own best work is founded.
Bright-eyed, eager to communicate, the Michael Powell I met certainly belied his years. There was an impish quality there, an irrepressible sense of humour, but also
a certain enthusiastic arrogance which
indicated a more difficult side to his nature as well.
Take Powell and Pressburger’s I948 backstage melodrama The Red Shoes. for instance. which Channel 4 are screening on New Year’s Day. Here’s a film which explodes all the confines of dreary old British realism. a film whose openness in embracing the world of ballet and music gives it an extravagant pulsing joie de vivre. ‘lt was after the war and we wanted to release all the colour that had been shut up for so long.‘ Powell recalled. ‘Emeric had written the scenario as a fairy tale but I thought the way to do it was to cast a dancer in the lead and create an original ballet for her. He went pale at the thought of this because he’s a writer. but if you create such opportunities for the world someone always comes along. That’s how we got Moira Shearer. Lots of people were aghast that we killed her off in the end but I remember saying to Emeric: “'l’hey’ve been telling us for ten years or so that we should be dying for our country. now I want to tell them back that it’s really worth dying for your art”. ’
The moment in the film where Shearer’s ballerina. possessed by the shoes that won’t allow her to stop dancing. swoops in a graceful are right under the wheels of an oncoming train is a moment of high passion not untypical of Powell and Pressburger at their most extraordinary. ln their prime. from the time they met during a story conference for mogul Alexander Korda‘s 1939 espionage thriller The Spy In Blaek. The Archers (as the Powell- Pressburger production outfit came to be known) gave us many such moments. The witty paean to love eternal that is A Matter of Life and Death; the absurd. romantic swirl of glowering landscape. raging whirlpools and Scots idyll to be found in I Know Where I'm Going: the way The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp delineates a nostalgic lost Englishness where fair play is the order of the day and emotions burn brightly beneath the surface; how Tales of Hoffman buzzes with a try-anything adventurousness in its formal technique. Powell on his own was to produce one last masterpiece in Peeping Tom — ‘the story of a young man who kills with his camera’ — a study in the fascination of voyeurism and the cinema as an outlet for our darker aspects of our psyche and a film years ahead of its time (make sure you catch the new print on its current reissue).
During our conversation Powell was keen to pay tribute to the great working partner who was to leave us in 1988, two years before Michael’s own demise. There’s an intimate television profile of Emeric Pressburger by his Scottish grandsons Kevin Macdonald (his biographer) and brother Andrew (producer of the terrific
upcoming thriller Shallow Grave) due to go out on Channel 4 just after The Red Shoes. but for his part Powell described his filmic other half as ‘the kind of mind you immediately fall in love with. I remember near the end of the war when we were waiting for the Technicolor film to come available for A Matter of Life and Death. he came to me and told me he’d always wanted to make a film about a girl trying to get to an island. except when she gets there she doesn’t
‘I know more about the cinema than anyone else because I’m it.’
really want to go anymore. “I don't know why it is she wants to go there.” he said. “but if we shoot the film we’ll find out.” He was a cunning old bastard like that. but I went off and found the island and a week later he had the script finished.
‘I think I would have made a lot of interesting, pictorial and rather dull films without him. I tend to be too serious and he brought a necessary thea’rical twist to the work. Being Hungarian and a Jew like Korda. Emeric had, well. it was
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Mlchael Powell: ‘I am the cinema’
more than a sense of humour, it was a wry attitude to life, a double way of looking at things. It was a combination that worked well for the best part of twenty years.’
The whole maverick strain of British cinema represented by Ken Russell, Derek Jarman, Terence Davies and even Irishman Neil Jordan’s early work certainly embodies the lasting inﬂuence of this ‘double way of looking at things’. The way these artists bring a personal poetry to their developing technical command of the medium is the enduring legacy of the Powell and Pressburger canon. Similarly, Martin Scorsese is an enormous Powell and Pressburger fan and namechecks Powell for the heavy preponderance of red on display through Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. When asked for any word of advice for anyone starting out in the industry. Powell was firm in his reply: ‘Art is art and you can’t sell out on it.’ Words indeed for the young and the vanguard of any other ‘new’ British cinema to carry forward with them. C]
The Red Shoes, 5.30pm, The Making of an Englishman, 8pm, Channel 4, New Year's Day. P’eping Tom, l‘TlHl/HHMY’, lz‘dinlmrgh, Thurs 22—Fri 23 December
The List 16 December 1994—12 January 199511