Monday, 5 December 2016

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Many years ago a friend said, after I had insisted that he watch A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1946), that it had a different perspective from how to view the world, and that it consequently made the spectators view the world from a new perspective too. I have always felt it was a good way of describing the film, and the films of Powell and Pressburger in general. There is always more to the world than meets the eye they seem to be saying, something I have discussed before regarding their film A Canterbury Tale (1944). Now I have had my students watch A Matter of Life and Death, and afterwards they spent two hours talking about it freely. It was great fun.


The film begins with a British pilot flying towards home, the only remaining crew member on a Lancaster bomber returning from a raid over Germany, and right before he has to jump out without a parachute he talks on the radio to an American woman working on a British airfield; spending his last moments alive with her. What happens in the rest of the film is not as easy to describe. Due to a mistake from higher authorities he does not die, instead he finds himself on a beach (where he has a strange encounter with a young, naked, shepherd) and then he meets the woman whom he spoke to on the radio. When, belatedly, he is summoned to the next world he refuses to go. He was ready to die then but not now, and since they made a mistake he argues that he should be allowed to remain on earth.

This is the literal interpretation of the film. There are other possibilities, such as him having a brain injury which causes these hallucinations of another world, or that he actually died in the beginning and this is his afterlife fantasy. The film does leave it open as to what happens.

In A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger effortlessly breaks through such conventional boundaries as death, time and space, making them seem irrelevant and transparent. Several people die in this film, death is a key subject, but when they die they are not really gone, they just move, move to another world which is a kind of secular heaven open for everyone regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity. But they can move in our world too, at least some of them. Moving between this world and the next is here comparatively easy, there is a huge, potentially endless, escalator between the two sides, the monochrome world (which is the other world) and the Technicolor world (which is ours). But is it literally happening, or is it just in the mind of a dying man? Well, it might not matter. Who is to say what is real anyway? Not Powell and Pressburger. This is the world, or worlds, they are presenting to us and it is up to us to accept or reject them, depending upon our fears, beliefs and prejudices. This is a deeply philosophical film, as their films usually are, speculating in various ways about mind, matter, space, time, love, history and nationality. What these concepts are, what they mean, how they affect us, how they conspire to make us what we are, how they are the bedrock of humanity itself. That might sound like a lot to deal with, and Powell and Pressburger are not timid filmmakers.


Besides love and death, time is also a central aspect here. In the other world, time does not exist. Time ends when you die, and becomes separated from space. "We are talking in space, not time." as one of the agents of the other world says. He also adds "After all, what is time? A mere tyranny." When he is on earth, time stops, or rather it pauses for the people who are alive whereas it continues (since it does not exist) for those who are dead. After you die you are forever exactly as you were at the moment of death, living in a constant now.

But A Matter of Life and Death is also about England, England at war (although war was over by the time the film opened). In one spectacular sequence in the beginning a main character, a doctor called Frank Reeves, is observing the small village in which he lives through a camera obscura. With it he can see everything that is going on in the village from a room in his house. In one sense he is spying, or being the eye of God, but there is nothing malevolent about it. He is not like Peeping Tom, from Powell's later film, a disturbed and homicidal man. Reeves does it out of joy and love, even though that does not prevent it from being slightly unsettling. What he is observing is Powell's England, a brief love letter to the place of his childhood, to some extent a rural fantasy (like A Canterbury Tale). This is what is contrasted with the celestial fantasy of the other world. England is also contrasted with America, of two different cultures fighting the same war. (England's colonial crimes are also brought to light, albeit briefly.)


Powell and Pressburger and their team at the Archers, such as cinematographer Jack Cardiff, production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth and editor Reginald Mills (the composer Brian Easedale had not joined them yet, he came along with the next film, Black Narcissus (1947)), have always been pushing the medium, all aspects of it, to go further and be bolder, than what might be considered possible or practical. There is such an unrestrained imagination at work here that it is thrilling just to watch and see what they are up to, how far they are willing to push things, and A Matter of Life and Death is perhaps their most audacious film. In that respect re-watching their films will always be a slightly lesser experience from one angle, because the aesthetic surprises constantly coming at you will now already have been experienced. But that does of course not mean that their films should be seen only once. The craft, the ideas, and the powerful emotions remain from one viewing to the next, in this world and in any other that might exist.


Judging by the two-hour discussion I had with the 60 students, they seemed quite taken by it, and approached it from all possible angles. The use of colour, the concept of time, the acting, ideas on nationality and heritage, narrative structure, ethics and philosophical viewpoints. I had provided them with some keywords before but they went beyond them, and everything was meticulously analysed. They also pointed out that when the "conductor," the man sent to collect the dead, first meets the pilot a game of chess is suggested, ten years before Bergman picked up the same subject. 

A Matter of Life and Death was a huge hit when it came out, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in interviews Powell often said it was his favourite among his own films. It is comforting to know that it still enthuses new generations.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Delays

For research purposes I need to postpone today's real post until Monday. Apologies to all! Here is an image from Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1947) to keep you company over the weekend. It is not unrelated to the next post.


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The book launch

My book about Hasse Ekman, The Man from the Third Row - Hasse Ekman, Swedish Cinema and the Long Shadow of Ingmar Bergman (Berghahn Books), has been released today and is now available in stores and online, around the world. That is pretty fabulous!


Now I feel inclined to rest on my laurels for a little while, so I am taking a November break from writing. But I will be back here soon, on Friday, 2 December. Then anything's possible.

For those keen to read more on the subject of Swedish film history, here are some links to stuff I have written before:

On this blog:

About Ekman and Bergman.

About Sweden's first sitcom Niklasons, made by Hasse Ekman.

About Gunnar Fischer, the cinematographer who worked with both Ekman and Bergman.

About Georg af Klercker (filmmaker in the 1910s).

About Schamyl Bauman (filmmaker in the 1930s and 1940s).

About Mai Zetterling (actress and filmmaker from the 1940s to the 1990s).

Elsewhere:

About Ekman's Vi tre debutera (1953) - in Swedish only.

"Hasse Ekman at MoMA" in Journal of Scandinavian Cinema #3 2015.

Off-line:

"Ekman and Bergman - the antagonistic masters of Swedish post-war cinema" in La Furia Umana #7

Friday, 21 October 2016

Politics in the year 2016

The other day I watched the delightful It Happened to Jane (Richard Quine 1959), which is billed as a romantic comedy but is more accurately described as a perky lesson in civic participation and local democracy, set in a small town in Maine (although shot in Chester, Connecticut). It made me nostalgic for a time of civility and when people had not yet begun to go bowling alone (to use Robert Putnam's phrase). But I suppose people in the 1950s were also nostalgic about the good old days, so that is not getting me very far. However, I wonder if it was not the case that, despite the fear of nuclear war, the 1950s were a time of far greater hope for the future, and hope for the possibility of improvements. Today, well, I am not so sure. In any event, the state of the world made me want to write something about politics again, as I do on occasion.


Reporters and columnists are fond of referencing Aaron Sorkin when writing about politics and elections, not least in the US. Obviously The West Wing but also The American President (Rob Reiner 1995) and even, as Lexington did in The Economist the other week, A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner 1992). Lexington compared Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, with Donald Trump, complaining that as the film was a courtroom drama it was less likely that things would end for Trump as they did for Jessup.

The one Sorkin quote on politics that is most popular to use is from The American President, when the president's assistant Lewis says:
People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.
What is less frequently mentioned is the response the president gives, namely this:
Lewis, we've had Presidents who were beloved who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand 'cause they're thirsty. They drink the sand 'cause they don't know the difference.
The reason the response is less popular than the first quote is, I would think, that the second one is darker, and partially blame the voters. That is not necessarily seen as a good thing; voters, the will of the people, must not be criticised. If things go bad it is because of the politicians, as if they were not reflecting the will of those voters but were somehow disconnected. Although how and why people vote as they do can sometimes be confusing or weird, it seems strange to assume that they do not vote for what they think they want, or for what they think is good for the country. You frequently get the politicians you deserve, at least in a democracy.

The last couple of years the world seems to have taken one nasty turn after another, with ignorance, anger and hatred, not to mention antisemitism, increasing in one country after country, and extremism of all sorts becoming more and more mainstream. Donald Trump is of course the most obvious example, but it is a global phenomenon and at the moment the arc of history seems to be bending towards injustice and intolerance. In some places it is in power, and forms the government, such as across eastern Europe, the Philippines, Venezuela. In other countries they are not yet in power but are growing, and are frequently in parliament or in local governments. We can see this in The Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere. (Not to mention the steadily increasing belligerence of Russia and China, threatening their neighbours and others.) At the moment it would seem almost everything is going the wrong way; the global society is frighteningly fragile at the moment. The nonsensical Brexit is yet another example of this.

The causes for this are many. The financial crash of 2007-2008, the ongoing war in Syria, extreme weather (partially due to climate change), widespread unemployment among the young and those without a university education, severe cutbacks at newspapers and in journalism in general (which leads to people being less well-informed and politicians not held to account as much as they need to be). Among the consequences is a growing number of "politiphobes" (as Jonathan Rauch calls them in an excellent article in The Atlantic) i.e. people who basically believe that politicians are corrupt and self-interested and that all problems have easy, obvious solutions if only an outsider would come and take charge. This feeling is spread across the political spectrum, as these knights that will supposedly save us are sometimes considered left-wing and sometimes right-wing, although many are just wingnuts.

All of these things then feed on each other, contributing to making everything worse. Sure, it looks highly likely that Clinton will defeat Trump, which will in itself be a good thing, but the damage Trump has already done to the social climate and the health and well-being of democracy in the US is remarkable, with him and his base of voters whipping each other into a frenzy of toxic anger.

There has to come a point when things turn around, and people come to their senses. But when? How low will we sink first? "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" W.B. Yeats's wrote in his poem The Second Coming, reflecting on World War 1 and its aftermath, but we are not there yet, far from it, even if it sometimes feels like we are heading in that direction. It would be a good thing for starters if people calmed down, and treated each other with some basic respect and decency, including those with whom they disagree, and including on social media. There are limits, a few people are beyond the pale, but not even those should be met with scorn or hatred. We should not act or talk in a way that only makes us feel better about ourselves, that is narcissism rather than progressiveness. (Screaming "You're a fucking racist!" to somebody might feel satisfying but it will not make that person less of a racist, or encourage him to become a better person.) We should act and talk in ways that make the world a better and more decent place, and acknowledge that everything matters. A grand gesture of a prime minister or the small gesture of an individual on the bus, and everything in between, a tweet, an article, a blog post, a union meeting; everything that is going on in public contributes to the general atmosphere. And as we are all contributing to that atmosphere, we are all responsible, whether we want to or not, or whether we are aware of it or not, for that atmosphere, its tone and temperature. The trick however is to do it with proper humility. It is easy to feel as an oppressed victim and lash out accordingly, while using the sense of victimhood as a shield against criticism.

So basic civility is a starting point, beyond the more complicated questions such as how to speed up the decrease of carbon emissions, end the war in Syria, finance quality journalism, combat unemployment, safeguard pensions, successfully integrate refugees and so on and so forth. The important thing is to turn things around, before it is too late. Some people might not know the difference, but most do.



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Here is Edward Murrow as a reminder that the 1950s also had its threats against respect, democracy and decency, such as senator Joseph McCarthy.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Georg af Klercker (1877-1951)

Defining this and that period as a "golden age" tend to get rather monotonous, as it is so common. But possibly the first period called a golden age is Swedish cinema in the late 1910s and early 1920s. On this there is some consensus. There is however no consensus about which years should be covered by it. There are at least two contenders: 1913-1924 or 1917-1924. Unfortunately, 1917-1924 seems to have the upper hand; unfortunately for Georg af Klercker.


When Swedish silent cinema is discussed it is usually about Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, and films such as Terje Vigen (Sjöström 1917), Thomas Graal's Best Film (Stiller 1917), The Outlaw and His Wife (Sjöström 1918), The Treasure of Arne (Stiller 1919), Erotikon (Stiller 1920), The Phantom Carriage (Sjöström 1921) and The Saga of Gösta Berling (Stiller 1924). But there was a third man, frequently forgotten, and that was Georg af Klercker. One of the reasons he is not mentioned is that he had his best years 1915-1918, and then retired (sort of), and consequently he is not seen as part of the "golden age". And whereas Stiller and Sjöström were both in Stockholm at Charles Magnusson's vertically integrated company Svenska Bio, af Klercker made most of his films in Göteborg, at Hasselblad Fotografiska AB. But these are unfair reasons to keep him out of sight. If we instead keep to the wider span, 1913-1924, perhaps beginning with Sjöström's marvellous Ingeborg Holm (1913), af Klercker's oeuvre will be a natural part of that golden age. It is also a fact that initially Magnusson in 1912 hired all three of them, Stiller, Sjöström and af Klercker. They worked side by side for a few years before af Klercker left. Maybe if he had stayed on things would have been different.

He was born in Kristianstad, in the south of Sweden, in 1877 in a wealthy and aristocratic family. He enrolled in the military and became a lieutenant. and was consequently referred to as "lieutenant af Klercker" for the rest of his life, including by film critics. But he had artistic ambitions rather than military. More specifically, he had theatre ambitions, and began acting across Sweden and Finland. In 1911 af Klercker was employed by Dramaten (the Royal Dramatic Theatre) in Stockholm. It was from there that Magnusson lured him to his new studio on Lidingö, and made him head of production.

The first film af Klercker directed was as part of Magnusson and Svenska Bio's partnership with the Swedish arm of French company Pathé. Två bröder it was called and it was immediately banned by the Swedish film censorship board. His next film was The Last Performance/Dödsritten under cirkuskupolen (1912), which was released around the world and quite successfully so. It is partly lost, but what remains is not bad, and can be seen here:



He made several films in 1913 but then he became a part-time victim of the falling out between Svenska Bio and Pathé, as af Klercker was directing För fäderneslandet. It was finished in late 1913 but did not open until spring 1914, at which point af Klercker had left Svenska Bio for Pathé. He worked for them for a year and then he went to Hasselblad, where he was to get sole responsibility for the direction of their films. Hasselblad is today primarily known as a company that makes cutting edge cameras and photo equipment (popular at NASA, including on their lunar exhibitions) but it was not until 1941 they begun to manufacture by themselves. Before that they sold cameras, and for a while they also went into film production after they had began a cooperation with the distribution company Biograf AB Victoria. They called themselves Victorias Filmbyrå, and there af Klercker made almost 30 films, during a period of three years (half of them in 1916).

His films are a varied bunch, although thrillers and melodramas are the most common ones, and most of them have a very rich and evocative mise en scène and an imaginative use of deep focus. There is often an elaborate dynamic interplay between one level of action in the foreground and another level of action towards the back. (This was not unique for af Klercker but had become a recurring stylistic device at least since the early 1910s.) Working at Hasselblad gave him access to the most sophisticated cameras of the day, and he and his different cinematographers took advantage of the possibilities. But he was also good at directing actors, and with an eye for psychological realism. He also made the only Swedish film which seems to have been directly influenced by Louis Feuillade, Mysteriet natten till den 25:e (1917). It too was banned by the censors. Other highlights are Kärleken segrar (1916), I mörkrets bojor (1917) and Nattliga toner (1918).

1918 the film production unit at Hasselblad was sold off, and it merged with several other film companies. This new company was called Filmindustri AB Skandia, and it would the following year merge with Svenska Bio, becoming AB Svensk Filmindustri (SF), under the management of Nils Bouveng and Magnusson. So af Klercker might have been back working for him again, an idea which probably did not appeal to him. So instead he left filmmaking, briefly worked in the hotel business and then returned to the theatre. He left partly because he was tired of filmmaking, partly because his kind of films and filmmaking was considered old-fashioned, and it had become more difficult to sell them abroad, and to some extent because he was a victim of that era's perpetual mergers and acquisitions. But for a few years he was an equal to Sjöström and Stiller.

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In 1986 at the silent film festival at Pordenone there was a major af Klercker retrospective, and it did serve as a reminder to critics and scholars of his importance. There is also a book-length study of his films by Astrid Söderbergh Widding: Stumfilm i brytningstid - Stil och berättande i Georg af Klerckers filmer (1998).

Ingmar Bergman was a huge admirer of af Klercker and in 1995 he made a TV-film about him and Charles Magnusson, called Sista skriket/The Last Gasp. It is very good. Here is a page from the manuscript.

Two of his films that I have not seen but that look particularly intriguing are Nattens barn (1916) and Mellan liv och död (1917).