Boring, of course, but I can't say Pasolini's film. "The Canterbury Tales," is an utter dead loss, and on the whole I would rather sit through it a third time than be burned at the stake.
It is "based on" the set of stories told by Chaucer -- "g. Chaucer," as he is identified in the screen credits; and as you know perfectly well these tales were told by pilgrims to pass the time on their six-day trek to the great shrine of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury.
It's wrong, probably, to break the somewhat surreal mishmash of the movie, which opened here over the weekend, by putting it into a context of rational words, but there may be a child here or a yokel yonder who cannot quite remember what it's all about, and who certainly will not find out by seeing the film.
What he will see, to take first things first, is a moderate exhibition of fornication (it's an X-movie) and attention to backsides and red-hot pokers. Haw.
I do not myself regard these episodes as obscene, on the grounds the are not titillating, though anatomical. The director, curse him, has been faithful to Chaucer in that respect: raunchy and baryardy, but hardly more erotic than an early-morning visit to the Eastern Market.
All hopes of competent pornography having been dashed, therefore, I am unable to present a dozen otraged paragraphs of delicious details, beyond saying that however vulgar Alysoun may have been to extend the wrong part of her little body out the window to be kissed, and however mean it may have been for a fellow to borrow a red-hot poker form the blacksmith and touch the girl's lover's body with it inappropriately (or at least cruelly) these scenes were admirably done and quite funny, if you have the normal human complement of vulgarity in you. As our best poets (always excepting Milton) have always had.
But back to Canterbury. After the archbishop, Thomas a Becket, was murdered at his prayers by henchmen of King Henry II, his tomb became a shrine and pilgrims came from all over the country to pray there or give thanks for healings they attributed to St. Thomas.
Piety then as now perked up around Easter, when the pastures were lush and the hawthorn buds were swollen and birds, those hearty choristers of dawn, began feeling their oats.
We think, now, that England then must have been lovely.Oak leaves no larger than mouse ears and the blessed sun as welcome as a wench in flame-colored taffetas, and the good old Wife of Bath and all the other sturdy citizens zealous to wend their ways to Canterbury. The holy Blissful martyr for to seek (as a wit once said) whom them hath holpen when that they were seke (sick).
A director of a film knows the dialogue of his movie cannot be page after page of poetry, and if his movie is based on a very long narrative poem as this one is, he must wave farewell to begin with to all those words that were the chief -- the only -- source of the plot's original power.
A director must have confidence (as in playing no-trumps at bridge) that "something will set up" to replace the original magic. And film directors, to do them justice, rarely doubt their powers.
A detectable flaw of the film is that nobody can make heads or tails of it. I am not sure whether it's better to have an exhaustive familiarity with the original poem or to be utterly unfamiliar with it.
It is not clear -- as it should be -- that all these people are telling stories along the road to Canterbury, to pass the time. It is not clear who the people are that are telling the stories, and it is not clear that now the story of this pilgrim or that one is being dramitized for us.
My belief is that the film was never completed according to the original concept of the filmmaker. Many of the episodes were shot, and my guess is that they were intended to be put together with marvelous ingenious transitions and dazzling devices -- and that these were never filmed.
On the other hand, it is equally possible that for an American audience, addled and curdeled by television and notably meek in its requirements for sense, nothing was thought necessary in the way of dramatic focus or the sketching in of character. For us it was probably thought sufficient to bring on the pokers and if nothing quite held together 10 minutes late -- well, who would notice? We'd think it was a commercial or something.
The strange thing, I thought, was not that the film was a mess, but that it did indeed capture a good bit of the air of Chaucer. Something of the unabashed plain unapologetic energy.
Unfortunately (but as any fool could have told them, inevitably) the music was lost along the way, and so were virtually all those sly descriptions of the characters. The back-and-forth put-downs between the friar and the summoner, one of the endless amusements of the Chaucer poem, are quite lost.
The faces are in general splendid. The director must have ransacked half the dives of Genoa to find them. Some of the pilgrims, no doubt, were going to thank God for deliverance from scrofula and pox. Others were going to pray things would clear up. The characters did not so much have skin problems, now I think of it, as give the impression of it. For a 14th-century drama (dentistry was not at its height, then, and people than did not swim or jog or spend time at the beach) it is hardly necessary to hire pretty folk for the roles, but you will notice some rather odd body shapes here. One fellow's shoulders (one can hardly help noticing them as they rise and fall) appear to be of distinct orthopedic interest.
Strange film, with occasional glimmerings of unfaked freshness, but on the whole an error of conception and a substantial failure of direction. If through some quirk the film viewer wonders what the hell the Canterbury tales were, when a first-rate intelligence was dealing with them, he may find out in the Penguin edition, which is translated into modern English. As far as that goes, it is by no means impossible to learn Middle English (the language the poem was written in, toward the end of the 1300s), and it would not take a great deal longer than trying to make sense of the tales from seeing the movie.