Sally Potter reflects on her films
A loaded word, "pretentious," and one that I think is overused, but whatever its dictionary definition, to me the idea of "pretentious" has a lot to do with the ratio of intent to teach vs. what's actually taught. From The Tango Lesson to The Man Who Cried to Orlando, Sally Potter's films have generally been admirably high on ambition if lamentably low on insight: You can make a film about how cinema is protean and existentially thorny, but unless there's a greater purpose to that insight, it's just first-year film school mixed with a little first-year biology. Take Yes, a picture concerned with lenses and reflective surfaces--written in the high style, The Bard's own iambic, but not so much in play form as in couplets (call it "playful" playwriting)--featuring not only an agile (and game) cast, but also a boatload of pretensions that lead the viewer to the conclusion that what Potter believes is very interesting is only very interesting to her. Trapped in a loveless marriage with Anthony (Sam Neill), "She" (Joan Allen) is having a torrid affair with "He" (Simon Akbarian); she's people are from Belfast, He's are from Beirut, and throughout the tension of He/She is set against the three-R archetypes of polarity: race, religion, and region. Potter uses different film stocks to express disconnection, Antonioni's framing tactics to express the same, and a handful of soliloquies delivered on the so-called fourth-wall-breaking proscenium by a taciturn maid (Shirley Henderson) that explain the Brownian motion of the motes that open the piece, the microbes She examines in her day job, and the ultimate deconstructionalist rationalization that for all this talk of difference, it's just a matter of semantics. Yes is thus film about language and communication at mortal war with true emotion and protean thought, boasting a lot of arresting images and briefly interesting ideas that unfortunately deflate when it becomes clear that a pretty picture and a clever turn mask subterranean drafts of aimless, circular comings and goings and talk of Michelangelo.-WC
Credit Sally Potter, then, for having the guts to discuss what her work is actually about. They're pretentious, her films, they're always meaningful and they always strike me as trying too hard to impress an imaginary demographic. Ironically, Potter's pictures underline the truism that artist intentionality is a decent place to start an autopsy but a horrible place to end one. In her case, without the auteur theory, there's nothing to say, and so it is with her latest film, Yes, another of Potter's examinations of the meta-quality of film-within-film and the cinema as a medium of projection and inversion. Written in couplets of proto-Shakespearean iambic pentameter (done with more liquid realism--and fewer rhymes--on HBO's "Deadwood"), it's an intriguing experiment for a good half-hour before its usefulness as a glass held to language diminishes, leaving a soggy, vaguely orientalist romance to hold as its symbolic centre. Give her due for being courageous enough to make a picture so unapologetically rigorous in its intellectualism, particularly in an age when "nuance" is effete and the most minor critical analysis is seen as an unforgivable offense to God and country. Potter is articulate and gracious in explaining what she's getting at in an environment grown too comfortable with not getting at anything at all.
FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about reflective surfaces and lenses.
SALLY POTTER: That is an absolute first, that question, nobody has ever asked me about reflective surfaces and lenses in my films. (laughs) Fantastic. Well, of course the whole film is seen through a lens, not through a lens darkly I hope, and I kind of got fascinated by what happens when you look at an image through another layer like glass or water, through a slightly-distorting prism that changes the scale of an image, that blurs it, that alters the shape of it in some way. Strangely, it clarifies the image. Part of the visual language I got fascinated by is what it is that takes you to the emotion of an image, the deeper ramification of it, and that vehicle is not necessarily a clinical clarity--sometimes it can be a blur, a distortion, an exaggeration.
the reflective surfaces?
Technically what happens is that they excite the eye because light becomes exaggerated and the retina in the eye has to expand and contract more quickly causing this pleasurable interaction, this muscularity in the eye itself. I'm getting very technical here, but I think that's one part of maybe the explanation of why reflective surfaces work well in film. It wasn't just the glasses, though that's very interesting--but when the two characters are in bed after lovemaking talking about math, the linen is a reflective fabric. I experimented with that a lot. It just lifts the surface of the film "up" and reminds us that film itself is about life reflecting off surfaces.
upon lenses and signifiers upon signs--talk to me about your meta
themes and shooting in DV.
Well film itself is a reflection of light, shot through a lens and re-projected through another lens before it's taken in by a lens and projected onto the back of your eye. The meta-theme is probably surveillance: the security camera, the eyes of Shirley Henderson's cleaner--layers of looking and watching and being watched.
idea of clarity seeps into the idea of the unreliability of
communication in your pictures.
Right, language itself has become unreliable to the extreme, words, all forms are imprecise. The 'net, cell phones, the more technologically imaginative we become in conveying our thoughts...
Right--the more precise we become in that way the more imprecise the intention can become. You can hide behind the medium by being too accessible. In a way more important than the tool of communication, however, is the precision of intention and the frustration of expression. What all the characters in this film are trying to do is express themselves using the tools available when the different kinds of language that people use are more democratized. The Middle Eastern guy is more flowery, perhaps, than the kitchen workers while the cleaner is into the transcendent metaphysical perspective of how essential things never go away--but all of them are trying in their own way to strike at the heart of what is pure in what they mean to express at any time. In answer to your question, it's all imprecise really.
does this tie in with your meta-trope of film-within-film?
I think that it's muted, that there's some awareness of the fact that what we're looking at is mediated through a frame.
by framing your characters in what are essentially camera
shutters--doorways and other openings--are you expressing your own
frustration, your own difficulty as a filmmaker?
Undoubtedly. I want to refer each of these shots as multiple points of view, to underscore that essential frustration that there is not one reliable perspective, that there is not one objective truth. In fact, Joan Allen's character expresses that in her opening speech, that objective truth is just another point of view. What I try to do as a writer is really empathize into those point of views to create a totality from the prism.
|Joan Allen in Yes|
We're talking about the physics of uncertainty--the more precise the measurement of looking and of inquiry, the smallest end of the very, very small, you come down to an area of no-decision where in the very act of looking you change what's there. The unseeable, unknowable, something that can be both moving and still--the notion of a fixed universe, of one eye, becomes a non-truth. And then it matches up with this gestalt of multiple truths as the only way to hit at any sort of explanation.
the bottom of what we're
talking about is layers--Virginia Woolf was obsessed with them of
course. How do you see layering in film and language?
Well, I thought of language of river, a river of consciousness maybe, as a source of unity and Woolf was a real precursor to that kind of thought in writing. The river of consciousness that is the mind. The choice of words, the feeling of speech that I wanted was to somehow bring back some of the sensual joy of language itself and words, words that felt good to say, the pleasure of language, because there has been an impoverishment of every day speech. Not in every language, but in English: codified, miniaturized, academic and long-winded which is another kind of impoverishment. I had to vaguely remember in my ancestral memory the speech of the troubadours in a way--[the] way of telling and of just listening. To try and bring some of that instinctive love of language which a child has, the miraculous sensuality of language, and try to bring it back in a way.
They do, and more, they fear it.
as music, conversation as dance.
Yes, what can I say but yes?
bed scene with the actors mirrored as in a dance, and chatting numbers.
Describe to me the rationale behind the polarity of characters--yes/no,
He/She--in visual harmony.
Talking about numbers in that bed scene, it's funny how risky things look on the page but when they're lying in bed and actually going through it, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Polarity is the heart of everything, the yin-yang of our experience, lead and follow in dance if you will, give and take in our chat--you boil it down to its essence and the smallest unit that you can have and still retain some hope at hitting at those bigger questions about life and love is one man and one woman in this case, or one being and its complementary being, this essential polarity I think is vital because if there is no one truth that you can rely on, at least have two points of view through which to more closely hit at the truth.
the huge deficit in portrayal of class in modern cinema?
I don't know, but there is a huge one isn't there? I wanted to express the silliness of that deficit, I think, more unconsciously than consciously--that belief that it's only the purvey of the white upper-class to have existential crises and deep philosophical flights of introspection. I wanted to write the cleaner the way that I did, anchoring the piece in this sort of constant existential self-analysis of chaos and eternity--then the kitchen workers, why not kitchen workers talking about the grand issues? You need not to have read Sartre to have Sartrean nightmares, you know, but I think people are afraid to have their so-called underclass express sophisticated ideas.
Just the opposite! Because it undermines that hegemony of thought that the ivory tower intellectuals seem to want to perpetuate.
and cultural divorce.
What's been most gratifying to me is the extent to which the race of the main character in this film has seemed to apply, in a way, to all cultures coming to see the film. I've had African-Americans come up to me and say that this struggle of He has affected them in the same way as though He were African instead of Middle-Eastern. I think, ironically, that racism crosses racial boundaries and if you can just approach some of the universality of the minority experience, that it can be an affective way to dredge up the issue. There's this idea, too, that there's something in the flesh, in the blood, your culture is part of history if not your immediate history--this amnesia, this desire to forget, yet information about who you are and where you're from is transmitted regardless so that no matter the divorce you experience, there comes a point when there's an unmediated desire to return.
film Thriller is taught in film schools. What's
being learned from it?
(laughs) I wish I knew. I'd love to be a fly on the wall and find out. Thriller was the first film that I really traveled with, I toured around to women's conferences and psychological conferences--it was the first film that had some sort of usefulness to academic work. I discovered even way back then that it was useful which was never my intention of course, it didn't come from there, it came from an intuitive but thoughtful space...
not useful at all if you had intended it to be useful.
Probably not. I guess because it touches on so many zones and discourses that collide and challenge each other--and it's been written about so much.
many great women directors in the world cinema, but not so much in the
just one name attached to two films.
You can find the names but you start running out after one hand. Look, statistically you look at this profession compared to big business, medicine, law and so on and the number of women is way, way, way down on the list and behind so there's some sort of ceiling there that's difficult to break, no question. Speaking just for me, I started when I was fourteen with no training. The way I arrived at filmmaking was just to start filmmaking--the obstacles I experienced are hard sometimes to quantify and identify. I do notice that a lot of the male filmmakers that started when I started seem to have less trouble than I do getting funded and they certainly make a lot more money than I do. But you don't know if it's paranoia that says that this is because I'm a woman or if it's just that the projects that I choose tend not to be as commercially viable.
Have you been
offered the proverbial keys to the Hollywood kingdom?
Of course, yeah, lots of offers to do mainstream pictures that probably would have increased my income level and visibility through the years, but they're not the kind of films that I want to make. Orlando was almost impossible to make: I have letters from people saying that not only can the film never be made, it never should be made. I could have made more films, I guess, but then I wouldn't be able to have made only the films that I wanted to make.