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Months of Meryl: THE RIVER WILD

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I Met Thelma Schoonmaker at the TCM Film Festival

Our coverage of the TCM's 2014 festival in Los Angeles wraps with Anne Marie on legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker

Thelma in the editing bay...

Thelma Schoonmaker is surprisingly calm. Not just calm, calming. As I sat listening to her twice at TCMFF--first at the introduction for A Matter Of Life And Death, next at an hourlong interview--I marveled at the three-time Oscar winning editor's stillness. Considering she is the preferred collaborator of Martin Scorsese, an infamously energetic director, one would think she'd need reservoirs of energy to tackle the boxing matches in Raging Bull or the tense chases in The Departed.

Schoonmaker wasn't at TCMFF to speak about herself, though...

In the years since the death of her late husband, Michael Powell, she has been a driving force between the preservation and restoration of Powell's films. Michael Powell, with his partner Emeric Pressburger, is the man behind Archer Filmmakers, who made some of the greatest British films of WWII and the postwar era. The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and A Matter Of Life And Death are part of what Schoonmaker credits Scorsese with dubbing, "the longest period of rebel filmmaking at a major studio."

A Matter Of Life And Death is also surprisingly calm, considering it's a hallucinatory story about a man's fight to stay alive. The remarks Schoonmaker made before Sony's new DCP screening mostly pertain to the productionof the film. Powell & Pressburger had been commissioned by the British government to make a film to help along straining British/US relations as the war ended. Powell's remark: "didn't we already win a war together?" Nonetheless, he and Pressburger delivered a romance between a British pilot and an American, though it also became a meditation on the afterlife, medicine, postwar life, and epilepsy.  The main character (David Niven) survives a plane crash he wasn't supposed to, and as a result falls in love. When an angel comes to earth to collect him, he demands a trial, since the situation has changed. The story itself is lovely, but it's made all the more incredible by the shocking decision to film Heaven in black and white, while pushing the envelope for just how bright Technicolor could be. The sun is lemon yellow, the roses are shocking pink, and the result is a film now earning its rightful place as a masterpiece.

When Thelma sat down for her more personal interview the second day, she explained that it wasn't always considered so. She spent about half of the interview talking about her own illustrious career in mostly self-effacing ways. She stated emphatically that she doesn't display her editing Oscar for Raging Bull because it's too painful that she won and Scorsese didn't. Her enthusiasm picked up when speaking about Michael Powell, and how they met and influenced each other. Scorsese had met Powell in England in the 1980s after the Archer Filmmakers had sunk into anonymity. With Scorsese's help, Powell had gotten his latest film, Peeping Tom, into festivals, where it had started being noticed again. Powell became a mentor to Scorsese and Schoonmaker, even suggesting that DeNiro recite On The Waterfront in the iconic ending of Raging Bull, since his thought was that one American artist should reference another. Eventually, Powell became more than a mentor to Schoonmaker. When they married, he was in his 70s and she was in her 40s. Even now, she spoke of him with a quiet affection and intelligent excitement she reserved for no one else. She's been a widow longer than she was a wife, but she has been an active widow, promoting her husband's legacy and fighting to have his films restored and distributed so they could continue to inspire filmmakers like her. 

After A Matter Of Life And Death, Thelma Schoonmaker stood outside the screening room, idly chatting and looking at the crowd. I rushed up and gushed to her quickly that her husband's films were a direct influence on my career path. I was a ball of nervous energy, but when she shookmy hand, she stared me straight in the eye and warmly thanked me, and the frazzled energy sapped out of me. I walked away in a daze, reminded that some of the most important work in film is done by the quiet collaborators.



Anne Marie works in film preservation and writes TFE's weekly series "A Year With Kate" and her own personal blog "We Recycle Movies". You can follow her on twitter here.


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Reader Comments (6)

Agreed on A Matter of Life and Death's masterpiece status. It's the Archers BEST FILM, no question.

April 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

The restored version of The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp looked simply spectacular. Does A Matter Of Life And Death look similarly brilliant now? After all, it's also Life And Death.

April 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Volvagia, I'd argue that there no such think as the Archer's best film "no question." That said, having seen Black Narcissus and A Canterbury Tale on the big screen, those are mive favourites.

April 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

i suppose i should see all of their films since Black Narcissus is such a masterpiece

April 19, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

My mom got to hold one of Thelma's Oscars once, hahah. So random considering my mom only knows about film what I tell her and she works at a hospital in Florida, no where near anything about movies, lol. It was the one from Raging Bull. Apparently one of my mom's coworkers is friends with Thelma and just lets her hold onto her Oscar every now and then, lol... my mom got a pic with it. I was super jealous. She tried to call me to see if I could come see it, but no, lol. Anyway, yeah...random story of the day.

April 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Great lede. First two sentences. Very, very good.

April 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

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