Turning. Turning Turning.
From who knows what realm of time, Michael Powell stepped into my circle. Here’s how: independent of each other’s urging, three friends–Karin, Goshia and Jean–ordered a que full of his titles from Netflix and are simultaneously watching his films,most of which were made in the 40s.
Funny, because the circle is Michael Powell’s point of entry.
Watch the pre-credits: an archer’s circle; an arrow hitting the bull’s eye; an eye; an iris; a camera lens. The story begins, the circle having drawn in the viewer.
The motion of swirling into a center, a center that threatens to swallow up the protagonist with madness, alcoholism, death, exhaustion, is a key visual, stylistic and psychological imprint of Powell’s filmmaking. Dust devils, tornados, turbulence in front of an airplane propeller, smoke rings, black holes, whirlpools, maelstroms, clocks, a swirling Milky Way, the parabola of a camera, whirring fans, LPs on a turntable, a climb to the center of a spider’s web, a fouetté en tournant that won’t stop.
Love—plain old romantic love–is the force that pulls the characters away from the gulping centers, offering new life, new opportunity, transformation. If the characters’ reject love, or cannot grasp it, the plot pushes them to an end.
There are two types of vortexes. One spins and gathers force as it approaches the center, as in water going down a drain. The second type is unforced. The swirl is a single body and the center gulps, as in a wormhole between realities.
In Stairway to Heaven a.k.a A Matter of Life and Death, a wormhole transports a fallen air plane pilot to heaven and back. Heaven, by the way, is black and white, earth is technicolor. The pilot is supposed to be dead, but isn’t, and must renegotiate his death. He goes back and forth in the wormhole. Because he has fallen in love– moments before falling from his plane–the forces in heaven allow him to live.
As it twirls, the camera in Black Narcissus zooms out of a sensuous valley situated in the foothills of the Himalayas up to a mountaintop monastery. The rotating visual follows the sound of a relentless windstorm that never stops blowing. The wind drives the nuns who live in the monastery mad. No one who has ever lived in the monastery has lasted. To prove the point, one nun becomes mad with passion for a man who lives ‘down in the center.’ She ends up falling off the edge of the mountains into the center of the vortex. Dead. But her death redeems the other nuns, who realize the wind will not relent. They pack up and leave.
Once Moira Shearer puts on the red slippers in The Red Shoes, she is doomed. The shoes turn her and turn her and turn her, In a marvelous on-stage scene the film viewer is actually standing in the center with the dancer as she twirls. We see the madness and the thrill. The ballerina would rather die than not dance, than not stand in the center. Love rescues her…for a while. But she cannot stay away from the dance.
In The Thief of Bagdad ( my favorite childhood movie, along with Red Shoes but I didn’t know then that they were both Michael Powell movies) Sabu breaks the red eye that is the center of the universe. The universe swirls and coughs him up in Bagdad. In A Small Back Room features an expressionistic hallucination scene in which a drunken scientists visits the center of a ticking bomb. The headstrong female lead in I Know Where I Am Going is pulled away from marrying a rather pompous Scottish man, who she believes is her true love, by a maelstrom at sea.
Peeping Tom incorporates a very twisted twistaroonee on the swirling vortex theme of Powell’s films. The main character, a spooky camera man, lives out his sexual obsession by killing women and watching them die through his camera. While he is watching them through the center of the lens, they are watching their own faces. The killer-cameraman has mounted a parabola mirror on the side of his camera.
Why might have Powell returned again and again to the symbolism of a gulping vortex?
A vortex is uncontrollable force. As in life and nature, human beings get caught in dynamic circles that feed on themselves to perpetuate the perceived reality. Love is a redemptive exit from the pattern. Strong characters are saved and weak ones drop into the darkness.