19 June 2010
As I’ve mentioned before here, I’m a big fan of “I Know Where I’m Going” (1945), the Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger love story. Sure, Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey fall in love, but the rest of us fall for the magic of Scotland by way of Powell’s love of those extraordinary landscapes and cragged faces of the locals who proudly worked the land like their ancestors. What I didn’t know was that Powell’s first full-length feature, “The Edge of the World,” is another love song to Scotland and its old ways.
It’s told as a tragedy. The people of the remote island of Hirta, far north of the Orkney Islands — with no radio, phone, doctor, or reliable mail service — have reached a crossroads: many of their young people can’t make this hard life work anymore and are leaving for the mainland. Without the young to help fish, farm, and herd, their way of life is becoming impossible. The two young men Robbie and Andrew fall on either side of the divide. Robbie, who earned many pounds working on an Irish trawler all winter, wants to leave and marry his new Irish sweetheart. His best friend, the darkly handsome Andrew (Niall MacGinnis), is determined to stay and marry Robbie’s beautiful sister Ruth (Belle Chrystall). They good-naturedly decide that they’ll participate in a battle: whoever climbs the terrific cliffs from seaside to the top first will determine which way both youths go in their lives.
But something goes wrong. Though he knows better than to take the most treacherous route, Robbie inexplicably goes the wrong way and falls to his death. His distraught father (John Laurie) blames Andrew for the death and refuses to allow him to marry Ruth; and when Andrew determines to find work elsewhere, suddenly everything seems to go wrong for the island.
Don’t be fooled: you’re not watching this film for the story, but for the way it documents some of the real life on the island of Foula in the Shetland Islands, which likewise had no cars, radio, or phone in 1936 when the film was shot. So remote from Scotland that the residents spoke Norse rather than Gaelic, the island was difficult enough to reach that Powell hired every single resident to participate as crew and extras. The village’s old women posed as they knitted their extraordinary sweaters; they displayed the way they did not shear their sheep’s wool, but plucked it right off the sheep’s backs; at other times they lowered themselves on ropes down the cliffs to collect sea birds’ eggs. The film takes its time pursuing the narrative so it can wander the landscape, lingering on the coming of winter with crashing waves and dangerous seas, the most extraordinarily vast cliffs in Scotland, darkening skies, fog and rain. It’s a gorgeous paean to a vanishing way of life.
“It was like his baby,” the film editor Thelma Schoonmaker recently remembered about Powell, who later became her husband. He was originally inspired by a news story from the early 1930s about precisely this dilemma faced by the residents of a different Scottish island in the Hebrides, St. Kilda, who had begged for and been granted the right to resettle on the mainland. In addition, he published a book about the making of the film that was released simultaneously in 1937, 200,000 Feet on Foula, to help advance the film. And in the late 1970s Powell would return to Foula to film a short, highly sentimental documentary (with John Laurie, one of the film’s stars, by the 70s an insufferable man who always appeared to be on stage), “Return to the Edge of the World.”
The film shows Powell’s pressures making the film during the Depression. It’s choppy and sometimes seems not to know whether it’s a documentary or a narrative, so it bears watching with generosity. But its success, particularly with the American National Board of Review (which selected it as one of the best foreign films of 1937), gave Powell the opportunity to become a feature-length director in his own right and led him to collaborations with Pressburger and Alexander Korda. Thus, when you watch “I Know Where I’m Going” again (and you should), you’ll see where his affection for Scots farmers comes from.
10 March 2010
“I Know Where I’m Going” — I’ve seen it probably five times now and can attest that it’s a really good film that gets better on multiple viewings. It could be seen as the film that inspired “Local Hero” with its elegiac images of the Scottish coast, except here the redemption comes in the form of love with the right man. If you’ve never seen it, prepare yourself for a quiet movie with the slightly improbable matchup of the brittle Wendy Hiller and the goofy-looking Roger Livesey (who, at 40-ish, simply could not pass for the early 30s he’s supposed to be). But their acting is perfect: Livesey is a good man; Hiller is redeemed.
Oh, the makeover narrative — a stock aspect of the “woman’s” film. Most fully realized in Pride and Prejudice (in which both Elizabeth and Darcy must change) and satisfyingly re-created in the BBC version of “North and South” (curiously, not in the Gaskell novel, however), this storyline appeals again and again. It’s worth noting that love isn’t always the main plot device; highly satisfying makeover narratives appear in films such as Judy Davis in “My Brilliant Career” all the way through the winsome Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” Clearly, the transformation doesn’t need a wedding altar scene at the end.
We can argue about the implications of narratives that transform the heroine through love, but let’s quickly point out the differences between female and male makeovers. First, I believe that female makeover tales most often require interesting male counterparts, three-dimensional creatures interesting on their own — whereas male makeover films seem to invariably feature what Nathan Rabin of The Onion calls the “manic pixie dream girl archetype.” Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston in “Along Came Polly,” Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or Sandra Bullock in “Forces of Nature,” these women’s unpredictability and full embrace of life allows them to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” She is pure plot device, not a character worthy of an inner life or transformation. (Sidebar: Holly Welker has a piece this month that ties this archetype to Helen Andelin’s 1963 classic, Fascinating Womanhood, a book that might be termed the anti-Feminine Mystique [also published 1963].) The manic pixie dream girl merely permits the elaboration of self by the man.
It’s not that Roger Livesey is a terrifically complex figure in “I Know Where I’m Going,” but he’s the embodiment of the magic of Scotland’s Western Isles — poor but noble (like his namesake, the Colonel’s golden eagle), modest and well-mannered, familiar with everyone on the island, and a fine contrast to the rich industrialist Hiller intends to marry. Livesey grows on her, and on us; his aging, goofy looks become handsome as his admirable qualities become more pronounced. We imagine their marriage as a happy partnership of equals. Likewise, Peter Sarsgaard might have stolen “An Education” had it not been for the perfect performance by Mulligan — he subtly transforms from dashing to oh-so-slightly fleshy and deluded during the course of the film. His initial glamour is slowly exposed as a lack of depth as it becomes clear that the con man is conning himself, while Mulligan gains complexity by learning the hard way.
Okay, maybe it’s not a fair comparison. Drew Barrymore’s male counterparts in her string of makeover movies (“Home Fries,” “Never Been Kissed”) weren’t three-dimensional, either. But take a look at how hard Livesey works in this scene to mitigate the snarky comments by the locals about Hiller’s fiancé. He’s a good man. Makeover movie: I sing to your female protagonists and worthy male counterparts.