The Edge of the World (1937)

21 08 2012

Michael Powell, even at his best moments, has always felt a little off to me. Perhaps just a little too old-fashioned and hokey. He and Emeric Pressburger were immensely talented, but their artistry seems to be plagued just by their understanding of story-telling. A perfect example is the otherwise stellar The Small Back Room which features a sequence in which a giant bottle haunts a character struggling with alcoholism. It’s stuff like that dates their films, even though there is just as much evidence to suggest that both were actually fairly subtle filmmakers. This film really doesn’t support that, at least in the case of Powell here, but it might be the most moving and poetic thing for which he is responsible.

There’s a heavy historical slant here about the dying of small Scottish boating towns. It’s not something I understand historically, but it is fascinating from a purely dramatic level. Even before the film gives all the expository details, there is an undeniable sense of dread contrasting the beautiful landscapes. There’s an almost “sleepwalking” tone to the film’s characters, even after the frame story has been established and the narrative has moved to the past, prior to the “tragic” event that sparks most of the story’s drama.

The aforementioned moment is kind of a big deal in illustrating a personal problem I have with Powell generally. The sequence in question is treated like a straight-forward thriller but it seems almost forced to make up for the rest of the film, which is rather poetic and understated. It doesn’t distract from the film overall, but it seems like such a useless “narrative” event that could have been handled much more delicately. Perhaps it’s not all too different from certain events in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley but those films seem self-consciously bigger than themselves. They’re filled with poetry, but it’s a louder (so to speak) type of expression, where I think the rest of this film suggests something more subtle. In other words, Powell was reaching for something greater than Ford but came up short.

There is a lot of wonderful things in this movie. I don’t particularly like the way Powell fades images on top of each other, but he’s at least going all the way with it. The fades never completely transition, they just serve as almost mental triggers of the past. It’s a little bit hokey, but there’s an earnestness in this attempt at poetry. It helps a huge deal that the images are incomparable to anything at the time. Sure, Renoir and Ford (who I guess are the closest companions to Powell in their respective countries) shot on location, but no one would attempt anything like this until Antonioni did in 1960.

The connection with L’Avventura seems inescapable to me. The visual similarity is too strong, but Powell’s images are more immediately confronting, if only because we have been shown the literal danger they can impose on the characters. It’s not nearly as haunting as Antonioni’s work for any number of reasons, but it is fascinating none the less. At times it feels more experimental and poetic if only because of it’s short running length and the way it avoids the characters  for stretches like an extended version of Ozu’s pillow shots. It might be because it is still fresh in my mind but the beauty of harsh weather so brilliantly captured in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights seems to be anticipated here. There’s sequences built almost entirely around the wind blowing against blades of grass and maybe it’s passé but that always gets to me. The Edge of the World isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not having it linger in their brain for a long time.

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