Friday, February 22, 2013

Imogene Sara Smith: The Music of Words - Storytelling in Two Powell & Pressburger Films

The Music of Words: Storytelling in Two Powell & Pressburger Films
by Imogene Sara Smith
Bright Lights Film Journal

"In my films, images are everything," Michael Powell declares in his autobiography; "words are used like music to distill emotion." Powell was justly proud of tour-de-force sequences that rely exclusively on visuals, scoring, and editing, like the Red Shoes ballet or the climactic attempt by Sister Ruth to murder Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus. These forays into what Powell called the "composed film" culminated in a feature-length cinematic opera, Tales of Hoffman (a film that, I must confess, I find airless.) With all respect, I would argue Powell's claim is too one-sided, and puzzling in some ways as well. What, for instance, does he mean when he says that the trial in heaven in A Matter of Life and Death — which involves extended speeches, battling wits, and even battling radios — is "essentially a silent film"?

For cinephiles, the silent era (when Powell got his start) can be a kind of lost Eden, a paradise of "pure cinema" from which the talkies have fallen. The conquest by sound, and the deadening limitations it initially placed on cameras, inspired many to reassert the primacy of images. Yet, given Powell's visual bent, it is striking how many scenes in earlier films by The Archers (as he and Emeric Pressburger named their filmmaking partnership) allow words to stand almost alone: Anton Walbrook's four-minute, single-take speech in the refugee office in Colonel Blimp; the anti- and pro-Nazi speeches by Walbrook and Eric Portman in The 49th Parallel; Portman's history lecture in A Canterbury Tale, Nancy Price's description of the Highland gathering at Oban in I Know Where I'm Going! While Powell and Pressburger were masters of the classic show-don't-tell method, they also daringly broke the rule by telling, not showing. Both techniques ultimately serve the same purpose. Despite the aesthetic of excess often attributed to the Archers' films, they gain power by withholding certain elements, requiring the audience to supply what's not there.

Powell and Pressburger both contributed to the scripts of their films, but Emeric Pressburger did the bulk of the writing. He is perennially overlooked and undervalued by fans of The Archers, partly because he was more retiring than Powell (spending his late years quietly in a cottage while his erstwhile partner hooked up with Scorsese and Coppola and produced his monumental autobiography), but also because the qualities he brought to their films were harder to define. Pressburger was a genius at structuring stories, a writer whose words have an extraordinary, multidimensional life, and who also knew when to use no words at all. David Low, creator of the Colonel Blimp character that inspired Pressburger's favorite Archers film, praised the screenwriter's "phenomenal power of story-telling," quipping, "He left Scheherezade standing." (Macdonald, 209) Scheherezade preserved her life by leaving her stories tantalizingly incomplete. Part of Pressburger's genius was to build into his screenplays chasms that the mind must leap, and blanks that the imagination must fill. These leaps of the mind create much of the joy and surprise you feel watching The Archers' movies: the thrill lies not in the arrow or in the target, but in the flight through space.

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