[EDITOR’S NOTE: PressPlay is proud to premiere a new video essay by San Francisco-based critic-filmmaker Serena Bramble. Serena blogs about movies at Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind and posts short videos about cinema history and style under the screenname Ruby Tuesday. Her 2009 piece “Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir” is surely the only deep-dish appreciation of film noir tropes to rack up over 100,000 views on YouTube. Her new piece about the directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger can be seen above, and you can read an accompanying article below.
Given the immense popularity and importance of Michael Powell‘s solo effort Peeping Tom, especially as it pertains to the horror genre, one might give more credit to Powell rather than Emeric Pressburger in their collaborative adventures through film. But make no mistake, as the co-credited writers, directors and eventually producers better known as The Archers, Powell and Pressburger and their loyal group of frequent collaborators (including actors Anton Walbrook, Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron and David Farrar, as well as cinematographer Jack Cardiff) created some of the most delightful, character-driven, colorful, and utterly cinematic works in film history. Like the cinematic equivalent of Bernie Taupin and Elton John, whatever emphasis on responsibilities might have been divided among Powell and Pressburger, that gap was bridged by their commitment to the other’s art, the sensitivity to each others’ creative needs. Pressburger once remarked that “[Powell] knows what I am going to say even before I say it — maybe even before I have thought it – and that is very rare. You are lucky if you meet someone like that once in your life.” In other words, professional soulmates.
Originally collaborating on anti-Nazi propaganda for producer Alexander Korda with films such as The Spy in Black and Contraband, Powell and Pressburger combined their prior work experiences (by the time they met, Powell was a seasoned director while Pressburger had done many re-writes for Korda) to create their own unique vision of film. By 1942, they were credited as writers-producers-directors for One of Our Aircraft is Missing, and their production company The Archers was born. In a letter to Wendy Hiller asking her to appear in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as Clive Candy’s (Roger Livesey) dream girl in three different incarnations, Emeric Pressburger proclaimed The Archer’s Manifesto. It read:
1. We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.
2. Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
3. When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
4. No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.
5. At any time, and particularly at the present, the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.
From The 49th Parallel which attempted to goad the U.S. out of isolationism, to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp‘s too-true understanding of the British government’s naive idea of a “gentleman’s war,” (so much so that Winston Churchill tried to have the film banned in Britain) The Archers’ pulse on wartime Britain was uncanny and proved to be the force behind their most successful period; even Vicki Page’s predicament in The Red Shoes reflects the decision many working women had to face post-war, of choosing between their work and their family. Perhaps their most amazing accomplishment as storytellers was underlining the distinction between a Nazi and a German. While today it is not considered out of the ordinary to tell true stories of “the one good Nazi” in films like Valkyrie and Schindler’s List, to make that distinction by telling the decades-long friendship between a German soldier and a British soldier during the height of WWII in 1943 in Colonel Blimp was indeed a rare and daring feat. To hear Anton Walbrook proclaim himself as a “tired old man who has come to England because he is homesick” is to hear the weary cry of the thousands of misplaced souls during the horribly disorienting WWII years.
If there was one moment in which single-handedly culminates The Archers’ style, their sympathy of their characters’ moral dilemmas, and their unique understanding of the limitless possibilities of cinema, it must be the the 15-minute dance montage in The Red Shoes. With a complete disregard for realism, it could stand alone as its own short film. With Vicki Page (Moira Shearer) cast in the lead for a ballet adaptation of the fairy tale The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Anderson, it doesn’t take long for the audience to connect the dots between dancer and role. The opening’s red curtain reminds the audience (of the film) that this is a performance, and the quite normal editing reinforces this. Then, at some point something changes. The costume changes that occur seemingly in microseconds, the increasingly challenging and quick editing, the dimensions of space which all but appear impossible…as an audience member, we should be programed to dismiss this as unrealistic, but because of the magic of Powell and Pressburger and their commitment to the form of cinema, it becomes a moment which encapsulates their triumphs as filmmakers.
While The Archers became less successful in the 1950s and ended officially in 1957, their efforts during the years between left an indelible mark on filmmakers, particularly in the last few years whether anyone noticed it or not Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker tells the tale of a daring bomb detonator not unlike Sammy Rice of The Small Back Room. In 2010, a headstrong woman journeyed to the northern isles with marriage on her mind only to be diverted by stormy weather, local color and true love. Leap Year lifted the plot of I Know Where I’m Going but not the verbal wit or the atmospheric magic. And perhaps most (in)famously, The Red Shoes was one of many classic films blended to create Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan, concerning a ballerina dangerously caught up in the role she is asked to play and the sociological identities she must choose between.
While many of these films merely lift the plot of the Archers’ many masterpieces, it is a rarity in which a filmmaker embodies the magic and deft understanding of the dreamscapes of time and space. But there is hope; Martin Scorsese has been a vociferous fan of The Archers and their use of color, music, memory and montage was beautifully paid homage to in Scorsese’s underrated tale of the haunting power of fragmented memories Shutter Island. Ever the ambassador for the preservation of classic films both technically and viscerally, Scorsese understood the importance of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger before anyone else did, before it became “cool.” By heading the restoration of The Red Shoes (which can be viewed in all its splendor on the new 2-disc Criterion Edition DVD), Scorsese continues to be a beacon of hope in introducing The Archers to a new generation. As Leslie Howard once cheerfully stated in The 49th Parallel, “Wars may come and wars may go, but art goes on forever.” That line is more than a potential motto for The Archers; it is a testament to their enduring popularity and unforgettable importance in the 21st Century.
“The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.”
Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.