P>Over the past five years or so, Memphis cinephiles have witnessed a steady growth in the quality of the city's film culture: the development of the Memphis International and Indie Memphis film festivals, the opening of Studio on the Square and Black Lodge Video, the emergence of the Memphis Digital Arts Cooperative, the success of local filmmakers such as Craig Brewer, J. Michael McCarthy, Ira Sachs, and Morgan Jon Fox.
Despite all that, one still has to wonder if the city is ready to support an event as ambitious as "The Magic & Humanity: A Celebration of the Amazing Films of Powell & Pressburger," a selection of six films from the critically revered British filmmaking duo to be shown this weekend at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
For event organizer Malcolm Pratt, the chance to introduce local audiences to the highlights of what film critic Dave Kehr has called "the most commanding body of work in all of British cinema" was worth the risk.
"I knew on the front end that not many people have heard of these films, and it's probably insane to think that you can get the word out about them and get enough people to come to a 2,000-seat venue for six films," Pratt says. "But there's a magic to these films. They touch peoples' lives in powerful ways."
For Pratt, the infatuation with the work of director Michael Powell and his screenwriting partner Emeric Pressburger is both relatively recent and long in coming.
"If you want to go back to the very beginning of it, it was when I saw the [Martin Scorsese] film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore at the Paramount Theater [in Los Angeles] in 1975," Pratt says. "The movie made me take notice that there was a director shaping the film. So that really got me into film in general and Martin Scorsese in particular. It's kind of in my nature to get in-depth when I'm interested in something. In studying Scorsese I kept coming across references to Powell and Pressburger, who I'd never heard of at the time."
But Pratt didn't get around to digging into Powell and Pressburger until the mid-'90s, when he bought a laser-disc copy of The Red Shoes, which contained a Scorsese commentary track. "I was just mesmerized," he says.
Even if casual American film fans aren't familiar with Powell and Pressburger, they are certainly familiar with the filmmakers they influenced. Late in life, Powell lived in the United States, where he taught at Dartmouth and served as a godfather of sorts to a new breed of American filmmakers, most prominently Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Powell also enjoyed a late-life marriage to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, best known for her collaborations with Scorsese. (Schoonmaker won an Oscar for her work on Raging Bull.) Schoonmaker, who will be appearing at Saturday and Sunday screenings to introduce the films and answer questions, unwittingly provided the title to this weekend's event with an inscription she wrote in a copy of Powell's autobiography that she gave to Pratt.
Pratt first attempted to set up a Powell and Pressburger screening in Memphis in 1997, when he learned of a retrospective of British Film Institute prints touring major U.S. cities. Pratt called the BFI about setting up a local stop but was too late.
"Even when that didn't happen," Pratt says, "I still had this determination, perhaps inexplicable, to get these films shown here and in the way they're meant to be seen."
For Pratt, that meant the Cannon Center instead of a more modest venue.
"My belief is that film is most superbly experienced on a big screen in a big theater," Pratt says. "I'm old enough to have grown up in Memphis and to have gone to all the old movie palaces downtown. There's just no experience that beats that."
Pratt's brainchild kicks off Thursday night at the Gibson Lounge with a benefit performance from singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, a Powell and Pressburger enthusiast who will incorporate songs from the films into his set.
Screenings begin Friday night, with Powell and Pressburger's most popular film, the Technicolor, ballet-themed The Red Shoes (1948), showing at 7 p.m. Critic Pauline Kael called The Red Shoes "the most imaginative backstage musical ever filmed" and wrote that "it affects some people passionately, and it's undeniably some kind of classic."
Saturday screenings begin at 11 a.m. with Black Narcissus (1947), a deliriously eye-popping and entertaining study of a group of nuns trying to establish an order in the Himalayas. Next up, at 3 p.m., is I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), a black-and-white romance set in Scotland amid a roaring storm and Art Deco imagery. Saturday screenings conclude at 7 p.m. with Pratt's favorite film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which chronicles 40 years in the life of its title character in what Guardian critic David Thomson calls "a sentimental rumination on the strength of the British character." Kehr contends that Colonel Blimp is "the finest film ever made in Britain."
Sunday screenings begin at 2 p.m. with Tales of Hoffmann (1951), another ballet-themed film with Red Shoes lead Moira Shearer. Ending the series, at 7 p.m., is A Matter of Life and Death (1946), with David Niven as a British pilot arguing before a heavenly jury that it isn't his time to die.
Tickets for Thursday's John Wesley Harding concert are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. For the festival, passes (good for all six screenings) are $45. Individual screenings are $12. Screening tickets are available at the Cannon Center box office. More comprehensive packages are available through the Web site cinemamemphis.org. •