Friday, November 9, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... the Archers

This is the latest in a monthly series called Getting Acquainted. I watch three movies featuring the contributions of a particular actor, director or the like whose work has previously been unfamiliar to me, then I write about them at the end of the month.

Strangely, I spent the month of October getting acquainted with the Archers in multiple ways. I had been listening to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence for the last couple weeks of October, and the main character in the book (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese's movie) is one Newland Archer. The book also features his mother, his sister Janey and his wife May. Together, they are the Archers.

But the Archers I want to discuss today are none other than Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a British directing team who were often know as "the Archers." (That's actually the name of their production company. Each film begins with an arrow hitting a target and says "A Production of the Archers.")

As I mentioned last month when I announced my choice for October, the duo came on my radar by having an inordinate number of movies (six) that appeared among the 250 most mentioned films in the recent Sight & Sound poll of directors and critics. I'd seen none of these six, and was only passingly familiar with their names, probably due more to the alliteration of the Ps than having any idea what role they played in film history. (In fact, I might have told you that Emeric Pressburger was German, if I'd been asked, though that would just be ignorance of the finer differences among European names, since the man was actually born in Hungary.) I'd seen Powell's solo directing effort Peeping Tom, but nothing more.

So I chose exactly half of their six movies from the Sight & Sound list, and was on my way.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Watched: Friday, October 12th
One-sentence plot synopsis: On the eve of another new war, an aging officer looks back on a 40-year career in the British military.
My thoughts on the film: I must admit that one of the primary reasons I chose this film was that it struck me as a particularly odd title for a film that I had never heard of. And it seemed like I should have heard of it, considering that it was a lofty 93rd most mentioned on the list. So either the name should have been funny enough or the film should have been good enough for it to cross my path before now. And the movie has an appropriately funny (as in absurd) opening, as a throng of soldiers captures Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) in a Turkish bath despite his protestation that "War starts at midnight!" Unfortunately, after a rousing and more than a bit disorienting opening, Colonel Blimp slows down as it heads into flashback to the Boer War some 40 years earlier. And here we see a pattern that would continue throughout all three of these films: Powell and Pressburger start slow, and require me to overcome a strong impulse toward indifference. As we made our way through several wars and minor conflicts, and more than a little bit of hanging around parlors, I started to wonder how this history/love story/story of an unlikely friendship could continue this way for 163 minutes. Then it slowly and steadily started to grab me, most particularly in a scene where Wynne-Candy's unlikely German friend and romantic rival (played by Anton Walbrook) movingly recounts his estrangement from his children when they became Nazis. I started to realize that by following these characters for many years of their lives and witnessing the events that shaped them, I had indeed come to care about them, and I started to find the film's structure illuminating rather than frustrating. I later read that Colonel Blimp had, in large part because of its structure, been thought of as "the British Citizen Kane," and by the end I was willing to stop short of calling that comparison blasphemy, though I definitely did not love it. Livesey and especially Walbrook give very good performances, and I enjoyed Deborah Kerr too. Somehow, however, I ultimately missed who "Colonel Blimp" was supposed to be -- it's not actually the protagonist himself, despite his eventual rotund shape.

Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Watched: Tuesday, October 16th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A group of British nuns encounters repeated difficulties while trying to run a convent in a former brothel in an isolated Himalayan village.
My thoughts on the film: Another slow-starting Powell/Pressburger film, but when this one captured me, it captured me completely. (To be fair, that could be because I watched this relatively brief film in a single evening, and Colonel Blimp eventually got stretched out over three nights.) I liked the film's high concept setup, with its breathtaking Himalayan setting and its many cultural clashes between British Catholics and the local villagers to whom they are trying to minister, specifically in terms of providing a hospital. But what really made this film start to be interesting, once I fell into pace with it, is the way it explores exactly what it means to be a nun -- specifically, forsaking all carnal desires. And in that respect I eventually found this to be an incredibly daring and forward-thinking film for 1947. Two of the main nuns we follow are the convent leader, Clodagh (played again by Kerr), and mentally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who are both tempted by a local Brit who has been living in the village. One represses these desires and the other, well ... did I mention she was mentally unstable? Things progress toward a climax that can best be described as Hitchcockian. Byron gives an incredibly daring performance, one that becomes boldly sinister in a way that the Catholic church surely could not have liked. Although there are a lot of ideas flying around in this movie about the lengths people are willing to go to succeed, the extent to which they should impose their will/belief on others, and the shades of gray of personal morality, one thing I liked about Black Narcissus is that it follows a leaner and essentially simpler structure than Colonel Blimp. I don't mean that Colonel Blimp was hard to follow, just that the relatively straightforward nature of Black Narcissus' narrative carried a much greater payoff for me. The last third of this film is genuinely exciting and envelope-pushing, and it exploded some of my ideas that Powell and Pressburger may be a bit stuffy. I don't want to tell you anything about what happens, but they make maximum use of this wonderfully foreign landscape, and there are no pat answers or resolutions.

The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Watched: Monday, October 22nd
One-sentence plot synopsis: A talented ballet dancer must weigh her career against her personal happiness when she finds herself in a love triangle between a world-famous choreographer and the composer who she's fallen in love with.
My thoughts on the film: I wanted to love The Red Shoes, really I did. It's gotten a huge amount of love on the Filmspotting podcast, and it's also Martin Scorsese's favorite movie of all time. But I just couldn't really get into it. I guess my problem begins with the person who makes the film what it is, in its incredible dance sequences: world-famous Scottish dancer (and novice actor) Moira Shearer. Although she is capable enough as an actress not to stand out, she's not capable enough to make her character anything other than a cipher (says me). Since the emotional core of the film is supposed to hinge on how she struggles to decide between the thing that will make her a world-famous star and the thing that will nourish her heart, we need to see more of that struggle on screen -- and we need to have more screen time devoted to her falling in love with the composer, played by Marius Goring. Their love is basically established in a single scene, after which we are meant to find it a nearly immovable obstacle around which the rest of the action revolves. Anton Walbrook is more memorable as the choreographer (that's probably not a strong enough term for what his character is -- wikipedia refers to his character as a "ballet impresario"), giving a strong, villainous performance as the jealous and controlling figure who could make Shearer a star -- if she plays ball. As he also did impressive work in Colonel Blimp, Walbrook's talent (especially in the hands of these collaborators) is beyond question. I just wish I felt more involved in the film's central conflict. What I should devote some time to is the absolutely incredible centerpiece dance sequence, which is a ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson's titular fairy tale about an indefatigable pair of red shoes. The scene goes on for more than 15 minutes of screen time, changing sets and backgrounds, and delivering not only astonishing ballet, but some state-of-the-art camera and editing tricks that allow the sequence to extend seamlessly through these different backgrounds, while also providing what must have been some of the most jaw-dropping effects audiences had seen in 1948. That sequence demonstrates what cinema is all about, and alone justifies the casting of Shearer. The rest of the film didn't grab me enough, though it was interesting to see the debt that Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan owes to it.

Conclusion: Powell and Pressburger definitely have the skills of epic craftsmen, but there's something about their approach that left me a little cold. Still, I find myself thinking about seeing A Matter of Life and Death, one of their greats from the Sight & Sound list that I did not include in this month's slate.

My favorite of the three: Black Narcissus

As it is now November 8th, which means it's been 17 days since I watched The Red Shoes, it may be evident to you that I am finding it harder and harder to write these Getting Acquainted posts. Even with the more compact format that I introduced to the series in 2012, these posts still tend to hang over my head like tedious burdens. I'm enjoying watching the films far more than I'm enjoying recapping them on my blog, in part because if I don't write about them immediately (which I don't), details I wanted to mention can be easily forgotten by the time it's time to write.

So I've decided -- for other reasons than this one, which I may expand on at a later date -- to wrap up the Getting Acquainted series at the end of 2012. Or at the very least, take a year hiatus from it and see how I feel. And I've decided to end with two big names: Elvis Presley and John Wayne. I've already started watching my Elvis films for November. I watched Jailhouse Rock on Monday night, and I've still got Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas ahead of me. I'll announce the Wayne films at the end of November.

Thanks as always for reading ...

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