Welcoming back a great filmmaker

There has never been a greater filmmaker than Michael Powell. If his name isn't immediately familiar, his movies are: "The Red Shoes," "Stairway to Heaven ," "The Thief of Baghdad," and "The Tales of Hoffmann," to list just a few.

After nearly 20 years in eclipse, Powell's reputation is reviving, in a big way. He has become a major figure at Francis Ford Coppola's adventurous studio, working as a consultant on all new Coppola projects. Back in New York, he and his longtime associate, Emeric Pressburger, are helping prepare a Broadway stage version of their classic "The Red Shoes."

Meanwhile, Powell's controversial thriller "Peeping Tom" was re-released on American screens last year, and another feature is due at theaters shortly: "Return to the Edge of the World," a moving 1937 drama about a lonely Scottish island, updated with a new prologue and epilogue. And soon Powell will begin work on his first new feature in several years.

For decades, audiences doted on Powell's films. Even now, moviewise people get excited at the very thought of their favorite titles. I mentioned Powell's name recently to Lesley-Anne Down, star of the forthcoming "Sphinx," and she rhapsodized for 15 minutes on the glories of "Stairway to Heaven" and "The Elusive Pimpernel." A few days later, Lee Remick told me how important "The Red Shoes" is to Joel Oliansky, director of her latest picture, "The Competition."

Ironically, if the great Powell films had a recurring flaw, it's that they were too experimental and unpredictable. Speculating on the reasons for his dwindled output between 1960 and 1980, Powell puts the blame partly on his 1960 thriller, "Peeping Tom," which was harshly rejected by the critics when it was new. As Powell sees it, this rejection was caused by a buildup of resentment among reviewers who had trouble keeping pace with his enormous output and figuring out the twists and turns of his invigoratingly eccentric talent.

But now even Powell's early works are enjoying a comeback at a current retrospective presented by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.In the greatest Powell pictures -- such as "A Canterbury Tale" and "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" -- there is a kind of fourth dimension that's usually missing from today's films: a moral awareness so keen and central you can almost feel it. According to Powell and Pressburger, this moral level is prominent because their movies rarely began with a plot or a character. Rather, the theme came first, and the film itself was mainly an illustration or illumination of that theme.

One welcomes Powell back to the mainstream, and one welcomes his renewed influence on such younger filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. Hollywood can only benefit from his presence.

Of course, you don't have to be a grand old man of the movies to point out new directions. There are young experimenters, too. One of the most prominent right now is Suzan Pitt, whose films include the short but innovative fantasy "Asparagus."

Miss Pitt's specialty is animation. Her aim is to bring a new seriousness to this form, which is often dismissed as mere cartoonery. When I talked with her at her loft in lower Manhattan, she was enjoying a surge of fame from "Asparagus ," which has made big waves on the midnight movie circuit. In telling the dreamlike tale of a woman who unleashes a Pandora's box of magical objects, it seems to be a metaphor for her own artistic urges.

"There's a lot of me in everything I do," she says. "My understanding of animation comes through my understanding of how I feel -- how air feels against my hand, what up and down and forward and back are, and all those feelings of movement. Even when I'm animating a bird or a vegetable, I'm sensing my own body and projecting it into the flower or the truck or whatever and pretending I'm it."

Miss Pitt has labored long in the animation field -- teaching at Harvard and other schools, giving one-woman shows of films and paintings, making movies, winning prizes, and even teaching children how film works. She feels that today's kids have a special feeling for visual communication, and she has won awards for her "Jefferson Circus Songs," made in collaboration with youngsters.

She began as a painter, but turned to film years ago. "In certain people," she says, talking about her approach, "there's an intuitive drive toward making arrangements --or new sense. It's an urge to clarify what exists, and make further arrangements out of it.

"I have a feeling for arranging recognizable energies, in scenes that aren't realistic. It's not surrealism --archetypal for me. If I play with them or rearrange them, they seem to make a world which is total for that picture." Beyond that, she'd rather not say. Like Jean-Luc Godard, who is filming the script for a new movie instead of writing it, she'd rather show you pictures than describe a project in words.

She wants her next movie to be a full-fledged feature, if she can finance it. "I really want to make a major work in animation -- a film that has something to say, that moves people, and is entirely adult, as opposed to childlike entertainment," she says. "There's very little innovation in feature animation, even among the few that are made. Everyone wants a safe bet, a known story that guarantees money. If I do get this picture made, my competition will be mighty slim!"

If she does get the picture made, we can be sure it will be communicative, too, and not lost in its own experimental world. "Some films can be embarrassing," she says, "as if the maker were totally involved with self, and forgetting there's an audience out there. . . . But there's so little that's been explored, especially in animation, about human existence. And a lot of those things have to do with everybody. There's a lot I can say that is connected with myself -- my own feelings and observations -- that will also communicate with others, because they're universal. . . ."

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