Monthly Archives: February 2009

Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club, February Meeting Part 3: A Canterbury Tale

(Further Elucidatory notes from the first meeting of Dartmouth Park’s second best film club).

 

A Canterbury Tale

Dir: Michael Powell

 

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On the other hand, there is plenty to say about A Canterbury Tale that hasn’t been said, as it is to my mind one of the great unrecognised masterpieces of British cinema.  The problem is with it is how to describe something that is functionally indescribable.  One of the best essays I’ve read on it is by Kim Newman, the Empire critic.  The fact that this essay was part of a series on Extreme Cinema, more focussed around directors like Cronenberg, Lynch, Miike and Chan Woo-Park shows you just how extraordinarily odd the film is. 

 

 

Like Touch of Evil, it isn’t perfect by any means.  The wonderful I Know Where I’m Going is the nearest comparison among Powell’s other films, but where that film reins its sense of awe at history, location, nationality, nature and the potential of cinema into the form of a charming, shaggy romantic comedy, ACTis, for much of its running time, essentially plotless.   What plot it does have (a US soldier seemingly incapable of getting a few miles down the road, and the search for an extremely odd public nuisance) gives “paper-thin” a bad name; the central performance  (by Sgt John Sweet, an actual American soldier touring in a US Army production of Our Town, who gave his entire fee to the NAACP) is charming in that is so amateurish; and the moral lesson it apparently hands out just before the final, Canterbury section of the film is ambiguous in the extreme (to the extent that Archers stalwart Roger Livesey refused to take part in the film). 

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Films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes have a much more orderly and accomplished sense of brilliance to them. But what distinguishes  A Canterbury Tale is a sense of unrestrained, mystical lyricism that is literally unlike anything else in film.  It’s a soaring hymn to England by a man living at a time when all that it represented to him was under threat.  Although despised as pretentious and ridiculous (both of which it is) at the time, it now seems to make a case for the country as a place worth fighting for more profoundly and more powerfully than any other – certainly more than the far more respected, successful, US-made Mrs. Miniver. 

 

Sitting at the hitherto-unimaginable nexus between Ealing comedy, The Wind in The Willows, neo-realism, post-modern literature (Darkmans by Angela Barker  has striking similarities), romantic poetry, Hammer horror, German expressionist cinema, conceptual art, folk music and carpentry, it is a inspiring one off, and a film that has enormous influence today (on, for instance, Days of Heaven, and as a result the far inferior There Will Be Blood).  And it has a falcon turning into a spitfire, what else do you want?

 

 

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Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club February Meeting Part 2: Touch of Evil

 (A copy of notes distributed for the edification of all at the inaugural meeting of the Dartmouth Park Film Club, February 2nd 2008.  SJF curating, CNAG, NA, J (“TLOK”) L in attendence )

 Touch of Evil, (1958 )

Dir: Orson Welles

 

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There’s very little to say about Touch Evil that hasn’t been said a million times.  The opening crane shot, which is rightly famous (and also, incidentally, the perfect example of Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: if you watch a board meeting and a bomb goes off, that’s a thrill.  If you see a bomb attached to the bottom of a boardroom table, then watch a board meeting take place, that’s suspense). The general air of weirdness, best summed up by Charlton Heston playing a Mexican.  The incredible performance given by Welles himself, and the riveting sight of the boy wonder in physical decline. The decision to make a great film out of the worst script available. The brilliant last line. The studio interference. 

  

What I’ve always found interesting about the film, apart from all of the above, obviously, is that it seems a film out of time.  With its almost oppressively flamboyant air of directorial flamboyance, technical brilliance, obsession with the auteur figure, love-hate relationship with genre, narrative implausability (pretty much to the point of being downright incomprehensible), spinning moral compass,  almost comic air of sexual and social perversity and combination of grandeur and self-loathing, Touch of Evil is basically the earliest example of 1970’s cinema.  It’s a Jim Thomson novel adapted by Paul Schrader and shot by Coppola, with Altman on sound.  Which is, y’know, A Very Good Thing. 

 

Interestingly enough, Welles himself put his problems with the Hollywood system (in particular on this film) down to the amount of time he took editing, which repeatedly resulted in final cuts being taken out of his hands. We can only imagine what we might have produced if he’d been born twenty years later and indulged even half as much as Altman, Malick, Coppola or, terrifyingly, Cimino.

 

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Perhaps the most interesting parrallel, though, is with a Sam Peckinpah film, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia.  Both present the US/ Mexican borderland a kind of spiritual vortex, corroding those who are in contact with it for too long, but what is more interesting is that both films are the last testament of Hollywood outsiders.  Bring Me…has been called “a self-portait in black” – it’s a howl of despair by an artist who sees himself as a bartender in a whorehouse, humiliated by his need for cash.  Welles has never struck me as one for a howl of despair, much less nihilism, but if their was ever a triumphant smirk of despair, Touch of Evil is it. It’s a film about corruption, but also (as most films featuring Welles are) about Welles.  And the result of that math is Quinlan, the apex of the noir anti-hero (and, incidentally, still living in the character of Tim Willocks’ Captain Clarence Jefferson in the tremendous Bad City Bluesand Blood Stained Kings) a brilliant man so far from civilisation for so long that he inspires nothing but disgust in anyone who isnt as corrupt as he is, morally and physically (and let’s face it, half the thrill of Quinlan is the physicality: Welles doesn’t hide his matinee idol-turned-Kurtz in the darkness to spare him the self-loathing (as Coppolla did with Brando), he puts the spotlight on him glories in it.  And it’s himself).  

 

Finally, it’s all about Welles, and I’ll avoid the temptation to end cheesily on Marlene Deitrich’s famous description of Quinlan here, but instead quote Janet Leigh, who said of the making of the film, in what could have been a description of Welles career and life:

 

“Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn’t want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes.”

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Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club February Meeting Part 1: Opening Remarks.

Transcript of a speech given by Mr. SJ Fish at the inaugral meeting of the Dartmouth Park Avenue Film Club, Saturday February 2nd 2009.

Attendees: Mr C Avrille-Gothard, VSOP.  Mr.  N Auld BSO, RCA.  Mr J Levison (“The Lion of Kabul.” of music hall fame).

 (Some moments pause while devilled kidneys, champagne and strong tea is served).

picture1 Mr Fish:

Good afternoon, Gentlemen, and welcome.   This afternoon’s presentation is a double bill, comprised of Touch of Evil” (1958 ) and “A Canterbury Tale” (1944)

 

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(roar of approbation, to the accompaniment of Mr Levison’s batman O’Doon playing an Irish reel on the Jug)

Superficially, these films have very little in common other than the fact that they were both disasters for their creators, later recognised as masterpieces .  Touch of Evil is a hyper-seedy noir set in Mexico that seethes with ambiguity, marks the path to 1970’s cinema and – despite a quite shockingly stellar cast – emphatically rammed a nail into Orson Welles’ Hollywood coffin by being re-cut (as usual) by the studio and released as a B movie (bottom of the bill to The Female Animal, a film which has subsequently failed to trouble cinema historians overly).  A Canterbury Tale is a wartime oddity, which is pretty much unclassifiable; lyrical, philosophically complex, and has a quite obvious amateur actor in the main role.  It was, as a result, the first critical and commercial disaster of Michael Powell and Emmerich Pressburger’s careers together and was only available in a bowdlerised US re-cut until the late 1970s.  The versions we have today are as close to the original cuts as possible, though unfortunately Welles’ original version was never actually completed.

That said, there’s a bit more to the selection of these two films than the fact that a few of you haven’t seen them and I really fancied watching them this afternoon (although I really wouldn’t underestimate that as a factor).   Unlike many films, even great films, both A Canterbury Tale and Touch of Evil show a real understanding of the potential of cinema as an art-form rather than a medium. Which could explain their poor initial reception, to be honest. Both of them are the work of geniuses at the top of their game. And, luckily, both of them are in my opinion loads of fun.  As a side-point, both of them have absolutely ROCKING first scenes.

 

On which note, gentlemen, charge your glasses, sit back, and prepare to be taken on a journey from the hell of the mexican border to the heaven of the Kent countryside, from Marlene Deitrich to Dennis Price and from a ticking bomb to a performance of JS Bach. I give you: Touch of Evil and A Canterbury Tale.

 

 (Mr Fish sits, to the sound of hearty shuffling of order papers and a round of rambunctious hear hears)

 

 

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Second Hand Books: A Love Letter.

 

 (Note to the unsuspecting reader:  This week’s post contains even more pretension and floaty prose than other instalments of our weekly serialised adventure.  You thought it wasn’t possible!  But, WE PROVED YOU WRONG….) 

 

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I love books.  I love everything about books, not just their contents.  I know I’m not alone in this, but it’s my dime so I’ll continue. 

 

If I’m honest, I think that to really love books (books, mind, not the contents), you have to love second hand books.  New books are fine, obviously.  They’re great.  There’s a kind of clean, still expectancy from all of them when you are wandering round Waterstones in Picadilly, or wherever else you stock up on your three-for-twos, and the arrival of a pre-ordered book, pinned down cleansided and fresh against the inside of an Amazon box, would in any sane world (which would of course be run by Wodehouse or Jerome) be celebrated by law with the opening of a bottle of champagne, but new books….well, inescapably, they’re just…new, aren’t they? And a new book, like winning the league with Chelsea, is just somehow, fundamentally, missing the point. 

 

 

New books

New books

 

To put it another way, new books are like Catherine Deneauve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Old books, on the other hand, are like Catherine Deneauve in The Hunger.  Which is a simile I’ll leave there, rather than embarass us all any further.   

 

 

Old books

Old books

 I love old books.  This we have established. I love the shape of them, or the fat, fanned out or sort-of-casually-bundled non-shape of them. The various formats of them, how they’ve changed down the years.  The higgedly-piggeldy variety of shapes and colours that sit on my bookshelves and refuse to be uniform.  Their trends in production and marketing: now square, now high-gloss, now fashionably uncoated and roughcut.  The different prices marking the eras (75p for a copy of Ragtime?!  PRP?!). Cover-design memes metastatising across whole genres.  The traditional endpapers with ads for books forgotten like mildly forlorn but strangely exotic lonely hearts ads :

 

Life Class

Ludwig Bemelmans

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The experiences of a first generation American who worked as a waiter in New York (1s 6d). ‘An artist in both line and words.’ – The Observer

 

a tradition now sadly replaced with the crisp New Labour-era bourgeois pretension of the Note on Font (we’ll see how long that lasts. In a year or two, no-one’ll give a toss what the font is, as long as the bloody thing goes well with sautéed rat).  The late 70-‘s/early 80’s ones with covers that all seemed to be modelled on the opening credits of Tales of the Unexpected.  Insert spooky theme music here.

The raw, Madison Avenue ballsiness of a copy of “Million Selling!!!” The Naked and the Dead with a cover illustration that could have been a poster for a Howard Hughes film. The sad, crisp modernity of all those remaindered copies, second hand before their time, sitting in stacked, repetitive piles of Julian Barneses and Ian iphone-pics-008Mcewans (and I defy you not to find a copy of Atonement in any second hand book shop, stinking the place out and tripping you up as you try to snag a copy of Zorba the Greek, or one of David Niven’s autobiographies or iphone-pics-003something similarly worthwhile).

 

 

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I love the idea of them, and others who loved the idea of them. All of them are there, every time you rummage through a stack.  Whenever I see an old Penguin (and when I see one I usually try to buy it) I get one of these quick flashes: Allen Lane, overseeing a production line of books uniform and beautiful and full of life like anti-bullets, smoking a cigarette that came from a pack that costs as much as each of the orange-striped copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (or New Zealand Verse, or The Odyssey, or What Hitler Wants) before him.  

 

 

 

Allen Lane, when not changing the world.

Allen Lane, when not changing the world

 

Second Hand books are packed with the histories not just of the characters, but the people who made them; tweedy commissioning editors in the Garrick in the 60’s, unionised typesetters, suit-wearing graphic designers and the GI Bill-educate Angry Young Writers tucked in those end pages. 

And of course the people who read them before you. The people who dogear the pages and leave blood orange thumb prints halfway through, who use train tickets to Croydon as bookmarks, occasionally have a fetish for underlining words and, and of course here’s the holy grail, aren’t the type of freaks who write their names in EVERY BOOK THEY OWN (why? why would you do that?  No, seriously, why?), but are the type of people who write comments like “C – I can’t say how sorry I am. J.” in the inside cover of Bel Canto.  

 

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What I also love, perhaps as much as the things themselves, freighted with big heavy meta-textual significance as I’ve just made them sound, is the buying process.  If there was a God (and again, in any sensible world this would likely be either Wodehouse or Jerome), second hand bookshops would be his places on earth: sitting on side-streets or in ridiculously out of the way places just breathing time and knowledge and silent accidentally recorded events in and out, in and out. 

 

 

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 They are usually run by blokes with a liking for Radio 4 and a disliking for being interrupted by anything as trivial as  customers; books seem to arrive there by accident, and certainly without the help of anyone who would actually want to come in and hand some over (with one notable exception).  In the best cases the opening hours are designed specifically to minimise the chances of anyone actually being able to enter the establishment

 

They are the opposite of shops, utterly random, utterly unreliable, stocked with items that have – by definition – proved unworthy of purchase.  You go into them expecting to come out with something you never actually wanted.  Something like Resentment, by Gary Indiana, or The Knowledge of Angels by Jill Patton Walsh, or your third copy of The Big Money (but this is a square, blue, illustrated 1961 bargain edition, so it’s excusable).  They don’t sell products, they sell ragged, square, dirty bits of accidental time. They make no sense at all, really,  and when The Big Man comes back, they may well be the only reliable proof that we haven’t been pissing around quite horribly for the past 2000 years.  I’d very much like to own one myself, but I suspect they’re actually handed over rather than sold or established.  Probably by dying men at fogbound railway stations at midnight, the key pressed between the pages of a worn copy of The Kraken Awakes.

 

 Undeniably Excusable

   

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