Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Light Fantastic

So, a couple of days ago, I saw a preview of something called Leap Year, due out in early 2010, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. As I watched the preview, all I could think was: "Hey! That's I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)." And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a LOT of romantic comedies are I Know Where I'm Going. As much as I love this movie, you'd think I would have noticed that, say, Pixar's Cars is an Nth generation descendant. In my defense, I've only seen I Know Where I'm Going! twice, a decade and a half apart. I notice on the IMDB's trivia page for this film that Paramount used this film as a guide for screenwriters in the years after it was released. I'm not surprised.

Anyway, the preview for Leap Year also reminded me that my local art house, the excellent Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri, was showing I Know Where I'm Going! this week as part of their ongoing Ragtag 101 series. This was my second viewing. I've never seen I Know Where I'm Going! on a television screen and I'll probably keep it that way*, because, like many of The Archers' movies, this one is what movie screens were made for. It's the light fantastic, conjured by those two sorcerers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Oddly enough, it doesn't start that way. It starts out as a screwball comedy. We find our heroine bullying her way through life and dreaming of a life of luxury and money (the dream sequence in this film is one of its best magic tricks). Then we come to the stark beauty of the Hebrides and mournful shots like the one at the head of this post, and the tone of the movie shifts so dramatically that it's hardly the same movie. It shifts again, later. The structure of the film is one in which Wendy Hiller's character is constantly walking through doors into other worlds, each wilder and more primal than the last.

Along the way, the filmmakers puncture the social structures that still held sway as WWII came to an end, particularly the lordship of the aristocracy. Hiller's foil, played by Roger Livesey with restrained grace, is aristocracy that has already had his place in the world transposed. He's come to terms with a world that doesn't conform to his expectations. And here, the film shifts again, because Hiller can't come to grips with this and follows her determination into the maelstrom. The Archers weren't shy about turning their movies into horror stories, though this one is milder than the end of, say, Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes, but you can see Poe all over this one, though in the end it's far more humane a film to descend fully into the abyss.

One of the things that I noticed during the film was how much the thick Scots accents reminded me of Scandanavian accents, and the occasional Gaelic dialog increased that impression. The association came mostly from the light, though. This film has Bergman's light, and the compositions from the middle of the film onward are occasionally as tenebrist as anything in Bergman. Cinematographer Edwin Hiller famously shot this film without a light meter, relying instead on a painter's feel for light and darkness. It's a tour de force, one that imbues what might ordinarily be a run of the mill romantic comedy with a whiff of other worlds, and turns the whole movie into a waking dream. The interesting thing about this is how concrete the film is while it turns this trick. Take, for instance, the sequence in which Livesey goes about fixing the engine of the boat while they're being sucked into the whirlpool. Another film would show the actor mucking about in the engine without bothering with the details, but here, we see each meticulous step of the way. This has a dual purpose in the film: first, it ratchets up the suspense during this sequence; second, it grounds the film in reality as a means of counterbalancing the mythological elements (Herman Melville would have envied this).

*actually, I'll probably relent on this. I mean, this is a film that rewards careful viewing, and I'm told that the Criterion edition is lovely.

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