Thursday, 13 March 2008

Time Sick

I’m always fascinated by how screenwriters choose to show the passing of time (either forwards or back), as I think this is probably one of the hardest things to do in a novel and interesting way. On the most basic of levels, you can always go down the tried and tested title card or ‘superimposition’ route, i.e., “BATTERSEA DOG’S HOME, SEVEN YEARS LATER”. Even though one of the best films ever made – The Shining – does this, it always seems like cheating to me (I think The Shining gets away with it purely because it’s related to the concertina effect of the film’s structure – and besides, Kubrick didn’t like spending money on fripperies such as title cards, and who could blame him?). I remember reading an article by David Mamet (was it in here?) where students on a screenwriting course struggled with the same problem – the answer? Another old standby – a series of dissolving clock faces that show the passing of time. Hmmm – it does the job, but it’s a bit workmanlike.

However, as far as sheer invention goes, I don’t think you can beat the technique that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger used in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The majority of the film is told in one long flashback, and the transition from present day to past (a jump backwards of some 40 years) is handled with what can only be described as a flourish of genius. The elderly Blimp (the fantastic Roger Livesey) has just wrestled a younger officer into a pool in a Turkish bath, where he proceeds to give him a well deserved slap. As the camera tracks up the length of the pool, the water momentarily calms as Blimp walks out the other end, some forty years younger and straight into the flashback. No title card, no explanatory text – nothing; and yet you are wholly aware of what has just taken place.

The periods between the various conflicts that the film centres on are also brilliantly handled: during one such transition, between the Boer and First World War, Blimp does not appear at all. However, the various animals that he shoots on his overseas treks do, all complete with an identifying plaque giving the place and date.

I could go on and on about this film all night (Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death are probably two of the greatest ‘British’[1] films ever made), as there’s so much here that demands further examination: Deborah Kerr’s multiple roles, the narrative treatment of the duel between Blimp and Kretschmar-Schuldorff – and so it goes.

For the meantime, check out some further information and archive reviews of the film here.
[1] Michael Powell on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: “a 100% British film but it's photographed by a Frenchman, it's written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech; in other words, it was the kind of film that I've always worked on with a mixed crew of every nationality, no frontiers of any kind”.

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