Monday, November 8, 2010

the all seeing eye

One of the many strange scenes in Powell and Pressburger's 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death - a film choc-full of fabulous strangeness - involves a camera obscura, an optical device which projects an image of its surroundings onto a screen.

This particular camera obscura is used by an English country GP to observe the village he lives in. The doctor is a kind of ordinary superhero, the ultimate idealised Englishman in fact, who as well as being an extravagantly clever doctor and gifted surgeon, is an expert ping-pong player, a demon motorcycle rider (although he suffers a fatal crash on a country lane linking him, presumably deliberately, to T E Lawrence) and all-round rugged pipe smoking hero.

The doctor's role is quite explicitly ambassadorial. He represents England and Englishness in a celestial courtroom deciding the fate of the film's other hero, an airman played by David Niven. Although Niven is ostensibly the hero - a pilot shot down over the channel who has miraculously managed to escape death due to an administrative error in heaven - he is largely powerless, prone to drifting off into a netherworld between life and death.

It is the doctor who is the film's man of action. He lives in a house with a tower in which the mechanism for the camera obscura is installed. Despite the pretty gentility of the location the doctor's house is a kind of machine serving a very specific and somewhat intrusive purpose. Effectively, he lives inside a pin-hole camera, with the windows shuttered and an image of the outside world projected onto a white painted table in the centre of the room. His house is not so much a machine for living in, as one for looking out of. It is an optical device, one that allows him to achieve a panoptic view of village life.

The purpose of the camera obscura within the film's storyline is less clear. Neither the machine's workings nor the doctor's use of it are particularly explained. As a narrative device it allows for a homoly on the social cohesion of English village life, but it also has a more ambiguous quality especially in relation to the film's purpose as propaganda and the fact that it was commissioned by the Ministry of Information. The doctor's panoptic screen is a benign version of Orwell's Telescreen. Or a kind of antedeluvian precursor to our CCTV obsessed network culture. It is also like a scientific instrument, offering empirical evidence for the doctor in his celestial defence of both Niven's pilot and England's important role in a post war world.


David Knight said...

Patrick Geddes' camera obscura, in a tower in Edinburgh, arguably gave birth to the idea of regional planning if you believe Peter Hall's 'Cities of Tomorrow'.

Charles Holland said...

David, thanks for the link to Geddes. Very interesting.......