“Film Blanc” (the term was introduced by Peter Valenti, in the pages of the Journal of Popular Film, although I first encountered it through Glenn Erickson) is a politically suspect style of phantasmagoria that came into its own during the exact same period (the 1940s) that its anti-thesis (film noir) flourished (although, of course, both styles had their precursors in literature and in early cinema).
While film noir looks at this hellish period from the crushed vantage of the alienated individual, the blanc movies pull waaaaaay back to look at the “big picture,” revealing that all of this death and destruction is maya, and that every terrible thing happens for a reason. At its worst, film blanc is horrifyingly smug, presenting a “best of all possible universes” scenario that is just begging for the Candide treatment.
On the other hand, you could argue that I’m being a little smug in passing judgment upon a series of films that obviously helped a lot of people through circumstances that I don’t have much experience with. It’s a fact of human psychology that we need to posit some ground of certainty beneath our mental feet before we can move forward. (Film noir shows us what happens when every vestige of that certainty is cleared away–in The Killers‘ “Swede.”) Still, I think we can hold people responsible for the kind of fantasy they stake their future (and their agency) upon.
Especially when one of the films blancs on the menu is Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946).
Here’s a movie that could easily have become nefariously (status) quomforting–it was mandated by the Ministry of Information for god’s sake! (P & P were asked to make a film that cast post-war Anglo-American relations in the best possible light.) It presents heaven as a futuristic community center where the miraculously unmangled war-dead are outfitted with mass-produced angel wings and sent off to enjoy various leisure pursuits. It pays lip-service to Mr. Jordan-style bureaucracy, with every preordained death drained of its actuality by actuarial decree. The script even commits casual murder in order to move one its most beloved characters (unruffled by the experience, of course) onto the correct plane of existence, at the appointed time.
And yet, Powell and Pressburger manage to steer their way through these obstacles (or, rather, engulf them in narratological brilliance) to produce a truly exhilarating and politically progressive film. Did I mention that I love P & P? The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is, I am quite certain, one of the greatest films ever made, and several other works in their canon (The Red Shoes, I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus and Gone To Earth–although I suppose the last choice might not play as well outside of my Jennifer Jones- and animal rights-loving perspective) are right up there!
So how did they manage this feat?
It starts with two wonderfully preemptive strikes against the cosmology of the style/genre/whatever-you-want-to-call-it.
First off, at the conclusion of a very nicely rendered Technicolor tour of the universe, the voice-over guide introduces our planet (see image above), spinning serenely on its axis (and in supposed harmony with all that has come before it), in an ironic tone of voice that amounts to a dare–“isn’t that reassuring?”
No, not really. Or, if it is, it’s only because we crave reassurance so badly that we are willing to think about exploding solar systems, sucking voids and freezing gas clouds in some very creative ways. Our narrator gives us license to do precisely that, while reminding us that this interpretive stratagem has nothing to do with objective reality.
Then the camera zooms in on the supposedly different (i.e. ravaged by “apparent” chaos) realm of human history, on the night of May 2nd 1945. The first spoken words sound, to me, like P & P’s genre-bending battle cry, as RAF pilot-in-distress David Niven introduces himself to a distant radio tower by describing himself as “Conservative by temperament, Labour by experience.” That’s Great Britain in 1945. And it’s also the film blanc–in P & P’s hands.
The wondrous Kim Hunter as an American flight controller. Need I say more?
It’s an amazing variation on the “meet cute” scenario. Niven (steeling himself to bail out of his burning plane without a parachute) and Hunter, aided by some magnificent editing and Cardiff cinematography, generate an astonishingly intimate mood, during their brief radio exchange. In order for this film to work, you have to believe, by the time Niven jumps, that these two have somehow fallen in love. And you do. Or, at least, I do!
No doubt about it, this is a “love is stronger than logic” story–but it’s an unusually even-keeled one that eschews the isolationist proclivities of the genre in favour of an emphasis upon the tangible future that the spotlighted couple (and the nations that they represent) hope to create.
But first, of course, they have to meet again (and even “cuter”)–and the film wastes no time in bringing this about.
Somehow intact (in fact, he is in such good shape that, knowing the way this genre works, you figure he MUST be dead), Niven wanders for a few minutes across a very pleasant landscape, expressing delight when he meets this putative paradise’s first inhabitant:
I love dogs too… but I digress!
Moments after this meeting, the pilot is directed (by an Arcadian shepherd boy) to Ms. Hunter herself, biking home from the tower. No, this isn’t heaven! It’s much, much better! They recognize each others’ voices immediately, and pick up where they left off the night before–which means they are soon kissing. That’s how simple things are on the magical earthly plane posited by the film.
It’s (black and white) Heaven that complicates things, with its bureaucratic timetables and claustrophobic vistas.
AND its peevish Ancien Regime Aristo agents:
Marius Goring’s “Conductor 71” plays the Edward Everett Horton role (the functionary who goofs and upsets the heavenly applecart). Actually, both Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death offer an implicit critique of the Heavenly regime, simply by dramatizing its fallibility. However, I find P & P’s variation upon the theme immensely more interesting–firstly, because it raises more interesting existential questions (pretty much “to be or not to be,” rather than “whose body shall I use tonight?”), and secondly, because it’s all staged in such a way that it almost has to be read as an exploration of a mind (Niven’s) in extremis, driven to clutch at exactly the kind of totalizing system that Jordan promotes so much more unquestioningly.
When Niven goes on trial for his life, arguing that Goring’s negligence has allowed him to bring to fruition a love that neither he nor Hunter had ever expected to consummate (bringing responsibilities that he claims he ought now be given the chance to fulfill), he stumbles into a fascinatingly unexpected cosmic appraisal of the freshly victorious Allied powers. As soon as prosecutor and defence-counsel Massey and Livesey (I’ll get back to him in a moment) get rolling, we find that it is Britain (which had, simply by surviving the war, achieved a feat analogous to jumping out of a plane without a parachute) that is on trial.
Even more amazingly (given that this IS a propaganda film), there is no attempt to disguise Britain’s appalling record as a colonial power (ah, India gentlemen, etc…) But this is a film blanc after all, not a cynical expose–and so, after the sound and the fury dissipate, Powell and Pressburger (through Livesey) speak up for a future in which the UK pledges to listen to the “better angels of its nature” (symbolized–and here the film IS uncritical…segregation P & P?–by a multicultural sextet of jurists from the United States of America. a “more perfect union” founded upon English liberal political doctrine)… Basically, they appear to be saying: “Okay. Now that we’ve come through that hell, we’d better justify our survival by chucking the Empire and sharing the wealth.”
On the other hand, the scene at the bottom of that beautiful “stairway to Heaven,” in which Hunter pledges to give up her life for Niven, while enabling the filmmakers to advocate the abrogation of the law in favour of true justice, doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about the romantic pair (we know they feel this way about each other from their first conversation)–but it DOES, if interpreted symbolically, express the hope that, if a World War Two style crisis should ever recur, the United States (Hunter–whose character was born in Boston) will be more on the ball about leaping to the defense of its natural democratic partner, Great Britain (Niven), regardless of the consequences.
One last bit about Roger Livesey (Col. Blimp himself!)’s Dr. Reeves before I go! Is this guy great or what? A master of psychology, neurology, chess and ping pong, he takes that Hippocratic Oath REALLY seriously, making sure that NO opportunity to help his fellow beings goes unheeded (thanks to his trusty camera obscura):
P & P’s oeuvre is FILLED with affecting dramatizations of friendship in action, but none of their characters ever did more for a pal than Dr. Reeves does by lurching into a fiery motorcycle crackup just in time to qualify to defend Niven on the plane above! I can’t help but read this last stroke of bloody good luck as a fabulous swipe at the logic of the film blanc (as internalized by Niven–“oh good, my friend is dead, now he can speak for me in Heaven!”)
This is a movie that has it both ways, delivering a superlative tale of Cosmic Balance, while exposing the narrow bar upon which the human psyche must tread, in order to keep the thing aloft–and all in the service of authorizing a better future that we had BETTER cash in on…
good afternoon friends!