The Bucket LIst

5. A Matter of Life and Death

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Well, after my brief break we’re back at it, and ready to cross another influential film off of the Bucket List. And, once again, my random number generator has given me a film which I’d never actually seen before, although one which has been on my radar for quite a long time. Because this is actually also the first film I’ve ever seen from the legendary directing duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Powell and Pressburger are pretty towering figures in the world of English filmmaking, and many of their films are hailed as unassailable classics, all of which have been on my ever-expanding list of movie I really need to get around to one of these days. But, thanks to this whole project, I finally made the plunge and got to check out one of their most inventive and visually striking films, A Matter of Life and Death. Or, Stairway to Heaven to some Americans. I didn’t really know much about this film, other than perhaps some vague understanding that it had something to do with the afterlife, and featured some strange visualizations of Heaven, but other than that I really had no idea what to expect. And, that was a pretty fun way to experience this film, because it really defies any explanation or classification I can come up with. It’s a singular film, something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. So, if this movie has been on your watch-list forever as well, I highly recommend checking it out before finding out much more about it, because it’s a hell of a movie, and a truly fascinating experience to have.

At this point in their careers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had established themselves as a pair of creative powerhouses. They had been working together for years, and has adopted the collective name The Archers, collaborating completely and being hailed as the writers, producers, and directors of their films. They were familiar with larger-than life productions that required quite a bit of pre-production, which came to aid their perfectionism and professionalism which insisted that they make movies exactly as they want, with no compromise, to most entertain people. And, that perfectionism really seemed to drive them insane during the creation of this film, largely thanks to the breathtaking special effects that dominate this film. The biggest and most obvious of which is the reason that the United States knew this film as Stairway to Heaven, because a chunk of this film takes place in the afterlife, and it’s shown that the path to reach this realm of existence is by taking a massive escalator in the clouds, passing by statues of humanity’s greatest members. The massive escalator was largely practical, being built by a group of engineers, and accomplished through the use of miniatures and trick photography. Which, also came into practice in other places in the film, utilizing a series of miniatures and massive matte-paintings to create Powell and Pressburger’s vision of the after-life, giving us impossibly big offices in heaven, and a courthouse in the very heart of a swirling galaxy. And, on a slightly more down-to-Earth element, they also ran into problems with the actual filming of the movie. Because Powell and Pressburger had the idea of making all of the scenes shot on Earth done in color, while all of the after-life scenes were done in black and white. And, they ended up accomplishing this by essentially doing the opposite of the Wizard of Oz, filming everything with Technicolor film and then simply not applying the color to the after-life scenes, giving them a hue and luster much different from traditional black and white film. And, it all came together to create a truly fascinating film. When it was released in 1946 is joined a slew of films made at the tail end of the Second World War that seemed to feature good people living honorably, and getting happy endings, something the world seemed to crave at the time. The film was a hit, and has gone on to become a towering figure in British cinema, often ending up on lists of the greatest films ever made. And, it’s not hard to see why. It’s definitely the greatest romantic wartime supernatural legal thriller I’ve seen this year.

 

 

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The story begins in 1945 above the English Channel, as squadron leader Peter Carter of the British Air Force is struggling to keep his damaged plane in the air. He has given permission for the other men aboard the plane to bail out to safety, except for one of his men who has already died. Peter knows that his own parachute is damaged, and he’ll never survive, so in order to make sure that the Allies know about his men he makes a call on his radio, getting a young operator named June. The two chat for a bit, while Peter makes it clear that he’s not going to survive, at which point he says goodbye to June, and leaps from his plane, figuring it’ll be better to die in the fall than a plane crash. However, the exact moment he chooses to jump the surrounding area gets covered in a dense fog, and Peter’s body plummet straight past the guide who had been sent to take him to the afterlife known as the Other World. So, Peter crashes into the ocean, and washes up onto a shore, which just so happens to be incredibly close to the base that June works at. He wakes up from the fall, and ends up wandering to the base, running into June, who is stunned that this is the man that she’d just been talking to. The two hit it off, and begin spending time together, gradually falling in love. Which, is a problem, because Peter was supposed to die. And, that’s caused quite a bit of problems in the Other World. The beings that run the afterlife chastise the guide who had been tasked with bringing Peter to their world, a French aristocrat known as Conductor 71, and tell him he has to return to Earth to bring Peter back.

Conductor 71 find Peter in the midst of a date with June, and manages to stop time in order to talk with the man. He explains what’s going on, and tells Peter that he’s going to have to die and come with him. But, Peter demands that his life should remain as it is, because it was the Other World’s mistake, and he’s now in love. Conductor 71 tells him that there really isn’t a system for appeals in the Other World, but he’ll look into it, mainly because he respects the idea of love. So, Conductor 71 returns to the Other World while Peter continues to lead his life, making June think that he’s perhaps insane after telling her about what he saw and learned. And, after a bit of time, Conductor 71 reappears and informs Peter that the Other World is willing to make a deal. He’ll go on trial and plead his case, he just needs to pick a counsel in order to defend him, and he has basically anyone who has ever lived to pick from. But, while all of this is going on, Peter has found himself in a bit of a pickle. Because June has gotten in touch with a friend of hers, who happens to be a doctor, Frank Reeves. Reeves is fascinated with Peter, and is convinced that he actually has some sort of traumatic brain injury that is causing these visions. Reeves and Peter become friends, and Reeves ends up scheduling some brain surgery to hopefully fix Peter, all while he and June play along with Peter’s story of being visited by beings from the afterlife, and his impending metaphysical trial.

Unfortunately, right before the surgery Reeves dies in the car accident. But, that ends up being a good thing, because as he finds himself in the Other World he’s approached by Conductor 71 who explains everything to him, and they both decide that Reeves should be Peter’s counsel. So, as Peter’s brain surgery begins, so does the trial. Arguing against Reeves is Abraham Farlan, an American who was the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, who hates the British, and uses that against Peter. The two get in a debate about the historical evils of the British Empire, which doesn’t really seem all that germane to the debate at hand, and they eventually decide that the only real person they need to hear from is June, because if she truly has fallen in love with Peter, and them taking him back will affect that, they feel he can stay. So, they freeze time on Earth, and the entire court comes down to speak with June. The Court speaks with her, and informs her that the only way to save Peter’s life is for her to trade places with him. And, because she’s truly fallen in love with him, she does so without hesitation. Which, proves to the court that she does love him, so they decide to allow Peter to keep his life. The jury rules in his favor, and everyone goes back to the Other World, while Peter wakes up from his surgery, which was deemed a complete success.

 

 

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Like I said earlier, this is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s truly a film unlike any I’ve ever seen before. It’s making me really want to do a deep dive into the work of Powell and Pressburger, because this is one of the most interesting and innovative films I’ve ever seen. It’s just one of those movies that makes you realize what the medium can accomplish, utilizing all sorts of effects and techniques to bring a truly fantastical world to life. I joked about it earlier, but this really is a movie that defies classification, because it somehow manages to show the horror and futility of war, make a tender love-story, and devolve into a legal court-house thriller, all while revolving around the afterlife and the nature of death.  That feels like it should be too many things for a movie to try and accomplish and work, let alone work well. And yet, this film pulls it all off with seeming ease. It’s a quirky, fun little movie that isn’t afraid to shy away from some really heady and ugly concepts, all while playing around with innovations and effects that really aren’t like many I’ve seen from this era. It feels like a groundbreaking film, and one whose legacy has left massive impact on the rest of film history, and I’m frankly stunned that it’s taken me this long to finally see it, but I’m so infinitely glad that I have.

Death is a topic that has fascinated humanity ever since we discovered the ability to think about ourselves, and what it even meant when we no longer existed. And, what happens after you die is one the most alluring and fascinating questions that has ever existed, precisely because it’s a question that there will never be a concrete answer to. And, thus, it’s an incredibly fertile source of ideas. You can be a sad realist and assume that when you die and your neurons stop functioning that that’s really just it, you cease to be, and there’s nothing more. But, as humans have done for millennia, you can ponder about a world beyond life. Any manner of wild interpretations can be made, because we have no idea, and will never had an idea, of what it’s really like. But, of all the various assumptions and guesses that are made about the afterlife, I am endlessly fascinated by those who assume that if there’s an afterlife, it’s just kind of the same as what we go through here. A Matter of Life and Death is one of those types of films, portraying an Other World where people have jobs, work on timetables, and exist largely in offices. They still have petty squabbles about what country they lived in, and even have drawn out court cases about the rules. It’s a darkly ironic take, that we spend our entire life toiling away at the whims of the insane society that we’ve created, and then we’re rewarded with more bureaucratic tedium. But, hey, maybe you’ll get lucky and get a foppish Frenchman in your corner who can help you out.

As you can probably guess, I’m going to say that I wholeheartedly recommend checking this film out. I’m sad that I’ve spent years without this film in my life, and so glad to recommend people cross it off their own personal Bucket Lists. It’s an endlessly watchable and fascinating movie, really and truly unlike many you’ve ever seen before, and just a genuine delight. So, while the world crumbles around us, why not check out a singularly bizarre experience?

 

A Matter of Life and Death was written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and was released by Eagle-Lion Films, 1946

 

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