For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art. – Michael Powell
Long before Darren Aronofsky over-stylishly detailed a ballerina breakdown in Black Swan, English directorial team Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger constructed a complicated story-within-a-story tale of another disturbed ballerina in The Red Shoes (1948). Dreamlike and larger-than-Technicolor-life, The Red Shoes won two Academy Awards, is considered one of the best films ever made by Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, and is one of the British Film Institute’s Top 100 Films. But despite such acclaim for this films and the other they made together under the production company called The Archers, the brilliance of Michael Powell (1905 – 199) dissipated with one extremely provocative film that was light years ahead of its time.
I live cinema. I chose the cinema when I was very young, 16 years old, and from then on my memories virtually coincide with the history of the cinema . . . I’m not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema. I have grown up with and through cinema; everything that I’ve had in the way of education has been through the cinema; insofar as I’m interested in images, in books, in music, it’s all due to the cinema.
As a director Powell got his start in the 1920s by directing “Quota Quickies” (the British version of early B-Movies) and then formed a unique directorial partnership with Emeric Pressburger in 1939 starting with The Spy in Black. In their production company, The Archers, would make solid contributions to cinema that included The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Small Back Room (1949), Gone to Earth (1950), and this weekend’s brunch film The Red Shoes (1948). Their collaboration lasted until 1957.
During his career Powell did direct a small number of films on his own, one of them being the seminal film Peeping Tom (1960) that would ultimately destroy his career. Released the same year as another British director’s film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with similar narratives: a disturbed young man kills women, familial relationships, and damaging psychological conditions. Except, as we all know, Psycho changed the face of American cinema while Peeping Tom (of which I consider the better film) was met with outrage. Mainly, people were upset that the film portrayed the serial killer, Mark, is treated with sympathy. What’s most interesting to me is Powell’s use of camera techniques, utilizing first-person views where the audience becomes the eyes of the killer (eyes are so important in this film) and how the camera itself functions as a murder weapon. An explicit representation of “death by cinema” that somewhat foretold Powell’s own future in film.
“I had to explain to him that his work was a great source of inspiration for a whole new generation of film-makers – myself, Spielberg, Paul Schrader, Coppola, De Palma. We would talk about his films in Los Angeles often. They were a lifeblood to us, at a time when the films were not necessarily immediately available. He had no idea this was all happening.” Martin Scorsese
Powell was absorbed back into the film-fold by fellow cinephile Martin Scorsese who brought Peeping Tom to the 1979 New York Film Festival and who even had Powell consult on Raging Bull. Looking at other artists who similarly tackled the notion of violence in the consumption and production of cinema – think Spanish experimental filmmaker Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato up to the saturated color style of Dario Argento – and it’s clear that the history of cinema has only benefitted from Powell’s bold creations. I guess in a way, as he refers to The Red Shoes, he metaphorically “died” for art with Peeping Tom.