4. Cinematic Playfulness
As A Matter of Life and Death presents itself from the outset as a story of two worlds, one of which ‘exists only in the mind of a young airman’ (it doesn’t say which one though) Powell and Pressburger allow themselves to delight in the visual trickery of the cinema in order to present this inner vision. The division of the two worlds into black and white and Technicolor is the most obvious device and one which allows them (and cameraman Jack Cardiff) to display the merits of two very different approaches to cinematography.
This is set up right from the pre-credits sequence, as we see the Rank gong being struck in black and white followed by Powell and Pressburger’s traditional Archers logo, also in black and white, which unfades into the bright colours of the target as the arrow thuds into the bullseye inside a circle of radiantly vibrant red. The act of seeing is represented in several self-referential scenes. Dr Reeves is first encountered viewing the activities of the villagers on his tabletop camera obscura. He is like the benevolent directorial god of this small realm, guiding the movements of the camera with his overhead handlebars whilst giving a commentary to his two attentive spaniels (a type of dog which Michael Powell himself was fond of).
Later, the camera takes on the subjective point of view of Peter as he is wheeled semi-conscious through the hospital corridors towards the operating room where his life will either be saved or lost. Our immersion in his subjective perspective is such that we even see his eyelids slowly closing shut after he has been given anaesthetic, and we drift downwards into a red haze of blood and nerve-endings. We have entered an inner landscape which slowly resolves, as the camera eye floats downwards and fades to gray, into the celestial courtroom. This view from behind the drawn curtains of the eyelids, inviting us onto a different stage, tells us visually what Dr Reeves has already made clear in his forceful assertion of the vital importance of what goes on in this subjective world. The inner eye of the imagination is equally as important as the outer eye of objective vision.
The construction of a giant eyelid to accomplish this extraordinary moment of visual symbolism points to a pleasingly traditional British element of ‘let’s see what we can knock together’ garden shed inventiveness. Thus it partakes of a noble lineage of make do and create which manifests itself in Joe Meek, the Radiophonic Workshop and the late-lamented Oliver Postgate, with his Smallfilms workshop quite literally located in the garden shed. It may appear a little clumsy and papier-mached by the digital standards of today, but it serves the symbolism perfectly and it is noticeably a real construct, which somehow makes it more magical. A giant eye of a different sort is seen when we pull back from the celestial courtroom as Peter’s trial nears its culmination. As we gain a godlike view, we see that the courtroom is centred in the core of a spiral nebula, the remote, impassive eye of heavenly justice – and of the director.