Saturday, September 11, 2010

Inspirations: A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger (1946)

I saw A Matter of Life and Death on television in the 80s, and finally on a cinema screen in repertory in the early 90s at the GFT in Glasgow. Its current interest for me lies partly in its allegorical mode of storytelling, and its emphasis on production design in the service of this mode, as suggested in Ian Christie's essay on the film in the BFI Film Classics series (pp. 16, 18-19):

[A Matter of Life and Death is a] striking example of the reinvention of the masque. This form of spectacle, combining elements of verse drama, dance, music, scenery and costume, was popular in aristocratic and court circles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Masques were usually allegorical, with a mythological scenario which could also be read in terms of contemporary politics. The court masque reached its height during the reign of James I, with the playwright Ben Jonson developing its dramatic structure by adding a comic prelude or 'anti-masque', and the architect Inigo Jones using the almost unlimited funds available to introduce for the first time all the machinery of modern theatre - artificial lighting, moveable sets and magical effects - to create 'pictures with Light and Motion'. ....

It is by means of ... mythic association, together with the invocation of motifs from the two Shakespearian 'magic' plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, that A Matter of Life and Death creates its masque-like story. Its characters are indeed not realistic individuals, even by the standards of 40s cinema, but are emblematic and allegorical: the Poet, his Beloved, the Heavenly Messenger, the Magician. They move in equally symbolic spaces: the Other World; and on earth, the Seashore, the Wood, the Palace, and that modern temple of mysteries, the hospital. And the machinery of the spectacle - most notably the giant escalator and the celestial amphitheatre, but also such an ultra-filmic effect as the giant eyelid closing over the screen under anaesthesia - is as important as were Jones's stage 'machines' for Jacobean masques.

Throughout, A Matter of Life and Death shifts backwards and forwards between purely allegorical, or fantastic, scenes, and melodrama: that is, heightened realism, which is, in its deliberate exaggeration, equally contrived. For example, in the clip above, note the implausible isolation of Kim Hunter's character on a dark set lit principally by a lurid red offscreen source, and the presence of an exaggerated ticking clock on the soundtrack, not to mention the dialogue, which flirts with absurdity, notwithstanding the absolute conviction with which David Niven delivers his lines, and their undeniable emotional impact. But all this is still within the bounds of realism, unlike the film's distinctive representation of the afterlife. The clip below follows on immediately after the one above.

Similarly, Five Wounds combines highly abstract elements with Grand Guignol violence.


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