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Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Mark Fuller

Kim Newman on ACT

Film Extremes No.1 [1992]
Western Horror and Eastern Action in One Mag

p.32 Celeb Extreme Film Choice....

Kim Newman, Critic & Author

This is probably not the answer anybody expects from me, considering what I've discussed as a critic and attempted as a writer of fiction (although it might make sense of some of my last novel, Jago), but my choice as the greatest of extreme film-makers is Michael Powell. Yes, I know you can't isolate Powell from the contributions of Emeric Pressburger, Leo Marks and others, but Powell always was the visionary force behind the films of The Archers - and my pick as his most extreme (in the sense of outrageous, bizarre, interesting, ambitious, courageous and masterly) picture is not Peeping Tom (1960) - wonderful though that is in its mix of sleaze, art and psychiatry - nor such personal favourites as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), I Know Where I'm Going (1946), The Small Back Room (1948), The Red Shoes (1948), or The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). These are all magical movies, essential viewing to anyone who loves cinema, teaching lessons that the greatest contemporary directors - Scorsese, Lynch, Cronenberg, Tsui Hark, Coppola - are still putting into practice. Anyone who doubts Powell's place in this publication should take another look at the stalking that opens Peeping Tom, the red lipstick Kathleen Byron wears as the nymphomaniac nun in Narcissus, the bomb-on-the-beach finale of Small Back Room or Moira Shearer's sexy, scary automaton in Hoffman. I would exchange all of Re-Animator for Shearer's clockwork-spewing head blinking as the poet's heart breaks.

     My choice for Powell's most audacious film - not a perfect masterpiece like several of the other [films] cited, but still a work of dazzling, bewildering genius - is A Canterbury Tale (1944), a mystical meditation on what it means to be English, set during WWII. Eric Portman is a local magistrate who pours glue into girls' hair during the black-outs, dissuading them from fraternising with the American troops, a barmy crusade that is first seen in horror film terms, and then transformed into an endeavour at once insane, transcendent and saintly. The film, in luminous black and white with shining daylight and pitch darks, is imbued with magic from its first shot: a mediaeval falconer releasing a bird, which the camera follows as it does a 2001 stunt transforming into a Spitfire before returning to the face of the man, who has become a '40's ARP warden. It catches perfectly the feel of its time, peeling back the layers of history like a Nigel Kneale curse to disclose something primal and awesome in the heart of Kent, even to the extent of winding up with the modern pilgrims - an amiable American soldier played by an amateur, a shopgirl turned farmhand for the duration, and a poetic tank sergeant-cum-organist played by Dennis Price - each rewarded with a peculiar kind of miracle.

     It was reviled and boycotted on its reease, far more so than the controversial Colonel Blimp, accused of pretension and silliness. But it looks far better now than many an accepted classic of the British cinema, isolating in a truly English setting the deep feelings and powers missed by the tidiness of David Lean or Ealing comedies, turning hedges and streams into a landscape as mythic and cinematically vibrant as John Ford's Monument Valley, opening up a strain in our national cinema that lead to Robert Hamer, Seth Holt, John Gilling, Dennis Potter, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman. The sequence where the adults are drawn into a children's battle game upon a glowing stream is at once lyrical, funny, moving and subtly dark, the way Peter Pan or A Wind In The Willows were before Uncle Walt got his syrup-spoon to them. Like all great narrative art, it transcends genre and seems to contain all possibilities of fiction - erotic, horrific, funny, religious, wise, historical, pastoral, political, cynical, naive - and indeed,of human behaviour, being about the persistence of peace in wartime and the relevance of the distant past to a jitterbugging present.

     And like all the films listed in this section, a lot of people hate this film a lot. But I love it. I loved it when I first saw it on television in the '70's, I loved it when I interviewed Powell over the phone in 1985, I loved it the day in February 1990 I heard its director had died, and I love it on video now. Films aren't books; they are more than words, and this film has something it's hard to convey, dodging around the intellect it engages so easily and playing straight to the heart and guts. It's not quite my favourite movie (that's To Have and Have Not, made the same year) but it's consistently in my Top Ten. A Canterbury Tale stars Portman, Price (both showing what they can do when not cast in a tidy stereotypical cad role), Sheila Sim, Esmond Knight and Sgt. John Sweet of the US Army. Erwin Hillier was the photographer, Alfred Junge the Art Director and Allan Gray the composer. It was produced, written and directed, per the credits, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Thwack!

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