Kindness rules

Gavin Millar

  • A Life in Movies by Michael Powell
    Heinemann, 705 pp, £15.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 434 59945 X
  • All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema edited by Charles Barr
    BFI, 446 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 85170 179 5

Though it does not say so, Michael Powell’s 700-page autobiography is merely the first volume of a work which Powell rather surprisingly tells us is ‘what my mother would have wished and what I was born for’. Surprising not for the reference to his mother, since he always speaks of her with the greatest affection and respect, but for the seeming dedication to letters in a man who never ceases to proclaim his lifelong devotion to images. He reads an article in Picturegoer in 1920 about a day in the life of a film crew shooting in London: ‘What fascinated me was the attitude: the planned yet flexible operation, led by the director, to seize the moment, to take advantage of something pictorial or surprising, to snatch your scene out of the streets, to turn the light of common day into something beautiful and entertaining. This was for me! I never had the slightest doubt that I was meant to direct films from that day to this.’

He was 15. He made his first film ten years later, and this volume concludes with The Red Shoes (1948). Although the book is a hymn to movies, we should perhaps not dismiss too abruptly Powell’s claims for the act of writing it. They are pitched with characteristic fervour and self-confidence:

There are a few other men who know from their own experience as much about the film business as I do, but, as far as I know, most of them can’t, or won’t, put it down. It needs to be written ... I didn’t intend to write another ‘film-book’. There have been a lot of good ones published since the war, but I hope to do better than that. It will, I hope, be the story of a young man of the 20th century and his Muse, his dazzling, dancing, fascinating mistress. I owe it to my cock-teasing mistress to get it all down.

Much that is attractive about Powell, and a good deal of what makes his compatriots occasionally shy away from him, is evident in these two extracts. Enthusiasm is often judged bad form by the English, and Powell’s view of enthusiasm would no doubt accord with the etymological original: possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic ecstasy. Neither this, nor the boundless self-confidence which it appears to have given him, have been fashionable attitudes in England in his lifetime. He had not, until the Eighties, been granted the status of master in the country of his birth, the eventual acknowledgment springing, not from a change of attitude in the British, but from an irresistible concession to the work’s technical virtuosity and its passion. Few will now deny that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I know where I’m going, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (all written with and co-produced by Emeric Pressburger between 1943 and 1948) form a uniquely striking, idiosyncratic and, above all, English contribution to the British cinema.

More modest claims should be made for the book. It is rambling, repetitive, gossipy, written as if by someone rummaging through the pockets of his memory: vague and assertive in one breath, stunningly detailed and yet ingenuous in another. Talking about a visit to New York in 1945, Powell will come up with paragraphs on Tennessee Williams, silent movies, his wife’s pregnancy, American buyers’ attitudes to British war movies, the possibility of his buying United Artists with Emeric, the demise of the silents, meeting Salvador Dali, then suddenly:

Do I digress? Well I digress. Art has its historian in every century. From Benvenuto Cellini to Kenneth Clark, we learn the most from their personal memories, experiences, opinions. Do I claim to sit with the Masters? Yes, I do.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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