Archive for Stairway to Heaven

Euphoria #33: Lip-flap a-go-go

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2008 by dcairns

High-powered producer/assistant director David Brown (pictured) is the most well-placed film industry bod I can claim as friend. Even I’m impressed I know him!

 The Whistle Blower

Here, David cameos in his first ever film (as unit runner), GREGORY’S GIRL. More on this little beauty in Euphoria #32.

At our recent outing to SWEENEY TODD, I twisted David’s arm and got him to think of some favourite film moments for this spot: scenes that create the kind of rosy glow and feeling of well-being that can be detected on Geiger counters.

To his great credit, the first title past David’s lips was Powell & Pressburger’s 1946 A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (or STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, for those of you afflicted with an oceanic handicap). He subsequently volunteered several OTHER great suggestions, but we’re keeping them for later. We veered back and forth between the rose and the table tennis scene, but I finally put my foot down and insisted on the rose, since I have more to say about it.

At this point I must hand over to my deceased friend Lawrie — a fellow assistant director of David’s, though of an earlier generation, present on the set as these sequences were shot.

‘David Niven, you know had odd hands, like a labourer, so whenever there was a close-up of hands to be done, they would say, “Get Lawrie.”‘

(So that’s Lawrie’s hands we see holding the flask.)

‘The line was written as, “One is so starved of colour up there,” but we’d done several takes, and Marius Goring, who was one of the cleverest actors I ever knew, was bored, so he said, “One is so starved of Technicolor up there,” and we all fell about laughing. He was just having fun, but Mickey [Powell] must have liked it.’

Sharp-eyed Shadowplayers will have spotted the fairly heavy lip-flap on that line: Goring’s mouth movement’s don’t quite synch with what he’s saying. My theory is that Powell must have decided he liked that improv later, but didn’t have a good take of it, so he used a “straight” take and dubbed the sound in from Goring’s ad-lib, or else got Goring in to post-synch the line.

Powell said that when he heard the audience laugh at that line, he knew there was no such thing as realism in the cinema. It’s true, too. All films bear a purely allegorical relation to reality — it may suit their purposes sometimes to strive for an illusion of “naturalism”, but it may not. British cinema seems to have arrived at something close to a “house style” which is either faux-naturalism (Loach) or FAILED faux-naturalism (almost everyone else) and which excludes nearly everything that can be enchanting or exciting about film art. One could pretty easily draw up a Dogme 95 list of commandments for British film and see that nearly all of them tow the line. (Note to self: try this and see if you’re talking crap.)

What else to say? Well, I purposely kept this clip long, because I just couldn’t stop it. It’s the same when I watch the film or show the opening to students. It takes a rare force of willpower to hit the STOP button. That’s cinema.

But the moment that primarily concerns us is the transition from b&w to colour on the rose, and the line afterwards. When Pressburger first suggested mixing media in this way, Powell assumed that the earthly scenes would be monochromatic, with fantasy otherworld in colour, as in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Pressburger set him straight: “Look around you: the world is in colour, therefore it’s Heaven that must be in black and white.”