sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2019-04-16 02:30 am
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I may be small, I may speak soft, but you can see the change in the water

I went for a walk in the bright damp fragile sunlight in between sudden spates of downpour that we seemed to be getting this afternoon, all April in a day. It was cold and smelled like spring and I was thinking about Notre Dame, where eight days from now I will have been twenty years ago (it rained a lot on that trip, too), and so about cathedrals and loss and restoration and time and so about the movie on these themes that I have loved ever since it turned up like a coin in a field I hadn't known I'd been waiting to find and I have almost certainly written out more than strictly necessary to make clear a constellation that just fell into place in my head while I was looking at a wet blue strip of sky in a watercolor of clouds and the flat scrape of backhoe-cleared rubble where a warehouse that I was fond of used to stand, but I wanted a record of it, so you get one, too. Like everything else in that movie, it was there all along.

Twelve years ago when I first saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944), two years ago when I revisited it in context of the fantasy casting of Leslie Howard, like everyone else I associated it preferentially with Powell. Just about a week after that second post, I finally got the chance to read Kevin Macdonald's Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (1994) and learned I was totally wrong:

Emeric's vision was basically old-fashioned anglican Tory: a belief in the wisdom and beauty to be found in continuity and tradition. From his lips, of course, the message had a certain wistfulness, for it is the very continuity from which he was splintered in his own country long ago.

Although Emeric was not a practising Jew (he did, it seems, haphazardly observe the major Jewish festivals for a period later in life), nor Michael a practising Anglican, both had a mystical bent allied to a strong sense of morality, which was amplified by the war . . . [Emeric] proposed to set the film around Canterbury Cathedral and use Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales as a rough blueprint. In a press release he described his story as 'a tale of four modern pilgrims, of the old road that runs to Canterbury, and of the English countryside which is eternal.'

Michael, brought up in the shadow of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside, was understandably enthusiastic. But as he later admitted,
A Canterbury Tale was much less of a personal film for him than he had expected. He always said that it was the film which was most fully Emeric of all those they did together. Emeric went even further saying: 'This is the only one of them that is entirely mine.'

Along with all the critics I'd encountered to that point, I'd missed it: I'd been misled by the deep English geography combined with the fact that autochthonous Thomas Colpeper looked like a no-brainer analogue for Kent-born Powell while there was no emigré stand-in for Pressburger like Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). But if you look at this film with an eye to exile and continuity, then all four protagonists spring into focus as fragments of the author, each dispossessed and finding connection in their own ways. Macdonald sees the American character of Sergeant Bob Johnson as his grandfather's double, "the detached and intelligent eye, bemused by the quirkiness of British life," and I don't think he's wrong in this reading, I just think it's incomplete. I find it essential to the healing, inclusive quality of the film that while it opens with three strangers arriving in a close-knit community to find themselves in conflict with the figure who most seems to embody its values, as the story goes on it discards any interest in conventional oppositions like nationality, gender, class, or even the urban-rural divide, and definitions of in-group and out-group begin to parallax through one another as the American sergeant proves to be the one with the country know-how, the cynical cinema organist fits right into the cathedral, the London shopgirl loves the land and its archaeology, and the history-minded magistrate's right where he was born and he might be the most bewildered of them all. Everyone's out of joint and wounded. Everyone needs a blessing. Everyone gets one, however accidental or circuitous or misdirected their pilgrimage. Pressburger never got back what he himself had lost—more than one country, more than one language, more than one name, not to mention a career or two and an entire family to the Holocaust—but he wrote a world for his characters where everything is, if not quite where or what you left it, not gone after all. I find it an incredibly kind film, funny and endlessly rewatchable, simultaneously numinous and WTF. And even doing all this reappraisal two years ago I was still looking at Colpeper and not quite seeing him true.

I don't ever entirely expect to. He's a slippery character, no one's unproblematic avatar. It would be as much of a mistake to identify him uncomplicatedly with Pressburger as it was for me to call him an "apparent directorial stand-in" the first time I saw the film: Colpeper is defined as much by his ambiguity as he is by his devotion and I wouldn't want to call him any one thing beyond very well played by Eric Portman. He could be speaking for both halves of the Archers when he tells his audience of soldiers, "I was born here and my father was born here. You're here because there's a war on." But before I read Macdonald's biography of his grandfather, I figured it was mostly the director I was seeing in this ambivalent figure of authority who seems to be several different people by turns, magus and medium and troublingly nostalgic misfit, as easy with a scythe in his hand as Saturn of harvest and time, as petrified in himself as one of the cathedral statues he coolly resembles; now it feels important to me that Colpeper's the character who most desperately champions what I described even before reading Macdonald as "the continuity of human inhabitation and tradition" and the one who has to make the hardest and furthest leap to catch up to the present he lives in while still keeping faith with the past he loves. Passages from different chapters of Macdonald's book—

Imre grew up on the estate [managed by his father], with an intimate knowledge of the finer points of geese rearing, feeding and slaughtering cows and pigs, growing wheat and seasoning timber . . . Throughout his life he harked back to his idyllic rural childhood, and was forever aware of the continuity and values of rustic life.

Emeric began his methodical study of Britain right from the moment he stepped off the ferry from France. 'It is not easy being born at the age of 33,' he said, 'having to learn a language, a way of speaking, the history and background of a nation, even how to walk.' He read voraciously about British geography, etiquette and history. He was always fascinated and obsessed by reference books . . . His greatest find was a collection of about 300 slim, illustrated volumes, each of which dealt with the minutiae of a different aspect of British life, from Ascot to Zoology via Tea and the Monarchy.

—resonate on the slant, Colpeper's unquestioned roots in rural Chillingbourne mixed with an otherness so deep and lingering, it's all too easy to describe him as numen, genius, otherworldly: at home but unheimlich. The image of Pressburger obsessively studying his new nationality reminds me of Natasha Solomons' Mr Rosenblum's List (U.S. Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, 2010), another story where assimilation and outsiderness balance, albeit more explicitly, so perfectly that I couldn't tell you which gives rise to the plot. Therefore on some level I think it's funny that I spent so much time imagining Colpeper as Leslie Howard, because while Howard didn't come to his quintessential Englishness from as far out as Pressburger, he still came to it from the distance of identifiably Jewish parents and a childhood spent partly in his father's Austro-Hungarian Vienna. I feel like I triangulated through this connection in 2017 without really catching hold of it, even as I noted how often the actor's screen persona slid through not-one-of-us eccentricity and the irony-or-not of eulogizing the London-born, half-immigrant Howard né Steiner as "one of the few film-makers of quality whose thought and language were indigenous." It would have been the easiest link between actor and role, the outcomer who knows the land better than those who can take it for granted. Perhaps it was so close to home I couldn't see it. More likely I had just not read Macdonald and was still trying to read the film through Powell's Bekesbourne, not Pressburger's Miskolc. Still later that spring, I would discover that the writer assigned his own memories to a Holocaust victim in his novel The Glass Pearls (1966). Why should any other of his reflections have been straightforward?

In his introduction to A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 (2019), which I just started reading last week, editor and translator Noam Sienna writes:

In collecting these texts I have been inspired by scholars like the medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw, who has argued that marginalized communities today can link themselves with the past through "shared contemporaneity," which involves imagining ourselves and our ancestors as participating in the same project, across time and space . . . The circular relationship to history that Dinshaw and [José Esteban] Muñoz propose, which constantly returns to the past as a "field of possibility" to reshape a new future, is not only characteristic of how queer communities might relate to time (what Muñoz calls "queer futurity") but also seems deeply Jewish. Many thinkers have suggested that Jewish history, too, can be understood as a non-linear, constantly recurring field of possibility, a sentiment articulated perhaps most famously by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi . . . [who] argues that the "enchanted circle" of Jewish tradition honors the emotional connections that link people and communities across time. All these frameworks—Yerushalmi's "eternal contemporaneity," Dinshaw's "shared contemporaneity," Muñoz' "field of possibility"—suggest that queer Jewish history must be constructed through an intertwining of past, present, and future.

Dinshaw would be important to this conversation no matter what because the epilogue to How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (2012) contains some of the most perceptive and sympathetic criticism I've seen on Colpeper and A Canterbury Tale, but I can see that sense of shared contemporaneity she names in multiple films by the Archers, I can see it in more than one film starring Leslie Howard, I'm afraid I am never going to cease to find it funny that Lovecraft with all his horror of the stranger, the Other, got it from Howard via Berkeley Square (1933). I don't know who I got it from, but it's everywhere in the way I write about this city I live in, not to mention my fiction, my poetry, the ways I think about film. I am listening on repeat to some songs from an album that looks like an exercise in contemporaneity with Black ancestors. I've been seeing this kind of touching through time all night in the tributes of strangers and friends to Notre Dame. Which is where this whole chain of thought started, thinking about burnt cathedrals, bombed cathedrals, my first trip to Europe.

Anyway: of course A Canterbury Tale was Pressburger's. It's the one about strangers and belonging and holding fast and living here and now, just not in any of the expected configurations. Of course Howard's Jewishness rhymes with Portman's queerness, coming at their perfect Englishness from slightly different margins. No wonder there's a thread in this film that runs through Penda's Fen (1974) into Derek Jarman and now I'd say all the way into God's Own Country (2017). What I actually thought while walking was "entirely mine" and then of course Colpeper and then it took me this long to explain why outside my head. [personal profile] spatch tells me this is valid film criticism. I just think it's Tuesday. This time brought to you by my sharing backers at Patreon.
nineweaving: (Default)

[personal profile] nineweaving 2019-04-16 06:54 am (UTC)(link)
Beautiful. Thank you for this.

thisbluespirit: (margaret lockwood)

[personal profile] thisbluespirit 2019-04-16 07:36 am (UTC)(link)
I find it an incredibly kind film, funny and endlessly rewatchable, simultaneously numinous and WTF.

*nods* I have only watched it the once as yet (and it feels like a film that needs to be watched many times), but this feels exactly right as a description of it to me.
thisbluespirit: (margaret lockwood)

[personal profile] thisbluespirit 2019-04-16 08:43 am (UTC)(link)
I liked your description so much I borrowed it and was finally able to post my overdue post about films I watched that was stuck because I didn't know how to do words for A Canterbury Tale. :-D
thisbluespirit: (hugs)

[personal profile] thisbluespirit 2019-04-16 08:51 am (UTC)(link)
It is a very silly post, mostly, but you know me by now. One day I will become coherent again and shock everyone. :-D
cmcmck: (Default)

[personal profile] cmcmck 2019-04-16 10:55 am (UTC)(link)
As you know, 'A Canterbury Tale' is intensely,deeply personal for me as Canterbury is very much the city where I became and a place I know every nook and cranny of.
lauradi7dw: (Default)

The Archers

[personal profile] lauradi7dw 2019-04-16 12:42 pm (UTC)(link)
You referred to The Archers. After a moment, I remembered that P & P's production company was called The Archers, but my immediate thought was of the BBC radio soap.
"I was born here and my father was born here." That would be true of most of the residents of the fictional, rural, Ambridge, as well.
Now the theme is my morning head song (entertained to find this short clip to illustrate it)

poliphilo: (Default)

[personal profile] poliphilo 2019-04-16 04:02 pm (UTC)(link)
None of the Archers' movies moves me the way A Canterbury Tale does- and I guess it's because it's the one that is mostly Pressburger rather than largely Powell. Powell was certainly a great film maker but I think it was Pressburger who gave their work heart.
ethelmay: (Default)

[personal profile] ethelmay 2019-04-16 10:06 pm (UTC)(link)
My mother had a story about one of her English professors coming into class one morning and saying, "The Germans have bombed Canterbury Cathedral. Where Chaucer walked."
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2019-04-17 12:33 am (UTC)(link)
This is really beautiful.