A Matter of Life and Death
Powell and Pressburger (UK 1946 )
David Niven, Kim Hunter
Viewed: DVD 11 April
Retrocrit: only truth is a matter of life and death
In re-evaluation of their work Powell and Pressburger have emerged out of the relative obscurity of British Cinema to lay claim (both collectively and individually in the case of Powell) to a certain stature in the history of film. A significance perhaps. Specifically Martin Scorsese has cited Red Shoes as influential on his personal development as a film maker.
But what of the critique’s of Powell and Pressburger made by continental critics and filmmakers who have viewed examined and evaluated these film makers? These critics have looked for those qualities in film that made it the expressive medium of the age: the knife cutting through to the quick of cultural and social heart of the twentieth century, the era of the image.
The contributors to Cahiers du Cinema and others have generally passed over the work of Powell and Pressburger, in silence. On viewing A Matter of Life and Death I can understand the cause of their silence. I think this silence emanates from a sense of unease about the core motivations that certainly underlie Matter of Life and Death and to an extent their other films.
The surface of their film work is beautiful. It presents as a filmic equivalent of haute couture, turned out like a beautiful model strutting the cat walk displaying garments of colour line and texture. In Life and Death the camera work is wonderfully fluid: movements are sometimes spectacular as with the tracks where the camera pulls back to reveal the size and scale of the celestial reception area and the Court room; sometimes intimate as per the track through the Doctor’s library. The camera movement has purpose connecting the audience either to scale or to character, it reveals something we should see. The camera movement is part of the film as are the sets: the intimate cockpit of the doomed Lancaster, the epic Stairway/escalator to the heavens. The sets encompass the characters and and have a magical theatrically that holds the audience within their thrall.
But concealed beneath the films model surface there is the nagging feeling that Matter of Life and Death is rotten at its core: it has no truth value. It is a lie foisted on its audience.
It claims to be a film about love: a love passion conceived at the moment of death. But as a love story even for the times it is devoid of passion, when Niven and Hunter look at each other, you see the directors instructions not desire. Compared with the passion evinced by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, then June and Peters’ feelings are a strangely mechanical scripted love affair.
The image that captures the film show June and Peter together, but not looking at each other; rather looking off into the middle distance as if they had stepped out of some Soviet agit prop vehicle imploring the workers to build better tractors.
The audience response asks a question: if this is not love, but something mechanical, then what is the machine?
It was a political machine. An administration that needed to address the problem of maintaining good relations between Great Britain and the USA at a critical moment at the end of the War. One threat to these relations was the simmering popular discontent about US servicemen using greater wealth and alluring glamour of America, to woo bed and take away British women. The priority was to do try and prevent an incident that might escalate out of control. Part of the answer lay in propaganda whose object would be to de-intensify this issue, to reframe it. And Powell and Pressburger had shown themselves adept propagandists, not just for the war effort but in their uncritical and sanctimonious embrace of all things British: her Empire and moral code.
Matter of Life and Death is not about love as such, its about message, a message that justifies love between British and Americans. The core of the film is not passion but a quasi legalistic pleading for the sanctity of love between ‘others’ – Brits and Yanks. Powell and Pressburger reverse gender/ sexual roles from the actual pressure issue of American men claiming British women: in this case Peter – Brit and Joan – Yank. This is a deintensifying scripted strategy allowing cultural inequalities to be stripped out of the chemistry, but this new paradigm still allows the process of legitimising US/Brit relations to take centre stage.
Which it duly does in its celestial afterlife setting.
At this point the film loses both pace and rhythm as it focuses on series of arguments played out in judicial arena before a collective audience of the allied nations of the world with a symbolically critical jury of Americans selected to decide whether a good Bostonian girl should be allowed to have a relationship with a Brit airman. It’s a convoluted shananagem, a piece of glamorised Agitprop.
Powell and Pressburger’s films often have a disturbing repressed core, a terror of the flesh. This psychic constant works through all of the movies (culminating in Powell’s Peeping Tom which of course has a German protagonist). The other constant as referred to above was their uncritical embrace of all things British. Britain is festooned in their movies as a magically blessed land inhabited by gentle decent folk of the shire, rarely stirred to anger, but when so stirred are implacable in their search for justice. And the more you look at this Disneyesque vision, the more it seems to be either a lie or the product of filmmakers totally cocooned in an unreal world of privilege, filmmakers unable to use their eyes to see anything that is happening around them. Liars or fantasists, or some admix of both of these.
And this is the reason for the silence of critics. Powell and Pressburger are unable, even in the slightest detail of scenario or scripting to countenance any other proposition than that Britain is the most benign and best of all possible worlds. An untruth raised in their films to series of propagandist images.
Technically Powell and Pressburger’s films, including of course matter of Life and Death create resonant and powerful streams of images. Perhaps like adverts. But like adverts they are untrustworthy images, propagated by a belief system whose purpose is to sell a lie. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org