Dec 2, 2005
Images of ineffable beauty
Last night I was at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' theatre for a centenery celebration of director and producer Michael Powell, which included a rare appearance by one of his choicest collaborators, the 91-year-old master cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
Of all the films of Powell's to screen, they chose "Black Narcissus", a classic in every possible respect. Justly famous for its drama as well as its photography(which won Cardiff an Oscar), this typically unclassifiable film has to be seen on the big screen to be truly appreciated, although any screen will always do for Powell & Pressburger films in a pinch.
I discovered Michael Powell's genius on a 25" Magnavox: a CBS Late Movie presentation of "Stairway to Heaven"(real, and UK/original title "A Matter of Life and Death"). While innocently settling down for what I thought would be an average "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"-esque fantasy, I instead was immediately at the edge of the couch with my eyes wide open for the next 2 & 1/2 hours--even though I'd set the film to record via the VCR. I kept expecting to give it up and go to bed, as I was exhausted, but was up til 3:30am. It's that good.
Back to last night's screening.
I've seen "Black Narcissus" many, many times, and might shamefully have skipped this time if it weren't for the presence of Cardiff: 91, hale & fairly hearty, and all his faculties sharp as can be. including humor. He was interviewed by David Thompson, who also presented two video addresses, one by Martin Scorcese, the other by Scorcese's longtime editor and Michael Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker. The combined effect of these two, each loving "Mickey" Powell in their own ways as well as sharing a passion for the films, had tears running down my face. I had the good luck to meet Michael Powell and Thelma in 1984 when they were here in Los Angeles for a LACMA tribute to Powell & Pressburger(Powell's longtime partner in their production entity The Archers, the screenwriter and sounding board for Powell's direction and co-producing duties).
How often is it in life that one finds oneself face to face with an icon, particularly one that is hugely, personally important to one's entire love of cinema? I'll tell the story some othe time to keep this entry a bit shorter, but suffice to say I let him know that I considered myself in the presence of a great, great man and artist. Of course, he was charming and dare I say, moved...it was an awfully long dry spell for him(as Thompson made very clear in his opening remarks); after his "Peeping Tom" in 1960--the "Psycho" of Britian--he was essentially vilified as a perv and a schlockmeister, and it was such a commercial catastrophe that his filmmaking career was over. This with over 20 years left to live. It wasn't until the mid-70s that such fans as Scorcese, Coppola, and Ian Christie(who wrote a wonderful monogram for the BFI away back in 1978 or so)revived general interest in Powell.
All of the films Michael Powell worked on have value, and many are astounding: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" and "The Red Shoes" must be seen, also "I Know Where I'm Going!" and "A Canterbury Tale"...then there are the early, wartime action/thrillers with Conrad Veidt--and not forgetting the film Powell directed much of, Alexander Korda's "Thief of Bagdad". No animation artist should leave any of these titles off their list of must-sees. You won't be sorry.