[the latest of my columns about "movie moments" for The Hindu; this one is a tribute to those two masters, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]
A spirited young woman named Joan embarks on a journey. “I know where I’m going!” she calls out as the train starts moving – she is off to Scotland to wed a rich industrialist – but we have already been given signs that she isn’t as certain as she appears; is she marrying for love or for status?
The dream sequence that follows clarifies the state of her subconscious. Joan is at the altar, in a bridal gown. “Do you take Consolidated Chemical Industries to be your lawfully wedded husband?” the priest asks. I do, she replies. He looks up and raises his voice. “And DO YOU, Consolidated Chemical Industries, take Joan Webster as your lawfully wedded wife?” Cut to a close-up of the giant locomotive ploughing through the night. Are we imagining it, or does the deep whistle sound uncannily like “I DOOOOO…”?
On another train, in another film, two men – Colpeper, a traditionalist, and Peter, a sceptic – are having an argument. Though they maintain a veneer of civility, the dialogue becomes intense and edgy. The train pulls into a station, and in a final sarcastic response to one of Colpeper’s observations, Peter says, “I’ll believe that when I see a halo around my head.”
At this precise moment, the sunlight coming in through the carriage window creates an ethereal glow behind and around his face.
In both these scenes, three of the basic components of film – light, sound and timing – are used to create a magical, almost mystical effect. And in both, the knockout moment lasts just a second or two at most. But that’s more than enough.
The first film is I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and the second is A Canterbury Tale (1944). Both were written and directed by the phenomenal duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who helmed some of the best British cinema of the 1940s –beautifully shot films (the others include A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) that tore the curtain separating reality from fantasy. On the face of it, the stories were prim and stiff-upper-lip, about English stoicism in times of war and other crises. But there was always something playful, sinister or fairytale-like underneath.
Scenes from the Powell-Pressburger oeuvre often come to my mind when someone unfavourably compares cinema with literature, or suggests that the former requires much less rigour on the part of creator and consumer. A good book does things that a film cannot do, we are often told, and there’s no denying this. But it’s important to acknowledge that the opposite can also be true; that the mediums are so different (when each makes full use of its own strengths) that comparisons are a child’s game.
The two scenes mentioned above contain effects that could only have been achieved on film, and for which the written word has no direct equivalent. I plead guilty here: in this column, I have laboriously used words to describe these scenes, but such descriptions can never convey the fullness of the viewing experience. The many sights and sounds, working in conjunction, as everything builds toward a defining moment; how that moment fits into the film’s larger design; how Peter, just when he is most smug and seems to have had the last word, is “duped” by the framing and lighting; how Joan’s self-assurance is wittily undercut by that surreal image of the train engine bellowing.
As a Powell-Pressburger addict, let me also point you to another shot in A Canterbury Tale that was echoed, more than two decades later, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film has a famous “match cut” in which a shot of a bone – hurled into the air by a prehistoric ape – cuts to a shot of a similarly shaped satellite. (In a split-second, the film has moved a million years forward in time!) Well, the establishing scene of A Canterbury Tale does something comparable. The narrative opens in medieval times – with a view of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims – and then transitions to the World War II era via a cut from a hawk soaring across the sky to a fighter plane occupying the same space (the link is emphasized by two close-ups of a man watching from the ground, played by the same actor dressed first in 14th century clothes and then in a modern army uniform).
It’s an inventive shot on its own terms, but it is also an apt beginning to a story that will climax with a different sort of pilgrimage, where we come to see that Peter the agnostic might -- though he doesn't know it himself -- be an angel in disguise. With a halo made of light and shadow.
[Earlier "moments" column here. And here's a longer piece about A Canterbury Tale, one of my favourite films]