Sunday, November 25, 2007

Two films by Powell & Pressburger

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: I was surprised to learn that it had troubles with the censors when it was released in England in 1943. The central character was actually based a series of cartoon sketches and it is certainly possible that the tone was satiric and mocking in the cartoons because the film is completely different. It is obvious from the first scene itself that Powell and Pressburger see the central figure with admiration, awe, even reverence and even if they are poking fun it is always done with good humour and a feeling of sadness that the age of Colonel Blimps has passed away for good. The film also features the Austrian born actor Anton Walbrook in the supporting role of a German army officer who is also a very good friend of General Candy. In fact he almost steals the show in one scene in which he gives a speech about Germany between the wars and why he loves England. It is one long unbroken monologue in close-up and it is absolutely mesmerising and very moving. The film was also the debut of Deborah Kerr who died recently. She plays three different roles and is great as well.

The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer plays a ballerina who gets to dance in a ballet adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Red Shoes about a girl who can't stop dancing after wearing her red shoes as if the shoes have taken over her life. After performing in The Red Shoes ballet her life begins to imitate the story as she is asked to choose between life and art. Anton Walbrook is fantastic here too as the impresario of the Ballet company who is contemptuous of people who trade art for "doubtful comforts of human love" and thinks that in the end "life is important." The film contains a long ballet sequence which gets a little too far in trying to be inventive but it is still mesmerising in the way it captures the subjective experience of the dancer herself. So in the end we are not looking at the dancer from the outside but actually seeing through her. The only complaint I had with the film was that the film devotes more time and attention to the Anton Walbrook character and less to the dancer herself, specially in the last act which felt a bit hurried, specially in the context of the ending (which I must say took me by surprise, I was expecting another cliched airport/train station ending scene that filmmakers all over the world are so fond of).

9 comments:

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

I haven't seen the film but I used to work in a museum where the red shoes Moira Shearer wore in the movie were on display.

Here's a picture as I remember them!

Alok said...

nice, even though it doesn't look quite as red as the name would lead one to believe.

Red Shoes memorabilia it seems is quite a collector's item. On the dvd of the film Martin Scorsese shows quite of few of his - posters, stills and props from the film.

Cheshire Cat said...

Powell is a genius, one of my favorite filmmakers. I haven't seen "Colonel Blimp" but I can vouch for "The Canterbury Tales" and "I Know Where I'm Going", among others. His brand of whimsy is so much more tolerable than Wes Anderson's.

Alok said...

I will see if I can find these two. Colonel Blimp and Red Shoes both had moments of pure whimsy too, in fact quite delightful, even moving.

Puccinio said...

It seems odd that more and more you pick out some of my very favourite films...Indeed films which taught me that life was something grander and more mysterious than I knew.

However Powell-Pressburger weren't wholesale worshippers of Clive Wynne-Candy as likable as he is and as magnificently played by the dashing Roger Livesey(it's among the top 5 performances by a Male Actor in Cinema History).

The reason the film was controversial with the higher-ups was that it subverted a propaganda story to talk about a serious issue...the Death of the British Empire.

It tells this story by making Clive and Theo stand-ins for the most benign traditions of the cultures that made them and how forty years changed them. It's an unbelievably complex film all the more because it fools people into thinking it's a simple human comedy. It is a simple human comedy but a simple human comedy like the ones of Ernst Lubitsch which is to say labyrinthinely complex.

Powell-Pressburger was very much aware that the old Britian which was in decay and delusion for forty years would be gone by the end of the war and they say that the best the old society can do is accept defeat gracefully and move on...that's why the soldier which the third Deborah Kerr choses is more working class while she's a working girl, quite unlike the earlier two...though certainly expressing the desires of the first one who married a dashing Prussian.

Candy is very much of the higher class. Along with being deliriously romantic at a time when Britain was obsessed with superficial realism they were also stern political artists as is seen in ''A Matter of Life and Death'' and very subtly in ''Black Narcissus''.

After the war they turned away and decided to make a film about, for and by artists...a movie which says that artists should be willing to die for their arts.

And actually the ending is not surprising, the ballet-scene ends that way and even the Hans Christian story which it adapts(alla Pirandello) kills the girl though in his hugely problematic fashion he sends her to heaven.

The greatness of Powell-Pressburger and what made them elusive to their critics and what preserved them for the next generation like Martin Scorsese(who along with Ian Christie restored the Archers' reputation) is that they don't explain.

By that I mean they are not interested in explaining the surface issues rather they are interested in the relation between the interior and the exterior in the public and private sphere and creating a dialectic between them. That made them among the great Modernists of Cinema.

Like in ''Colonel Blimp'' we aren't told into detail about Candy's obsession with Deborah Kerr, the one who got away and him forever marrying or befriending women who look like her in detail. I am sure some psychoanalyst can provide a long, detailed, true but boring explanation but that's not the answer they want from the audience...they want the audience to understand the tragicomedy of that character.

In a way they're the most Brechtian film-makers of all time...Pressburger, a Berliner in the 20's probably brought that into the screenplays he composed with Powell.

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The film contains a long ballet sequence which gets a little too far in trying to be inventive but it is still mesmerising in the way it captures the subjective experience of the dancer herself.
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It's not really about conveying the subjective experience of the dancer...indeed Moira Shearer who played Vicky, and was herself a real-life ballet star thought the film was too far-fetched with its themes.

It's really about the sensuality of the dance really the sexuality of the dancer in performance. Sex was one of their favourite themes culminating in ''Black Narcissus'', still the most erotic film in British Cinema history(achieved without a trace of nudity).

Alok said...

Actually in the first act, the film does make a serious comment about British imperialism and criticises people like Clive Candy, specially in the way the aristocracy and the establishment were either oblivious of the crimes committed by the empire or else rationalized them away. But as the film progresses through the two world wars it becomes clear that the passing of the older generation and the values it lived by, even though some of it was delusional and in variance with reality, it was still an occasion to feel sad. Later in the film, the general's unwillingness to believe that the rules of the game have changed so drastically and that right may not after all be might.. these scenes aren't funny at all, neither are they mocking. They are very sad scenes. I was only surprised to see that some critics found Clive Candy as a delusional old fool, symbolising the reactionary, regressive and pompous establishment. At least thats what the politicians of that time including Churchill thought so.

Also, the creation of the German character like Theo must have taken some nerve since it was initially intended as a propaganda picture and the British society as a whole has a long history of Germanophobia, even before the wars.

About the ending of Red Shoes of course it is the same as the fairy tale but I have seen so many climax scenes which end at air ports and railway stations that my heart almost sank when I saw the scene build up that way. I was very glad to see that they stuck to the story.

puccinio said...

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Later in the film, the general's unwillingness to believe that the rules of the game have changed so drastically and that right may not after all be might.. these scenes aren't funny at all, neither are they mocking.
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They aren't mocking but they are definitely ironic. Like the scene during the First World War where he inspects prisoners and appeals to them to 'fess up, the moment he leaves the film implies that they're about to be tortured. Candy's whole ideas were never true to begin with...like during the Boer War, he says that people lie about there being concentration camps...history tells us another story.

The Colonel Blimp cartoons by David Low satirized Old Britain for preaching values that it never really practiced to begin with.

The Archers' strategy was to show one Colonel Blimp, not THE Colonel Blimp but one specific Colonel Blimp who's a good, decent person who's been tricked all those years into playing a role. Like in his younger years when he went against his superior orders to Germany and starts a ruckus, it's not at all different from that soldier at the end(and beginning) jumping the gun at the Turkish Bath.

Because of his Blimpishness, he lost the first Deborah Kerr, the ''love of his life'' so to speak and regressed into a shell. That's really his tragedy. The only solace for him is that he has that epiphany at the end in that beautiful scene by that ''lake''.

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Also, the creation of the German character like Theo must have taken some nerve since it was initially intended as a propaganda picture and the British society as a whole has a long history of Germanophobia, even before the wars.
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And what the film suggests is that they had that relationship because they are very alike. And although it's stretching it a bit, that idea is there in the film.

The irony of Britain's conflict with Germany during the Second World War was that they were facing an enemy that wasn't very different from itself. Churchill during the war represented democracy but denied that to several countries during the war and even after the war as is the case with Kenya.

And truth be told is Britain any different from Nazi Germany when you tally up the centuries of violence and economic exploitation as well as diplomatic blunders such as the formation of Israel?

These were questions that were present among British artists and intellectuals during the depression and war years. You can say that Candy's and Theo's friendship is kind of an acknowledgement of that, a horizontal line as Renoir would call it that connected the two nations and theo is only wiser because he was on the losing side of the First War while Candy is stupider because he was on the side that won. So those ironies criss cross across the film.

puccinio said...

By the way, this article says more or less the same things I have and is more concise and well-written.

http://www.filmreference.com/Films-Le-Ma/The-Life-and-Death-of-Colonel-Blimp.html

Alok said...

sorry for the delay in responding. just got around to reading it. thanks for the link.

the powell-pressuburger site lists a lot of links for the film. some of them are the original reviews of that time.

I will also try to get to some of their other films. I haven't seen anything else, even the famous ones like Black Narissus.