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.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review: Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin

Beauty Salon
Mario Bellatin

Published by City Lights

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Whatever expectations about plot and character development you’ve come to expect from reading fiction should be left behind when reading Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin. One might pick up the novella Beauty Salon with its cover photo of empty pink chairs and hairdryers expecting a domestic female drama. Instead, we are introduced to the transvestite narrator who has transformed his beauty salon into a hospice or “terminal” (as he calls it) to care for the diseased homeless in the final stages of a terminal illness which has swept the globe and will soon obliterate this entire unnamed city. Rather than spend time ruminating on this mysterious plague, the narrator gives detailed accounts of the multiple kinds of fish he’s raised and how his care for them has been superseded by his duties to the dying patients he takes in. Intricate descriptions of the different kinds of exotic fish he’s raised are offered, but we are barely given any idea how the disease manifests itself with the patients of the terminal or the consequences of this plague to society. The effect of this is disconcerting and strangely moving revealing the degrees to which the narrator must emotionally distance himself from the world he inhabits.

Bellatin gives us a modern pared-down rendering of Samuel Butler’s satirical utopia Erewhon. Illness might as well be a crime in this sternly benevolent transvestite’s converted “Salon to the Stars” given the dingy beds, minimal food and lack of attention the patients who spend their final days in the terminal receive. Empathy is forsworn in favour of detached care. One patient who arrives even receives a beating from the narrator. Only men are allowed to have beds in the converted terminal; women are left to die in the street. Later on in the book, the narrator reflects how he mistakenly developed an emotional attachment to one of his very first patients. In conclusion to his debate about how the diseased should be cared for it becomes clear that their treatment is of little consequence given that this procession of dying men are all soon going to end up in similar anonymous graves.

Mario Bellatin

Bellatin is a writer who is likely to become just as well known for his behaviour in real life as for his often disturbingly bizarre prose. He frequently poses for photos wearing an array of elaborately-designed prosthetic arms given that he is missing most of his right arm and is playful in interviews, in one case inventing a Japanese writer with an enormous nose who he claims influenced his own writing. With his pared down style and conscious experimentation in prose, Bellatin shows an affinity to the Nouveau Roman and its focus on objects rather than the traditional elements of the novel. Bellatin seeks to portray fragments of experience rather than a coherent world. Characters aren’t defined by descriptions, but remain only as emotionally-charged glimmers in the narrator’s memory. Bellatin’s fiction is very fresh and invigorating if not always satisfying. The book closes with an impending sense of doom. The reader is left searching for the beauty in life like the narrator who looks for his remaining exotic fish hidden behind a film of algae which has coated the inside of the tank over a long period of time. You can barely see it, but you know its there.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Ganymede Stories One and the anthologies From Boys to Men, Between Men 2 and 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everyone Must Read.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Theatre Review: Primavera presents Origin of the Species

Origin of the Species
Written by Bryony Lavery

Arcola Theatre, London
until November 21st 2009

Reviewed by Richard Canning

This is a seriously entertaining revival of a most intelligent and witty play. An early work of lesbian playwright Bryony Lavery, it’s a two-hander about Darwin’s theory of evolution, as the title suggests. This production, ably directed by Tom Littler and featuring excellent performances by Marjorie Yates as Molly and Clare-Hope Ashitey as Victoria, is thus also a timely treat, given the plethora of commemorations attending the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

The drama draws on the true story of Louis and Mary Leakey’s pioneering 1950s and 60s anthropological research into the Olduvai Gorge region of Tanzania, the so-called ‘cradle of mankind’, named for the prehistoric human remains uncovered there. Its ‘homo habilis’ is a precursor of homo erectus, who in turn morphed into our present-day species, ‘homo sapiens’. Lavery has Molly, a bluff, elderly Yorkshirewoman, recounting her time joining the Leakey digs, from which she has brought back several skulls, as well as (and at this point the plot slightly awkwardly abandons all verisimilitude for fantasy) a complete skeleton, which reconstitutes itself as a wild young black woman, speechless embodiment of this earliest form of man. Molly names her “Victoria” – after her grandmother, though, naturally, there are colonial cadences too – and befriends the young woman (though there’s no hint of anything more than friendship and kinship), schooling her in the English language (which proves relatively straightforward) and native customs and perceptions (much trickier).

The challenge must be – within this poignant, fundamentally comic scenario – to avoid the semblance of colonialist instruction detracting from the true lessons emerging from the couple’s exchanges, which are colour-neutral. Clearly, given the play’s intentionally absurd premise, it may seem churlish to insist on the dangers of interpreting Molly’s often patronising tutelage too literally, and in colour- and culturally-sensitive terms. Generally, the play steers a sensitive course through this problem. But there are moments where it struggles to provide an oppositional voice to Molly’s articulation of how the “primitive” in front of her might, and indeed will, develop into a fully-fledged homo sapiens; a near insurmountable difficulty, given Victoria’s struggle to master speech. There is one moment, though, in the first half, where she inadvertently trumps Molly’s ready cultural assumptions. A few more such rhetorical reversals would have strengthened the play’s fundamental determination to question “civilised values” in the round.

Bryony Lavery

The other chief way in which the play suggests that mankind’s evolution has not been the straightforward flight towards achievement and liberty comes in its striking final moments. Molly celebrates the arrival of the New Year, and, given that the play has been conceived around the idea of the entire history of Earth being mapped onto a single year, wonders whether mankind can survive after the clocks strike. “Mankind”, of course, is itself a provocative term, given the play’s other prominent theme: the male-centred nature of recorded human history, anthropological and otherwise. Molly concedes that, when she first uncovered Victoria, she had been looking for a man, specifically, not a woman; yet her delight in her ward causes her to question all manner of man-dominant ideas. Her education, she reveals, had been entirely devoted to the mantra: “man – him - his”. Victoria counters by revealing that it had been woman who first learnt how to take and use fire – a critical moment, obviously, in the development of the species - not man, as is traditionally recorded in myth.

The man-bashing is sometimes a little unabashed, or at least somewhat “period” in feel, and one senses that the playwright might have longed to push the Molly-Victoria relationship further, since, as it stands, the role played by sexual instinct in mankind’s development, isn’t glanced at. Still, Origin of the Species remains a witty, smart treatment of some complex ideas. The commendable production at the Arcola feels fully evolved.

Richard Canning is a writer and academic, based in London. His latest book is the edited collection Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson, 2009).


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Call for Submissions: Read these Lips

Read These Lips is a free e-book project dedicated to lesbian literature. In our fourth year, we are inviting submissions to our anthology series.

We seek multi-dimensional literary writings that speak the possibilities of lesbian lives. We feature popular genre as well as cross-genre works.

Submissions are open from 1 November 2009 to 31 January 2010. Please read our Submissions Guidelines and our previous anthologies for guidance.

Early expressions of interest are encouraged. Please direct all correspondence to