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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Collector’s Choice: The Films of Michael Powell

After what has seemed like an eternity, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s outstanding 1946 wartime fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death, which played theatrically in Death-allergic America asStairway to Heaven, has been made available on home video, released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a two-platter The Collector’s Choice DVD set, The Films of Michael Powell, accompanied by Powell’s Age of Consent. Each film appears on a separate platter, and both have optional English and French subtitles.

Running 104 minutes, A Matter of Life and Death is a brilliantly Jungian adventure about a bomber pilot who survives a deadly crash, falls in love, and must then appeal for his right to continue to live at a tribunal in Heaven, because the angel who was originally supposed to grab him from the plane got lost in the English Channel fog. The film is riveting for several reasons, but firstly because the romance is established like lightning in the opening 20 minutes.David Niven is the pilot, and Kim Hunter is the traffic controller speaking to him on the wireless, as intense close-ups convey the immediate, unreserved sympathy they exchange with one another. Characters fall in love all of the time in the movies, but it is rare that you see and feel it happening so vividly. Then, there is the film’s design. The Heaven sequences contain a number of striking special effects, such as the indelible and often imitated ‘endless stairway,’ and are presented, deviously, in black and white, while the earthbound segments are in scrumptious, otherworldly Technicolor. There is another plot twist, best left to be discovered, that serves to give the story a legitimate foundation, and there is also a lengthy but wholly welcome digression into the political, social and moral differences between England and America (which also parallel the ‘Heaven and Earth’ dichotomy). While never lessening the power of the romance, then, the film compiles philosophical exploration, phantasmagorical stimulation, visual glorification, comical respites and a transcendent patriotism, which equates loving one’s country to loving mankind. Despite components that would be the downfall of almost any other movie-along with everything else, one effete male character wears lipstick-the film is not only utterly captivating from beginning to end, it is also endlessly rewatchable and, having already proven to entertain viewers well beyond its own wartime era, will endure, thanks to its preservation and celebration upon DVD, for time immemorial.

The picture is presented as it was shot, in full screen format only. The color sequences are eye-popping. Some of the black-and-white segments have minor background flaws, but the impurities do not interfere with a viewer’s concentration. The monophonic sound is reasonably solid and clear. Martin Scorsese supplies an 8-minute introduction to the film and to Powell and Pressburger’s work as a whole. There is also a commentary track by film historian Ian Christie, who focuses on the movie’s artistic meanings and says less about the production and how some of the effects were staged, although he does touch upon those matters from time to time. The talk works as a decent introduction to the film and its complexities, and also explains its historical context. Christie points out that the death of a key character is followed by a scene of ‘optimism and enthusiasm.’ “It’s really part of the film’s great success that it completely persuades us that we should see this as something which all the characters want to happen. It’s an affirmation of the importance of the continuity between life and death. It’s something which probably owes a lot to the experience of the war, when many experienced violent death around them, and often took comfort from the idea that those who had physically died were somehow not lost, their sacrifice had not been in vain. I think that A Matter of Life and Death is taking that idea and using it to breathe new life into what could have been a rather banal idea, the idea that America and Britain should build upon wartime sacrifices to create a new alliance, a new understanding in the post-war world.”

If you intend to watch the movies together, it is probably best to put on Age of Consent first, and to take a healthy intermission before going on to a masterpiece such as A Matter of Life and Death. In many ways, the two films are exact opposites of one another except that Powell made both of them (one, of course, in collaboration with Pressburger, and one without). The 1969 Consent was shot on location on the other side of the world, in tropical islands off the coast of Australia, and the cinematography, although attractive, is always at the partial mercy of available light and other uncontrollable conditions. Its natural graininess is pointedly contrasted to the studio smoothness of Life and Death, just as is its wandering narrative stands in contrast to the tightly structured Life and Death plot. James Mason stars as an artist whose creativity is renewed when he moves to a sparsely inhabited island (there are apparently just three other people on it, all women) and meets a nubile teenager played, in one of her first feature film appearances, by Helen Mirren. Running 106 minutes, the film’s appeal also differs from the attractions of Life and Death. To be philosophical about it, although Life and Death is about the infinite, it has a very finite narrative and artistic design, while Consent, which is about the finite, has an open-ended story (its freeze-frame conclusion is a surprise because you assume the plot is going to continue for another act) and loose design. One is about Heaven and the other is about heaven on earth. One is about romance, and one is about lust. Where Life and Death comes from an era of strict moral guidelines, Consent comes from the ‘free love’ era and contains substantial nudity. Hence, while there is enough narrative to keep a viewer involved, what really makes Age of Consent enjoyable is simply its ability to transport the viewer, emotionally, to its realistic fantasy locale (even today, we wouldn’t mind getting stuck on a deserted island with Mirren, but back when she was in her early twenties?-oo-la-la!). Just as Mason’s character finds his muse in the placement of Mirren’s character, naked, amid paradisiacal surroundings, so does Powell achieve the same inspiration placing the naked Mirren in the same environment, thus doubling the power of the spiritual requiescence the film can instill with receptive viewers.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. As is mentioned above, some of the shots are a little grainy and the cinematography, in general, has a makeshift, natural feel, but the picture transfer is lovely, with bright, fresh hues and crisp details. The monophonic sound can seem distorted if it is amplified too much, but works fine at a modest volume. Along with a passable 5-minute introduction by Scorsese, there is a terrific 12-minute interview with Mirren, an excellent 10-minute interview with Ron and Valerie Taylor, who did the underwater footage (with Mirren swimming cringe-inducingly naked amid the sharp coral), and a fine 17-minute retrospective featurette that contains interviews with other artists who participated in creating the film.

Additionally, there is an excellent commentary track by film historian Kent Jones, who may not have actually been on the shoot, but seems to know every detail of every day of the film’s creation. Interestingly, he sometimes infers that Mirren was as youthful and naïve as her character, although clearly she was not, and both he and Mirren claim that Age of Consentwas her first film, even though she had appeared in a couple of other shows previously, including Peter Hall’s outstanding Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although he does not draw similarities between the film and Mason’s other movies where he played an older man involved with a younger woman-Lolita and Georgy Girl come to mind immediately-he does place the film effectively in the context of Powell’s other works and explains the thematic links to Powell’s general artistic concerns. Most importantly, however, Jones serves as a tour guide, sharing stories, pointing out details and allowing the viewer to re-visit the film with a purpose, and then leaving the viewer enlightened, and ready to go back and experience it yet again.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon