Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Canterbury Tale (1944)


Wartime Romanticism is common enough, especially in the movies, but no picture does it quite like A Canterbury Tale. Films like Casablanca and the Archers' own A Matter of Life and Death are achingly romantic, yet their love stories are the offspring of war itself; you could argue that stories of their ilk—frequently an American falling in love with a European—romanticize war conditions. Casablanca does this in particular, and while a beautifully crafted movie, rings of extremely lofty ideals as well—namely sacrificing one's own happiness for the greater good. Its characters are admirably noble, but this self-sacrifice can arguably be seen as the film inadvertently advocating a more utilitarian, even nationalistic, vision.

A Canterbury Tale, on the other hand, is defiantly Romantic in a more traditional sense—or rather, its Romanticism isn't mired in glorifying militant nationalism. It is the individual and individualistic values that matter most here. The movie doesn't overpower you with its sense of spirit—at least not so forcefully—but adopts a leisurely pace seemingly unconcerned with the war at all. Yet its subdued rhythm and extremely casual nature are essential to its antiwar sentiment. Most war movies tend to romanticize war or display the horrors of it, yet they're inevitably mired in it; all they can see is war.

A Canterbury Tale, on the other hand, hardly seems informed by war at all. It doesn't ignore the wartime environment, it's just not seen as a constant threat. Here instead is a movie that focuses on what we have, not what we've lost—proudly displaying a strong, proud sense of cultural heritage. It begins with shots from the 14th Century, its pilgrims bathed in light, when nationalism and industrialization hadn't yet taken root. Powell and Pressburger transition us beautifully to modern times, match-cutting a falcon to a bomber flying towards us. The narrative tone shifts from historical reverence to a more imposing, threatening atmosphere—wartime. In place of happy peasants and falcons are tanks and bombers.

Yet it isn't the military-porn of Triumph of the Will; images showcasing the instruments of war are fleeting and the movie quickly segues into its characters. The way A Canterbury Tale introduces us to its three modern day pilgrims is interesting. Indeed, we hardly get a good look at them because of the blackout, which would seem a deliberate contrast to the ancestral pilgrims basking in daylight. It's as if the Archers are suggesting we've changed—like we've lost our innocence and are living in an age of pessimism. The narrator even seems to lead us in this direction and shifts to a more imposing tone when we see the tanks:

Though so little's changed since Chaucer's day,
Another kind of pilgrim walks the way,
we modern pilgrims see no journey's end...


Yet the Archers aren't interested in augmenting the already heightened modern pessimism of its wartime audience; they are trying to subvert it. The sense of impending doom quickly dissolves, along with wartime threats, into the quaint, cozy adventures of our plainspoken heroes. Powell and Pressburger seem intent on defusing our fears of the war by reminding us, quite simply, that life goes on, same as it always has. Look at this shot:


Hardly seems to belong to the WWII climate or even an industrialized world at all. This scene at the farm is filled with possibly the most casual, understated antiwar sentiment ever captured on film. Sgt. Bob Johnson's conversation with the farmer about lumber reveals a fraternal camaraderie that subverts any nationalist tendencies. The scene envisions people as people, not as American and English. The world Powell and Pressburger have captured here also hearkens to a simpler, pre-industrial age. As Bob so eloquently puts it: "You can't hurry an elm."

There's this lovely exchange as well:

Farmer: We get all our local news at 6 o'clock, Miss.
Bob: You got a local newspaper?
Farmer: That's when the pub opens!

Yes, even the newspaper's gone in this town, further removing it from modernity.

A Canterbury Tale is filled with scenes like this—overflowing, even—and it's all thanks to the script penned by Pressburger. Over and over we're reminded the importance of a good script, by Hitchcock, Kurosawa, etc., yet we seem to ignore this in favor of the director. If you don't believe me, try naming as many directors as you can, then try naming as many screenwriters. Powell and Pressburger were on to something, sharing the credit as authors of the picture, because a movie needs both. A Canterbury Tale's writing is its blood; it's what gives it life and a heartbeat. There are so many brilliant little moments like the one at the farm I'm hesitant to go on for fear of spoiling the experience. This movie breathes its own special brand of antiwar sentiment that's difficult to find comparisons to.

Nationalism and Industrialization are widely seen as twin catalysts for both World Wars, and A Canterbury Tale achieves its antiwar sentiment in attacking them, frequently through its brilliant exchanges of dialogue. Although maybe "attack" isn't the right word. Paths of Glory or The Americanization of Emily attack. A Canterbury Tale's attacks are more like casual, almost playful jibes. Like Alison's exchange with the barkeeper:

Barkeep: do you know the lord mayor of London?
Alison [jovially]: I don't.


She's hardly ashamed of her lack of nationalistic ethos. And neither is Bob, on the glue-man:

Bob: Say, this guy might dangerous. Have you got a gun?
Policeman: This is Chillingbourne, Sergeant Johnson. Not Chicago.
Bob: Say what kind of a crack is that? I'm from Oregon.

This scene isn't merely another jab at the supposed need for national pride, but also a reminder of how the us-and-them mentality imbued by nationalism has distanced us. And the whole glue-man subplot—played with the exigency of a Scooby-Doo episode—is a delightfully subversive affair. Wartime stories like the film noirs of the day had the cloud of war over their heads, even if they weren't explicitly about it; they were filled with intense, serious dramas involving murder and loss of innocence. Yet the glue-man episode feels like a deliberate affront to this wartime sobriety and satirizes it with Colpeper's misguided sense of civic duty.

Yet even Colpeper isn't reduced to some freak-show parody and seeing Alison walk by his statuesque form unnoticed, at the end, is very poignant. The extraordinary thing about A Canterbury Tale is it doesn't stack the deck; it remains uncommonly humanist. Remember those instruments of war? Well, tanks here are simply vehicles used to get around in and ask pretty girls on dates with. The military can't homogenize our humanity into some faceless killing machine, the Archers are saying. That scene—defusing the military by subverting a tank's usual purpose—is the Archers' equivalent of planting a daisy in a rifle barrel. Or, as another farmhand tells Alison: "What makes a civilian into a soldier? The uniform." Indeed, the only "active duty" troops are children:


Above all, the film humanizes the individual. There are so many opinions flying about in this movie; it's filled with all manner of civilized argument that snubs a homogenous national identity where all its citizens talk, walk and think the same. It's a movie that basks in freedom of thought. Yet it would be wrong to call A Canterbury Tale naive or too idealistic, I think. It's simply embracing what we've already had and affirming our sense of personal purpose. It's hardly ignorant of the war, either. The power of its most sober images lies in their ultimately optimistic lining. Amongst the bombed ruins of Canterbury, we see little signs popping up like seedlings, reassuring us that while the buildings may be crushed, the town's will is not.


A Canterbury Tale is arguably my favorite Archer movie, although it's kind of pointless comparing it to Black Narcissus. It's an argument for individual triumph over militant nationalism, yet it doesn't feel like a movie sparring for a fight. It's a humble criticism of war, in deliberate contrast to the fangs of Paths of Glory, Army of Shadows, or The Americanization of Emily. I hold it up largely because its humanist angle swells with gentle emotion. It's mystical in its approach.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Sacha Guitry


I'm working on something for A Canterbury Tale, but while that's in the oven, there's this. I don't normally endorse DVDs because mostly, I don't feel they need it. No need to hip anyone to the gorgeous African Queen BD because you pretty much knew if you were getting it already. But I must give a strong, strong recommendation to the Criterion/Eclipse set of Sacha Guitry movies. These Eclipse sets are excellent—not because the movies are all great but because they broaden your horizon. It's a bit like prospecting and, pardon the expression, this Guitry release is like striking oil (or maybe finding pearls).


None of these movies are bad and The Pearls of the Crown in particular really needs an audience. With Guitry's rapid-fire pacing and almost flippant disregard for the dramatic, he briskly whisks you along a glorious, ramshackle historic voyage culminating in his own modern day treasure hunt. You know how a history book can depict the lives and deaths of generations in a paragraph? Imagine seeing that same narrative speed on film. Guitry really understood the medium, I think, and seeing waves of kings and queens pop in and out of existence in a matter of seconds is very funny; it's done very cinematically as well—I doubt you could achieve this effect in writing or painting.

See these movies. I have no reason to lie or illusion myself or others. If these four movies are any indication, the man Sacha Guitry had every bit of wit his contemporaries Lubitsch or Sturges had—not something you can say very often.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Black Narcissus (1947)


Anachronisms come with the territory and Black Narcissus is no exception. The movie's riddled with them, but I guess I don't get bothered by these things, in part because I'm almost always conscious of the time and place a movie was made in. Unless it's glaringly part of an agenda (The Birth of a Nation), these quibbles are easy, for me at least, to shrug off—especially in a movie like Black Narcissus. Film really isn't the arena for the plausibles or the politically correct; it is a medium that acts on our emotions and, most importantly, creates an atmosphere for those emotions to play out. This is Black Narcissus at its very finest.

Technical achievements aside (and the movie is a kind of blueprint for building a film), Black Narcissus's visuals along with its art direction give the picture a very strong thematic cohesiveness. Look at any of the medium-long shots of the nuns and they take on a painterly quality; some shots feel more like they were handmade than physically photographed. It's a combination of the lighting, color, costume and the actors themselves that create this still-life effect, but the mechanics are beside the point (like the method of a magician's trick is beside the point). The medium-long shot's appearance as a kind of oil painting cement the Sisters as rigid, disciplined and, importantly, a communal group of people. The statuesque uniform dulls their sense of individuality and it is this interplay that is central to the movie.

Indeed, a lot of the Archers' movies seem to favor these kinds of stories—pitting the individual against some dehumanizing force. Black Narcissus achieves this by juxtaposing its medium-long shots—reverent, communal, and free of sin—with its stunning close-ups. It's arguably the close-up that serves as the movie's engine; it drives the picture forward, both serving (audaciously) as an interrogation of the Sisters' chastity and seeking out their buried individuality.


This breach on their fortitude and piety is achieved in a myriad of ways and you could go nuts trying to keep track of them all, but perhaps my favorite—and the one that convinced me I was seeing something special—is Sister Clodagh's first flashback, along with the lead-up to that scene. Scorsese in the commentary preaches over and over about the movie's economy and he's right. We see Sister Ruth ring the bell, clearly lost in thought over the hunkiness of Mr. Dean and the movie beautifully segues into Clodagh and Philippa's conversation. Clodagh wants to be a pillar of strength and assures Philippa she'll help reconnect her to God. We almost immediately see Clodagh's fortitude crumble to her achingly Romantic, long buried memory.


This whole sequence, as Scorsese suggests, is very poetic and just about as good as anything Hitchcock has done. These images do a lot and work on many levels to develop our characters and build the movie's thematic cohesiveness. I want to emphasize the irony here because it's easy to mistake for Clodagh's hypocrisy alone: When Clodagh speaks with Philippa she speaks with a fraternal, all-knowing concern, as if she telepathically knew what was troubling her Sister. Her belief is in an almost psychic connection between herself and others, and this, perhaps is the cause of her fear and guilt over her flashbacks. The crux is: her thoughts are hers alone; she is never exposed for retreating into her memory. She is an individual with private thoughts and feelings and no sentient connection with her Sisters. In this sense, I feel the battle between mind and body a bit misguided as a final analysis—or rather superficial. I think this conflict ultimately resides with the mind struggling with itself; it is a fight between what we see and what we think we ought to see.

There are so many other little thematic underpinnings that I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention them, since the film's color progression alone is enough to warrant analysis. The beginning of the movie is pretty, but muted, but by the end, there is a beautiful contrast of blue-green with orange-red hues. These colors, other than being stunning, underscore the climactic struggle between cool chastity and the warmth of carnality. Similar contrast can be seen in the Mobu palace itself. The bleached, alabaster exterior, flush against a cliff give the impression of a fortress—like the nuns themselves, projecting an image of cleanliness and order. The interiors are a kind of metaphor for the nun's own inner thoughts and feelings. They are, like anyone else, still human. We can also look to Mr. Dean who, in his nearly ubiquitous short-shorts, seems at times more a hairy man-ape; his presence alone is an instant affront to the nun's idealized lifestyle.

Picture 7

And on and on. This movie's really a cinematic gold mine simply in terms of understanding how to use the grammatical tools of the medium, so it's no surprise Scorsese is such a fan. Yet that doesn't stop it from feeling incredibly fresh and even its anachronisms have an almost tongue-in-cheek quality about them. With Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale, and The Red Shoes, it's no wonder the Archers have such a following and I might be one of them. There are moments in their movies (flashback in Narcissus, ballet in Red Shoes, and the entirety of A Canterbury Tale) that just smacked me with their brilliance, as if to remind me of what the medium could do.

Note: I have the Criterion Blu-Ray, which is exquisite for a digital transfer, but the screens are from random places on the internet since I lack the equipment to properly screen capture what I wanted from a BD (which is my normal practice). That's why these screenshots vary size, quality, and aspect ratio. Apologies.

Links to my stupid project

For my ongoing retrospectives on my very favorites:

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012 Update

Another year, and another reminder that I've neglected this site—and hence, the invisible, virtual tumbleweed. Work, among other distractions, made the prospect of forcing myself to write all the more unappealing. The last year or so I've basically adopted a very spontaneous approach and only wrote when I felt like it. If my output is any indication, then, it's that I'm not very spontaneous. I'm running out of true free time, since I will be starting school this fall. So, I've got about 8 months to go all out.

I need some sort of project to keep me going, and I think I've got it. I recently switched to as my database of choice. Netflix was fine, but I stopped my subscription. And, if you've ever heard of, you know the site is an absolute mess. I've toyed around with others, but imdb is simply the most complete and most reliable. You can sort what you've seen by a range of years, which for me, is a huge plus since that's normally how I approach a movie. I still find imdb's community a mostly insufferable bunch, so I'm definitely not straying from my lone wolf mentality as a blogger; I am simply taking advantage of their excellent database.

I've often abhorred the use of lists and especially ratings, but I stand by their simple organizational capacity and their value as a learning tool. I'm also skeptical of superlatives, which makes it all the more damning that I have made this:

That's right. I have the courage (or rather gall) to call these movies perfect. Not because they're flawless, but because they have "it"; they have that je ne sais quoi—and yes, that's a copout answer. I think a better description is they have a pulse; they are pictures that are alive and, more importantly, synchronize with my own ethos. My project, then, is to ponder my so-called perfect conception of these movies—not to dissect them, but simply to dwell on my feelings and thoughts when I see them.

Also, I used to keep track of what I watch, but I realized it's much easier to just use, so:

Any lists I've made shall be linked to on the right.