Monday, 2 November 2009

A Matter of Life and Death (dir. Powell and Pressburger, 1946)

A Matter of Life and Death is frequently voted one of the best British films ever made, and deservedly so. Of all Powell and Pressburger's best known masterpieces, this is my favourite - deeper than I Know Where I'm Going! and more optimistic than Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. It was written following a request from the Ministry of Information for a film that would help to improve the relationship between the British and the Americans, especially those still in Britain following the war, but it does much, much more than that.

The plot of the film follows a young RAF pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven) who jumps out of his 'plane without a parachute and survives. He is visited by the ghost of a Frenchman, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), who tells him that he was supposed to take him to heaven, but missed him in the fog, and that he must come with him now. Peter objects on the grounds that in the extra 20 hours he spent on earth, he and an American girl form the Air Force (Kim Hunter) have fallen in love, and he should be allowed more life to enjoy with her. A trial is held in heaven to determine whether he should be allowed this privilege. As far as June, the girlfriend, and her friend Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey), a neurologist, are concerned, Peter is experiencing a series of hallucinations triggered by the fall from the 'plane, which require an intricate lobotomy to fix. The audience is left to make up their own minds; the heavenly Judge is played by the same actor as the neurosurgeon who performs the operation, favouring the medical diagnosis, but no one is able to explain how Peter survived his jump.

There's so much I could talk about in this film - the theology, the cinematography (the 'other world' is in black and white, while Earth is in Technicolour, leading Conductor 71 to comment that 'one is starved for Technicolour up there'), the poetry, the humour (as a group of American GIs enter heaven, one says 'Boy oh boy, home was nothing like this!' and another replies 'Mine was!') and the genius performance that is Marius Goring as Conductor 71, not to mention the film's original purpose of improving Anglo-American relations (the trial becomes focused around the suitability of Peter, a Brit, for June, an American). However, I'll stick to my usual theme and focus on the classical elements that appear every now and again in the film.

There are two main scenes that display classical influences. The first is the scene when Peter first wakes up after landing in the English channel without a parachute and floating to shore. Peter comes to on the beach, and assumes that he has died and this is heaven. He wanders around for several minutes without seeing anything except the beauty of nature, except for a sign forbidding entrance to a particular area, which takes him aback a bit.

Peter on the beach, a little confused

Still thinking he is in heaven, Peter comes across a dog who leads him to a young boy playing a pipe, surrounded by goats. I first saw this film as a young child and I have spent years trying to work out why on earth the boy is naked (in England! OK, it's May - just a few days before the end of the war - but I doubt it's that warm...). Here, I will attempt an explanation. The boy is obviously emulating Pan - the pipes and the goats leave no doubt about that. Pan doesn't have much to do with the underworld, as far as I remember, but he is associated with nature and countryside idyll, and that appears to be the sort of heaven Peter thinks he has landed in. Most importantly, he is otherworldly, with a sense of the divine and of an unearthly beauty. I presume that he is naked in order to emphasise this unearthly feel and his connection with nature - he sits there, literally as God made him.

Of course, all this is wonderfully undercut when he opens his mouth to answer Peter's question with 'eh?' and then, as a 'plane flies overhead and Peter asks where he should report, he says 'you mean the aerodrome?' in a thick southern British accent, not far off cockney.

The other substantial classical reference appears much later in the film. Peter is now seriously ill and delirious, and while June and Dr Reeves try to hurry things at the hospital, Peter is nearly tricked into going up to heaven on the famous staircase, after which the American title of the movie (Stairway to Heaven) was taken. The staircase is lined with statues of famous men (they are all men, sadly) and Conductor 71 is helping Peter to choose a defence counsel for his trial. Among his suggestions is Plato, and the following dialogue ensues:

Conductor 71: Plato! 'Ow would you like to be defended by Plato? Nobody knew more about reasoning than Plato.

Peter: He was 81 when he died, he might be too old to think love important.

Conductor 71: You think so? Any'ow, Plato 'ad very elementary ideas about love.

Peter: Besides, didn't he quote Sophocles when somebody asked him if he was still able to appreciate a woman?

Conductor 71: What did the old boy say?

Peter: Well, he said 'I'm only too glad to be rid of all that, it's like escaping from bondage to a raving madman'!

Conductor 71: Tut! These Greeks! Cold as their marble! Now, if he 'ad been French... Richelieu for exanple. Irresistable at 80! 'Ow about Richelieu?

Peter: No, I never liked him much in The Three Musketeers.

I am very much not an expert on Plato, but I do know that if you want to know about Plato's ideas about love, you need to read the Symposium, his dialogue entirely on the subject. The phrase 'Platonic love' comes, obviously, from Plato, referring to the non-sexual love between boys and men - but I believe there is some debate as to how 'Platonic' Plato's ideas about these relationships were, especially considering the Athenian tendency towards sexual relationships between older men and younger boys or young men. Either way, Peter is probably right to be hesitant about asking Plato to argue in favour of his love affair with a woman.

The stairway to Heaven, with statues

This is actually the second reference to Plato in the film - the first occurs at the very beginning, when Peter says he hopes thatthe next world starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if we listened to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus. I'll refrain from commenting on the the theology of this statement (fascinating though it is) though I feel I should note that I would be wary of listening too much to a man who didn't bother to ask the nearest woman whether she turned mirrors brown at certain times of the month (Aristotle, On Dreams).

As you can probably tell, I absolutely love this film and would recommend it highly to anyone. Even the central trial, during which the issues of Anglo-American relations have to be gone into in detail, maintains interest with some wonderful moments - the audience reaction to British cricket commentary, the Pilgrim Fathers in general, the beautiful Technicolous final sequence. If you haven't seen it, go seek it out - it's worth looking for.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...