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8 December 2013
Not exactly a holiday movie, more a drama with a Christmas scene, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) picks up with Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley, from Going My Way (1944), as he reaches his next assignment, the financially crippled St. Mary’s parish, which has both a church and a school. St. Mary’s is led by Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), a strict nun who represents traditional values. Father O’Malley, on the other hand, is much less stern and less customary. While the two respect each other greatly, they often disagree and frequently face off on issues effecting the church, school, and, of course, the financial instability of their parish. However, when Sister Benedict becomes ill, Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict both put their differences aside, understanding that Sister Benedict must leave St. Mary’s in Father O’Malley’s hands.
From a plot perspective, the traditional Sister Benedict runs St. Mary’s by the book; albeit loving and fair, she is rigid. When Father O’Malley comes to St. Mary’s, clad in a straw hat, he represents a newer, less conventional leadership. Where Sister Benedict looks to the past to handle the present, Father O’Malley looks toward the future to guide his decision-making. These characters represent, for the film, conservative vs. progressive Catholics during a rapidly changing and unstable time in the world, the 1940s. And, through these characters, the film argues what the Church must do to meet the needs of its people and evolve along with its times.
Sister Benedict is old world, to say the least. Draped in her habit, and never once shown in any other clothing or with any, even slight, changes to her restrictive garb, Sister Benedict runs St. Mary’s order and its school. While there are countless ways the films tries to highlight her adherence to order and tradition, some are immediately understood. First, while she and Father O’Malley watch the children practice their Christmas play, starring Bobby—a scene-stealer as Joseph—Sister Benedict harps on how the children keep changing their dialogue, that the children keep altering the performance each time they practice it. Although she says it with a smile, the fact that Sister Benedict repeats this point again and again subtly demonstrates her discomfort with change and her difficulty accepting things that, from her perspective, lack expected structure. Moreover, there is Sister Benedict’s response to Patsy (Joan Carroll). Patsy is a student at St. Mary’s who struggles academically and knows it. The girl tries her hardest at her schoolwork, even though it does not come easy and she is often distracted by sadness over being separated from her mother. When Patsy does not make the marks to earn graduation at St. Mary’s, Sister Benedict backs herself up with the rules and established policy to justify why Patsy should not get her degree, refusing to consider the circumstances and uniqueness of the situation. As with the Christmas pageant, Sister Benedict relies on traditions and policy for guidance, unable to consider any other alternative.
Father O’Malley, however, is liberal and forward-thinking; Father O’Malley is the opposite of Sister Benedict, and this is why, throughout the film, the two bump heads. For example, when Father O’Malley watches the Christmas pageant he thinks the children are outstanding, ignoring Sister Benedict’s concerns about their inability to commit to dialogue and blocking. Also, with Patsy, Father O’Malley pushes for her to get her diploma from St. Mary’s. O’Malley respects Sister Benedict and refuses to override her decision to fail Patsy, but he gently and consistently encourages an exception to be made for Patsy, as she has demonstrated her intelligence and maturity in ways academics failed to recognize. In all, Father O’Malley does not get caught on rules and expectations that way Sister Benedict does.
Juxtaposing Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley flushes out the glaring differences between conservatives and liberals, speaking politically. In the end, an exception is made and Patsy graduates. Also, Father O’Malley takes over St. Mary’s and Sister Benedict is sent away because of her failing health. Reading into this ending, because Father O’Malley remains at St. Mary’s in the end and not Sister Benedict, the film suggests a liberal Catholic, not a conservative, is the stronger leader. This is particularly interesting considering The Bells of St. Mary’s was released in 1945. It is reported that this film is RKO Picture’s highest-earning motion picture, and it was made and released in the same year World War II ended, a time when the Catholic Church, specifically its leader, Pope Pius XII, struggled.
Today, many argue that during WWII Pope Pius XII privately acted liberally, responding to the Nazi’s Holocaust by attempting to provide sanctuary to Jews. However, Pope Pius XII remained publicly impartial when it came to the Axis and Allied forces, causing many to criticize the Church’s perceived indifference to the Holocaust, a more traditional and backward-thinking stance. The Bells of St. Mary’s does not dare directly address the Holocaust—nor could it with WWII still raging—; however, it captures a church in crisis due of a lack of support just as this exact situation, the Church possibly facing crisis due to its impartiality during WWII, occurred in the real world.
From one perspective, retrospectively reading into what may be the film’s unconscious, The Bells of St. Mary’s is a reaction to an unstable time, for the Church and the world. Released at the end of WWII, when the magnitude of the war’s destruction was becoming clearer and clearer, one of the things this film does is send out a message that it is not possible for the Church to handle the present state of the world by looking back and adhering to tradition, as Sister Benedict would do. The film argues that, like Father O’Malley, the Church must be progressive and, if necessary, disregard tradition in a time of instability and turmoil.
That said, the film is layered with propaganda, particularly religious propaganda, and, from a certain slant, the film is a narrow metaphor for much larger and more serious problem afflicting the Catholic Church. Still an enjoyable semi-holiday classic, The Bells of St. Mary’s is an undeniable reaction to its time, and is also, quite possibly, a call for change and religious reform in the wake of WWII.
1 December 2013
The setting: America, 1947. World War II is over and the American economy is booming, nothing like the pre-war depression. With money flowing, advancements in technology and industry are all around. It is a prosperous and prominent time for America.
But, is America moving too quickly? Has the country suddenly become full of “too many people who don’t know where they are going and they want to get there too fast”? People who, even without a sense of direction, are in a hurry to get there because a booming economy feels like success and exudes excitement? According to the cynical Sylvester, the taxi cab drive from The Bishop’s Wife, who begrudgingly makes this statement, this is what is wrong with America and its people in 1947.
So, if Sylvester is right, and people are racing forward without direction, is that problematic for Americans? If economy is thriving and people of the free world have prosperous industry, and, with it, financial success, and that industry and success are motivators to continue moving forward, even if the direction is hazy, what is the big deal?
According to The Bishop’s Wife, the big deal is career and financial pursuits in a booming economy jeopardize the family unit, a major American ideal. Like most films of the 1940s (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, all films), The Bishop’s Wife is propaganda. During WWII, films like Tender Comrade (1943) and The Hollywood Canteen (1944) told Americans to persevere in the face of adversity and built moral. Immediately after the war, films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) told Americans how to rebuild as victors. The Bishop’s Wife, like its contemporaries of the late 1940s, told audiences that, although wildly different from pre-war America, post-war America must keep up its values, and family is at the top of the list. Moreover, although opportunities for careers, financial gain, and glory are more readily accessible, it is not acceptable to put these materialistic gains ahead of the family unit in the value system.
At the start of The Bishop’s Wife a family unit is fractured. The Brougham family, consisting of Bishop Henry, Julia (his wife), and Debby (their young daughter), is strained because the bishop is trying to raise money to build a cathedral in place of his current church, St. Timothy’s. Unfortunately for the bishop, raising money has been a slowly and fruitless process. Moreover, his exhaustive pursuit of this money, from wealthy members of his community, has frequently taken him away from his family and caused him incredible stress. In fact, Bishop Henry (David Niven) is so frayed that God himself (or herself, or etc…) has sent an angel, Dudley (Cary Grant), to help the bishop, who has prayed for guidance. Reading into the film’s propaganda, clearly belief systems are essential to 1940’s America, and, to a dominantly God-fearing population (the film’s audience), God’s role in this film is to restore the family unit; thus, God wants families to stay together, and so the God-fearing American population also wants families to stay together, or so one may read into The Bishop’s Wife.
Julia (Loretta Young), “the bishop’s wife,” clearly wants to restore her family unit, and works as tirelessly as her husband to be a model wife; Julia represents the ideal in the film; Julia is the woman, wife, mother, and person 1940’s America wants more of. Julia, like Dudley, is called “unusual” by Sylvester, the taxi cab driver turned Greek chorus of The Bishop’s Wife. He calls her this because she “know[s her] destination,” having a sense of direction about her. She maintains the family value even though her husband is lead astray by the drive for a bigger church and quest for money to make that drive a reality. Julia is rooted in the ideals of yesteryear and cannot be shaken, exactly what the film’s propaganda hopes to instill in its audience.
One of the ways the film makes this clear is with a metaphor: Julia’s new “daring” hat. After staring at it longingly in a shop window, Julia, with Dudley’s encouragement, finally buys the long-admired hat. Now, the audience knows this “hat” is really more of a bonnet, but Julia and other characters refer to is as a hat. Why? Times change, and people don’t wear bonnets in 1947—not only when the film was released, but the presumed setting for the film itself. This is significant because, metaphorically, this is the film’s way of claiming Julia reveres yesteryear, cherishes it, and holds tight to it even as the times (and fashions, to be literal) evolve. Put another way, the language has changed—this is now a hat, not bonnet—, however, the item is the same, only guised by a new, more acceptable, name. Metaphorically speaking, the family unit, like the bonnet, may evolve with the times, but must stay of utmost importance and revered amid the American people of the time. People can have new interests, pursue new opportunities, live in prosperity, but people, like Julia, must revere yesteryear, namely the family unit, and, therefore, keeping their values is place regardless of changes that time’s progression brings.
Henry Bishop, a rather secondary character in the film, is the one who poses a threat to the family unit by his disregard of it in the pursuit of money and advancement. Continuing to look through the lens of the film’s propaganda, his secondary status, and rather disagreeable characterization, may be an intentional threat in and of itself to those who, like Henry, do not place value on the family unit ahead of monetary gain and career advancement. Whether or not that is true, Henry is portrayed as the problem in the Brougham’s family unit. The audience realizes this early on, but Henry does not fully realize this until he sees another man, albeit and angel, move in on his neglected wife. When his family unit is compromised by a force beyond his control Henry changes his ways. The family unit is restored, Dudley leaves forever, and Henry, having realized how dangerously his pursuit of money for his cathedral was, now sees that family must come above all else. Henry does not get his cathedral in the end. The film does not reward him with more money or career advancement; the film rewards him with his restored family, a reward, according to the propaganda in the film, greater and monetary advancement or prestige.
As America advanced in the late 1940’s the propaganda of The Bishop’s Wife and its contemporaries blasted: family comes first. The Bishop’s Wife, an enduring holiday classic, is a quintessential 1940’s propaganda film which forever immortalizes American values in the aftermath of World War II.
24 November 2013
In 1960, two respected filmmakers released their latest horror films, both films with a central theme of voyeurism: Michael Powell released Peeping Tom (UK) and Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho (US). Peeping Tom released first and was trashed by critics, ruining the career of the once renowned Michael Powell. Psycho released three months later and was an immediate sensation, solidifying Hitchcock as the “Master of Suspense.”
So, why were two films with so much in common—genre and theme—treated so differently by critics and audiences?
On theory is that Hitchcock, who was friends with Michael Powell, watched Peeping Tom’s release closely. When Hitchcock saw how critics panned Peeping Tom during the film’s press release, Hitchcock cancelled the press release for Psycho. Audiences were affected by critics’ reviews of Peeping Tom before they saw the film, whereas Psycho’s audiences had no preconceptions/misconceptions about the film before they saw it for themselves. Undoubtedly, this is a significant difference between each film’s arrival, and most likely did impact each film’s welcoming. Yet, this is not the only reason Peeping Tom was panned and Psycho celebrated. How each film handled the shared central theme of voyeurism is, likely, what caused one to falter and the other to thrive.
In short voyeurism traditionally means the act of watching others and attaining sexual satisfaction from that watching. Typically, the voyeur watches intimate moments, often, but not exclusively, sexual acts. Yet, the observed acts are not nearly as important as the satisfaction the voyeur receives from watching. Importantly, the voyeur watches in secret; satisfaction attained during a voyeuristic experience is only satisfying because the voyeur believes those he/she is watching do not know the voyeur is peeping.
While both films have serial killer voyeurs, and both include voyeurism as a central theme, Psycho does not emphasize its inclusion of voyeurism; Peeping Tom does. In Peeping Tom, the terms voyeurism and scop[t]ophillia (a sometimes synonym for voyeurism) are both mentioned directly by a psychiatrist. Moreover, voyeurism is actually defined by the psychiatrist. Michael Powell, along with screenwriter Leo Marks, is being quite direct here. The duo is not allowing his audience to realize his voyeuristic intent; they are forcing it on viewers.
Shortly after the psychiatrist defines voyeurism for viewers, Mark (Karlheinz Bohm) has a confrontation with Helen’s (Anna Massey) sightless mother, the blind seer of Peeping Tom. Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley) brakes in to Tom’s apartment, and into his film workroom. Mid confrontation, Mrs. Stephens stands near a wall as Mark’s latest work (Vivian’s (Moira Shearer) death) is projected on that same wall, meaning the film plays right in front of Mrs. Stephens. Mark watches the film eagerly, and Mrs. Stephens continually asks what is playing, which he ignores. When the film cuts to black, Mark throws himself against the wall, insisting it cut to black too early, which devastates him. Mrs. Stephens wants to know what it means that the cut to black came too early, asking, “What did you miss?” Mark replies with, “Opportunity.” This, again, is Powell revealing a bit too much. Opportunity is exactly what is missing here. The opportunity for the audience to put the voyeuristic pieces of Peeping Tom together for themselves and have their own voyeuristic experience with the film.
Mark jumps back, with Mrs. Stephens now against the wall. He shines his light on her, which she somewhat recognizes, although blind. This light has both literally and figurative significance in the film. Literally, Mark needs the light because he thinks he is about to film Mrs. Stephens. Figuratively, the light represents what Powell continuously tries to do, shine a light on voyeurism. The film works exhaustedly to make a connection between the protagonist as voyeur and the audience as voyeurs. The audience of Peeping Tom are not only voyeurs because they are watching large portions of the film through a voyeur’s eyes (such as when the audience watches through Mark’s camera), but also because all audiences are voyeurs; watching people (even fictional characters on screen) who don’t know they are being watched, particularly in any intimate moments, and obtaining satisfaction from the viewing is a loose definition of voyeurism. Thus, even when the audience is not watching the action from Mark’s perspective, they are still voyeurs. The repetition of the shining light draws more and more attention to this very realization. Most likely, Powell wanted his audience to see the parallel between themselves and his protagonist.
And, if by this point in the film they have not yet realized the parallel, the film’s climax certainly brings it into focus. Unlike Psycho, which is, essentially, a murder mystery, the audience knows who the killer is in Peeping Tom from the beginning. However, the audience does not know all the details of Mark’s methodical murdering. During Vivian’s death the audience learns Mark holds something in his hands which his victims see before they die, and this object terrifies his victims. But what could this object be?
Turns out, the object is a mirror because, according to Mark, he wants his victims to see their own death, making the experience more horrifying, which makes the expression on their faces as they die even more frightened. This is very interesting because the audience now realizes to what extent Mark is a voyeur. Previously, the suggestion was Mark’s victims were looking at him, with a camera in front of his face, as they died, which means he would know his victims saw his camera-shielded face as he committed these acts. However, the mirror changes all that. Now the suggestion is the victims are looking at themselves as they die, not Mark. Furthermore, this means Mark forces his victims into becoming voyeurs in their final moments, which is, actually, unfathomably disturbing. But, is, less dramatically, what Peeping Tom does to its audience. Audience members are forced to be voyeurs and realize themselves as voyeurs just as Mark’s victims are forced into watching their own deaths.
This mirror is the reason Mrs. Stephens survives. As a blind woman she could not see her own death, which means Mark could not watch her watching herself dying. He would get no satisfaction from her death; his voyeuristic needs would not be met, and so she lives. Yet, with voyeurism a central theme in Peeping Tom, and Powell’s insistence on highlighting audience members as voyeurs, Peeping Tom becomes as unsatisfying for the audience as Mrs. Stephens’s death would have been for Mark. The film is not suggesting the audience members are Mark, or that they are peeping toms, but the film does highlight the act of secretly watching intimacy to obtain satisfaction. When that secrecy is gone, so goes the satisfaction.
Hitchcock understood this. He does not draw attention to voyeurism in Psycho the same way Powell does in Peeping Tom; Hitchcock approaches this central theme indirectly with subliminal messages. Conversely, Powell, both literally and figuratively, shines a spotlight on it. And, while Peeping Tom is a strong film, cinematically, it is not the sensation Psycho is because of the way it communicates with it audience, specifically the way it communicates voyeurism.
17 November 2013
A central female struggling in a patriarchal society is a hallmark of The Archers, and Vicky, from The Red Shoes (1948), is no exception. Like Joan (I Know Where I’m Going), Sister Clodagh (Black Narcissus), and Sister Ruth (Black Narcissus) respectively, Vicky veers away from the traditional roles for women; she chooses a career in ballet over domesticity. Moreover, Vicky attempts to establish an identity for herself based on her passion for ballet. Yet, like all The Archers women of the 1940s, Vicky’s nonconventional purists in the strict patriarchal world of ballet must be addressed in the film’s conclusion, and, ultimately, it is not her pursuit of a career over domesticity that kills Vicky, it is her misconception that she can have both.
In short, The Red Shoes comes from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), a leading ballet director comes to Covent Garden for the premiere of his latest ballet and meets Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), an aspiring ballerina. Initially, Vicky does not stand out to Lermontov; yet, when, Boronskaja, his prima ballerina, decides to leave the company, pursuing a more domestic life as wife, a role opens up for Vicky to fill. Working tirelessly, Vicky prepares for the lead in his brand-new ballet, The Red Shoes. In stunning Technicolor, The Archers film a 15+ minute surrealist ballet sequence in which Vicky dances he heart out, propelling her into stardom. Vicky’s world changes, and she goes on to dance in countless ballet’s under Lermontov’s direction. Eventually, Vicky falls in love with Julian Craster, the composer of The Red Shoes. Although Vicky repeatedly mentions that dancing is her life, she decides to leave the company and marry Julian. Time passes and, by happenstance, Lermontov runs into Vicky on a train. He offers her a return to ballet, with the opportunity to dance The Red Shoes, the role that made her a sensation. Vicky agrees, but does not tell Julian. Unfortunately, when Julian finds out he confronts her in her dressing room, where Lermontov also stands, pressuring Vicky take the stage. Ultimately, the tension is too much for Vicky. She flees the theatre and throws herself in front of an oncoming train.
Reading the film on a slant, part of the reason Vicky is allowed to pursue her independence in The Red Shoes is because she has a doppelgänger, and that doppelgänger happens to be a man. Lermontov, the ballet director, is the same character as Vicky. Lermontov, like Vicky, seems disinterested in domesticity, marriage, and love; he lives for the ballet. Vicky and Lermontov feed off one another; each makes the other strong, happier, and more famous. Lermontov propels Vicky to ballet stardom, and Vicky’s success brings new opportunity to Lermontov. And, because Vicky and Lermontov, as doppelgängers, are mirrors of each other, both characters’ identities depend on the other and validate the other. For most of the film, that is not a bad thing; Vicky and Lermontov’s goals are similar, so they complement one another.
The Archers subtly present visual cues connecting these two characters as doppelgängers. For example, during the opening scene, the opera at Covent Garden, Lermontov is kept hidden from the audience; literally, viewers are not allowed to see him. Viewers do sneak a peek at Vicky, but she is distracted by the ballet and looking away. Neither character is completely revealed until later, after the opera, when Vicky introduces herself to Lermontov at the gala. The suggestion here is that Vicky and Lermontov are not complete when they are separate; figuratively speaking, these characters reflect one another, and that is why Lermontov cannot be seen until he is with Vicky.
Literalizing their reflection of one another, when Vicky leaves the ballet to marry Julian, Lermontov goes into a rage. Up until this point, these doppelgängers have enjoyed success in their ballet partnership, but Vicky’s decision to redirect her life toward conventional domesticity does not agree with her doppelgänger. One way of looking at that is, as Vicky takes on Julian as her “other half,” her actual “other half,” Lermontov, fires back. Lermontov’s anger climaxes when he punches a mirror, solidifying that he and Vicky no longer reflect one another. The once doppelgängers are separated, and Vicky’s decision to leave the ballet not only changes her identity, but also changes his without his consent.
Shortly after, Vicky unexpectedly meets a bitter Lermontov on a train, and he eventually offers her The Red Shoes once more. Importantly, he is wearing sunglasses. These two no longer recognize themselves in one another, and the sunglasses, a buffer, reinforce that.
In the film’s climax Vicky commits suicide by throwing herself off a balcony and in front of an approaching train. Of course the train symbolism is classically significant, alluding to Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s protagonist who threw herself under a train, a woman run over by patriarchy. However, in The Red Shoes, The Archers use trains frequently, building up to their climax. They are the most popular mode of transportation in the film, constantly bringing the ballet all over Europe. The trains run the characters, just as Lermontov runs the ballet. There is a clear parallel between the train and Lermontov; trains are used as a metaphor for Lermontov in the film, as well as their typical symbolic meaning for patriarchy.
That said, the only way the film could end is with Vicky’s death. She stepped outside of her conventional role as woman to pursue her identity as ballet dancer. In doing so, she intertwined her identity with Lermontov, her doppelgänger, who happened to be a male. But, she reneged, trying to change into a housewife for Julian. All this may have been fine for Vicky, but she did not make a clean break, like Boronskaja, the prima ballerina before her. Instead Vicky was lured back into the world of The Red Shoes, and then forced to confront her doppelgänger and her husband, impossible confrontations to survive.
Her death was not because she tried to lead an unconventional, independent life as a woman; she had a male doppelgänger who, in this case, protected her career and fostered her independence. And, her death was not because she tried to abandon that and become the more accepted 1940’s housewife; Boronskaja did that without a problem. Vicky’s death occurred when she tried to be both these things simultaneously.
10 November 2013
Question: what’s more dangerous than a secluded group of nuns opening up a school and dispensary in an abandoned palace on the Himalayan Mountains? Answer: nothing.
In a nutshell, this is The Archer’s Black Narcissus. Set in the Himalayan Mountains, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the Sister Superior, leads a small group of nuns into a turbulent environment, both literally and figuratively speaking. With the help of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an Englishman living in this remote area of the mountains, the sisters work diligently to renovate their new home, teach their pupils, build relationships with the community, and aid, medically, when they can. However, Mr. Dean’s presence, compounded with the sisters’ new residence having been a palace for the former general to keep his many wives, adds undeniably erotic and tense elements to the characters’ lives. And, when one of the community’s small children dies, unhelped by the sisters’ dispensary, a community revolt against the sisters threatens this freshly established sanctuary and pushes each character to his or her breaking point.
Without question, Black Narcissus is one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpieces. Not only is the film vibrant (a Technicolor wonder for its time) and overall aesthetic marvel, but the intense exploration into the human psyche, as explored through many of the film’s central characters, offers more than just a visual treat; Black Narcissus is a thought-provoking and thrilling cinematic experience.
As with all great films, Black Narcissus is comprised of exceptional parts which work together, harmoniously, to create a powerful whole. For example, the film’s cinematography, which was awarded and praised for the moment the film was released, juxtaposed dramatic angles with tight close-ups and quick cuts to build tension and support the film’s constricting tone. This cinematography works in rhythm with the film’s lighting design, another one if its parts, which seems to paint images, through light and color, for the camera to capture. These respective parts come together and help The Archers build a cinematically strong whole.
And, while the cinematography and lighting are undeniably awe-inspiring in Black Narcissus, one of the less discussed but equally successful parts of the film is The Archers’ uses of metaphor, symbolism, and foreshadowing, particularly as these three devices relate to Sister Ruth. Through metaphors and symbols Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) slowly reveals herself as a deeply repressed, unstable character, and the consistent foreshadowing of her demise builds subtle, steady tension in the film right up to Black Narcissus’ steep climax.
Early in the film, the sisters arrive at their new residence and start to unpack, discussing how to handle the general’s agreement to pay citizen of the community who visit the dispensary. This scene is set in Sister Clodagh’s chambers and shows several birdcages hanging from the ceiling, each with one bird inside. These birds and birdcages are metaphors used by The Archers to reflect the sisters and their new home. Like the birds, the sisters are trapped and confined. Taking that a step further, the sisters each begin to reveal, to varying degrees, they all repress feelings, memories, and/or desires; the birds, restricted by their cages, are obviously repressed, strengthening the metaphor. Like the cages, the palace covers most of its windows with fencing, decorative gates, or even bars. Because the palace is set so awkwardly atop a mountain, these restraints have their practical purposes—keeping people from falling (or jumping) to their deaths. Yet, as practical as the restraints on the windows are, the effect on the sisters is still the exact same as the birds in the cages; like the birds, the sisters have no freedom and are trapped in what Sister Clodagh call a “strange atmosphere.”
Importantly, this is also the scene in which The Archers begin to shape Sister Ruth as unbalanced. Mid conversation, Sister Ruth barges into Sister Clodagh’s chambers, frantic about the overwhelming amount of people visiting the dispensary. The Archers use a low Dutch close up on Sister Ruth as she comes in, the first Dutch Angle of the film. The style angle alludes to danger, a break from reality, and confusion, which, retrospectively, all fit Sister Ruth’s characterization. However, in this early scene, before the audience sees Sister Ruth’s unraveling, this blunt use of a dramatic angle stands out, foreshadowing for viewers how Sister Ruth and reality are not going to be in agreement, and that is, likely, going to evolve into a larger problem throughout the film.
Furthermore, the only thing included in the tight Dutch Angle on Sister Ruth is one of the bird cages and a reflection of another cage against the wall behind her. Thus, reading these frames on a slant, a connection is made between Sister Ruth, the birds in their cages (or, perhaps, simply the cages), and the lack of balance.
Shortly after this scene viewers are taken back to Sister Clodagh’s chambers, but this time the birds and their cages are gone. The scene begins with several sisters silently sitting around a table. Without explanation, and without being acknowledged by any of the seated sisters, a bird flies into the room, flutters about, and departs as mysteriously as it entered. All of a sudden one of the birds is free, perhaps suggesting one of the sisters, too, has escaped her restraints.
This free bird, metaphorically, is Sister Ruth. She has already freed herself of her religious restraints, dreaming of a life with Mr. Dean and no longer devoted to the life she vowed obligation to. However, her desires are delusional and have not place in reality; she has not actually left the palace, and the sisters are, at this point in the film, unaware of Sister Ruth’s intentions. Like the free-flying bird, Sister Ruth has emerged from her confinement, but still lingers, freer but not freed, in the palace.
An interesting point about Sister Ruth is one of her duties is to ring the palace’s large bell, the one outside, on the palace grounds, overlooking a large cliff. This job is significant because, again, it is a figurative tool and a foreshadowing tool for The Archers. Symbolically, this bell represents time. However, the bell also represents passing, and is used as a death announcement. Therefore, reading into this symbol, the bell foreshadows Sister Ruth’s demise, and directly connects her end with this location.
The Archers do not stop with one or two figurative suggestions and a hint of foreshadowing; the duo continues to draw attention to metaphor, symbolism, and foreshadowing as it connects to Sister Ruth. When Sister Clodagh calls Sister Ruth to her chambers, confronting her about her health and well-being, The Archers pull their metaphoric birds in their cages together with the bell symbol again, again foreshadowing the film’s conclusion. On the wall behind Sister Ruth’s seat is the shadow from the room’s fenced window. This shadow, cast just behind Sister Ruth, alludes back to the caged birds. Moreover, on the desk Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh sit at is a bell, just to the right of Sister Ruth’s right hand.
This simple, yet telling mise-en-scene pulls everything together. The cage behind Sister Ruth hints at Sister Clodagh’s assertion over Sister Ruth, figuratively trying to force her back into repressed submission; however, Sister Ruth is not in the fencing’s shadow; therefore, she is not pushed back into her cage, no matter how much Sister Clodagh wants her there. Also, the bell on the desk, symbolically, represents Sister Ruth’s perceived power; the bell is her responsibility, she has ownership of it. She controls time, or at least she thinks she does, and the bell is clearly within her reach. This simple yet significant shot construction foreshadows. Close-up shots continue to reveal Sister Ruth sweating, a sign of her instability and distress, similar to what the Dutch Angle communicated prior. Moreover, the bell is present again, suggesting that object must now be connected with Sister Ruth inevitable breaking point.
By the time this breaking point comes, the audience has been ample prepared for Sister Ruth’s death. Mad, Sister Ruth attempts to push Sister Clodagh from the bell’s platform only to fall herself. The bell chimes, marking both the passage of time and of a life. Also, a cut take the audience to a tree from which several birds unexpectedly fly free from. The foreshadowing has lead to this resolution, and the metaphors and symbols come full circle as Sister Ruth dies and Sister Clodagh survives…doppelgangers who took aim at one another (but that is a whole separate discussion!).
3 November 2013
In brief, I Know Where I’m Going is the story of a woman who, believe this or not, thinks she knows where she is going, in life that is. Engaged to a wealthy cooperate tycoon, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) bids her father goodbye in England, boarding a train to the (fictitious) Scottish Isle of Kiloran where her fiancé resides. The trip to Kiloran is grueling, and just when Joan reaches the final leg of her journey, which is a boat ride, a dense fog sets in on the Scottish coast, postponing Joan’s arrival in Kiloran until the weather clears. Unfortunately, the weather gets worse before it gets better, offering Joan the opportunity to meet some of the local residents, including a naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), on leave from the service. He, too, is awaiting the boat for Kiloran. Immediately, a chemistry between Joan and Torquil appears, but Joan believes she knows what she wants, and is unwilling to discover any feelings that may alter her well laid plans of marrying for money. Torquil, on the other hand, is more interested discovering this undeniable chemistry, and he spends as much time as possible with Joan. As the film approaches its climax, Joan determination to get what she wants remains resolute; however, in the end, Joan realizes that sometimes life is about the journey, not the destination.
True film lovers know The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and their arrow-pierced target in the opening credits. Also, true film lovers know the signature moves of The Archers are stamped all of I Know Where I’m Going, one of their earlier collaborations, relatively speaking. Silhouettes and atmospheric texture are only a small part of the cinematic signature The Archers infuse I Know Where I’m Going with. Moreover, in I Know Where I’m Going The Archers also rely on allusions help shape an support their narrative and characters, and their use of Roman mythology in particular plays a significant part in this 1945 film.
Allusion is best used to pull information and emotion from one event, story, piece of art, etc into a new creation; classical allusion pull Greek, Roman, and biblical mythology into a creation. A well-placed allusion can be invaluable to a piece because, with one reference, an infusion of thought and sentiment can be injected into the piece, connecting something new with something commonly understood from the past. In I Know Where I’m Going, Catriona (Pamela Brown) is a classical allusion; Catriona is the Roman goddess Diana, and this allusion adds some much information and understanding into the film that nearly all Catriona’s characterization is shaped by this reference.
In Roman mythology, Diana is the goddess of the hunt, and most often placed in the wild, surrounded by animals, most commonly hunting dogs and deer. She has become known as the goddess of chastity, child-bearing, and the moon as well. Diana is often depicted as young and beautiful, but is pure and known for her virginity, and, as the myths go, can become quick temper in defense of that virginity. Moreover, at points in time, Diana has been attributed with human sacrifice.
From the first moment viewers see Catriona, The Archers intentionally and overtly portray her as a Scottish reincarnation of the Roman goddess Diana. In the audience’s first glimpse, Catriona is walking her large hunting dogs back up to her house, just returning from a hunt; put another way, Diana, accompanied by her signature hunting dogs, emerges from the Scottish woodland and enters the film.
The next scene is inside Catriona’s dwelling, a modest middle-class environment, where she enters, releasing the pups and dangling dead rabbits, clear victory from the hunt. She greets Torquil warmly, but Joan with less excitement. Evident from her garb (particularly as it compares to Joan’s) and the way she jumps about the room, Catriona is a tomboy. She is a strong, independent woman who relies on herself for survival. This, too, is very much in the vein of Diana. And, this side of Diana is, likely, why The Archers selected this Roman goddess for alluding. This tomboy, outspoken female is a striking juxtaposition with Joan. Thus, not only does the allusion help characterize Catriona, but the juxtaposition between Joan and the Diana-esque Catriona also builds upon Joan’s characterization.
Moreover, if you read Catriona on a slant, The Archers even account for the possible suggestion that, at one time, the goddess Diana was associated with human sacrifice. Joan risks everything to get to Kiloran, recklessly boarding a small boat during a torrential storm, and nearly loses her own life. She, likely, would have, had Torquil not run after her and boarded the vessel with her. However, Torquil only chases Joan after a conversation with Catriona. It is Catriona who sends Torquil to the boat. She knows what could happen, and she has been carefully observing Torquil and Joan’s contentious yet passionate relationship. She has every reason to believe these two people, as well as the vessel’s captain, will be killed in the seas, an offering of fools too desperate not to challenge the Scottish tempest.
Catriona is a secondary character, with considerably less on-screen time than others; however, portraying her as Diana allows The Archers to use her with built-in characterization. There is little to reveal about Catriona; she reveals herself, as Diana, immediately, and, thus, all similarities to Diana are instantly attributed to Catriona. Importantly, Diana is a common enough mythical figure, so an audience is aware of Diana and her traits, allowing them understand Catriona through their knowledge of Diana.
Lastly, and this, too, must be read on a slant, The Archers may have selected Diana as their classical allusion for more than one reason. Yes, Diana serves as a perfect juxtaposition of Joan, but is it a coincidence The Archers selected a bow-totting goddess to reference in their film? Portraying themselves as hunters, cinematic hunters of some sort, evident by their name and arrow-filled target logo, using a huntress within their films seems a playful, poignant, and calculated move.