Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love

The Cinema of Sally Potter
By Sophie Mayer

Published by WallFlower Press

Reviewed by Dr Kate Ince


Despite the wide coverage Sally Potter’s films have received since her early experimental shorts and Thriller in 1979, Sophie Mayer’s The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love is only the second full-length study of Potter’s career. It has arrived at almost the same moment as Potter’s sixth full-length feature Rage, which is no coincidence, since Mayer explains that her book was delayed by the announcement, during the summer of 2008, that Rage was complete and would be screening at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. She has undoubtedly risen to the ‘exhilarating, if unnerving challenge’ (p.9) of weaving the film into her manuscript in limited time, though was aided in this (as in many areas) by interviews with Potter and contact with Potter’s production company, Adventure Pictures.

The dynamism and sheer energy of Potter’s 1970s work in performance, dance and Expanded Cinema (as well as of her career as a whole) has influenced the structure of Mayer’s book, whose fourteen sections alternate between close commentary and analysis of Potter’s six features and eight chapters named after the activities of Working, Moving, Colouring, Listening, Feeling, Loving and Becoming. The active force of these present participles matches and draws on the passionately positive kind of change and transformation to be found in so many of Potter’s narratives, encapsulated by critic Jackie Hatfield’s description of what the existential was for the ‘synesthetic, sensuous, experiential, live and time-based art called expanded cinema’, ‘a kind of becoming: for the artist through process, and for the audience through reception’ (p.77). Issues of sensuous experience and the effect on viewers’ bodies of films’ sensuality have been uppermost in critical writing about cinema during the 2000s, since the appearance of Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (2000), and although Mayer’s book impresses more by the range of sources it draws upon than by their connectedness to one another, and she perhaps resorts after only a short while to using Marks’ key term ‘haptic’ rather loosely, she convincingly brings out Potter’s affinity with the existential-phenomenological notion of the ‘lived body’, as shown in a remark about how, in The Man Who Cried, Suzie’s songs resonate with the viewer’s bodily movements and gestures though an ‘associative “empathy”’ (p.148), and in her observation of ‘two contrasting strategies that ‘touch’ us haptically [in Potter’s films]: firstly, how performers use their bodies in ways that carry over from her live work; and secondly, her use of film forms such as the close-up and rhythmic editing shows us these bodies in motion’ (p.6). Mayer also picks up on the feminism implicit in this haptic visuality and pervasive embrace of sensuous experience, and particularly well when she defends Potter against the many criticisms made of her decision to play the fictional character ‘Sally’ of The Tango Lesson herself, by acknowledging that this choice stemmed from a certain narcissism, but insisting that ‘Potter and her eponymous character lay claim to a bodily autonomy and pleasure that confused male reviewers who ‘conflate[d] female autonomy and authorship with narcissism’’ (p.20).
The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love is a lengthy book, in which Mayer sometimes seems to get so engrossed in her material that she forgets Potter altogether (for example when discussing colour in film on pp.106-7). More judicious editing might have been advisable, as well as some reinforcement of argumentation: although the latter is strong and convincing in ‘Listening’, it is much weaker in the Thriller chapter and some others. More than a touch of romanticization of bodily labour is detectable in ‘Working’, where Mayer describes labour as ‘graceful and received with gratitude’ (p.50), and picks out ‘work’s grace’ as a ‘revolutionary gesture’ (p.42). She can also be much less idealising about the positivity of Potter’s filmmaking, however, as in ‘Moving’, where she suggests the relevance to Potter’s work of the ‘truly ethical apprehension of beauty’ theorised by Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just (2006) (p.82). She deploys Maria Lugones’ notion of ‘world-travelling’ so suited to the international wanderings of Potter’s characters carefully, specifying that it is used by Lugones to mean travelling ‘into others’ worlds through performance’ (p.89) rather than any more literal tourist-style journeying. And there is nothing saccharine about the thesis of a ‘politics of love’ included in the book’s title, which Mayer seems to have developed from theorist of the postcolonial Michael Hardt, who is quoted asserting the centrality of ‘this political character’ to premodern notions of love such as Christian and Judaic notions of ‘a constitution of the community’ (p.25). There is no disguising that Mayer’s book is as much a deeply personal appreciation of Potter’s work and career as it is an academic study, but Mayer avows as much early on when she describes the transformative experience viewing Orlando at the age of fifteen was for her, and explains that her book is ‘about an ‘inner exchange’ between one viewer and the films’. Her book is obviously just as much a labour of love as Potter’s films, and she gives eloquent testimony to the ‘giant leap’ she feels responding to them to be, a leap into a shared and immersive space of fantasy (p.70). The most important reason for the greatness of Sally Potter’s cinema, she is ultimately arguing, is that it requires and teaches us to look in a new way, with a ‘loving eye’ (p.135) that encourages and instils a mutual regard between seer and seen. To look upon someone or something is no detached, disinterested activity, but a transformative and enabling act that can, to quote Celeste from The Gold Diggers, ‘chang[e] what is there’ (p.238).


Dr Kate Ince is Reader in French Film and Gender Studies at the University of Birmingham.

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