Archive for Michael Powell

Hide in Plain Sight

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by dcairns

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The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.

The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).

This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.

It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.

But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.

For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.

The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.

In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.

Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.

Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.

Throwing Darts in Lovers’ Eyes

Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 4, 2015 by dcairns

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An odd thing.

Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM begins with the Archers’ target logo, and then a giant closeup of an  eye (a painful juxtaposition). The eye pops open wide via jump-cut. Then we see a street, then the lenses of a cine-camera, concealed within the folds of a duffel coat, peering glassily out at the world.

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Next, a POV of the street, with superimposed markings implying clearly that this is what the camera sees.

We approach a lady of the night — and she looks directly into the lens, which is eye-level with her, and says “It’ll be two quid.”

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The thing nobody ever seems to point out is that, if Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) has really hidden the camera in his coat at chest level, he must be about seven feet tall if the lady is looking straight into it. And why doesn’t she remark upon the fact that he’s filming her? And if his camera were really hidden effectively, surely she would NOT be speaking straight into it?

It would seem like a peculiar mistake, but I kind of like it. There’s something implied about Lewis’s psychotic identification with his movie camera: a suggestion that he sees the world as if through a camera lens. So this shot isn’t the actual POV of his camera, it’s an expressionistic take on his own POV. Possibly. At any rate, I thought it was worth pointing out that it doesn’t make any rational sense but is cool.

As my friend Lawrie said, “I laughed like a drain when I saw he’d made PEEPING TOM, because, of course, Mickey was the sadist of all time!”

 

A Book

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on June 16, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m in a book!

Two entries in this whopping scholarly overview are written by me — one on Return to the Edge of the World, Michael Powell’s look back at the film which made his name, and one on  Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, Chris Rodley and Kevin MacDonald’s scintillating documentary on that fascinating, Edinburgh-born rogue talent.

Huge thanks to Jonny Murray, film scholar and particular expert on the works of Bill Forsyth and Scottish cinema in general, who made the introductions necessary to get me the gig.

I wrote my entries AGES ago but various delays kept the thing from seeing the light until now. It takes a pleasingly broad view of what constitutes Scottish cinema — films made by Scottish directors abroad are not counted, but Hollywood movies set here, like BRIGADOON, do get a mention. There’s some special consideration of genre cinema (seven versions of the Burke and Hare story!) and detailed accounts of some relatively unreported movies, such as DONKEYS and GREGORY’S TWO GIRLS.

I’m just thrilled to be in a book!

Directory of World Cinema: Scotland (Ib – Directory of World Cinema)