The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

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OCT 2010 Issue
Film DVD Culture

Color As Emotion, Emotion As Color

“For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies.”

—Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian (The Archers)

And the abyss looks back...Deborah Kerr in <i>Black Narcissus</i>.
And the abyss looks back...Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus.

Black Narcissus
(Criterion Collection)

The Red Shoes
(Criterion Collection)

I Know Where I’m Going
(Criterion Collection)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced films under the aegis of their production company, The Archers. Powell, born in Canterbury, England in 1905, shot stills for English silent film director, Rex Ingram—whom audiences know as the terrifying and vastly self-amused genie in Thief of Bagdad, on which Powell was one of six directors. Powell co-wrote England’s first talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail and, as did so many key American directors in the early 1970s, learned his craft directing low-budget quickies and B movies. These gained him the attention of Alexander Korda (another of Thief of Bagdad’s co-directors), who introduced him to Emeric Pressburger.

Pressburger, a Hungarian refugee escaping the Nazis, provided the compassion for human frailty that Powell seemed born without. Pressburger, who lost everything when he fled Hungary, possessed the outsider perspective that Powell, as an upper-class Englishmen, had trouble understanding. They forged a singular, enduring collaboration. According to film historian William K. Everson: “They proved to be one of those fortuitous combinations (Ford and Wayne, Astaire and Rogers, Laurel and Hardy) where the chemistry was felicitous in every degree. Powell’s delight in technique was given substance by Pressburger’s writing; and that sometimes gentle and subdued writing was given flamboyant release and emphasis in Powell’s direction.” And if Everson’s prose style seems somewhat 19th century, that suits the Archers, too. “Felicitous” is the word, indeed. It suggests the well-educated, light spirit (combined with a heavy heart) that marks the Archers’ films.

The Archers’ distinctive combination of literate, European, sophisticated perversity and lyrical flowing narrative place them in no school but their own. Purveyors of fantasy with an undertone of ever-looming mortality and Faustian bargains to be upheld—The Red Shoes—or chroniclers of barely concealed eroticism and psychological symbolism—Black Narcissus—Powell and Pressburger were structuralists par excellence. Nobody in cinema history—like, nobody—understood how to utilize color to underscore the emotions of a shot, a scene, or a sequence as did the Archers. And their films reward repeat viewing more than any other directors’s. In some viewings the plot holds the foreground, and you marvel at the classical, interlocking determination of the characters to unearth their fates, for good or naught. Other times the color palette and illustrative editing holds sway, and the story recedes as you bask in the magic and skill of the technique. Black Narcissus is my single favorite film, and one of the best films ever, period.

Black Narcissus. ">
"No, I don't give two shits. Why do you ask?" David Farrar in Black Narcissus.

The Archers’s subject matter remains constant: the seduction of self-delusion, our interior confusions and the serpentine routes they follow to expression, the sweet sadness of romance, the difficulty of distinguishing between reality and fantasy, the enduring values and horrors of class identity, and our pointless rigidity in the face of our own stupidity/arrogance/vanity/desire/ambition/need for absolution and terror of adult responsibility. Wait—did I mention the seduction of self-delusion?

The distinguishing characteristic of the many disparate Archer scripts is the subtlety with which they present their sub-textual concerns. For the team, “story” serves only as the medium for their thematic ideas. Those ideas—always complex, sometimes paradoxically self-contradictory—lurk within the “action,” comment upon it, and never interfere with the “plot.” Plots and subtexts so intertwine and inform one another that the usual separations hardly apply. Often, plot and subtext are experienced as the Archers intended, as pure emotion. While in the moment, the power of that emotion overwhelms and obviates all that rational analysis nonsense, which only seems useful while thinking about the picture afterward, never while watching and immersed. Black Narcissus could be takenas a tale of nuns battling the elements and one another (as the mass audience did) or as a perverse classic about longing that happens to feature nuns: A treatise on the erotic power of memory and the tragedy of wasted love. Likewise, The Red Shoes can be a sentimental ballet story, or an in-depth analysis of the power wars between men and women, the desperate measures men will go to in pursuit of inspiration, and, guess what, the tragedy of wasted love.

Something’s always lurking beneath the spoken word. The Archers’s dialogue is not quite naturalist yet not quite theatrical, the delivery lightning-quick, the diction always precise and the pacing usually rapid. The Archers favor a traditional three-act structure with a climax and a dénouement. The formalism of their structure makes the weirdness seeping through—like the memory of a dream seeping through the whole day following—all the more compelling. And, always, everything—emotion, plot movement, character-building detail, dialogue—is polished and understated to the point of invisibility.

Moira Shearer discovers the meaning of life in <i>The Red Shoes</i>.
Moira Shearer discovers the meaning of life in The Red Shoes.

The ravishing restored prints of both Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes that Film Forum showcased have found their proper home in the mind-blowing new DVDs released by the Criterion Collection. Given that The Red Shoes devolves into fantasy from time to time, the rich presentation of those 1948 three-strip Technicolor colors—colors that no cinematographic method has yet matched—prove even more crucial. The Archers’ understanding of the potential of Technicolor as a narrative tool, and their use of color to illuminate narrative or psychological aspects, is unparalleled. The Archers were the greatest directors of Technicolor in the history of cinema, surpassing Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk. While the extras are—as to be expected from Criterion—classy, literate, amusing, and illuminating (just listen to Scorsese chat with Powell on the commentary track of Black Narcissus), the real worth here is the care Criterion lavished on the color reproduction, on the range of the palette, on the key separations of tones of the same color, of the Archers’s unceasing conflict between darkness and light. Play these on the biggest screen you can find.

The Red Shoes is an adult, cosmopolitan essay on the obsession that art requires and on the hypocritical battles in which men engage to possess the muse. The fantasy ballet sequence that marks the climax of the film, done with 1948 special effects requiring backbreaking, painstaking, repetitive efforts, is a masterpiece of pure cinema; a childlike, hallucinatory, nightmarish, Jungian, Freudian, Surreal/Symbolic, hypnotizing sequence that could be duplicated, in its multiplicity of messages and emotions, in no other medium. Amazingly, the passage of time notwithstanding, (The Red Shoes is 62 years old!) it also remains an effective ballet sequence. Shots and sets flow into one another with the seamlessness of a dream, with every image gleaming like a jewel, as impenetrable as the psyche that created it. The emotional power of the Archers’s films, and the clarity with which they draw their characters, only partially explain how this work remains modern no matter how long ago it was made.

A while back, Criterion also released the Archers’s I Know Where I’m Going—a deceptively simple, cosmopolitan adult love story of great charm, told in easy-going B/W, with no hidden messages save the clear happiness of a melancholy spirit (Powell) working on a thoroughly pleasant tale. Wendy Hiller is engaged to a loathsome businessman (who never appears onscreen). While waiting for him on a lovely Scottish isle, she falls, against her pragmatic judgment, for the local impoverished Scots lord. The relentless optimism, typical of a British World War II cheer-up movie, never detracts from the fully formed characters. The Archers’s sense of humor, and Powell’s great love for his native Western Isles, is clear throughout: The most literate love comedy of the period, still wonderful and among the most credible love stories on film.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

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