Tuesday 15 May 2018
“It’s literally a matter of life and death” 2018
Top 100 Films Ever Made –
This film is equal #90 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll (18 votes) and #322 in the Directors Poll (2 votes).
With the experience of the last 72-hours, my father in hospital after a series of strokes, I realise more than ever that the line between life and death is as thin as a membrane, or as miniscule – as my Film Australia mate, Doug McMurdo, used to say almost forty years ago – as a gnat’s foreskin or a fairy’s fart. Life and death are delicately balanced, each against the other, more often than we could know as fact. There are hundreds of experiences in my own life where only one thing made the difference between life and death for those people I know.
A missed phone call could have resulted in my Dad dying of a stroke 17 years ago. Normally I would have been asleep when he called me from the floor of his living room after his first stroke. For some reason, that day I was at a friend’s place working on the website for my record label, 1M1 Records, instead of sleeping the sleep of the wasted.
Another time, someone decided to check on someone because of a feeling they had. Checking on that person pulled them out a funk where they were intent on committing suicide. Another time, someone had a severe heart attack in a hospital, surrounded by doctors and nurses, and they lived. Another time, someone didn’t get on a train headed for Granville because they bumped into some friends on the platform and decided to catch the next train. They’d caught that train two hundred times a year for thirty years, sitting in the same carriage, and didn’t catch it. That carriage was crushed in the Granville train disaster. Another time a miner was sick and didn’t go down into the mine the day the Port Kembla mining disaster happened. Someone didn’t go to work in the Twin Towers on September 11 and lived. Someone missed a flight on a plane that mysteriously went down and was never heard of again. A bullet missed severing an artery by a faction of a millimetre and the person recuperated instead of being instantly dead. A cricket ball found its way to hit a man’s head, below the protective helmet, at a particular point at the base of his skull, killing him instantly. The list goes on and on.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger chose to make a film about that moment, calling it A Matter of Life and Death. A pilot in a broken, doomed, aircraft, where all but one of the crew had already parachuted out safely, was caught in the plane without a parachute. He made a radio connection – and a personal connection – with someone who was able to hear him speak his last words alive.
“Telegram to my mother. Mrs Michael Carter, 88 Hampstead Lane, London, North West. Tell her that I love her. You’ll have to write this for me but what I want her to know is that I love her, very much. That I’ve never shown it to her, not really, but that I’ve loved her, always, right up until the end. Give my love to my two sisters, too. Don’t forget that.”
His final sentences contained a bit of everything about what someone might think in those last moments: “What do you think the next world’s like? I’ve got my own ideas. I think it starts where this one leaves off, or where this world could leave off if we listened to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus; with all our little earthly problems solved but with greater ones worth the solving. I’ll know soon enough anyway. I’m signing off now, June. Goodbye. Goodbye June. So long Bob, I’ll see you in a minute. You know what we wear by now: prop or wings.”
When Peter David Carter wakes up, alive and well, all bones intact, that connection with June made the difference between Carter being carted off by Conductor 71 to the next world, and him disagreeing with his destiny, arguing that he should be allowed to live on earth because it wasn’t his mistake that let him survive a fall into the ocean from several thousand feet. The argument centres around what love really means and is; how you prove love; who has the right to be on the jury; and how much dead people are allowed to meddle in the affairs of the living.
It’s all very twee in terms of the scope. It tries to juggle romance, life and death, in one film, as well as the meaning of everything in religion, race and politics, as it regards this world and any other world, and what that might look like. And then again, it’s beyond twee. It’s scope is so wide that it becomes one of the boldest films of all time. A romance, mixed with psychiatry, mixed with philosophy, mixed with a trial that determines what is right and what is wrong in the grand scheme of things. It’s the boldest movie I can think of in terms of what it attempts to cover and, partially, achieves. With the exception of Dino de Laurentii’s The Bible (1966), which tried to tell at least the Old Testament, and managed a few good stories, nothing other than Mother (2017) tried to do this much.
Visually, it also does several extraordinary things. It has a stairway going up to the place where they sort out who goes to heaven and who goes elsewhere. It has a giant eyelid closing – worthy of Hitchcock – on an eyeball. It has a thousand extras dressed in costumes from a dozen different historical periods. It uses black and white (like The Wizard of Oz) to show the difference between the cold heart of the afterlife and colour which shows the richness of human life and human love.
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it is in the Top 100 Films Ever Made. But in 1946, when it was released, maybe it was.