Father: “Have you ever been there?”
Joan: “Often! In my dreams.”
We’ve all been to places in our dreams. If they are positive dreams, with resonances that we yearn for, we might take a train, bus, and boat to chase it in our waking life. We might, like Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), even throw ourselves into a storm. Thus the initial appeal of I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945) – that determination to follow dreams and desires – has force. It opens with a quick introduction to the childhood of Joan Webster, and follows her until she becomes a young woman, and she clearly knows where she’s going. She wants a pair of silk stockings, and to marry the richest man in England, so much that she marches north to reach him. At a sophisticated nightclub, she orders her usual (a gin and Dubonnet, perhaps not so incidentally the Queen of England’s preferred cocktail), and declares this betrothal to her father (George Carney). As easily as Joan puts on airs, her father tells her to stop acting, and the camera zooms in to their table tenderly. At this, her performance breaks down, even more easily, and she smiles warmly at her father. This small moment stands in for the film itself, in a way; Joan slowly realises that her performance and projection is not reflective of her true desire. And it’s a lovely journey.
I Know Where I’m Going! comprises one of my early unique film viewing memories. I’m not sure how old I was when I first saw it with my parents. For years, I remembered little, except for a lady in an ocelot-print pillbox hat and, later, her running across Caledonian hillsides. I thought of these fragments often, and as the years went on, I would try to place it in context, try to situate it in its filmic surrounds. I so yearned for the film again that I bought the Criterion release version, at a time when you couldn’t purchase such DVDs in Australia for less than $65. If the Criterion canon has meaning to you, then it’s significant that I Know Where I’m Going! was the first entry into my own Criterion collection, which is gradually getting larger. Watching it again, alone in a share house living room perhaps fifteen years after my first and only other viewing, every single shot struck me as familiar. But it was the hat that stuck. I realised then that the ocelot hat was paired with an ocelot purse, flat and almost broad-shouldered. The purse appears again; the hat does not. Obviously this film had such an effect on me as to imprint my memory in this way. It’s remarkable; why is it so? There are certain films which I have seen more recently and have less memory of. Films which I cannot remember having seen until a moment quite far in, when my memory triggers. And even though I can be quite sure I’ve seen something, my cognisance might be limited.
In subsequent years, after my second viewing, more remained in my mind. What else did I remember? All things that bring me warmth. A cigarette, lit with another already burning, as two arms stretch across two windowsills – an intimate moment, made intimate across distance. A lamp blown out, immediately sated as the wind picks up – a beautiful aural transition. A phone booth at the bottom of a waterfall. Roger Livesay, as Torquil MacNeil, walking across a mountain. The reflection of lamps on a mirrored ceiling. Ripples on the surface of a calm ocean, after a storm. The separate tables at lunch – recalled with Hiller’s performance in Separate Tables (1958), the following decade? Whenever a see a film about women needing silk or nylon stockings – a desire whose overwhelming power was tied to the restricted era of the Second World War for example, like Kiss Them For Me (Stanley Donen, 1957) or Macao (Josef Von Sternberg, 1952) – I think of Joan’s desire for a pair. It’s a film that has ripples not just in my memory, but in my ongoing experience of the cinema.
This is a film without sex, but it is not without intense desire, in the performances and also imbued in its gestures. The cigarette I recalled above, for instance, assists the two in coming together. As Lesley Stern writes, due to “its ubiquity and quotidian nature, the cigarette is a kind of charmed cinematic object […] as it is smoked and disappears it gestures both towards its own phenomenality and its genealogy: as one of a series, endlessly replaceable and repeatable.”1 But the cigarette is paradigmatic of cinematic things, writes Stern, because while being firmly quotidian it is also remarkable on screen. In David Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949), for instance, during a meeting between past lovers Mary (Ann Todd) and Steven (Trevor Howard), he fumbles while trying to light her cigarette, so she lights it herself. This is a sign that things aren’t well between them, and it is indeed their final meeting. In I Know Where I’m Going!, the smoke that cigarettes waft builds the depth of the visual landscape, and the cigarettes themselves have a specific place in the film. The cigarettes are key instruments in both Joan’s and Torquil’s seduction.
This is what cinema does. It affects the viewer in ways that may not register, definitely, obviously, but bury themselves deeply as part of memory. Stories and cinematic experiences can become part of our own experience. It’s as though we lived through something that we experienced through the screen. And these moments can be just as important as those we live through with our bodies. Our bodies are imperative to our viewing of film, to our envelopment in another world, our presence within that world, and our relationship to characters. Writing about the “photoplay” in 1916 – essentially, the cinema, but understood only as a silent form – Hugo Münsterberg writes of anecdotal reports of “sensory hallucinations and illusions” forming in the minds of its audiences. With this particularly heightened state of access to life on screen, “neurasthenic persons are especially inclined to experience touch or temperature or smell or sound impressions from what they see on the screen.”2
Daniel Frampton writes:
For Münsterberg the film-world is a complete transfiguration of the real world. Film moves away from reality, and towards the mind. It is the mind that creates this transfiguration, recreating the world in its own form. Film should therefore be seen as its own imagination (even when it initially looks normal and realistic).3
And it is its own imagination. In this case, with I Know Where I’m Going!, it had become a separate part of my memory. The film existed distinctly in my mind rather than my reality, and yet, free of temporality, it was able to reinvent itself in my reality. But the thing about the cinema is that it can blend with our reality, through sound, image and sensation. For Münsterberg, these are “vivid as realities”.4 Just like dreams.
And within the film’s dream logic, I Know Where I’m Going! is connected to other films that I saw, before or since. When Joan is asleep in her train compartment from Manchester, she dreams of her dress, and this dream substance activates the dress for her, within the dream and within the film space. It shivers, it travels to her body, and importantly it seems to have a mind of its own. Perhaps Disney and the animators of Sleeping Beauty (1959) thought of this dress when they conceived that Aurora had met her true love “only in my dreams […] it’s my dream prince.” Aurora’s forest friends animate the cape, hat, and boots to appear as a real man, and the three fairies use magic to sew a dress around an absent mannequin. The dress’s sleeves seem filled with arms, although nothing is there – it’s imagination, it’s magic. During Joan’s dream, her mind conjures tartan fabric on the hills of Hebrides. If not tartan, it’s at least a patterned cotton, perhaps a calico. I can’t help but recall, now, something of the MGM Happy Harmonies cartoon short The Calico Dragon (1935) – perhaps I watched it on an old VHS tape I cherished as a child – in which toys, a dog and a heady peasant, march across fields, across a flowing calico river, cut out trees on the horizon. This isn’t reality, though – an animated girl is dreaming, or at least letting her imagination take reign. Reality and cinema, blended over and over again.
Joan Webster’s dream on the train, in which she is having something of a fever, recalls Eliza Doolittle’s feverish experiences learning to “speak English”, as Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith, 1938).
These parallels may be incidental, but there is something nonetheless powerful about the phantom power of dreams and cinema.
The song, “I Know Where I’m Going”, first starts up as the train wheels do, as Joan begins her journey to Scotland. The song and the train are both driving forward, although it isn’t the first image of transport, travel, direction. It gets more dramatic with the cut out to the wide shot of the train, faster, more violently ploughing forward, when finally, Joan’s wedding dress, hung up so tenderly, begins to dance on the coat hanger. It’s finally the dance promised by the previous scene, when Joan took her father to the dance floor of the nightclub. It’s followed up, later, by the incredibly energetic scene of the cèilidh. Through my research, I’ve spent some time studying images of trains, and the aural accompaniment that so often adds dimension and builds on the affectiveness of such cinematic moments. Often tied to particular eras, trains can be symbols of death, of industry, or of promise. Here, as Ian Christie writes, the film “boldly defies the sober style of much World War II cinema.”5
It may defy the dominant style, but this film is inherently tied to the war, for many other people if not for me. For Powell and Pressburger, films are clearly alive, living connections to a time. They are life. In A Matter of Life and Death (1946), made the following year, their scenes on earth are coloured, and those on a higher plane, in black and white. As Marius Goring says in the film, “One is starved for Technicolor up there.” But these filmmakers can make any chromatic display rich and memorable.
I have seen I Know Where I’m Going! many times. It is a film that is in me now. And as hinted, it’s in returning to this film that it has its real pleasures. The close ups of Joan show her with enough detail to assess the fabric of her clothing, to feel the sensations of its textures. It’s cold – everyone has this knowledge about Scotland – but the cold has sensational chill in this film. Even in mid-shots, Joan’s blazer looks distinctly woollen, and its warmth is unmistakable. It’s thick, it’s properly insulating. It looks heavy, its weight is visible, it transfers to my skin. The weight of her blazer matches the sound and texture of the train, which is so strong as it departs the station. As the taxi driver says to Joan, “it never stays fine for long in the Isles, you’ll get used to it.” But after the fog rolls in, it does not go away. The woollen threads visible in her suit, and her stocking toque cap, feel like the only appropriate things for the wind outside Moy Castle. The flickers of its texture provide a wonderful intimacy.
There are more intimacies. When Joan first sees Catriona (Pamela Brown), it’s like she is mystified, hypnotised by her freewheeling nature, something that Miss Webster doesn’t have. She marvels at Catriona’s movement, her lightness, her ease and comfort. On her first night spent in waiting, Joan prays for the weather to clear so she may reach the island of Kiloran the next day, to reach her awaiting fiancé. She blows out the flame in her gas lamp, and with the sound of her exhalation, comes the sound of a whistling storm outside. The shot transition follows, fading from a darkened bedroom to a bright grey sky, both bare and leafy branches being torn by the wind. These moments, thanks to the filmmaking and to Hiller’s detailed performance, sustain a connection with the audience, from enclosed spaces to open expanses.
As Mary Ann Doane writes, “Epstein, writing in the 1920s, was under no illusion that the movement in cinema was ‘real’; it was experienced only within the spectator as a kind of phantom.”6 As Epstein himself writes, “The essence of an art is to create, out of our real world, its own unique world.”7 This film has its own unique world, one which becomes fully realised within the worlds of its spectators.
In the bus, men are talking and the wind still whistles in the distance. The world remains present, and we can hear it leaking in.
On Tuesday September 22, 2015, my paternal grandmother died. On Friday October 2 – a public holiday in Victoria – we held her funeral. We played the song, the uncredited singer’s performance of “I Know Where I’m Going”, as one of two elegies, along with Bette Midler’s “The Rose”. These were two songs that we knew she liked; she didn’t really watch movies, or go to theatre, and had only few simple pleasures. This film – or just this song, I’m not really sure – was one, and it’s a privilege to adore what I know meant so much to her. Having this as a connection with a loved one, now passed, is meaningful, and adds another layer to it. Now she is in the film, too, and doubly in me.
Joan: “It looks so near, in half an hour we could be there.”
Ruairidh: “In less than a second, you could get from this world into the next.”
With this line, local Scotsman Ruairidh Mhór (Finlay Currie) warns Joan about the dangers of crossing an angry sea. With one navigational error or unexpected wave, you could be drowned. This line is about death, but to me, it’s also about the magic of the cinema. In less than a second – with the clash of the cymbal of the Archer’s logo – I can get from my world into the next. The one of cinematic dreams.
At my grandmother’s funeral, I told a story about her. When I was very young, I used to mope around her house, thinking of things to do (no doubt). And my grandmother often said to me that it was improper to do so; that only boring people are bored, and I was better than that. During the last few years of her life, when she was in and out of hospital, I would sometimes visit her room and she would be staring at the wall, looking at nothing in particular. I wondered if she was bored. But all she needed was a small window to look out of, to see the horizon or the skyline or some people outside. Not all hospital rooms have views. “I just like to watch the world go by,” she had said to me, once.
I kind of feel this way about oceans. I could just watch them, listen to them; deprivation would be too unkind. And I’m always drawn to the ocean in films. My other grandparents are more tied to the ocean. They’ve lived near the ocean, with glorious views overlooking Australia’s endless blue coast, for almost my entire life, and the sea anywhere can remind me of their home, their balcony, our history. I don’t know why this film brings me such strong recollections of them all, and seems to be more tied to them – an ineffable connection.
By the end of the film, Joan doesn’t want to go to Kiloran, and nor does she wish to marry the richest man in England. She rejected the abstract, unknowable figure demanding her from offscreen, and ends up somewhere else, perfectly happy. The ocean’s roar enables her to feel her feelings, to err enough to feel. Like Torquil – “I’ve got time, I can wait,” he says – she learns patience, and in its slowness, patience breeds passion. So her loss of drive cannot be equated with her not wanting to go to the ocean for a swim, or to the lake for salmon, which she wanted to come to her. She doesn’t want to go to Kiloran because she’s no longer driven by a determination to achieve something cerebral, but she is torn by the uncertainty of desire. Things begin to disrupt her. She notices the seals, who are known to “like the warm, foggy weather”, says one of the coastal foreman. The fog continues to lay heavy, and the sun streaming from the distance, to a grey setting. When her printed itinerary is swept into the water, it’s a terrific shock, a violent rupture like it’s a body falling in the water, like something from Epstein’s Le Tempestaire (1947). These were her instructions to get where she’s going. Torn away.
As she comes to realise her comfort in this mundane chaos, the violence of the ocean is stilled, replaced by a glistening body of water. This is recalled from Powell’s earlier film, The Edge of the World (1937), where the gentle ocean sounds give way to its anger.
For parts of the last half decade, I have been moving around, living out of suitcases and my car. Many of my books, DVDs, and blurays, have been boxed up among other possessions. But I always kept a few things with me, and I Know Where I’m Going! was amongst my close things. Why? Perhaps for the poetry; I didn’t know where I was going next, but I had this film that told me otherwise. Perhaps for the promise of a destination, be it physical or chimerical, and of the cinema.
According to Michael Powell’s widow, the prolific and influential film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell “loved going to Scotland, to sort of clear his mind out after he had finished directing a film.”8 She narrates this tale over some of Powell’s colour home movie footage of Scotland, of that same coastline filmed in black and white stock for I Know Where I’m Going!, featured on the Criterion release. He was a Brit who felt the pull to travel to Scotland whenever he could, as though he had a compass in his head that faced north. For me – I long to go to Scotland, really – this film (and many others) has that pull. I watch it now to relax, to find comfort. I know where she’s going, and even though I know, the thrill of those bagpipes approaching over the hill, leading Joan back to Torquil, delights me every time. What if she doesn’t come back this time? But she always does. With the synthesis of the vivid winds by the water, the music, the cinematic magic of by Joan’s forceful appearance on the hillside in the wide camera frame – embellished by my own personal memory and imagination – it’s always a thrilling ending.
- Lesley Stern, “Paths That Wind Through the Thicket of Things,” Critical Inquiry 28:1 (2001): 345. ↩
- Hugo Münsterberg, The Film: A Psychological Study: The Silent Photoplay in 1916, New York: Dover Publications, 1970, p.95. ↩
- Daniel Frampton, Filmosophy, London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2006, p. 6. ↩
- Münsterberg, The Film, op. cit., 95. ↩
- Ian Christie, “Essay,” I Know Where I’m Going! DVD, Criterion Collection, 2001. ↩
- Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 176. ↩
- Jean Epstein, “The Cinema Continues”, trans. Richard Abel, in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-1939: Volume II: 1929-1939 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 67. ↩
- Thelma Schoonmaker, “Home movies,” I Know Where I’m Going! DVD, Criterion Collection, 2001. ↩