Two films regard one another from either side of a looking-glass. The first portrays a monochrome world from which the heroine escapes to an idealized fantasy in bright colors. The second shows a vibrantly colored world in which the hero meets a threat from a monochrome fantasy realm. The first, an exemplar of Hollywood’s Golden Age, is perhaps the greatest exception to the rule that too many cooks spoil the broth — five directors and as many as eighteen writers had a hand in it. The second, a postwar British film, is a poster child for auteurism — written, produced and directed by the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The first is a coming-of-age tale; the second, a romance. Cinema permits us to step through the looking-glass and meet them both.
The Wizard of Oz needs no introduction. Most Americans have internalized it, which is appropriate for a story that takes place inside the psychological battleground of a young girl’s mind. Yes, the “it was all a dream” cop-out at the end is something that popular culture has been chafing at ever since, but the fact remains that this story is about Dorothy sorting through all the issues that are set up in the initial Kansas scenes. She learns not to run away because “there’s no place like home.” It is, in fact, her brains, heart, and courage (or rather, her perception of them) that need a boost. But before we get too deep into psychoanalyzing the film (as many already have, to varying results), it’s good to remember that the film is dedicated to the “young in heart.” Oz is a real place for many of us, because no amount of logical explanation is as potent as what we see with our own eyes.
Three-strip (full color) Technicolor was developed in the early 1930s but wasn’t used in every scene of a feature-length film until Becky Sharp in 1935. Only four years later, The Wizard of Oz came along, incorporating color into its story in unprecedented ways. Poor old Kansas, in sepia-filtered black-and-white, looks dull and hopeless to Dorothy at first, although by the end she’s able to see it as warm, simple, and comforting. But Oz is a place of unimagined possibilities, an entire spectrum of personalities and moods. Specific colors, of course, are underlined — ruby red slippers, yellow bricks, and an emerald green palace. From the sets and costumes to the matte paintings, every inch of every frame is eye-popping. The movie’s original audiences journeyed with Dorothy to a new world, discovering new possibilities for the silver screen. Color was now state-of-the-art, and although it didn’t completely take over like sound did a decade earlier, it soon became a requirement for the most spectacular films.
Seven years later, Powell and Pressburger flipped that idea on its head with A Matter of Life and Death. The fantasy world in this film isn’t found over the rainbow but rather in Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country” — the afterlife. The colorful real world is animated by forces such as love and war, but the afterlife is presented as a black-and-white bureaucracy, an ordered existence in which all people know their place. I hope we can all admit that we’ve imagined heaven to be a pretty boring place at one time or another. This film exults in the possibilities of life as we know it — art, science, technology, games; the thrill of riding a motorcycle and the thrill of falling in love. Perhaps black-and-white is the Platonic ideal, and color represents the mess of reality. But that mess is beautifully alive, not static. Red is needed for blood, fire, roses, and lips. All are necessary.
The story is about an RAF pilot named Peter Carter who is forced to bail out of his plane without a parachute after a bombing run. His miraculous survival, portrayed whimsically as a bureaucratic failure on the part of the “other world,” sets the plot in motion. He’s supposed to be dead, and a celestial emissary is dispatched to see that he willingly surrenders his life, better late than never. But Peter has fallen in love with an American radio operator named June. Deeming the situation unfair, he sues the heavenly court for a stay of execution. Meanwhile, on Earth, a doctor looks after the injuries Peter sustained during his fall into the English Channel. The doctor judges Peter’s contact with the “other world” to be hallucinations caused by a head injury which will demand neurosurgery to save his life. As the trial plays out to determine whether Peter is truly in love with a woman he just met and whether he deserves to go on living, the surgery is performed. Just as in The Wizard of Oz, we are given both a natural explanation for the events and a supernatural one. Although an opening disclaimer suggests that we not take the “other world” literally, the most visually compelling moments are, again, found in fantasy. When the emissary arrests time so he can speak to Peter alone, we want to believe that the people around him are frozen in three-dimensional space, not simply in his mind. Thankfully, metaphors have legitimate value, so it isn’t necessary to rule out either explanation entirely.
One film came about because a studio (MGM) wanted to take advantage of new technology and capitalize on the record-breaking success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by adapting another beloved children’s fable. The other came about as a propaganda tool celebrating the Anglo-American alliance, the alliance that had just saved Western Europe but had a history of contention nonetheless. Both films transcended these origins. They are extraordinary works of imagination and passion. With fantastic new sights, battle-worn heroes, monsters lurking in castles, courtroom debates, joyous songs, and protagonists finding their way out of great dangers to get back home — it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, between the two of them, these films have about everything you could ever want from a movie. I might make an annual tradition out of watching these two back-to-back.