A Matter of Life and Death ★★★★


Second viewing, last seen 25 years ago, and boy did I not remember that the trial takes a lengthy, impassioned detour into Anglo-U.S. relations. Which isn't without interest, to be sure, but feels clumsily imposed upon this particular narrative, cross-pond romance notwithstanding. (Apparently, it was imposed...or, rather, the project was initially commissioned as a means of improving said relations. While that worked beautifully in A Canterbury Tale—my very favorite Archers production—it feels more like an afterthought here.) Also not keen on Goring's arch, twinkly performance, which stands in stark contrast to the Other World's bureaucratic vibe. Everything else, from Niven and Hunter's instant long-distance rapport in the extraordinary opening sequence (one of very few "love at first sight" encounters that works for me, largely because there's no sight involved and it's more meet-doomed than meet-cute) to the symbolic use of a camera obscura (thankfully not made explicit via clichéd shots of heavenly surveillance) to the careful balance struck between fantasy and science (this is essentially a NOMA movie avant la lettre), could scarcely be more perfect. But, man, it picks the worst possible time for a love story to get bogged down in didactic diplomacy.

(Hey, kids, time for another edition of Anal-Retentive Logging Dilemma Corner! I've called this film Stairway to Heaven for the past quarter-century, because I started out relying heavily on the Maltin Guide and that's the title it used. Plus I'm pretty sure that was the title on the print I saw at NYU*. And my rule of thumb is to use the title of the initial U.S. release, whenever that varies from the original title. But I do feel like there needs to be some sort of "statute of limitations," for cases in which the U.S. release title has clearly been all but forgotten. Criterion issuing it as A Matter of Life and Death seems definitive enough, though my craving for consistency would love to carve out a rule involving a specific number of elapsed years or something. Anyway, I'm making the switch. It is also now Bicycle Thieves in my opinion.)

* I don't actually remember the circumstances of the screening, but I saw both this film and David Holzman's Diary on the same day—6 March 1993—and my log indicates that both were theatrical projection, not home video. There's no reason why anyone would program those as a double-feature (thereby ruling out Theater 80 St Marks, where I was catching tons of double-features back then), so most likely I saw them via NYU's Cinema Studies program, which when I attended would screen a handful of somewhat random films (on 16mm, I think) every Saturday, pulling them from whatever had been shown in various classes earlier in the week. Quick check of a 1993 calendar confirms that 6 March was indeed a Saturday, so case all but closed. See what you can deduce many years later if you keep detailed logs? (I could of course have made my logs even more detailed, noting where I saw each film, but oh well. Didn't occur to me at the time.)