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Well, I Guess I'm a Film Buff
ericmvan
Fourteen hours is a lot of time to devote to dinner and a movie, and $60+ a lot to spend on just the movie. But that turns out to be the cost to see the newly restored print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) at the Film Forum in New York City--if you live in Boston.

It was a bargain.

I believe it is fair to say that The Red Shoes is the only famous movie by the British writing / directing team. It was certainly the only movie of theirs that I had heard of back when I was a more casual film fan. I think it is also fair to say that, were she forced name a favorite filmmaker, Sonya (my companion on this insane adventure, and much else of course) would name them. Which is how it came to pass that I saw a near-handful of other films by the Archers before seeing their acknowledged masterpiece: A Canterbury Tale (Sonya's favorite), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a masterpiece to film buffs), Peeping Tom (the film that effectively ended Powell's career by daring to portray a serial killer sympathetically), and the hugely underrated bomb-defusing drama The Small Back Room. I want to see them all, now.

Some random thoughts on watching The Red Shoes (I'll hide the spoiler-ish ones):
  • This restored print is among the most gorgeous things you'll ever see. And it's not just the things that are supposed to knock us out (like the redness of the shoes) that are extraordinary; even the character's faces look exquisite. See it on a big screen if it comes to your city. Buy it when it comes out on Blu-Ray.
  • It contains what is easily the most extraordinary dance sequence I've ever seen on film (a precis of the title ballet). It makes the justifiably famous dance sequence in Singin' in the Rain, which owes it an enormous debt, seem like a sketch.
  • As an adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story, it's really quite brilliant. I'm a notorious sucker for meta, and Sonya knows this, and I am glad that she did not tell me that the movie is not an adaptation of the story but is rather about a bunch of people quite believably and brilliantly adapting it. (Except, of course, it is an adaptation of the story, very much so.)
  • I am once again grateful that the analytic part of my brain shuts itself off when I'm watching a movie, since the ending of this is telegraphed in the face of sufficient rational thought (see parenthetical note to previous point). I am also grateful that I arduously avoid spoilers: I didn't know, going on, whether the ending was supposed to be heroic, romantic, ambiguous, tragic, or what.
  • I am surprised to learn that not everyone gets that Lermontov is legitimately in love with Vicky. The key is in his reaction to learning that she and Julian have become lovers, on the very day that he had hoped to ask her to dinner. Then again, I have had precisely the same experience: being casually told that the woman I was smitten with was happily in love with someone else. (I leaned over to Sonya and whispered, "Dude, you blew it.")


I have loved all of the Powell / Pressburger movies I have seen, but (with the very possible exception of A Canterbury Tale) none struck me as likely to vault into my all-time favorites list upon re-viewing. The Red Shoes absolutely does. It is at least as good as any of them, and it is most to my taste: I am drawn to its themes as I am not drawn to those of, say, Colonel Blimp, a movie I admired ferociously but many of whose concerns seem remote to me. The Red Shoes is All About the conflict of Life and Art. As someone who once wrote a song about Yeats whose chorus went "I think he would have rather married / Maud Gonne" (i.e., than achieved artistic immortality), this couldn't have been more up my alley if I'd written the specs.
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Your enthusiasm is wonderful, as always. I only recently saw my first Powell / Pressburger film, I Know Where I'm Going!, which I enjoyed greatly. I also own A Canterbury Tale, but have yet to see it. Is the restoration of The Red Shoes playing for much longer, do you know? It sounds perfectly marvelous. Thank you for your inspiring report.

The last screenings in NYC are today (Thursday). I don't know where the print is going next, but AFAIK it's not coming to Boston (which would be a logical next destination) any time soon.

Even less likely it will come to Albany, alas. I hope Criterion eventually issues the restoration; the process sounds fascinating.

I also own A Canterbury Tale, but have yet to see it.

I've raved about it for several years now; I would be very curious to hear what you think.

I don't know where the print is going next, but AFAIK it's not coming to Boston (which would be a logical next destination) any time soon.

The restoration was done in partnership with Janus Films, however, so I'd be shocked if Criterion didn't turn up with the new print in the next year or so.

Thanks for the link; I very much look forward to seeing A Canterbury Tale and reading your raves, and writing about it too.

I think it is also fair to say that, were she forced name a favorite filmmaker, sovay (my companion on this insane adventure, and much else of course) would name them.

That is probably true.

I want to see them all, now.

I suspect you know someone who can arrange that.

(At least, as much as can be presently arranged. Criterion has discs of 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)—though I agree, I'd expect a Blu-Ray of the restoration soon—The Small Back Room (1949), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), and Peeping Tom (1960). In regions we can watch, I can also find Contraband (1940), . . . One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946); a couple of others are available on DVD, but mostly in Regions 2 and 4. The Edge of the World (1937) is Powell solo; Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935) are early quota quickies; Age of Consent (1969) is almost his last film. I assume Criterion will eventually get their act together and put out the complete Powell and Pressburger, but till that day, libraries and region-free DVD players may be our friends.)

but (with the very possible exception of A Canterbury Tale)

It's okay. I have long since resigned myself to the fact that no one else's favorites are mine. Except for poliphilo, who agrees with me about A Canterbury Tale.

none struck me as likely to vault into my all-time favorites list upon re-viewing. The Red Shoes absolutely does.

I am very, very glad.

Also, play me that song about Yeats.

Of course, my assertion that "I want to see them all," as if it were a new thought, is undermined by C:\data\excel\Movies and HT\Powell and Pressburger.xls, which was last modified 8/29/08 and lists all their movies with their DVD availabilities. Since Canterbury and Blimp are bolded and have no entry for the DVD, and The Small Back Room is not bolded but has no entry, I infer that this list was constructed as we were planning to watch the latter.

I have updated the list of Powell films and can divide his career into 7 periods:

1) Many early non-Archers films (you mention two that IMDB did not show as available), some of which were lost, a couple of which were shown on TCM a year or two ago. Only the last, The Edge of the World, is available on DVD (along with a documentary he shot about it in 1978); it is apparently very much worth seeing.

2) Early Archers films (1939-42) before Blimp established them as masters. Their first collaboration, The Spy in Black, is a Region 4 (Australian) DVD; you name the others. These are all fairly well regarded (especially 49th Parallel).

3) Their classic period beginning with Blimp and ending with The Red Shoes. These six films include Powell's four highest-rated films on IMDB and six of his top seven (the other being of course Peeping Tom).

4) They continue to work regularly but with much less success, although Back Room and Hoffman have many admirers. Gone to Earth from 1950 is available as a Region 2 or Korean all-region disk (and is also apparently good), while their 1950 remake of 1934's The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Elusive Pimpernel, is apparently a disappointment and is not available.

5) After a hiatus (which may have had something to with disagreements with producers), three more collaborations to underwhelming response: Oh ... Rosalinda! is unavailable, while The Battle of the River Plate and Ill Met By Moonlight are Region 2.

6) Powell's early solo career, including Peeping Tom. The very few people who have seen Luna de Miel (1958) and his German TV production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (1963) have been knocked out, and The Queen's Guards (1961) has also been well received. None of these other three is available on DVD, but the Bartok is available for screening (Chicago in '08, Seattle this February), the first 10 minutes are on YouTube, and one can hope for a Criterion release sooner than later.

7) After a stint working for American TV (and it's quite possible that I saw my first Powell at age 11, an ep of the terrific courtroom drama "The Defenders"), a final feature collaboration with Pressburger (the Australian They're a Weird Mob (1966), which is an R4 DVD), a final solo film (Age of Consent), and, most bizarrely, an unavailable and apparently very disappointing 55 minute film for children, written by Pressburger, called The Boy Who Turned Yellow. Neither of the other films is particularly well regarded.


I have updated the list of Powell films and can divide his career into 7 periods

You want this page and its sidebars.

TCM shows a number of these films—including ones that are not out on Region 1 DVD, like Ill Met by Moonlight, Gone to Earth, and The Battle of the River Plate—on a not infrequent basis, although rarely at hours when I have been able to watch them; this is what your sleep schedule and DVR are for. I will scan their schedules for the next couple of months and let you know if anything useful turns up.

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