Saturday, April 11, 2015

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | The Tales of Hoffmann

abandoning life for art
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, and Dennis Arundell (screenplay, based on the opera by Jacques Offenbach, with a libretto by Jules Barbier, which, in turn was based on stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (directors) The Tales of Hoffmann / 1951

If Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes and Powell’s Peeping Tom (of which I write above) are all more successful works of cinema, The Tales of Hoffmann, an opera-ballet based on the Offenbach opera, is perhaps the work most suitable to their temperaments. In this work, given the transformation of Hoffmann’s Stella from an opera singer to a ballerina and the balletic-inspired performance of the Olympia section (both figures performed by The Red Shoes dancer Moira Shearer), Powell and Pressburger could move almost entirely away from the confines of realism, creating a fantasy completely given over to the theatrical in the name of art.

     At times it appears that Technicolor was invented with Powell’s and Pressburger’s sensibilities in mind. Almost all of their works in color use the brightly saturated reds, yellows, greens, and blues as if they were as abstract colorists instead of storytellers. And the looseness of Offenbach’s tripartite tale makes it possible for the directors to pretty much abandon plot.   

     The high art stodginess of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, along with the balletic assertiveness of Léonide Massine bring this work a kind of inherent gravitas in which singers and dancers appear to be striving to emphasize their mastery—all which is gloriously undercut by production and costume designer’s Hein Heckroth’s decision to let loose nearly every gay-decorating convention of overwrought kitsch: rows and rows and rows of gauzy curtains, overwrought baroque bric-a-brac strewn about the sets, brocaded purple waist-coats (for Hoffmann, sternly sung by the pudgy-faced Robert Rounseville), and miles of tasseled cloaks for the work’s scowling villains Lindorf, Coppélius, Dapertutto, and Dr. Miracle (all played by Robert Helpmann and sung by Bruch Dargavel). Add to this enough makeup spread across faces in a way that suggests severe tattooing instead of merely highlighting and prettifying eyes, cheeks, and noses, and an absolutely campy mix of anachronistic dresses, hats, pants, and other attire, and one ends up with a work that makes its audiences want to laugh every time they might be expected to sigh or even cry. Even Cecil B. DeMille, hardly known for his subtle presentations of history—who wrote Powell and Pressburger saying “For the first time in my life I was treated to Grand Opera where the beauty, power and scope of the music was equally matched by the visual presentation”—could not have conjured up a Venetian bordello orgy as grand as the gaudy technicolor bash the directors cooked up for The Tales of Hoffmann. The evil magician Dapertutto, with curlicues of green paint strewn across his cheeks, struts among countless candelabrums of rainbow-colored melted candles, gathering their wax to transform them into emeralds, rubies, amethysts, and diamonds, while the courtesan Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina) exits her flying gondola in a tight-fitting black pantsuit that might seem more at home in a Fellini film. The bedded revelers lay in a circle around a huge table filled with gastronomic treats not witnessed since the days of Trimalcio’s dinner party in Petronius’ Satyricon.

      Yet as silly as all of this may seem, there’s a definite method in all the filmmakers’ mad commitment to imagery and scenarios that are so obviously “over the top.” And despite the utterly kitsch expressions of art, the way in which Powell and Pressburger have given themselves up to the artificiality of work they have created is so fascinating and spectacular that any critical judgment seems absolutely pointless. Good art or bad art is quite irrelevant when witnessing an artifact created only to be goggled over. To be truly “kitsch” it would to pretend to be something it was not. And as for camp, neither the directors nor the performers (except for the remnant of the Olympia doll) ever winks. If their utter seriousness is, at times, fairly comic, so is that part of the film’s charm.  

      The ravishingly beautiful automaton of the first tale, Olympia, is wound up so tight that she literally spins, from the Hoffmann’s arms, out of control around the golden swathed ballroom where her marionette friends jingle into existence with no strings attached. Her demise in the hands of the vengeful Coppélius, in which he quite literally tears her apart limb by limb, ends with her poor dummy of a suitor, Hoffmann, looking down up her severed head—having broken the spectacles that blind him from the truth—as he watches her eyes snapping open and closed as if she were still in semi-conscious shock. Indeed nearly every object is set into self-destructive motion as each is given an opportunity to temporarily sing and dance in Powell’s and Pressburger’s fantastical production: weathercocks spin in the wind in rhythm with Offenbach’s overture, the hand-carved grotesques decorating clocks spring into motion in the opera’s prologue, and in the final “story,” the statuary figure of Antonia’s (Ann Ayers) opera diva mother begins to sing, luring her consumptive daughter to her death.  
     Each of the humans of this work, meanwhile, attempts to become a work of art. If the original opera might seemed to be a work in which the hero devoted his life to the discovery of love, here he and all the others seem hell-bent on giving up their breathing, sentient selves to become vessels or creators of art, soon after to be destroyed or to destroy others in the act. In short, the central human figures of this work are perfectly willing to hand over their souls to the devil-art in order to continue to dance, write, and sing. 
     The ballerina Stella ends up holding the arm of the satanic Lindorf; Giulietta has already given her soul (and body) over to Dapertutto before Hoffmann falls in love; Antonia, choses to pursue her singing rather than protect her health; and Hoffmann, by film’s end, having finished the telling of his tales, has drunk himself in oblivion. Only Hoffmann’s dear companion Nicklaus (played by Pamela Brown) seems to stand apart from the others, attempting to warn his friend as Hoffmann clumsily stomps through life; the directors and writers obviously felt that they had to heavily abridge the role of this figure representing such a faithful and enduring love so that his friendship has utterly no effect.
      The film ends with yet another flourish of its total artificiality, showing Sir Thomas Beecham, in tails, baton erect, conducting the work’s final chords, before closing his score, upon which the cinematographers quickly stamp a golden seal declaring their “product” to be “made in England.” 

Los Angeles, April 11, 2015

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