sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-04-26 04:11 am
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Well, nobody's going to get me to defend the British climate

All right. In hindsight of the continuing exodus from LJ, the third of April feels a bit like an international day of social media mourning, but I regret nothing about my decision to cope on the night by self-medicating with Leslie Howard. [personal profile] skygiants had sent me the link years ago for a propaganda short called From the Four Corners (1941) which I had never gotten around to watching despite it being a grand total of fifteen minutes long. It was directed by Anthony Havelock-Allan and produced by the Ministry of Information; there are no writing credits per se, but we are told that "[t]he incident originated with Leslie Howard and A. G. Macdonell," one of the co-writers of Pimpernel Smith (1941). With a title like that, you might as well brace yourself for Empire, especially when it opens by quoting the title music from the Kordas' The Four Feathers (1939). Like Howard's wartime features, though, it's subtler and stranger than simple flag-waving and it set off a thoroughly unexpected chain reaction in my head.

The story sounds like the set-up for a joke: three soldiers from the Dominions all meet at Nelson's Column, where two of them are looking for a pub and the third is sightseeing. Specifically, he is taking a picture of what he dryly terms "Typical scene of London air-raid panic"—four Londoners on a park bench in different attitudes of total unconcern. Embarrassed by the effusive patriotism of a woman who rushes up to praise them for "coming all those thousands of miles to answer the Motherland's call to arms . . . splendid fellows!" the soldiers are rescued by the drawling interruption of one of the park-bench Londoners, the one who was smoking with his hands in his pockets and his hat knocked over his eyes. He is credited as "A Passer-By"; he is Leslie Howard and he knows where to find a pub.1 Over pints all round, he quizzes the soldiers on their reasons for joining up, each of which furnishes a miniature flashback. Corporal W. Atkinson of the Australian Imperial Force co-owned a bicycle shop in Sydney; he made his decision after catching his business partner in a newsreel, marching to the troopship with the rest of the new recruits. Private J. Johnston of the Black Watch of Canada hails from a farm outside of Vancouver; his father was killed at Vimy Ridge and he not entirely jokes that he ought to finish his job. Private R. Gilbert of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force was a law student in Auckland, finishing up his degree when he wondered suddenly if common law would mean anything in the event of an Axis victory; he walked right out of his exams and into the recruiting office next door. They may be standing in for their respective countries, but they are also real-life servicemen playing versions of themselves, and they bridle when Howard professes himself unsatisfied with their answers. "Kick[ing] Hitler in the pants" may be an admirable goal, but what makes it so? What are they really fighting for? If not the Empire ("That's a lot of hooey!"), what have they left their homes and families to defend?

Like the academic he so often played, Howard takes it on himself to answer his own question. He brings the three soldiers up to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral—itself already a vivid symbol of national resistance—and gives them a bird's-eye crash tour of London, pointing out its landmarks and sites of interest, tying each to a resonant moment of English history. Kingston, where the coronation stone of the Saxon kings still stands in the market square. Runnymede, the signing of the Magna Carta which formed the heart of all the Commonwealth's laws. For the Canadian Johnston, he points out St. Peter's Church in Petersham where Captain George Vancouver is buried. For Oceanians Gilbert and Atkinson, Greenwich Hospital because "Captain Cook had a job there once." When he shows them Bankside, he stresses that the audiences of Shakespeare's plays would have included far-flung soldiers on leave just like themselves. "And that's where your fathers and my fathers stood when we were threatened with the Armada and invasion," though most of Howard's forefathers in 1588 would have been somewhere quite different from Tilbury.2 Finishing up at the House of Commons allows him to (optimistically, in June 1941) include the Americans among the inheritors and defenders of their shared ideals. "Well, it's all yours," he concludes, "all part of London and part of ourselves . . . Yes, it's all there—British city, Roman city, Saxon, Dane, Norman—English." All the while he was talking, I was thinking that I had heard something very like it before, the visionary, scholarly, slightly laughing and slightly otherworldly voice layering time through itself and rooting it in the present day, spellbinding its listeners and waking them up to their history and inheritance, and the moment I made the connection I was seized with a desperate and conflicted longing because Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944) is the reason I love Eric Portman, but I would love too to know what the movie would have been like with Leslie Howard as Thomas Colpeper, JP.

Let me be clear: I don't think the Archers could even have approached him for the part. He was already under the Bay of Biscay when shooting began in August of 1943, and in any case their first choice for the magistrate of Chillingbourne had been Roger Livesey, whom I will always thank for turning them down. He found the role "off-key." He wasn't wrong. Colpeper is a deeply peculiar character, as difficult to pin down to a single interpretation as his signature wrongheaded act. He has the vision of a poet and the blinders of a missionary, the superiority of a judge and the guilt of a penitent; he gives mesmerizing lectures on local history and keeps breaking the slide projector. He loves his country and its deep, distant past that to him is as immediate and tangible as the warmth of the sun and the smell of wild thyme and he does some very silly, very dangerous things to try to fix history right where it is, not yet understanding that the earthquake of modernity will not erase the echoes of his beloved Kentish village any more than the last two thousand years have washed the Roman road away.3 He's a crank and a trickster, a magician and a fool, and like the other characters he's trapped until he gets his miracle, which comes in the last form he expected and the first he should have known to watch out for. He's not unsympathetic. He's never quite safe. I'm not knocking Livesey as an actor—he made three films with Powell and Pressburger and in all of them he was exactly what the part required, a tragicomic English archetype in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), an unforeseen romantic alternative in I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and an adroit and skeptical advocate for science and love in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Someday I'll even see him in a film by some other director and I expect he will continue to be very good. But I think he was right to refuse Colpeper: he would not have been weird enough for him. Portman was. And as Howard had proved almost from the start of his stardom, he would have been, too.

My point here is not just that the part would have been within Howard's range as an actor, but that it is squarely and a little uncannily in keeping with his screen persona, especially as it developed in the war years before his death. Sense of place, the importance of history, the applications of knowledge, and what it means to be English—and human—are recurring features of his strongest roles, as is the numinous edge best on display in his propaganda work; if the character of Colpeper retains a heavy interweave of the moral ambiguity that in Howard's case usually resolved in romance, I'd argue that he's not as far off from the Howard norm as he might first appear. [personal profile] spatch and the cats have been patiently listening to me on this topic for weeks. Now to see if I can make the case to people who don't have to put up with me in the shower.

Toward the end of Pimpernel Smith, Horatio Smith looks down with affection at the woman who has (thinking herself abandoned, needing to protect someone else she loves) betrayed him and says tenderly, "You're so human." He means it in contrast to his first love, Aphrodite Kallipygos whose flawless, timeless marble no flesh-and-blood woman could compete with—so he tore up her photo and embraced surprise, change, and imperfection instead—but still, for a moment, it could be the compassionate, wondering comment of something that isn't quite human itself. Why not? For most of the film, Smith's talent for evasion and escape has stayed on just the right side of they-seek-him-here-they-seek-him-there plausibility, but as the action gathers toward the finale he begins to seem less like the quintessential Englishman and more like an incarnation of England itself at its most mystical and romantic, all without losing his dry wit and his native nerdiness, so that the audience sees no contradiction between outwitting Nazis and producing impromptu lectures on ancient Greek religion and when he disappears into night and smoke only the Gestapo are surprised. Almost all of Howard's best roles play with this quality, the slight distance from social norms that can shade from unworldly into otherworldly with nothing more than a faint smile or a deepening of the voice. I associate it with his intellectual persona; I recognize that it's aligned with otherness and all the reasons that's dangerous, but it is nevertheless precisely the reason I recognize his Henry Higgins and believe in Atterbury Dodd, because the leaps they take for granted and the cues they miss and the things they obsess over may or may not be mine, but they are all the right kind of leaps and gaps and obsessions for people who find the rules of small talk more impenetrable than morphology or math. It turns to dislocating tragedy when Peter Standish finds himself alienated from both the past he dreamed himself into and the present he was trying to escape. It's one of the dangerously attractive qualities of Alan Squier, that distrait air of half-belonging that doesn't really want to be recalled to life. It informs the angelically omniscient but frequently baffled narrator of The Gentle Sex (1943), still mired in the mores of a more sexist England. It's even present in Howard's characterization of Ashley Wilkes—a gallant and sensitive anachronism who knows it, if you like that sort of thing. (You don't have to. The actor himself did not.) It's such a consistent feature of Howard's characters, in fact, that it's tempting to regard it as a reflection of his own personality; if it did have to do with his outsider's origins, then I am all the more entertained that he made it such a cornerstone of his internationally recognizable Englishness. Sir Percy Blakeney in the 1934 Scarlet Pimpernel lounges and poses and generally gives a credible impression of having disappeared up his own cravat—sink me, a man can't be bothered with the Terror when his valet has just put starch in his jabot—but when he's revealed at last as the elusive adventurer who flickers back and forth across the Channel like a shadow on the water and takes his name from one of the commonest flowers in the English field, he recites John of Gaunt's dying lines from Richard II like an incantation against his enemy:

This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea . . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

His Nazi-fighting descendant will quote similarly from Rupert Brooke's "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester":

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go

These are poetic rather than strident evocations of national myth, since both of these films also hold that one of the essential features of Englishness is its sense of humor. Just as the Shakespeare threatens to become bathetic, Sir Percy breaks off in apparent reversion to frivolous type: "Oh, demme, I forget the rest." Smith drops out of Brooke's reverie to add, affectionately and pedantically, "And women with splendid hearts, too." Nonetheless, the very lightness with which the characters treat these words is proof of their power for them and there is nothing ironic about the low thrill in Sir Percy's voice at the close of his film—"Look, Marguerite! England!"—or the sheer supernatural potency of Horatio Smith's prophetic last words. I may never get to hear a similar delivery in the broadcasts Howard made to American audiences on J.B. Priestley's Britain Speaks (although some of the scripts were collected by his son Ronald Howard in Trivial Fond Records (1982), I am not aware that any recordings survive), but the excerpts I've run across online are shot through with the same numinous nationalism.4 The title of the program was Priestley's, but it feels peculiarly suitable for an actor who did seem to become the voice of his country just as much as his prime minister or his king, "one of the few film-makers of quality whose thought and language were indigenous."

Thomas Colpeper is a more geographically and temporally specific genius: he belongs to the countryside of Kent where Michael Powell grew up and the time of Chaucer's pilgrims when miracles were part of the everyday. Though he's been known to venture as far as London, where he appreciates the British Museum and once learned to his chagrin that no one wants to hear an antiquarian lecture in Hyde Park, he seems happiest within the bounds of his native Chillingbourne, where lately falcons have been changed for Spitfires and horses for Bren carriers and yet the hills still run the same line against the sky. Once a week he sits on the bench of magistrates in Canterbury, in the shadow of the cathedral; in this capacity he oversaw the excavation of the bend in the "old road—what some folks call the Pilgrims' Road," but most of his history-raising activities are less practical and more mysterious, concerned more with evoking than anatomizing the past of the land he loves. There is a séance-like quality to the lantern-slide lecture he gives at the Colpeper Institute, where the imaginative power of his words illuminates far more than the drawings and photographs he was prevented from showing (he tripped over the projector's cord again). His method of "getting close to your ancestors" is almost exactly the sympathetic magic of Peter Standish's time travel in Berkeley Square (1933), practiced this time with reversed intent—by walking his forebears' right of way, Colpeper hopes not to transpose himself into their past, but to draw it up beneath the surface of the present, close enough to be touched and heard and shared. "And when I turn the bend of the road where they too saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I've only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me." Despite the museum set-up of his one-man historical society and his study full of books, he is associated repeatedly and suggestively with the natural world, which only makes sense since it is the medium of this exercise in collapsing time. The land has not changed no matter what generations move across its surface or dig into its earth. To belong to the past is to belong to the land, out of which the part-time magistrate has a habit of appearing with the suddenness of supernatural things; to misquote Peter S. Beagle as badly as anyone has, as though he were a dryad and time were his tree.

Yet this earth-sprung figure, too, can be as disconnected as any of Howard's socially awkward protagonists. Historical evangelism would be his calling if he really were the missionary he likens himself to, but since he's a gentleman farmer who reads a lot in his spare time, it's a bee in his bonnet. "I've written articles that didn't get further than the county papers," he admits. "I rented a hall in London to speak from, but nobody came to listen." He praises the attendance of his latest lecture by deprecating his previous try: "There was an audience of one . . . We waited till five-thirty, then we adjourned the lecture and both went to the pub." His non-antiquarian hobbies are solitary, unsurprisingly outdoorsy ones like hiking and climbing; where Stand-In (1937)'s Atterbury Dodd never quite falls under the spell of the silver screen, Colpeper has actively scathing things to say about the popular modern pastime of "sit[ting] back in an armchair and watch[ing] the world go by in front of you." He's marked as an outsider in broader ways as well, the kind which once again leave me feeling I'm behind on my theory. It is not difficult to read Colpeper as a queer character. He never married, he lives with his mother; he conforms almost parodically to what [personal profile] ethelmay has usefully termed the wink-wink definition of a "woman-hater." Not only does he exist without romantic attachments or history—even the parallel, ambiguously lesbian supporting character who lives with her sister has a story about a man who once asked to marry her—he has no place for women in his life even when they're land girls assigned by the Agricultural Committee, like Sheila Sim's Alison Smith. One of his first lines is a casual condemnation of "talkative women," which is pretty rich coming from a man who accidentally a seminar almost every time he opens his mouth. He drives off the girls from the soldiers stationed in his village as vehemently as if he were vying with them for more than the men's intellectual attention. He was played by a queer actor. And yet his difference goes deeper than not liking women or monopolizing the company of men: he does not love any human thing. He loves things made by humans—roads, coins, cathedrals—the material persistence of the past. He loves the continuity of human inhabitation and tradition: "Isn't the house you were born in the most interesting house in the world for you? Don't you want to know how your father lived, and his father?" Like Howard's Passer-By with his London panorama, he draws meaningful connections between the diverse backgrounds and professions from which his beloved pilgrims came and the civilian lives of his soldierly audience. But even in Chaucer's day there is no especial person who attracts his devotion more than does this communal idea of connecting across the centuries, and though he strikes conversational sparks with both Dennis Price's Peter Gibbs and John Sweet's Bob Johnson, there is definitely no one in the present day. All of his passion goes toward time and the land; his frustration stems from his failure to get other people (he assumes men) to feel the same way, which is why his miracle involves the discovery that some of them already do (and aren't necessarily male).5 And among the many, many reasons I treasure this movie, a major one is that Colpeper's rapprochement with the modern, human world is not accomplished by romance. The cloud-watching scene, in which he invites Alison to share his hitherto private appreciation of the same hillside where she once spent "thirteen perfect days" with her fiancé before the war, is one of the best moments of nonsexual intimacy I have ever seen in a film. The two characters are joined through something they both love, but they don't love—at least not romantically, erotically—each other. It will not last, at least not as an exclusive bond between the two of them and the Pilgrims' Road. Knowledge of Colpeper's sticky nocturnal tricks will disrupt their daytime communion; Alison's shot-down fiancé will return as miraculously as the crew of BOAC Flight 777-A never did and other pilgrims will come to the Colpeper Institute to learn how their fathers (and mothers) lived. Transient, contingent, unrecapturable, it remains one of the most transcendent moments in the movie. I can't think of a more flat-footed way to demystify it than the suggestion that the lonely land girl and the awkward amateur historian merely fell in love.

The available evidence on Leslie Howard is ridiculously straight. The list of ladies he liaised with includes one marriage, one long-term extramarital partner, and a healthy subset of his female co-stars. His characters, however, for all that he was legitimately typed as a romantic star, were less often ladykillers than they were unexpectedly love-slain—at least three off the top of my head experience the first romantic stirrings of their lives within the runtimes of their movies, knocking them off course for the better even if they don't quite know what to do with it at first. This is, I admit, exactly the pattern that I celebrate A Canterbury Tale for avoiding. It's a very old fallback, it goes back to stereotypes of intelligence and geekery, of people who live too much in their heads and not enough in their bodies, the assignment of not quite complete humanity to people who would rather spend time contemplating medieval coins or classical statues than making whoopee and the most conventional way of humanizing these kinds of characters is to have them fall in love; it gets up my nose, but what can you do except write alternate narratives? None of Howard's films do, quite, but here again their foregrounding of eccentricity functions for me as a saving grace. Why wouldn't you start to love a person for their ability to learn languages faster than you can teach them, or take down a letter by memory while fixing their makeup, or see through your secret identity and bargain with it as no one else ever has before? Howard's Higgins boasts of the fabled beauty of "American millionairesses" leaving him cold, but he has a harder time ignoring Wendy Hiller's Eliza when she demonstrates a better ear than her teacher ("Continental dialects, African dialects, Hottentot clicks—things it took me years to get hold of and she picks them up like a shot, right away, as if she'd been at it all her life"). Horatio Smith could go toe-to-toe with Colpeper for donnish misogyny when he clears his class of female students ("Greek women, moreover, were condemned to habitual seclusion—an admirable practice which unfortunately is not followed in this university") before inviting the male remainder onto his latest rescue mission, but a collision with Mary Morris' Ludmilla resets all of his assumptions of the risks women are capable of running. The mind clicks first, then the body. Joan Blondell's Lester Plum makes the equation explicit when she takes Atterbury Dodd to task for his number-crunching detachment:

"You know what's the trouble with you? You've got figures in your blood instead of red corpuscles. You're a scratched entry in the human race . . . Did you ever hit a man? Did you ever love a woman? Did you ever get drunk and get thrown out on your ear? Weren't you ever wicked or didn't you ever want to be wicked? Haven't you had any fun at all?"

A chastened Dodd responds soberly, "Miss Plum, you've shown me a picture of myself that is not pleasant to behold . . . In the future I shall not tether my emotions. I shall give life an opportunity to make me the kind of person I might have been." And then he asks her to teach him how to dance and he uses mathematics to learn it. When he hits a man, he psychs himself up to it with Euclid. When he loves a woman, he writes himself a note to propose. In Howard's world, falling in love is not a makeover. His characters may be softened by human connection; none of them, thank God, totally normalize.6 Dodd discovers he isn't happy as a corporate stooge, remains touched to the heart by the emptying of an ashtray. Higgins inconveniently proves his own dictum that "we're all of us dependent one on another, every soul on earth" and will probably never notice it's gone four in the morning unless somebody prods him. Smith learns to feel for a person in the singular as well as humanity in the abstract and it doesn't alter his supernatural aura in the slightest. It does alter his tendency to come off as a well-spoken, nobly intended asshat—great on anti-fascism, rubbish on gender, which brings us neatly back to Colpeper. The antiquary of Chillingbourne cannot be wholly in the right, even if his motives are eventually forgiven by his fellow-pilgrims. Nationalism is nostalgic; that's its strength and its danger and while the historical continuity that Colpeper cherishes is certainly part of an England worth fighting for, his ideas of defending his country's memory risk putting him in opposition to its present ideals. Accepting Alison as a kindred lover of the land—accepting women as equal heirs of England's past and stewards of its future—means accepting the earthquake, submitting to the ongoing movement of time. It is not immediately apparent that he can do it. It is not automatically expected that he should. Portman would become a star of British noir in the postwar period, but during the war he was already building a repertoire of sympathetic but troubled or outright antiheroes. Audiences of A Canterbury Tale might well have seen him last as a Nazi spy in Lance Comfort's Squadron Leader X (1943) or remembered him from a similar part in Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941), trailing equally nationalistic, much less savory echoes into Colpeper's bee-in-the-bonnet zeal. Howard's fans might have felt more confident in their hero's ability to come around in the end, but they would not have found an early, icy distance out of key with previous characters' arcs,7 nor the later meeting of minds over something as apparently unromantic as a bend in the road. If they were let down by the tension resolving in an uplift of time rather than a clinch of romance, that was just something his public had to live with.

The actors would have brought very different physical presences to the role. Portman at the time of A Canterbury Tale was extraordinarily beautiful, but not necessarily as people are beautiful; he could look like a medieval carving himself, a saint's head off his precious cathedral, the strong planes of his face as self-contained as stone. He wants more than anything to communicate his feelings to another person, but he might first have to broach the distance between himself and his skin. He speaks most eloquently when he's a voice in the dark of his lectures, a silhouette against the projector's spotlight. He looks most comfortable in his body when it's as much a part of the land as he can make it, lying against the hill's side, the clouds sliding by overhead. He is always a little on the outside of things and it is only by implication in the last moments of the film that we see him at the heart of something at last. That remoteness is not something I associate with Livesey, who always looked lived-in, approachable, sympathetically attractive rather than warily admirable. Coming off the absolute Englishness of Clive Wynne-Candy, he might have conveyed well enough Colpeper's affinity for the countryside and fading history, but without the anti-nostalgic edge, the uncomfortable Dionysos—and with Deborah Kerr opposite him as Alison, another early piece of casting I am ineffably grateful fell through, their relationship would inevitably have recalled the wistful "rope trick" of Blimp, not the less easily categorized sympathy of Portman and Sim. Livesey belongs firmly to the world, is how I end up feeling about it: Colpeper needs to have one foot elsewhere. Howard in 1943 was wiry and springy, the cat-look that interested me from the start really sharpening his face as he turned fifty. It gave him an ascetic air which played well with both the donnishness and the mysticism; outdoors he would have looked like a wild thing, faintly pointed ears and all. He would have risen from the tall grass at the bend of the Pilgrims' Road like Pan himself. His portrayal of Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell as a driven, patriotic dreamer works better as propaganda than biography, but for purposes of this discussion I think it is most important that The First of the Few (1942) introduces the aeronautical engineer (in a transition that is just a few clouds away from being the reverse of A Canterbury Tale's match cut of a falcon and a Spitfire) in context of the natural world, reclining with a pair of field glasses on the cliffs of Dover. Though he has no thought as yet of wartime applications, the wheel of chalk-white gulls against the sky already has him sketching out the first unformed dream of "a plane that'll be just like a bird," one icon of England midwifing the birth of another. The cry of the gulls bookends his story; his last scene sees him again in the grassy open air rather than the technical world of the aerodrome. A Canterbury Tale already has a strong twist of Kipling in its DNA—I was lucky enough to catch it for the first time while I was rediscovering Kipling as a poet, so that I had Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910) ready and waiting in recent memory—and I can see Howard kicking it into high gear through little more than physiognomy and a trickster's smile, his air of knowing things. His voice was lighter than Portman's in both pitch and timbre, but it lectured just as readily, which is where we came in.

This is fantasy casting at its finest. If any practical link existed between Leslie Howard and A Canterbury Tale, given my interest in both of these things I can't imagine I wouldn't have run across it before now. I believe what I'm seeing is a case of parallel evolution, drawing on the same shared resonances of myth and literature and national archetype like a collective unconscious of the country, and I have neither the scope in this post nor the professional credentials to diagnose exactly what that is. I just can't believe I didn't see the fit before. Howard had even worked with the Archers once before, playing one of his disarming intellectuals for 49th Parallel. I'd love to know what either of them thought of Pimpernel Smith, since I stand by my assertion that it comes the closest of any other British war picture to the off-kilter numinous of their work in general and A Canterbury Tale in particular; I've found nothing in the two volumes by Powell that I own. I need to get a biography of Pressburger sometime. To get back to the short that started this whole megillah, From the Four Corners is not A Canterbury Tale or even Pimpernel Smith, but it served admirably as a celebration of Howard's hundred and twenty-fourth birthday and an antidote to a really depressing evening and you can watch it yourself thanks to the good offices of the Imperial War Museum. I apologize about the watermark. I got used to it after a few minutes of dialogue, but it interacts unfortunately with the opening titles. Anyway, it'll take you less time to watch than this post did to write. The version where I actually did all the research I thought about would have gone on for even longer and run the footnotes off the bottom of the screen. At least I didn't pour glue in anyone's hair. This monograph brought to you by my transcendent backers at Patreon.

1. Honestly, in a film of this era, I feel it may be safe to assume that any angular, pipe-smoking person looking especially careless in public is Leslie Howard. If he's wearing an overcoat and has a tendency to lecture about abstractions, that clinches it.

2. Although the character is explicitly identified as the actor himself—glossed for non-British viewers who might not recognize the name by Atkinson's description of the local weather as "too Pygmalion cold"—I found myself thinking of him as Howard's Passer-By, like Dante's Pilgrim. He can say the line about his fathers at Tilbury (our fathers of old) and mean it literally. He's autochthonous.

3. Powell and Pressburger use it for wonder rather than horror, but the way they conceive of history leaving its imprint on time is interestingly close to the idea of residual haunting that Nigel Kneale popularized with The Stone Tape (1972) or the endlessly reenacting myth of Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967): once a thing has happened in a place, it is always on some level happening there, echoing forever in the land. Where it happened transcends when. "And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme and the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people that you can hear the thrumming of the hooves of their horses and the sound of the wheels on the road and their laughter and talk and the music of the instruments they carried."

4. It is completely not Howard's fault that I flashed on The Magician's Nephew (1955) when I hit the line "Most of you, I'm sure, will know what I mean when I speak of the curious elation which comes from sharing in a high and mysterious destiny," especially since he meant just about the opposite from Andrew Ketterley by it. It does kind of make me wonder if Lewis heard the broadcast. If so, I guess he wasn't impressed.

5. It took me an absurdly long time to realize that none of the blessings received by the four modern pilgrims of A Canterbury Tale has to do with things changing for the better: each has to do instead with seeing things as they truly are, not as the characters have feared or convinced themselves they were. They are revelations, realizations. They are like archaeology. Nothing of the beloved past has been lost, not a girlfriend, a fiancé, or a vocation; things believed not to exist have come as naturally to light as an old coin in a field, reminders that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. They prove the constancy of time.

6. There is a tangential question here which I am not sure I am qualified to engage with: the degree to which it is possible or useful to read Howard's intellectual heroes as neuroatypical as opposed to merely very smart, knowing there's a significant Venn diagram of the two in popular representations of intelligence. Certainly I feel as though a case could be made for several of the characters discussed here, but I've seen Howard in seventeen movies and IMDb gives him thirty-eight acting credits; I don't think I have enough data. I also feel this study should be conducted by someone with a better idea of what "normal" behavior looks like. When Atterbury Dodd says, "I don't like parties. I don't know what to say to people. I just sit in corners and wish I might go home," I mean, that was me and socializing for years. All that changed was I started getting invited to a better grade of party.

7. I have appreciated for years that Howard, national treasure that he was, never had too much vanity to play against audience sympathy for as long as a script required. Smith may have some cold, abrasive moments on his way to rethinking the primacy of Aphrodite, but Higgins carries scientific detachment to the point of being a stupendous jerk; it is one of the reasons I suspect so many people, myself included, find the ending of the 1938 Pygmalion and its immediate descendant My Fair Lady more satisfying than the impervious curtain of the original play: he gets absolutely kicked in the ass by his own human susceptibility and he never sees it coming. Dodd is never deliberately insensitive, but he has to learn how to see people—including himself—as people, three-dimensional, fallible, worthwhile, not just numbers or functions. Even the narrator of The Gentle Sex, while he understands and appreciates intellectually that women will be part of the war effort, so repeatedly underestimates the extent and the impact of their contributions that by the film's end he's had to give up trying to predict what they'll do next and simply trust that it'll be all right. Alan Squier, let's face it, is a really charming trash fire.
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[personal profile] lauradi7dw 2017-04-26 12:57 pm (UTC)(link)
"Country anf its deep"
Without my reading glasses, I read that as sheep, instead of deep, which worked equally well for me until I reached the comma.
ladymondegreen: (Default)

[personal profile] ladymondegreen 2017-04-26 02:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I am quite late to work and this splendid essay is largely why. Thank you!
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-04-26 02:45 pm (UTC)(link)
but still, for a moment, it could be the compassionate, wondering comment of something that isn't quite human itself.

Forgive me if I've brought this up before, but wouldn't he have been wonderful as Agatha Christie's Mr. Quin? Which then raises the question of casting Mr. Satterthwaite. (ETA -- Henry Travers?)

It is not difficult to read Colpeper as a queer character.
Gibbs too, or is that just me?
Edited 2017-04-26 14:54 (UTC)
ashlyme: (Default)

[personal profile] ashlyme 2017-04-26 08:20 pm (UTC)(link)
*wouldn't he have been wonderful as Agatha Christie's Mr. Quin?*

Oh God, yes, yes, yes! (I love the Quin stories. For me, they're Christie's finest moments.) I don't know Henry Travers at all!
gwynnega: (Basil Rathbone)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2017-04-26 07:01 pm (UTC)(link)
This is great. I look forward to watching From the Four Corners.

Interestingly, Basil Rathbone quotes from that same Richard II speech in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (one of the Holmes-fights-Nazis films).
Edited 2017-04-26 19:02 (UTC)
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-04-26 10:57 pm (UTC)(link)
I think the first one does have a title card at the beginning that says he and Watson are fictional, therefore immortal, and they can do what they want.
ashlyme: (Default)

[personal profile] ashlyme 2017-04-26 08:36 pm (UTC)(link)
This is wonderful. Thank you. This sounds as much psychogeography as propoganda! And once again you've reminded me I need to get my finger out and watch "A Canterbury Tale"...

I only know Portman from "The Prisoner". Something else to remedied.
ashlyme: (Default)

[personal profile] ashlyme 2017-04-26 09:41 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for telling me more about him. Up until an hour or so ago I was convinced he'd been Jeremy Brett's Moriarty, but of course that's Eric Porter.
ashlyme: (Default)

[personal profile] ashlyme 2017-04-26 10:23 pm (UTC)(link)
My God, he was a beautiful man. I'll try and make one of the screenings. Thank you!
ethelmay: (Default)

[personal profile] ethelmay 2017-04-28 12:47 am (UTC)(link)
What you say of Portman's looks immediately reminded me of the young John Henry Newman. And I am tickled you mentioned me above.
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2017-04-27 11:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Sovay, have you seen "The Prisoner"? Perhaps more importantly, have you written about it? I feel like you would have interesting things to say there.
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2017-04-28 11:44 pm (UTC)(link)
I first saw it on PBS, before (consumer) videotape. I was quite small, and the viewing included a memorable step in my understanding of Story. I kept asking my parents question after question. To most of these, the response was "I don't know." After many such answers, one of them offered the coda "...I don't think you're supposed to know." Mind. Blown.
asakiyume: (feathers on the line)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-04-26 09:52 pm (UTC)(link)
I started reading, but then got distracted by footnote 5 (I wasn't up to 5; I was only up to 2--I had laughed at 1, and was expecting 2 to tell me that Howard's 1500s ancestors were, I don't know, Cossacks or something. I like your notion that he's autochthonous, though. But then I saw 5, and it seemed just so profound and so beautiful. "Nothing of the beloved past has been lost, not a girlfriend, a fiancé, or a vocation." It reminds me of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

Now back to the main text.
asakiyume: (feathers on the line)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-04-26 10:04 pm (UTC)(link)
the slight distance from social norms that can shade from unworldly into otherworldly with nothing more than a faint smile or a deepening of the voice. --love that, and love your reflections on Howard more broadly.

I've been thinking of him, and you, a lot watching Mr. Finch in Person of Interest.
asakiyume: (miroku)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-04-27 03:12 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, absolutely.

The episode we saw yesterday was one with flashbacks to Mr. Finch with the artist, creating a birthday experience for her that includes buying the de Chirico painting she loves and donating it to the Guggenheim (while pretending he's merely a docent there: "Some anonymous donor just bought it," he tells her).

I was thinking how straight up they've played his love. He gets to be every bit as romantic and in love as all the other characters; it's allowed to be a believably Finch-esque love, but "Finch-esque" doesn't mean ridiculous or stereotypically "eccentric." The artist is pretty, but not an inappropriate sort of pretty, if you know what I mean, and she gets to talk about ideas and thoughts, so you can see how and why someone like Finch would like her.

At least as of now, he's a very sympathetic character and a very *you* sort of character in a way that I like.
asakiyume: (turnip lantern)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-04-27 10:23 am (UTC)(link)
The actors are married in real life.


sartorias: (Default)

[personal profile] sartorias 2017-04-26 10:15 pm (UTC)(link)
I have to read this two or three more times for it to sink in. But oh, yes! Thank you for capturing Howard so well.
skygiants: the Ninth Doctor leaning smugly back against the wall (ayup)

[personal profile] skygiants 2017-04-27 02:10 am (UTC)(link)
I am so pleased that sending you that link kicked this off.
nineweaving: (Default)

[personal profile] nineweaving 2017-04-27 04:30 am (UTC)(link)
A joy to read! Thank you.

kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)

[personal profile] kathmandu 2017-04-27 11:11 am (UTC)(link)
Sounds to me like he'd have been a good choice for Lord Peter Wimsey: the gliding between socialite, academic, and otherworldly personas.