Saturday, November 6, 2010

#341: A Canterbury Tale

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944)

There was one thing I got out of A Canterbury Tale. The film begins in the time of Chaucer, with pilgrims making their way through the English countryside. As they pass by a bend in the road, a falconer lets his hawk off, and it goes soaring through the air. Before you know it, the hawk has become a fighter plane, soaring through the air, and the falconer is now a WWII soldier with a helmet strapped on.

In case you haven't figured it out, Stanley Kubrick probably saw this movie. The shot is so similar to his jump cut in 2001, probably the most famous jump cut of all time, that it is impossible not to think of the moment when watching A Canterbury Tale. It's a sharp reminder that most things in film (and art in general) are not original, that man has been around long enough that by now we show our true ability to reach someone by successfully reappropriating what has come before and applying it to our current problems.

Beyond this "holy crap" moment, A Canterbury Tale was a rather dull movie, too much of its time to have relevance today. This might seem ironic since one of the main points of the movie is that people never change, that history means something because you can learn from it, and that holding on to that history is all we have in difficult times. These are all things with which I strongly agree, but the way in which they are presented here leaves a great deal to be desired. I didn't care at all about the glue man, and while I realize that was hardly the point of the film, they could have spent a little less time on the mystery. I also had a problem with the American character, who felt more like Ralph Bellamy in a screwball comedy than an actual person, and made it a lot more difficult to feel an emotional response to the final moments of the film.

A Canterbury Tale is actually one of the most popular films Powell and Pressburger ever made, or at least the one with the strongest following. I suspect part of this affection stems from the fundamentally (lower c) conservative values the film espouses, that vague sense of nostalgia that actually has a genuinely admirable reason for existing yet can too often be carried along (especially in a country like England, and more and more in a declining empire such as our own) by people who feel that the world has passed them by. But I also think that there are few films that are so unabashedly awash in these concepts, and reward the viewer with such an almost sublime conclusion to its characters' journey. It's these final moments, most likely, that grab hold of the imagination and refuse to let go, and while I don't see that myself, I can respect it nonetheless.

By the way, I don't care much for this cover. It's not that I think it's ugly, but the painting says little about the movie and it's not especially intriguing or memorable.

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