I know where I’m going Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger (UK1945) Wendy Hiller, Roger Liversey
Viewed: Side Cinema ( Newcastle) 30 Dec 10; ticket price £5.00
What’s a nice middle class girl like you doing being absorbed into myth…?
Pressburger and Powell’s (PnP) film can be read at many levels, but, ‘I know where I‘m going’ (IKWIG) creates a filmic rite de passage for its protagonist Joan whereby she moves from a world ruled by individualistic desires into a mythic realm governed by necessity. PnP’s scenario guides Joan’s movement between these worlds, negotiating her progress with gentle wit. They also demonstrate their understanding of the self sufficient role of the female psyche which is never patronised degraded or sold short to assuage male pride, but allowed to develop through its own mistakes and recognition of its own power to transform itself
The thought occurs that in writing their script, PnP will have been conscious of a certain analogous parallel path between Joan’s career and that of Britain at war with Germany. To survive and win the war Britain had had to disinvest itself of its self serving individualistic class obsessed apparel and take on the mantel of myth. Investiture in mythic identity permitted the political forging of a unified national spirit necessary for victory. This mythic cloth was woven by many hands and interest groups. PnP as film makers and propagandists were actively involved in the process, fashioning films out of the historical rattle bag British institutions literature and music, the equally valued diverse nationalistic identities of the Union, and of course the idea and core value of ‘decency’ ( a loose conceptual shorthand for tolerance and democracy). But this level of allusion is marginal to understanding and enjoying the material PnP brought together to fashion material for their film.
IKWIG delivers something of a running cosmic joke, the mythic bride who tries but fails to get to the church for her wedding. A wedding that never takes place. Powell certainly seems obsessed with the Bluebeard story. Both Red Shoes and Peeping Tom play on the idea of the betrothed lured to the castle of male fear, not for her wedding but as blood sacrifice.
Joan’s personal enterprise is to move up the social scale, from middle class, to upper middle class, through marriage. She is successful as her wealthy boss, old enough to be her father, proposes to her and asks her to travel to Killoran a remote Scottish island where he has taken up residence. But the Gods conspire against this arrangement. The elements, forces of nature, prevent the little ferry that carries people over to Killoran from sailing. First fog then storm delay her passage. As she waits she is confronted with the social world of Scottish islanders, a provocation to her individualist subjectivity. A world where collective identity and solidarity govern being and desire. A world which opposes her will to reach the island at any cost.
As she waits for the weather, she is also confronted by McNeil the true owner of Killoran. Not just a product of the collective ethos but a figure conforming to a mythic imperative. Joan struggles to resist being overcome by the collective will and the mythic web into which she has fallen. She struggles in the fear that what she understands as Joan the individual self, will die if she yields to these forces. In panic she seeks to avoid ‘death’ and mythic ‘rebirth’. In desperation she makes one last doomed effort to assert her will and sail to Killoran. and. in the extraordinary sequence in a small boat, she is hurled back by the cosmic fury of the elements that she has raised against her by attempting to escape her fate.
Her fate is not be a sacrificial victim on Bluebeard’s altar, but to raise a curse laid on the house of McNeil, for an ancestor’s terrible act of bloody revenge. The significance of events is finally understood by Joan after her epic attempts to resist and she allows herself to be absorbed into the necessity of myth. Dieing as a middle class aspirational English woman; reborn as a woman who understands her role in the weaving of fate.
I don’t know exactly how PnP worked together and divided the tasks and responsibilities of film making. I feel, that the expressionistic high key look of some of their films might have been Pressburger’s input, typified in IKWIG by the overnight train montage. Inspired surely by Jenning’s Night Mail, it is funny inventive and a slick reworking of the visual and audio ideas. The core scripting I imagine to be Powell’s. His understanding of island communities evident from the Edge of the World; his fascination of women and myth, driven by the deep seated anxiety triggered by the female. Anxiety that in films such as Canterbury Tale Red Shoes and Peeping Tom, drives Powell the evolve script ideas based round disembodying and disempowering women through real or symbolic death. Castration anxiety or what? With IKWIG Powell seems to have mastered the need to feed his inner demons a sacrificial victim and contrived (with Pressburger) a scripted resolution that is mythic and affirming of the female.