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Friday, April 6, 2012

This week in tactile cinema

Posted By on 04.06.12 at 12:38 PM

The ersatz (but still immersive) India of Powell & Pressburgers Black Narcissus
  • The ersatz (but still immersive) India of Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus
I got to attend Block’s presentation of The Home and the World last night, which screened from a 35-millimeter print recently struck by the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center. The color photography looked extraordinary. Ray’s films are typically praised as great human dramas, but they also have a vivid, even sensual feel for texture. Compare the imposing alleyways of The Adversary with the inviting foliage of Days and Nights in the Forest with the opulent fantasy sequences of The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, which resemble block prints come to life. In Home and the World, Ray imagined an early 20th-century estate as a little universe of fabrics, ornaments, and construction materials: it’s a film you’d like to run your fingers over. I wish I could see what pops out in the new print of Charulata that Block’s screening at 7:30 PM tonight, but I promised my folks I’d attend their Seder.

There’s no shortage of gorgeous prints in theaters this weekend. At the Music Box alone, you can check out four movies by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—arguably the most imaginative filmmakers to ever work in England—that showcase their extraordinary color photography. I’m most excited to see the duo’s India-set Black Narcissus, which should produce new frequencies in such close proximity to The Home and the World. For this film, Powell and Pressburger created a remote Himalayan convent entirely within London’s Pinewood Studios—yet they achieve such remarkable effects with depth and scale that they regularly trick viewers into thinking it was shot on location. But it’s an immersive experience for other reasons: the rich, defiantly nonnatural Technicolor images, which remind you how few contemporary filmmakers take full advantage of color; the steadily rising emotional intensity of Pressburger’s script; and the operatic integration of music (this was one of Powell’s first experiments with what he termed the “composed film,” wherein he’d commission the score for key sequences before shooting them, then sync up camera movements and edits to match the music’s progression).

These qualities are evident in the other three films in the Music Box’s series—The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), and The Red Shoes—all of which invoke a desire to disappear into a fantasy that few people experience after childhood. The films are also remarkably sophisticated in their understanding of adult emotional states: ambivalence, repressed sexual longing, fear of mortality. The distinct tension in their work—between nostalgia and a vast, frightening unknown—is practically unique in movies. I find Powell and Pressburger’s films nigh-inexhaustible: whenever I revisit them, they feel like different films—extraordinarily innocent or bracingly skeptical—depending on who I am at the time.

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