Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Grave Matters

My mother wasn't a film buff in any sense of the word. She didn't like any particular directors as such. I doubt she could have named any, except for Hitchcock, who had been on television. In spite of this, she had exquisite taste in movies. One of her favorite movies that I remember watching with her was A Matter of Life and Death (which was titled Stairway to Heaven at the time), one of the fancier flights of fantasy from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It's a kind of film that had a brief period of popularity from the mid thirties to the mid forties: the near death fantasy. Other films that utilized similar plots include On Borrowed Time, Between Two Worlds, Heaven Can Wait, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, A Guy Named Joe, Death Takes a Holiday and (most famously) It's a Wonderful Life. This last bears some of the stamp of Powell and Pressburger's films. A Matter of Life and Death starts with the stars and planets, drifting in the void. Capra does the same, but, ever the sentimentalist, anthropomorphizes the stars at the beginning of It's a Wonderful Life, turning them into angels. It's not an improvement, really, but my appetite for Capra is at a low ebb these days.

There's a bit of a difference between A Matter of Life and Death and the other films of its ilk, in so far as its a skeptic's version of this fantasy. I hadn't remembered that from my long-ago viewing of the film with my mom. The story has British pilot David Niven having to jump from his burning plane without a parachute. He's scheduled to die, but the "courier" charged with escorting him to the next world loses him in a fog bank and he survives to fall in love with Kim Hunter, the air controller who talked him through his final moments. In the afterlife, the balance must be reasserted and a trial is arranged in order to decide Niven's fate. In this world, a doctor examines him for neurological distress due to his visions of the other world. Is the whole thing an hallucination due to injury to the brain? The movie strongly suggests this, and it doesn't get cute with equivocation. On the whole, the plot of the film is kind of silly, but that's not what makes the film memorable.

Lest I've fallen down on the job, let me reiterate my complete devotion to The Archers. Michael Powell (with and without Emeric Pressburger) may very well be my favorite British director. His films have a kind of playfulness to them that eludes the more austere formalism of Hitchock or David Lean. Plus, his films are ravishingly beautiful. The Archer's long collaboration with cinematographer Jack Cardiff occasionally resulted in images that burn themselves into your retinas. Cardiff was able to manipulate the ultra-saturated colors preferred by Technicolor busybody Natalie Kalmus like no other cinematographer.

Yet for all its visual grandiosity, it winks at the audience. There's a shot of an eyeball's view of a surgical procedure, when the eyelids close on the camera. There's a Coke machine in the arrival lobby in heaven. Ever interested in metacinema, the filmmakers include an in-movie metaphor for the movies in the form of Roger Livesey's camera obscura, which also doubles as a God's eye view of the town where the movie is set and mirrors the great holes in the heavens where the afterlife gazes down.

(Short digression: I'm developing a huge crush on Roger Livesey. In this film and I Know Where I'm Going, his voice makes me kind of weak in the knees. That's just me, though.)

I mentioned that this is a secular movie. Certainly the brain surgery plot device is evidence of that, but there's an even more subtle element that reinforces this. The Archer's film the afterlife in black and white, and this life in a blazing Technicolor (one character notes that there's not enough Technicolor in the afterlife, another meta wink at the audience). This suggests a deeply existential worldview, where this world is experience, while the next is colorless. Live for today, this color scheme intimates, because living for afterward isn't worth it.

There's a broader political dimension to the film, too, in which there's a jockeying for post-War relevance between Britain and the US, in which both sides tweak the other on the nose. The movie openly admires the American melting pot, and the trial sequence when the American jurors are chosen is something I wish I could show every nativist know-nothing in America these days. The movie is fairly critical of the British Empire, too, which raised some hackles when it was released. Of course, the movie pokes fun at Yankee exceptionalism, too, in the person of Raymond Massey's blowhard colonial lawyer.

Of course, it's the delirious romanticism of the movie that has kept it in the minds of film audiences, not all of the meta elements and political subtexts. Certainly, this is the element that most appealed to my mother all those years ago. Everything else is icing on the cake. This is a movie in which the world and the afterlife come to a halt over a single tear shed in the name of love, in which love will not be denied even by death. Everything in the movie is focused on this one idea.

Omnia vincit amor.

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