sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2007-01-17 11:39 pm

And see you, after rain, the trace of mound and ditch and wall?

I spent most of today out on errands; very uninteresting. If I dreamed last night, I don't remember it, because I slept for about three hours. But this morning, I watched Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944) on TCM, and this is now a film I love. I'm not surprised that it made no impression on me when I first ran into it as a small child, because it's a weird enough piece that the most striking images—the girl with glue in her hair, the cathedral with its bells ringing out—were probably all I could fasten on at that age, and it's very likely that I didn't even see the entire movie. Now I can observe that it has that slightly cracked dreamlike quality within which exist characters who are detailedly real, and that there is genuine fucked-in-the-head around some of the edges. By me, this is a recommendation. It is a strange film.

(Cut for enthusiastic, if not entirely coherent, reactions and some spoilers. Thanks to [ profile] nineweaving for listening to me.)

I unfortunately missed the first five minutes, so I don't know the intended atmosphere, but at the point where I came in, A Canterbury Tale looks as though it will be a sort of eccentric English countryside mystery-comedy, with rustic decor and a supporting cast of certifiables. In the summer of 1943, a land girl from London, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a British sergeant, Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), and an American sergeant, Bob Johnson (John Sweet), all meet on the train to Chillingbourne, one of these small, time-anchored towns in Kent, all hills and farmland since the tenth century, within a day's walk of Canterbury. Not that we see any of this, because it's nighttime and blackout and the characters are little more than voices in the dark, glints off spectacles and train windows, and white slices of film-noir lighting as they enter the station and the fantastical little stationmaster snaps at the American for turning on his high-wattage flashlight. As they're walking to their lodgings, however, Alison is accosted by a stranger in the shadows who bumps into her and runs away—though not before splashing glue in her hair. She's not so much frightened as annoyed, all the more so when chasing after the stranger leads to a literal dead end and the town magistrate, a gentleman farmer named Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), seems coldly uninterested in pursuing the matter, additionally informing Alison that her services as a land girl are not needed on his estate after all. To Johnson, on the other hand, who has arrived in Chillingbourne only because he mistook it for the Canterbury stop, Colpeper extends an invitation to come and hear one of his historical lectures; the magistrate is something of a scholar in his spare time. The sergeant demurs, as he has a train to catch early tomorrow and a film to see with a friend: he's a cinema enthusiast, upon which Colpeper remarks dryly, "Yes, do look out for [the cathedral]. It's just behind the movie theatre. You can't miss it." At this point the audience is not the only one with suspicions, and the next day Alison, Gibbs, and Johnson jointly determine to uncover the mysterious "glue man," who has struck eleven times over the last couple of months—it's getting so the girls don't like to go out at night anymore. With the help of some local children (who in a wonderful scene have divided up into two armies and make riverside sallies at one another with stones and green fruit, but they have all colonized the same barn for their headquarters), polite conversation, and a telling mistake that the audience realizes before the characters do, the amateur detectives learn that Colpeper is indeed the glue man. So much for the detective story. But there's no narrative charge lost with this revelation—the film is not a mystery. That's just the hinge for it to hang its mysteries, in the older sense, on.

The medieval pilgrims, we are told, journeyed to Canterbury for the answering of their prayers and the repentance of their sins. We have no idea about the sins of the three protagonists, but each has not so much a voiced prayer as a piece missing. Alison has applied for work in Chillingbourne less out of patriotism than painfully dear memories and a need to keep herself occupied: she once camped out on the nearby hills with her long-term fiancé, sharing a caravan for the happiest two weeks of her life before he was killed in action as a pilot. Johnson looks like a lightweight aw-shucks soldier, attentive to Alison with the kind of gangly charm that announces his nationality even before he opens his mouth, but he has a slow-burning fuse of misery: he has not heard from his girlfriend back in the States for over six weeks now, and he is not so naive as to believe that the post office has simply lost all his letters. Gibbs, who is sardonic and unromantic and barely notices the countryside he drives a tank through, trained as a church organist for nine years at the Royal College of Music: only to wind up a cinema organist, playing popular songs, hitting the pubs on his days off. Their pilgrimage is coincidental—Alison needs to be reassigned, Johnson has a friend to meet, Gibbs has a company to rejoin—but no less profound in the effects it will have on them.

And then there is Thomas Colpeper, who is weird on all sorts of levels: a poet-visionary and apparent directorial stand-in whose mysticism cannot be taken without several grains of salt. An ardent amateur historian, he's also distant, arrogant, obsessively focused, fond of his own voice and dismissive of others, and we will not let Freud near the symbolism of anonymously dousing girls with glue. He refers to an old ducking stool in the courthouse as an instrument "very sensibly used for silencing talkative women," and we are not surprised to find him a bachelor who lives with his mother, well-liked by the townsfolk, but intimate with no one. The first time we see him, up late with some papers in the courtroom, he seems to sit in judgment over even the camera, gazing remotely down on the world and not finding it to his liking. In a later conversation with Gibbs, he mentions that he's a part-time mountaineer; he none-too-subtly needles the musician that there are two kinds of men in the world, the kind who learns Bach and Handel in order to play trash, and the kind who walks his way steadily up Mount Everest. (Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.) He's close to the villain of the piece, unlikable and otherworldly in alternating measure. What saves Colpeper from caricature is his sheer strangeness; when he is finally exposed as the glue man, it transpires that he passionately desires to transmit his love for his country and its past to a modern-day audience that he feels has forgotten chalk downs and wild thyme and the impossible climb of stone against the sky in favor of fast cars and films and the terrible acceleration of war, that will wipe out his old, quiet, beloved Kent forever. But the world's a hard place for a mystic antiquarian. The soldiers would rather spend their nights out with girls than listen to him speak of the centuries-dead. The local girls want their boyfriends—or when the boyfriends are away to war, whoever's around—not archaeological sermons. And however he rationalizes the act, Colpeper cannot hold back time by throwing glue.

Perhaps oddly for a man who makes his living on the bench [see correction in comments], his natural habitat appears to be the outdoors. All the characters bloom in the rural environment of Chillingbourne, as Johnson befriends the town's wheelwright, harkening back to his woodworking roots, and even the urban, cynical Gibbs defends the honor of the Stour River against the Mississippi, but Colpeper appears particularly autochthonous. After his rather sinister introduction, he is spotted the next morning by Alison when her drive through Chillingbourne takes her past a beautiful old house, the kind, she tells Johnson, she's always wanted to live in. In the backyard is Thomas Colpeper, scything down weeds like an illumination from a book of hours or an angel of death in a broad-brimmed hat, in his shirtsleeves, as unlike the glacially neat and critical magistrate of the night before as could be imagined. "If anyone ever looked right," Alison marvels, "he did." In his lecture that afternoon—well-attended, thanks to the glue man's predations; with no dates to be had, the soldiers have to pass the time somehow—he speaks of bygone time with the poetic fervor of a possession, shadowplayed faceless in the glare from the empty slide projector, but he also accidentally jerks out the cord when he goes back to put on the slides, which stalls the lecture for a few minutes while a soldier fixes the projector; his best tools are not technology, but timeless words. Only outdoors does he converse freely with Alison. She fries his worldview: a young woman who is both healthily sexual—from the way she speaks of her idyll in the caravan, her three-year engagement does not seem to have been a chaste one—and perhaps as much in love with time and place and history as Colpeper himself. Her fiancé was a geologist. She herself has dug up coins from the Pilgrim's Road and knows who walked its stones before they led toward penance and miracles and salvation. A shopgirl from London, she handles a cart and horse as easily as though she had been raised to it, and walks alone on the summer hillsides to listen to the wind and watch hawks circling high in the air above the cathedral. "Glorious, isn't it?" She is not what he took her for, and maybe neither were all the girls he punished for going with soldiers. Windblown and rumpled, he sits up from the tall grass as unexpectedly as though he just materialized from the stalks, out of the sun-warmed earth, and though she eyes him warily, he apologizes for misjudging her (and perhaps, by extension, for the glue that took her hours to wash out of her hair: since none of the protagonists has yet confronted him with his crimes, she responds only that she misjudged him, too). They talk of the countryside, the cathedral, the echoes left in the land by the people who lived there, the echoes that people leave on one another . . . Colpeper will later refer to himself as a "missionary," but it's clear that while Canterbury Cathedral may be the focus of his devotions, what he worships is the land; the imprint of time; the fossils of coins and chiseled stones.

And he himself is something of a compromised Dionysos—the god who breaks down walls to make his suppliants see the sky, but who has maintained his own walls faithfully, even against himself. When the aimless, overheard conversation of Gibbs and Johnson on that same hillside reveals that they have confirmed Colpeper as the glue man, and that Alison knows, the magus-magistrate can't look at her; he gets to his feet and leaves without a word. To fight for the heritage of England as a sort of perverse bogeyman is one thing; to be unmasked in daylight is another. I do not think it insignificant that for all his eloquent self-defense on the train to Canterbury, none of it rings quite as soundly as the pleasure he takes in pointing out cloud formations to Alison, the two of them and the countryside alone and numinous. Or when Alison asks Colpeper if he ever thought of inviting the girls to his lectures, and the brusqueness with which he replies, "No," answers more than her immediate question. He has guided the pilgrims, but if there are prayers to be granted at Canterbury, there are also sins to be paid for. Angels make miracles for others, they don't benefit from them. And he may be sympathetic, but he will never be quite safe: Dionysos is not domestic.

I use the language of gods and angels because they are the medium of A Canterbury Tale, though the film crosslinks so many genres, I'm not sure all of them could be disentangled: expressionist suspense, ensemble comedy, war documentary, miracle play, with corners of Kipling and Barrie and Shakespeare edging in; land-rooted, old weirdness. There's no hint of the supernatural in the action of the film, but it's there, underlying all the story like the millennia of history beneath 1944. A village idiot who stands with outstretched arms in the twilight like the love child of a scarecrow and a clock. Johnson and Gibbs on an afternoon street, playing catch with an apple. The pour of sunlight through the rose windows of Canterbury Cathedral like the organ music that columns upward, laying the foundations of the world. Alison wringing out her hair. And it all takes place on the resonance that makes me hungry, the way I know I will never conjure that kind of this-world-otherworld for anyone else, but I am always trying.

Dammit, I have a fever. I may continue this tomorrow. And then I will watch more Powell and Pressburger (and more Eric Portman), because if this is representative of their work, I may have a new favorite pair of directors.

I need a film stipend . . .

[identity profile] 2007-01-18 04:44 am (UTC)(link)
I thought you'd like them. That quirky mysticism...


[identity profile] 2007-01-18 06:02 am (UTC)(link)
Ack. I completely forgot to tape that movie. I've been so dim the past couple days.

I saw the Criterion DVD at the store the other day, so maybe I'll pick that up . . . I'll certainly want to see it before I read this post.

By the way, in case you're wondering how to change the text of an lj cut, you put text="Cut for enthusiastic, if not entirely coherent, reactions and some spoilers. Thanks to nineweaving for listening to me." after lj-cut within the less than/greater than symbols. Like this;


[identity profile] 2007-01-18 10:49 am (UTC)(link)
"like the love child of a scarecrow and a clock."- brilliant.

It's my favourite P&P movie. The one where the arrow goes bang into the centre of the target. Like you I missed the first five minutes the first round. They're worth catching. We see Chaucer's original pilgrims and there's a hawk that turns into a spitfire.

[identity profile] 2007-01-19 09:43 am (UTC)(link)
I think Black Narcissus is extraordinary. And then there's Peeping Tom, the Hitchcockian thriller Powell made on his own after his bust-up with Pressburger- that's a very daring film.

I like the love story I Know Where I'm Going- that's very inventive- and the escape from occupied Europe drama One of Our Planes is Missing. A Matter of Life and Death is the film where they really pull out all the stops, but I'm not crazy about it; I think they were trying too hard.

[identity profile] 2007-01-22 02:00 pm (UTC)(link)
Peeping Tom deals with voyeurism and confronts the viewer with his/her complicity in the very nasty stuff that's happening on-screen. It came out at approximately the same time as Psycho and caused a comparable storm. The critics hated it and the legend is that it pretty much destroyed Powell's career.

[identity profile] 2007-01-18 12:43 pm (UTC)(link)
I haven't seen that one: you make me want to.

You say in passing of Eric Portman's magistrate / gentleman farmer, "Perhaps oddly for a man who makes his living on the bench..." - no, he makes his living as a farmer, magistrate would be an unpaid post.