Spotlight: Sally Potter- Writer, Director, Choreographer, Musician

By Stephen Vega

A creative force to be reckoned with. This woman graduated as a dancer, choreographed dance shows, made music, directed plays and wrote and directed world-class movies. And all this output can be traced back to when she was the tender age of 14 and made her first 8mm films. Her name: Sally Potter.

If you have seen one or two Potter films, you may think that she broke or rejected the conventions of mainstream film making, but that isn’t quite right. What Potter does with her films is let them speak. The ideas within them come out in ways that are free forming and she follows the flow of them until they are completed films. They are not without structure or form; they are parts of the human condition that have been given freedom of expression.

As you may have guessed from watching her films, Potter’s first calling was really dance. Her films always feature well-choreographed people and great music, even if there is no dance.

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Potter’s first foray into serious film was the short film; “Thriller” (1979), followed by the feature length “The Gold Diggers” (1983), starring Julie Christie. Largely what people would today call ‘art-house’, the style of these films was experimental; lacking the usual plot lines and narratives that make mainstream movies comfortable and accessible. Following the poor reception of “The Gold Diggers”, perhaps not surprisingly, her next project was another short film, “The London Story” (1986), a much lighter and more accessible film.

Although “Thriller” and “The Gold Diggers” were not well received, much has been said about them from the feminist perspective. For example, in “Thriller”, Mimi (the character from Puccini’s La Boheme) gets to investigate her own death, which begs the question of why there are sacrificial women in men’s storytelling.

This, depending on your point of view, might further require Freudian analysis and/or counter-Freudian feminist analysis. And in ‘The Gold Diggers’ the critique is on women as commodities. The question is, do women only have value for their beauty – like gold.  The message itself is construed within the double meaning of its title. To add weight to her argument, Potter made the film with an entirely female crew.

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“Orlando” was Potter’s definitive move into a narrative style and the result was outstanding…Along this very tough road, Potter was advised that the Orlando project “would not be interesting” Obviously that comment was a little ‘push back’.”

Thus far, Potter’s films were of interest mostly to enthusiasts of British and European avant-garde cinema, and the feminist movement, but critics and the public stayed clear or showed little interest, Self-critical  and self-aware, and not one to be deterred, Potter moved on from “The Gold Diggers” knowing she needed to communicate with the audience.

Over the period of nine years Potter, and her collaborators put their effort into getting her next film financed and completed. The project was “Orlando” (1992). Based on Virginia Woolf’s novella of the same name, it was screen written and directed by Potter. “Orlando” was Potter’s definitive move into a narrative style and the result was outstanding.

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Along this very tough road, Potter was advised that the Orlando project “would not be interesting”. Obviously that comment was a little ‘push back’, but it seems entirely remarkable that anyone could think that one of the best novellas of the 20th century, which tells the story of a person who witnesses 400 years of British history, from the time of Queen Elizabeth I to present day London and along the way transmogrifies from a male to a female, could not be interesting.

“Orlando” is a very modern movie for its time. It breaks the fourth wall, it challenges ideals and stereotypes and it deals openly with sexuality and transgenderism. But “Orlando” doesn’t focus on current concepts of masculine or feminine strengths or weaknesses, which are a more recent trend, instead, it divests them. And “Orlando” isn’t ‘straight’, ‘queer’,’ trans’, nor any other sexual label.

“Orlando” is, first and foremost, a person, like you or I, and will suffer the judgments of societies that prescribe what sex is, and what a sex is, and then proscribe against it. In a way it expresses the idea, and it is a great idea because it resides within all of us, that we are not just a sexual identity, not by gender nor by sexual preference or orientation It’s this avoidance of absolute labels, achieved with warmth and honesty, that makes Orlando smart and endearing. Potter herself has put it this way…

“Orlando” is a very modern movie for its time. It breaks the fourth wall, it challenges ideals and stereotypes and it deals openly with sexuality and transgenderism.”

“Another relief is that the film recognizes the complexity of sexuality and identity and most of us have felt pushed into a reductionist corner. Every individual is much more complicated than that.”

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Novels never translate into film with absolute purity, and Potter was told it could not be actualized, but her treatment of Orlando is among the best film adaptations you will ever see.

Potter’s next film “The Tango Lesson” (1996), is the story of a film director, played by Potter herself, who becomes distracted from making her next film by an obsession with learning the Argentine Tango. Given that Potter plays the obsessed director and was the obsessed director, this might be seen as self-indulgent film making of the highest order. But that isn’t the whole of it.

“The Tango Lesson” is a great tribute to dance and dancers. For anyone who has ever danced, it is a must-see movie, particularly for the tango dancers who have made the pilgrimage to Buenos Aires. But viewed another way, “The Tango Lesson” is an artistic analysis; one that manages to examine the relationship of the film director to their prescription of making studio financed films. This film was not the greatest success financially or critically, but it has merit.

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For some viewers, “The Tango Lesson” came across as a number of set pieces, rather than a story, but often this is what dance on film is about. And Potter’s decision to cast herself in the lead role, whilst she was also dancing, directing, writing and assisting the choreography and music, may have contributed to the flatness of character that some may have experienced from the film. Then again, it is possible that Potter was letting the emotion of dance do the speaking rather than the character.

“The Tango Lesson” is an artistic analysis; one that manages to examine the relationship of the film director to their prescription of making studio financed films. This film was not the greatest success financially or critically, but it has merit.”

If “The Tango Lesson” left critics and audiences wondering, next came “The Man Who Cried” (2000), which alienated them even further. Like all of Potter’s feature films, The Man Who Cried is sumptuously filmed and, as always with Potter’s films, carries a great cast; one that includes Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett, and John Turturro. But the cast and cinematography aren’t always enough and as far as critics were concerned, “The Man Who Cried” was let down by its dialogue and its lack of story authenticity.

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If “Orlando “re-evaluated sexual identity, Potter’s next movie “YES” (2004), asked you once again, to re-evaluate, this time your political worldview. Now add to that, that “YES” does this through a love story written and spoken in iambic pentameter and as a reflection on events of 9/11 and you have some idea of how dynamic Potter is as a writer/director.

Shot in six weeks, on 16mm Kodak, obviously on a limited budget, “YES” tells the story of an affair between a married American woman ‘She’ (Joan Allen) in a loveless marriage, and a Lebanese doctor ‘He’ (Simon Abkarian). The Lebanese man was a surgeon in Lebanon, but having fled Middle Eastern violence, has had to become a chef in Britain, perhaps another reductionist corner, this time focused on culture as perceived through the Western lens.

As much as their attraction to each other drives the story, it is also their religious, cultural and political beliefs that carry them along. And their speech is a combination of dialogue and expressed inner thought in verse. Though that may sound odd, it works very well.

“If “Orlando “re-evaluated sexual identity, Potter’s next movie “YES” (2004), asked you once again, to re-evaluate, this time your political worldview.”

On the one hand, you may wonder why “YES” didn’t win several Oscars for 2004, but on the other, it is a complex tour de force, and as such, its appeal will always have its limitations. But it might start you on your own love affair with Potter’s films.

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In “Ginger & Rosa” (2012), Potter returns to a straightforward and excellently executed narrative structure. Here she places her focus on the modern family unit and how it feels to come of age within it. “Ginger & Rosa” initially opens in adagio, at first defining the friendship between two 17-year-old girls in 1960s London. But as “Ginger & Rosa” progresses the tension dial gets turned up a few notches.

“Whatever you think of Potter and her films, she is a great creative force; one to be reckoned with and she is one who has managed the balance of fame versus art extremely well.”

The catalyst for the brewing trouble is an affair between Ginger’s best friend Rosa and Ginger’s dad, Rowland. Sadly, Rowland is an ideologue of his own ego. A man who uses his sharp wit to denounce any idea that his life could be anything but ordinary, and to deflect any criticism that might burst the bubble of his thin skin. Ultimately, the emotional crescendo of “Ginger and Rosa” examines the breakdown of the family, and even further, the divided nuclear family, to devastating effect.

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Whatever you think of Potter and her films, she is a great creative force; one to be reckoned with and she is one who has managed the balance of fame versus art extremely well. She eschews sexual and political stereotypes in favour of a humanist view and her message to those writers and filmmakers out there is the quote, “Never give up, even in your darkest hour”

Intertextual note. In 1980 David Bowie made a video for his hit Ashes to Ashes in a style influenced by the Armenian film The Colour of Pomegranates. Tilda Swinton starred in Orlando (1992), which had expressionist scenes also reflective of The Colour of Pomegranates. Bowie and Swinton were friends and both known for their androgynous looks and later appeared together in Bowie’s video for his song The Stars are out Tonight.

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