Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales and I go way back.  It is without question one of the weirdest films I have ever seen.  When I first attempted to watch it the reason behind it was I had to review a film based on old English literature for a college class.  Alas, I wasn’t ready for the mind numbing insanity I was about to subject myself to and I gave up a little less than halfway through. I ended up reviewing Beowulf after all.  But after telling a friend of mine about it who also enjoys bad movies he somehow managed to watch it in entirety.  I am now through with school but the film still haunted me.  How could I finish “Fantasy Mission Force” (expect a review there sometime) but The Canterbury Tales proved too much for me?  So, I vowed to finish it.  This film is a horrifying Lovecraftian nightmare which may break my sanity.

            While the source material the movie draws upon has some bawdy stuff it also had its share of the high-brow (although most of that was there to mock it).  Not so with this film.  While it is technically an Italian art film it turns out the line between those and pornography is thinner than a butt-crack hair.  Expect to hear about a lot of nudity, bodily excretions, and genuine (not simulated) sex.  The movie features truly great costuming to match the time period.  It is a shame that the clothes exist primarily to be taken off.  If the director Pier Pasolini intended it to be a celebration of sexual liberation then it is an abject failure.  There is only so many ugly men masturbating and old fat men on top of young women you can watch in the film before you decide that the prudes are saving humanity from its own id.  

 Also notably, famous British actor Tom Baker appears, who is well known for his role as the Doctor in the sci-fi show Doctor Who.  Since Doctor Who recently exploded in popularity again with the new series some of you might be interested in knowing that the fourth Doctor travels back in time to get a handjob from the Wife of Bath.  

            The film begins with an unfathomably annoying song (this won’t be the last of it either) and footage of members of the pilgrimage.  It shows the Wife of Bath as well as the Pardoner and also Chaucer (played by Pasolini).   After that they quickly introduce the frame-story of the people on the pilgrimage telling each other tales.  As soon as that is done they go straight into the tales and the frame story is all but abandoned except for a few shots of Chaucer writing.  A lot of the transitions are so sudden that it is really jarring to watch.  The film in many ways feels bloated and excessive and yet the time spent transitioning between tales is pretty much negligible.  It uses that time instead in expressing its utter insanity.  The order of the tales goes “Merchant’s Tale”, “The Friar’s Tale”, “The Cook’s Tale”, “The Miller’s Tale”, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, “The Pardoner’s Tale”, “The Reeves Tale”, and “The Summoner’s Tale”.  Good luck trying keep up.  I’ll just try to give you the highlights (lowlights?) as my full synopsis was mammoth in size.

            The second story starts with a man looking through peep holes into people’s rooms.  He finds two rooms where men were having sex with other men and turns them in to the authorities.  One man pays money and bribes the authorities to leave him alone.  The poorer man, however, cannot.  Both men’s younger partners are still in the room with them but they are ignored.  So, I take it, the guards thought the guys had anal sex with themselves.  As absolutely terrible as all this is it gets worse.  What really creeps me out is how the guys they had just finished sleeping with find the situation hilarious and are grinning ear to ear throughout.  One guy is still smiling while they sentence the poorer man to be burnt on a girdle.  Oh, and the guy that turned the two in sells snacks as he is roasted alive.  No, this is not in Chaucer’s original.  This is all Pasolini.

            This next part is by far my least favorite part of the entire film.  It is supposed to be “The Cook’s Tale” and is sort of a homage to Charlie Chaplin.  It involves a rascal named Perkins going around and doing rascally things.  What makes it so bad is that I simply cannot stand the performance of the actor who plays Perkins named Ninetto Davoli.  By now you may have guessed that the director Pasolini was gay.  He also had a habit of hiring people based on thinking they had interesting faces even though they were not proper actors.  It turns out Ninetto Davoli was once his young lover (at 15!) and so he gave him parts in many of his movies.  It is made especially bad here because everyone else in the film knows English while Ninetto by his own admittance spoke barely any and even then in a broken manner.  So, for the most part, he simply makes over the top expressions.  Instead of speaking he would sing that song from the opening of the movie and it all whirls together with his obvious lack of experience with physical comedy.  To be fair, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter was in the movie and when Chaplin himself saw it he told his daughter to tell Ninetto that he did a good job. Still, I would be lying if I said that his fake smile didn’t creep me out and that the song he sings is agony to my ears. In the interview I read with Ninetto he seemed like a sweet guy who you can tell really missed Pasolini who has now passed away, so I have nothing against him as a person.  I just really, really hate his performance. 

Anyway, the story ends with Perkins having a three-way with a friend and his friend’s wife (who is a whore) and then being arrested for all the trouble he had made prior to that.  He presumably was singing at inappropriate moments through the sex and apprehension (not kidding).

            Then there is the Wife of Bath’s tale.  If you ever thought, alas, my life will never be complete until I get to see Tom Baker’s penis then I have excellent news for you.  One tale begins with a middle aged lady named Alice having sex with her husband until he is left worn out and falls from his bed unable to move.  She leaves to strut about town where she meets a friend of hers.  The friend shows her a peep-hole in her house where a ‘young stud’, played by Mr. Baker, is bathing.  Pasolini, nobody is buying that Tom Baker is either young or a stud. 

This part makes me really uncomfortable.  I mean this whole movie makes me uncomfortable but this is just a special breed of uncomfortable.  It’s like if Mr. Roger’s decided to do nude scenes.  A man famous for children’s television shows up with a porno stache. To be fair, Doctor Who’s innocence has been long dead.  I would like to blame Russell T Davies for turning the Doctor into a dirty old man, trying to steal girls less than half his age away from their boyfriends and get them into his van Tardis, but that isn’t where the problem began.  It goes at the very least back to when former DW actress Katy Manning did a nude photo shoot with a Dalek, the Doctor’s most popular enemy.  Get it! Because they sort of look like dildos…. 

The friend says he is a student named Mr. Jankins and Alice says she should start planning her next wedding.  Alice’s husband dies (presumably from exhaustion from his wife’s voracious sexual appetite) and so she decides to go after Jankins.  As mentioned earlier, she gives him a handjob which effectively woos him.  After they marry Jankins starts to become misogynistic and considers women the root of all sin.  Alice hits him with a book and calls him a faggot which angers him and he knocks her down.  She pretends to be dying and while he stands over her pleading for forgiveness she bites his nose.  Ironically, in Chaucer’s original Jankins later reforms his ways and becomes a loving husband but here it just ends with the nose biting and domestic abuse.

Inexplicably, the next tale “The Pardoner’s Tale” has no reason for any sex at all but it is shoehorned in.  In order to demonstrate that the three protagonists of the tale lived sinful lives Chaucer wrote that they committed various sins in the tavern, like gluttony and gambling.  Pasolini uses this as an excuse to show the three men having sex with whores. To up the kink content of the movie substantially one whore uses a whip and the man she is with calls her his queen. After that completely unneeded part of the movie one of the men named Rufus pisses on a bunch of people in the tavern for drinking wine and gambling.  I guess those old vices are too soft now so Pasolini had to make him both more deranged and a hypocrite.  That and he just really wanted to add some golden showers in there. 

The genuine plot of the tale begins when they learn that one of their friends was killed by “Death”.  Since this is an allegory death is treated by the men as a character not a condition or abstract concept.  The men decide to kill death and threaten an old man till he reveals where he is.  The three find a treasure where the old man told them death would be.  They decide that one of them should return to town to get some alcohol.  The one who returns laces the wine with rat poison so he can have all the treasure to himself.  The remaining two also have a similar idea and knife the guy with the wine when he returns but then they too die from the poisoned wine.  This proves the old man correct that there they would find death.

            On to the end of this baffling movie.  In it a friar is led to hell by an angel only to find out the sad fate of friars there.  Satan keeps them up his ass and literally shits them out upon the angel’s instruction.  The fecal friars then return up the Devil’s rectum from whence they came.  This scene is done with a lot of naked men with body paint and fake wings playing devils.  The little boy playing the angel gets a costume which looks bad by 3rd grade Halloween costume standards.  The Devil is a naked man with red body paint and wings like the other men but with the camera tweaked to make him (or at least his butt) appear huge. The footage was then modified so that footage of falling men is spliced with it to look like he is farting them out.  An overly loud fake fart noise plays throughout and the friars are dressed in brown robes which actually does make them look surprisingly like shit.  At the end the footage is reversed to look like the friars leap back inside of Satan.

            I did it!  I just finished the movie which had seemed insurmountable to me for so long.  This feels like a herculean accomplishment.  Maybe I was watching it out of a misguided nostalgia for those college days, or maybe I am just a masochist.  Who knows?  All I really know is that I will forever be haunted during the night by what I have seen.   I’m going to go curl up into the fetal position and cry now.


Verdict: Disgusting, vile and bizarre. Some of the actors are also just random people off the street.  Highly unrecommended.

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