Maybe we need more movies that can show us how to be nice to each other. I finally got in the mood for the special British artistry of the Archers and watched A Canterbury Tale (1944). Being that my typical diet is high octane carbs like Alias season 4 and Kill Bill of late, I was hesitant about turning myself over for two hours of wartime keep your chin up British farm life. Now I’m all depressed and longing to move to Canterbury; there was a reason I avoided sweet bucolic realism; it makes me realize all the life of a sophisticated urbanite lacks.
What the carpetbaggers who stalk the success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter of course miss is that the key selling point for fans is the fantasy of nesting in a comfortable, large place surrounded by protective allies: huge loving old castles aglow with candles and hearths to bask in the glow of, a sense of community which we totally lack these days, at least in Manhattan and Seattle and NJ and everywhere else I’ve ever lived. But here in the Archer’s Tale we get “mythic neo-realism,” where Powell and Press’s cameras are accepted into the minutiae of everyday life on the shire, but where the evil spirit villain is never even met face to face. For the evil powers in Canterbury, you see, are real! They are the Nazis on the other side of the English Channel, demonic winged creatures of Mordor who swoop down with a siren scream, or bomb from great heights while their armies gather on the other shore. Though they’re not directly addressed in the film, the Nazi shadows linger menacingly as if the “Tale” is just a “happy day in the shire/at Hogwarts” preview before the intrigue and battles begin.
Sticking out in a very odd way from the lovely Britishness is one Sgt. Sweet, a real yank that the Archers found wandering around London on furlough. They chose him to represent us here in the states, our yankee can-do attitude and obscene squareness. Wait, what? We’re nothing like this guy. Speaking in a loud nasal twang, Sweet sounds as if he’s unaware that they have microphones in Britain. He wants to be heard loud enough to echo through time. Nonetheless, his ego-free curiosity–and hurt over his girl from Oregon who has stopped returning his letters–is so relentlessly good-natured as to make him impossible to dislike. Indeed, it seems as if it is impossible to dislike anyone in a Powell -Pressburger film; they’ve got huge generosity of spirit. One feels like they should be taking notes on becoming a more loving and happy cog in the great human machine.
After all, one creates one’s community, minute by minute, through one’s actions. In most Hollywood films you only learn how to shoot bad guys or be cold and distant to women. While both are important, in A Canterbury Tale, such mediated mass hypnotism is exposed as a threat on the horizon perhaps more dastardly than the Jerries themselves. This problem is even directly addressed: the magistrate warns Sweet–an avid cinephile–about how his addiction to cinema may result in him growing too accustomed to the voyeuristic pleasures of the dark theater, making him miss the beauty of life as it really is, all around him. Whoa, Erich thought watching this at five in the morning, he’s right!
Even as they supply us with a true artistic doozy of a movie, Powell & Pressburger are concerned we will miss the moon for the finger. That’s a pretty nice concern, and unfortunately, their 1944 worry proves true and leads to a 21st century psycho-disaster and yet, is it not all worth it to have such films as A Canterbury Tale preserved on round silver discs, able to be spun and played at home on giant screens? I say thee, yes. But what of war, then? Aye, there’s the sad part: Where once an overseas enemy united us in arms, now an enemy in our very midst uses events overseas as an excuse to force us into arms against each other. Aye, Chaucer must be very disappointed in us, and yet, we invented cable. (1/07)