Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)

Grade: F
Title: A Matter of Life and Death (in US: Stairway to Heaven) 1946
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Notable Actors: David Niven, Roger Livesey, and Kim Hunter

How can you say no to David Niven? He is just so wonderful - Let's just reflect: The Pink Panther, The Guns of Navarone and he played Bertie in Thank You, Jeeves! So, right away A Matter of Lfie and Death should intrigue you. Plus, and I'm not sure if you caught this, but it is directed and written by the same people (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) who did The Red Shoes, which you know I love. This movie had much the same effect The Red Shoes had on me. It literally blew me away - I adored it soooooo much: sublime!

It begins a little oddly, and really that is what defines the movie the entire way through because it is just super curious but in a really good way! However, the first scene beyond the little prologue is simply lovely. Niven's character is in a plane that is on fire and he ends up calling to the nearest station, which is manned by an American girl. He recites some poetry to her while she is trying to figure out who he is and what is happening to his plane. It is such a poignant scene that it pulls you into the story right away.

Powell and Pressburger really enjoy themselves in this movie and have some fun with common stereotypes given to nations. For example, as you can tell from the picture above, the Frenchman here is depicted as foppish, effeminate, and completely sympathetic to love. Of course, Niven is an Englishman and the young woman he falls in love with is American,, which leads to a whole bunch of tension later when Niven is tried by the first American to have been shot and killed in the Revolutionary War.

I added this picture because I LOVE books and hope to have a room quite similar to this when I grow up (right now I do have stacks of books everywhere, but I can hardly stack them everywhere because my poor roomies - I live with four other girls - would kill me, especially since I have stashed my books as "accents" and "decorations" all over the place already). So this might have been a little bit of a digression, but let's face it, if this set is present in this movie how can it not be superb?

As mentioned before, Niven's plane was heading to a crash, with no hope of escape for him; however, he is able to wash up on the shore seemingly fine. But, as time progresses, Niven is visited by a Frenchman (see above) who is trying to get him to come to the afterlife since he was supposed to die in the plane crash. When this man comes to visit Niven, everything stops in time, which is what you see in the picture of the girl playing ping-pong (never much good at that game - or any game that deals heavily with eye/hand coordination). Kim Hunter, who plays the girl, is surprisingly good at holding her pose, which she has to do throughout the movie. These scenes create interesting moments in the film, revealing much of the beauty that Powell and Pressburger are able to achieve.

This is the iconic "Stairway to Heaven." As you can see, it is lined by statues of the most famous men, which the Frenchman attempts to get Niven to chose for his defense. I love this scene, which has this great driving tune being pounded out on the piano. It fits so well with the subversiveness of the Frenchman and the confusion of Niven's character. This scene is why the American released version was called Stairway to Heaven (apparently, there is not much different between the two - the American version did take out this super odd scene with a clothe-less boy on the beach, seemingly representational of Pan), and has been used as album art for Phil Collins.

This movie made use of a HUGE number of extras to make up the crowd at the trial. Interestingly, these extras included real R.A.F. crews, Red Cross nurses and W.A.A.C.s. The scene of the trial is preceded by the classic and ominous picture of Niven's eye closing over the lens, effectively placing the viewer as the person about to be placed on trial. The whole sequence of the trial is fascinatingly written, as all the different people groups interact and respond. It takes place in heaven and plays off of classic stereotypes. While I'm thinking of it, I want to mention how beautiful and evocative the scene is where they first introduce heaven. At first, there is little dialogue - just people walking in and the viewer figuring out who they are and we watch them get placed. It is such an interesting picture of heaven, though deeply flawed of course (as every version of heaven is that is created on earth).

This movie did change my life. I loved it so much, and I only watched it for the first time last week! I wanted to buy it right away, and so looked for it on amazon. However, I couldn't find it for region 1 (irritations galore!). I am not sure how to get my hands on it, and I fear I will have to be patient. I would recommend that you watch this movie right away!!! You can definitely get it from your local library. If they don't have it in stock, make use of the wonderful tool called InterLibraryLoan (it can be your best friend and save you tons of money). Until next time; go enjoy some art!

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