Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘I Know Where I’m Going!

My alternative canon #1: A Canterbury Tale

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different.

I’ve frequently said that The Red Shoes is my favorite movie of all time, but it isn’t even the most remarkable film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Red Shoes succeeds in large part by following through on its promises: it takes place in a fascinating world and tells a story of high melodrama, with an obvious determination to deliver as much color and atmosphere to the audience as possible, and its brilliance emerges from how consistently it lives up to its own impossible standards. A Canterbury Tale, which came out five years earlier, is in many respects more astonishing, because it doesn’t seem to have any conventional ambitions at all. It’s a deliberately modest film with a story so inconsequential that it verges on a commentary on the arbitrariness of all narrative: three young travelers, stranded at a small village near Canterbury during World War II, attempt to solve the mystery of “the glue man,” an unseen figure who throws glue at the hair of local women to discourage them from going out at night—and that, incredibly, is it. When the glue man’s identity is revealed, it’s handled so casually that the moment is easy to miss, and not even the protagonists themselves seem all that interested in the plot, which occupies about ten minutes of a film that runs over two hours in its original cut. And the fact that the movie itself was openly conceived as a light propaganda picture doesn’t seem to work in its favor.

Yet this is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, a languid series of funny, moving, and evocative set pieces that reminded me, when I first saw it, of Wong Kar-Wai magically set loose in wartime Britain. There are the usual flourishes of cinematic playfulness from Powell and Pressburger—including a cut from a medieval falcon to a modern warplane that anticipates Kubrick in 2001—but the tone is atypically relaxed and gentle, with even less plot than in its spiritual sequel I Know Where I’m Going! Despite the title, it doesn’t have much to do with Chaucer, except that the lead characters are all pilgrims who have been damaged in different ways and are healed by a journey to Canterbury. (Years later, I stayed at a tiny hotel within sight of the cathedral, where I verified that the movie was on sale at its gift shop.) It’s nostalgic and vaguely conservative, but it also looks ahead to the New Wave with its visual zest, greediness for location detail, and willingness to take happy digressions. The cast includes the lovely ingenue Sheila Sim, who later married Richard Attenborough, and Eric Portman as Colpeper, the local magistrate, who, in a typically perverse touch from the Archers, is both their virtuous embodiment of high Tory ideals and kind of a creepy weirdo. Sim died earlier this year, but when she looks up at the clouds in the tall grass with Portman, she lives forever in my heart—along with the film itself, which keeps one foot in the past while somehow managing to seem one step ahead of every movie that came after it.

London and the voodoo of location

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Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.

At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”

Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)

For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.

What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.

Great Directors: Powell and Pressburger

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Essential films: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!

Over the course of a single decade, from 1940 to 1949, the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced ten masterpieces, beginning with Contraband and ending with The Small Back Room. This amazing run, conducted in the face of World War II and the difficult years that followed, is unparalleled in the history of movies, and deserves a great book on the subject. (Powell’s own autobiography, A Life in Movies, goes only part of the way toward filling that need.) Even more impressive is the dazzling range of stories on display. Some are naturalistic, while others are outrageously weird; there’s comedy, suspense, history, war, romance, melodrama, even excursions into science fiction and fantasy. One of their greatest films, A Canterbury Tale, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, until we realize that it’s actually about everything in life that matters.

And yet every one of these movies is recognizably the work of the Archers. A film by Powell and Pressburger doesn’t look or feel like anything else: it’s the result of a very British mixture of humor, common sense, visual and narrative ingenuity, superstition, and a genuine curiosity about how the world works. If The Red Shoes had nothing to offer but dancing, music, and art direction, it would still be a classic, even an object of religious devotion. The fact that it also has a richly detailed story, fine performances, gorgeous locations, and cinematic inventiveness to rival Citizen Kane—and in color!—makes it seem almost inhumanly generous. Add this to the fact that it’s the best movie ever made on the creative process, and you have the work of art, after a lifetime of moviegoing, that has inspired and consoled me more than any other film.

Tomorrow: the dangerous example of Stanley Kubrick.

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