Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"I Know Where I'm Going!"

I can't remember when I wrote this overly long piece about the film I Know Where I'm Going! (When I say long, I mean that there's too much synopsis and not enough atmosphere or personal feeling). I think I tucked it away hoping I'd return to it and figure out how to fix it. But please don't let me put you off! It has some good moments. I just want to do this film justice. It's a favourite and Powell and Pressburger are among the filmmakers I admire the most. Like all of their work, I Know Where I'm Going! is incredibly moving and visually stunning. It offers well-developed characters who issue from, and are defined by, a distinct sense of time and place. (It's worth noting that Powell made another magnificent, black and white film in Scotland before forging his eventual partnership with Pressburger. It's called The Edge of the World (1937), and has qualities and themes in common with I Know Where I'm Going!.)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's foul weather romance I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) employs the raw landscape and storied history of the Scottish Hebrides to demonstrate there's joy in submitting to life's vagaries. The film features headstrong Joan Weston (Wendy Hiller) who acts deliberately and with such self-direction that she disavows chance completely. At the outset, she tells her banker father of her immediate plans to marry a wealthy, Manchester-based industrialist. She's more triumphant than besotted - the union marks the realization of goals outlined during the wonderfully humourous, inventive opening sequence in which Joan's pluck and taste for conquest are charted in rapid fire exposition from childhood to womanhood.

Joan's fiance looms large in the story despite not being shown. The fact that he's organized their wedding on fictional Killoran, a remote island she believes he owns, provides the film's narrative: She must travel north to meet him. Further, he's abstracted through footage of a churning manufacturing plant, and a doting, punctual staff who appear on each platform of Joan's piecemeal train journey. They present her with a map and a rigid itinerary, the final leg of which requires her to travel by boat from Mull to Killoran. Everyone presumes that if progress is scheduled nothing can impede it. In the 17th century, the British put roads through the Scottish Highlands in order to move troops through easily. They then mapped the entire area to remove any possibility the natives might withhold knowledge of particular sites or routes. Powell and Pressburger explore this same tension between intuitive locals and heedless interlopers, but set the film during the Second World War. Joan's eager to depart Mull but the collective forces of wind, fog and rain prove stronger than her will and make her crossing impossible. Consequently in limbo, she pitches between a struggling regional culture that doesn't initially attract her and the symbolic, distant "rich man," as he's called, whose security does.

The film's early sequences are exuberant, due to their comedic flourishes and fast-paced editing, and include a bizarre dream sequence in which Joan watches a train weave through tartan hills, envisions herself marrying her fiance's actual company, and luxuriates in a bubble comprised of her wedding dress's garment bag while money whirls around her body. Initially, Powell and Pressburger let Joan's internal life dictate the film's action and structure in order to convey her unwavering, heady sense of entitlement and impression that its impetus controls reality. Her outlook is shown to be born of the city, a man-made environment coloured by acquisitiveness and engineered to underwrite its citizens' drive. But once Joan arrives in Scotland, the film's screwball tone is replaced by a slower pace and contemplative images. Cinematographer Erwin Hillier lets his camera linger over northern Scotland's dramatic scenery, the characters often in relief against the ocean, the distant horizon, or the hills that climb up from the shore. Movement is constant - of grasses or clouds - and is generated by a dominant, diverting wind. This place and climate, as evidenced by the storm, emerge as entities in their own right that have the power to determine outcomes. For example, merciful coincidence places Joan at the same house as handsome Scottish naval officer Torquil MacNeill (Roger Livesey), also waylaid from Killoran. Still, local myths and legends illustrate the human need to interpret happenstance as providence, guided here by poeticism and natural beauty rather than by money. Within this framework, Joan and Torquil's chance meeting takes on the thrilling proportions of cosmic intercession, the kind that proves to lovers that their burgeoning romance is irresistible.

Obliged to fill their time, Joan and Torquil visit local landmarks together, including Moy Castle. These impromptu trips provide the foundation for their growing attraction, as well as Joan's conflict in response to it. Torquil refuses to enter Moy, insisting that a young woman placed a curse on the lairds of Killoran that takes effect if they cross the threshold. Joan shows impatience toward his superstition, as well as incredulity that he would expect to be blighted by the curse. Her fiance is the laird of Killoran! But it's revealed he's merely the tenant and financial straits have forced Torquil to both absorb his presence and forsake his own home. This predicament, as well as those of his neighbours, illustrate the difficulty of rural life in the face of greater mechanization based predominantly in urban centers. Further, with the nation at war, Hebridean men are away fighting. "The rich man" isn't obliged to serve and brings much-needed money he's made elsewhere to an area at a loss to generate it nearby. In one of the film's most moving passages, Torquil and Joan, along with the bulk of the local community, attend a ceilidh, a traditional wedding anniversary party. The couple they're celebrating have been married for sixty years. Some of the guests sing beautifully (actual members of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir), performing folk songs in gaelic that Torquil translates for Joan in what amounts to an electric, spontaneous profession of love. The celebrating husband sees Torquil watching the proceedings from a distance and moves to greet him. He's elated that their party's been elevated by the music of as many as three pipers. They were hired to perform at Joan's interrupted wedding but, like her, couldn't make the journey. Instead, they commemorate genuine commitment - between individuals and to a regional culture - rather than a purchased facsimile.
Overcome by her feelings for Torquil and the fact that they're interfering with her hard-won plans, Joan prays unproductively for the storm to pass. Since it won't cease, and neither will her restlessness, she takes matters into her own hands and heedlessly bribes a young man to take her to Killoran against all advice to the contrary. Torquil has warned her about the Corryvreckan whirlpool, a dangerous strait that's swallowed many boats. While it's a natural occurrence, legend also attributes its malevolent force to sadness arising from thwarted love. As Torquil explains, a Viking Prince once asked to marry the Lord of the Isle's daughter and was made to prove his devotion by maintaining his boat in the whirlpool for three days. He sought out advisers who instructed him to collect three ropes of wool, hemp, and virgins' woven hair. They successively broke, the latter because its contributor had compromised her virtue, and the whirlpool swallowed him whole.    

When Torquil learns of Joan's plan he attempts to stop her but realizes she's too bullish to be deterred. He elects to take part in the trip and all of his skills as naval officer are tested when the whirlpool inevitably wreaks havoc on their tiny vessel. The climactic sequence, a blend of location and studio shooting, superbly illustrates Powell's technical facility and condenses all of the film's themes and sentiments. Having rushed headlong into danger, Joan confronts the fact that her selfishness, once believed to protect her, actually undermines her well-being. While the group struggles to rescue themselves, it grows clear that individual strength is most successfully summoned by shared purpose and help. Fault also lies with Joan's tendency toward expectation. She persistently looks to the future, represented all this while by the dimly visible Killoran, rather than attending to the immediate moment. Battered by roiling waters, the trio must adapt to successive difficulties arising from the elements, the boat's decline, and their increasing fear. Joan may have been able to avoid addressing her feelings for Torquil, but immediate threat of death demands her attention.
Perhaps the greatest outcome of the film's climax is its insistence that we don't need to be hampered by history or the exigencies of myth. The Viking Prince's story suggests fighting against the whirlpool is futile but, in this case, love proves an able competitor against both nature and legend when the trio return from their battle, scarred but safe. The next day, the skies clear and Joan's at liberty to leave. Torquil seeks solace by entering Moy Castle in a brave effort to confront the fates that have, by turns, both protected and ruined him. Alone and raw, he's revived by the distant strains of bagpipes. Joan and the musicians are shown marching to Moy and, once inside, she levels another curse by taking the Laird of Killoran into her arms. The film's story is generous because it's doesn't wholly change its characters in the service of narrative or theme. Joan and Torquil both obtain valuable knowledge that results in subtle shifts rather than complete personal reversals. The great appeal of I Know Where I'm Going! is its advocacy for moving through life with respect for both self-actualization and chance. If you consistently work at developing yourself, you're better prepared to respond beautifully when fortune offers its many and varied opportunities. You're also able to accept the best kind of romance, a love based on mutual self-discovery. Joan knows where she is going. She's marrying the Laird of Killoran. She just didn't know who he was before circumstance intervened by lifting the fogs of covetousness and forethought to enable her to see him.

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