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A Matter of Life and Death

Our guest blogger today is Diane Broadbent Friedman. Diane is a nurse practitioner and medical educator with a specialty in neurology.

Diane writes about the film A Matter of Life and Death (1946), screening at the Toby this Friday at 7pm as part of the Winter Nights film series.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Eagle-Lion Films Inc./Photofest ©Eagle-Lion Films Inc. Photo by Fred Daniels.

There are some old movies that just grab you—heart and mind—and carry you away before you even realize it.  This is one of those films, a British film made during the final days of World War II, that is still on the favorites list of British filmgoers 60 years later.  It is wonderful, especially on a big screen. Oliver Sacks, Martin Scorsese and Steven Sondheim loved it as teenagers.  Teachers–bring your students. Anyone looking for a great night out will be captivated by the drama, the humor, and love despite great difficulties.  If you would like to know more about the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, you will enjoy visiting The Powell and Pressburger Pages.

And if you want to enjoy the film without any more preconceptions, you can stop reading now.

I became interested in this film 22 years ago, having just put my 2-year-old son down for an afternoon nap.  I am a nurse practitioner with a specialty in neurology and epilepsy.  I just turned on the TV and began to enjoy an old movie I had never seen before. Suddenly I had one of those “Hang on!” moments. And then I saw several layers of this film unfolding at the same time—a wonderful love story, a magically impossible story, and a story of the 1946 frontier of British and American neuroscience  all mixed in together.  I have taught medical and nursing students and residents.  I know how difficult it is to master the nuances of neurology—and here it was all correctly portrayed in this film with both ease and intensity.

This started my research question—who did this—and why—and how?

Through my years of medical historical research, I have been stunned to learn that film historians and medical historians had no idea what was embedded in this acclaimed film.  If you are a person with interest in medicine, history, law, literature, astronomy or even chess, you may be watching this movie and have a flash of recognition.  Hang on—you might say to yourself—did they just show that person having a homonymous hemianopsia? Or using chess to make a statement about the French revolution? Or invoking legal or surgical procedures of Andrew Marvel in the cockpit of a British Lancaster bomber? The filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a number of films together (including The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going and A Canterbury Tale) and one of their fundamental artistic convictions was that technical accuracy adds essential dramatic power to a story and draws people in, without their knowing why. Imagination, passion, creativity was not enough for the filmmakers. They needed the power of human intellect and life to make their works have special impact.  So for each film, they would consult with experts, such as a young Arthur C. Clarke for the opening sequence of A Matter of Life and Death,  as well as spend enjoyable research hours in the British Library and in used bookstalls.

Then Powell and Pressburger would jointly create a film with all the evidence of research erased, leaving its essence as the sinews of the work.  The credits would read “Written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.” Oh yes, and they were doing this while V1 and V2 rockets were bombarding London.

I have worked backwards from the film to learn about its origins, and have published my findings in a neurology journal, and more recently in a book to help non-neurologists understand the wealth of details in this film.  I have new findings which I hope to present this summer at a film conference in Scotland. Along the way I have had the kind and generous assistance of many librarians including those at the Ruth Lilly Medical Library, the library at the IMA, and the British Film Institute. In addition there have been many kind people including Indianapolis residents Tom A.  Krudy, Nancy Eschelman, and Gerald Flack. Most importantly, I have had the kindest support of Oscar-wining film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who was also Michael Powell’s wife in the last ten years of his life. At Friday’s screening, there will be a Skype conversation with Ms. Schoonmaker before and after the film with her.

But after having said all of this—just come see the film.  You will smile and laugh and cry.

Filed under: Film, Public Programs, The Toby

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