3. Philosophy with a Light Touch
A Matter of Life and Death is a film about ideas and philosophies, which, if we didn’t know what a joyfully visual playground it is, might make it seem a little dull. A scene which perfectly visualises this grounding in ideas and debates is the one in which Peter lies sleeping in a chair in Doctor Reeves’ library. His head is surrounded by a halo of books, which also lie scattered around on various surfaces. He has obviously been reading voraciously and widely. Indeed, the disarrayed, actively used library is an outward model of the ideas racing around in his mind. The library is separated from yet has a window looking into the games room where June and Dr Reeves play ping-pong - suggesting there is not a rigid divide between the two.
Indeed, Peter’s chosen game (also favoured by Conductor 71) is the highly intellectual pursuit of chess, often seen as analogous to various aspects of calculated real world interactions. The to and fro of the ping pong game is also a reflection of the play of opposing viewpoints which pepper the film’s debates and which takes centre stage (or court) in the match between Doctor Reeves and Abraham Farlan, facing each other from opposing promontories in the celestial struggle over Peter’s fate. This trial sequence takes the form of a classic Socratic dialogue, in which every point is answered with an ‘ah, yes, but…’ All the themes of the film are distilled in this intense intellectual debate, and yet still, despite the weighty themes and the thicket of dialogue, the tone remains light and witty.
Reeves vs Farlan includes philosophical rallies on the nature of national character, the importance of the artistic imagination in shaping culture, the distinction between law and justice, the influence of history and culture on the individual, and the importance of the individual within the sweeping tides of history. The humour with which these matters are addressed does not lessen the seriousness with which they are considered. But it is of a piece with the serious playfulness of the film as a whole. Dr Reeves’ wry, quietly stated approach opposes the high rhetorical poses struck by the embittered, hate-fuelled Farlan and thus holds out the hope for a more joyful world.
Their battle is amusingly exemplified in their appropriation of radios to provide a contemporaneous voice of Britain/America snap (or voice) shot. The British radio provides a dull cricket commentary, like John Arlott with the flu. Trubshaw immediately perks up and pays attention. As usual, Powell and Pressburger adopt a tolerant each to their own attitude. But Trubshaw aside, this is clearly a fairly damning assessment of national character. At this crucial moment, Conductor 71 magics his way onto Dr Reeves’ promontory with his own radio, an elegant wood-encased wireless which trumps Farlan’s transistor in an amusing ‘my set’s bigger than yours’ moment. He has clearly decided that his allegiances lie with the forces of romance. The radio is tuned to an American bobbysoxer singer in the early Sinatra style. Farlan grimaces in distaste at his ‘shoo-shoo baby’ lyrics. He concedes that he can’t understand a word that’s being said. The black GIs in the audience smile and nod with pleasure, however (although why they should go for this sub-Bing nonsense is a mystery). Again, each to their own, and an argument about cultural relativity is neatly encapsulated, with added laughs.