Can one aspire to make a masterpiece? Webster’s defines it as: a piece of work presented to a medieval guild as evidence of qualification for the rank of master; a work done with extraordinary skill; especially: a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement. Even if we can agree on the possible definition of the term, beyond that of qualification within a trade, is it then left to the critic to define or time to reveal? Can the work be flawed? As Leonard Cohen insists, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Some flaws can accentuate the truth of a work, while others distract by the graceless use of technique.
Paul Gauguin lived just long enough to paint, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? He considered it his most accomplished painting. In many regards, his artistic life had been a series of works to get to it. Many artists’ careers can be interpreted as a single work or theme consisting of a series of drafts.
A longtime admirer of Michael Powell and Emric Pressberger, filmmaker Martin Scorsese “reached the point of thinking there were no more masterpieces to discover until” he saw Powell and Pressberger’s I Know Where I’m Going. While not as ambitious technically as their previous film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, or thematically and psychologically compelling as Black Narcissus: both expensive and involved productions, I Know Where I’m Going was by contrast a very modest affair. After the grandiose Technicolor and production costs of Blimp, Powell and Pressbuger’s production company The Archers was looking for something quick and cheap. Shooting on location in black and white would be one solution.
In his essay on the film, scholar Ian Christie recounts how Pressburger recalls the script almost writing itself. By all accounts, the production was equally untroubled. Can a masterpiece be this easy? The story is simple enough. The only irony being in the title: that life is often where we least expect, and that sometimes we talk ourselves into what we think should be, only to find out we did not recognize what was truly important we already possessed. Like any good fable, the lesson learned is made more meaningful by the vain and arduous attempt to achieve what is not really meant for us.
Most of the I Know Where I’m Going is Joan Webster’s attempt to get to her wedding on the Isle of Kiloran, currently leased by her industrialist fiancé Sir Robert from the laird of Kiloran, Naval Officer Torquil McNeil. We never see Sir Robert, but when he mistakes Torquil’s service affiliation to the Army, Joan cannot let the indignity pass, and is quick to defend Torquil by correcting Sir Robert. It is a subtle beginning of love taking form.
I Know Where I’m Going is not a comedy of manners as much as a comedy of discovery. As Joan discovers what is important, she also discovers herself, not to mention her love of the laird of Kiloran, Torquil. The lesson is learned and protagonist and we are equal parts touched and thrilled.