The Evolution Of A Fantasy

In the latter days of WWII, and inevitably in it’s immediate wake, film audiences began to seek an escape from their reality.  The cinema, whose primary function is to offer a form of escape, assumed a stance leaning toward the fantastic.  In some cases this new direction moved into the extreme, to a place where filmmakers were obliged to construct images that inhabited a unique world separate from the context of our own.  Strangely, these filmmakers created images that conform to a singular idea of the fantastic, as if these separate minds had communicated across vast distances and genres.  As a closer examination will reveal, the connection that links these filmmakers comes in the form of a shared influence, that of Jean Cocteau.

The Tales Of Hoffman

            Beginning with A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) and continuing through The Tales Of Hoffman (1951), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger slowly allowed the “visual aesthetic of dreams” to dominate their narrative films.  The fantasy sequences of the afterlife in A Matter Of Life And Death and the performance of the Red Shoes Ballet in The Red Shoes (1948) are mere escapes from the more tangible reality of the primary narrative, which is designed to mirror our own.  These sequences abandon the logic established by the logic that bookends these scenes in favor of a kind of Romantic Surrealism derivative of Cocteau’s The Blood Of The Poet (1930) and later his film Beauty And The Beast (1946).  By the time Powell and Pressburger complete The Tales Of Hoffman the correlation between narrative reality and dream reality is inverted, functioning in exactly the same manner as in Cocteau’s two films.

            The aesthetic divide between the French Cocteau and the British/Austrian Powell and Pressburger lay in the latter’s employment of the color process.  The color palette of Powell and Pressburger signifies to the audience the familiarity of MGM’s musical fantasy The Wizard Of Oz (1939) as opposed to the cold uncertainty that is at the heart of Cocteau’s visual structure.  The tone of color Powell and Pressburger utilized would likewise become the norm in similar sequences occurring in a number of other films, therefore beginning a visual uniformity that functions as a shorthanded signifier to movie audiences of the kind of fantasy in which they are partaking.  For unlike the fantasies of Cocteau these colorful alternate realities do not overtly engage in an exchange with the theories of Freud and Jung, nor do they address surrealism in the classical sense.  On the contrary, Powell and Pressburger began a popular approach to “dream” and “fantasy” material that has far more in common with the cinepoems devised by the New York underground filmmakers of the late fifties and sixties.

Yolanda & The Thief

            At the same time Powell and Pressburger were making A Matter Of Life And Death Vincente Minnelli was making a name for himself on the Arthur Freed unit at MGM Studios. Minnelli’s approach to the “fantasy sequence” first manifested itself in a short dream sequence for the Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer musical Yolanda And The Thief (1946).  At this time Powell and Pressburger were still working in black and white and had not yet developed their unique color palette while Minnelli was already shooting in Technicolor.  Interestingly Minnelli’s color palette is remarkably close to that which Powell and Pressburger would achieve a few films later.  However, Minnelli’s composition of images and his movement of the camera mirror that of Cocteau’s in Beauty And The Beast, and at times seem to plagiarize Powell & Pressburger’s film.

Minnelli, unlike his European counterparts, was working in a studio system whose primary product was musicals.  Stylistically this puts Minnelli’s films at odds with Powell and Pressburger’s work because the narrative that bookends Minnelli’s fantasy sequences are not as far removed from the fantasy itself.  To distinguish the two Minnelli employs not only the Powell/Pressburger color palette but also the majestic camera moves that are inherently the trademark of Jean Cocteau.  This particular arrangement is perhaps the most successful in Minnelli’s underrated The Pirate.

            When Minnelli began working with Gene Kelly on The Pirate (1948) and An American In Paris (1951) the influence of The Red Shoes became undeniably apparent.  That Minnelli’s fantasy dance sequences in his musicals appear to inhabit the same world as that of Powell and Pressburger’s ballet films is key to understanding how filmmaker Kenneth Anger was able to remove this aesthetic entirely from it’s narrative and commercial context and return it to Cocteau’s realm of spirituality and the avant garde.

            Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (1954) is a personal document like few others in film.  Kenneth Anger fills the film with fantastic images on a black sound stage, choreographing his players, dressed in flamboyant costume, to reenact various satanic rituals outlined by Aleister Crowley.  Using the visual structure of Minnelli and Powell and Pressburger to animate the action of his film without narrative Anger purifies the idea of fantasy in cinema with limitless potential.  The contemplative nature of Anger’s film is a return in aesthetics to the European avant-garde to which Cocteau belonged.  But unlike Cocteau, Anger found the artifice signified by the fantasies of Minnelli, Powell and Pressburger to be beautifully deceptive and a useful tool to demonstrate the themes in Crowley’s teachings.  Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome’s purpose is not to entertain, but to intone a spiritual state of being close to the filmmaker’s heart and therefore cannot be considered the product of an audience’s necessity.

Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome

            That said, one must consider Kenneth Anger and all he represents.  A failed child star and guru of Hollywood gossip, Anger was much more likely to draw upon mainstream cinema than he was to turn to the avant garde, even if that was the style in which he worked.  It is also important to observe the visual similarities between Anger’s film Fireworks (1946) and that of Cocteau’s Blood Of The Poet.  Anger, more than most other filmmakers, was likely to have been aware of the aesthetic influence Cocteau was exerting over the mainstream.  However, whether or not Anger was aware that he himself was continuing this mode of influence can never be clear.

            Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome was one of the last films to adopt the fantasy trappings of Powell and Pressburger as discussed above just as surely as it marks the end of the audience’s necessity for heightened escapism and fantasy in the cinema.  That is not to say that the fantasy of the cinema has dissipated, but rather it has evolved and will continue to evolve.

-Robert Curry


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