Friday, March 17, 2006

#40: On Sally Potter’s YES * Written & directed by Sally Potter * United Kingdom 2004; US DVD release November 2005 * With Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill * 110 minutes * This review also appears in the March 20, 2006 issue of * Midway through Sally Potter’s latest film, YES, the lovers named only She (Joan Allen) and He (Simon Abkarian) engage in a wrenching argument in a deserted dark cavern of a parking garage. This was the scene Potter wrote first for her script, just after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and it serves as the film’s – and the larger parable’s – turning point. Until now, their’s has been a secret affair, undisturbing to the surface of their lives, ignorant and oblivious of each other’s origins. In picking this fight, He makes clear that the luxury of such denial has become impossible. Further, this is the only time that any character in YES mentions that they’re all speaking in rhyming iambic pentameter. Complaining that he has had to make all the cultural adjustments in their relationship, the man says, “I even rhyme in your tongue.” At first only panicky, she is suddenly curious, asking, ‘’Tell me more.’’ * Their background: She is a Belfast-born, U.S.-raised research biochemist, living in London and married to a British politician (Sam Neill) who cheats on her. He is a Lebanese surgeon who left Beirut to escape the war there. In London, He works as a chef, until an incident with a bigoted kitchen worker forces him to quit. They meet at a dinner party where he notices her distress – she is pacing, later weeps at the table over her husband’s unfaithfulness – and speaks gently to her. Their affair is rapid, lyrical, heated – but cannot escape the steaming, clanging bickering of the kitchen workers. * In the parking garage, He breaks it off following the kitchen incident. They each return ‘’home’’ – she to her aunt’s Belfast deathbed, he to his friend’s clinic and wedding celebration. Speaking by cell from the Belfast hospital corridor to a bombed-out street in Beirut, She asks him to meet her – of all places – in Havana. Arriving alone, hoping he’ll join her, She goes sight-seeing and night-club dancing in scenes intercut with his Beirut activities. A single musical sequence overlays and unites these alternating scenes, suggesting that his return to Beirut is somehow equivalent to her tourism. Early in their affair, He had called her his “true home.” Certainly their reunion suggests they complete each other, both literally and as parable. * Potter has referenced her film’s title in James Joyce’s Irish novel ULYSSES, the word falling at the beginning and end of Molly Bloom’s monologue about the transcendent joys of physical union, a monologue that pushed the limits of language in the early 20th century. That most of the film’s dialogue is written in verse steals across our awareness slowly – or possibly not at all. The dialogue has a measured cadence and sometimes obvious rhymes, but some viewers might recall the dialogue as merely “lyrical” or “poetic.” Potter says that she directed her cast to concentrate on their lines’ emotional content rather than count its formal beats. That is, except for the single reference, she preferred to leave the language’s structure submerged. And since the parking garage argument is about uncovering the social structures that make their relationship problematic – especially for him – putting this reference to the dialogue’s rhyme in the same spot is simple consistency. * The rhyming dialogue that Potter says is what made investors most reluctant – YES was made in the end for about half its original budget – should not scare audiences off. Sally Potter is an English musician, performance artist, singer, dancer, and stage actress who also makes movies – writing, directing, and sometimes scoring her own films. Her earlier films, the first in 1979, some shorts, a feature shot in Iceland with Julie Christie and an all-female crew (THE GOLD DIGGERS), and some documentaries, are mostly unavailable in the U.S. She is at home across art forms – her early short film THRILLER adapted Puccini’s LA BOEHME and her 1997 film THE TANGO LESSON (sadly a hard film to locate), stars herself as a screenwriter named Sally Potter who escapes writer’s block in dance lessons. She has worked with elaborate period pieces – notably ORLANDO, her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel that recapitulates four centuries of British history, with actor Tilda Swinton in the title role, and 2000’s THE MAN WHO CRIED, a saga of European anti-Semitism. * At first glance her work might seem akin to the experimental cinema of British avante garde contemporaries like Peter Greenaway in its “high cultural” literacy and tone. But Potter has increasingly been part of the wider cinematic landscape since ORLANDO, and she developed her work over the same last quarter century as many internationally inspired indie filmmakers. Not for Potter the self-referential hand-held “home video” look, but there’s a similar concern with violence, enormous attention on re-working narrative, inventive camera angles and focus and speed, sound design that conveys aspects of narrative beyond straightforward plotting, and comedy alongside the serious (often some character turns to the camera mid-action for an ironic quip). Potter has increasingly used international crews and American actors interested in international projects; her current cinematographer worked with French director Alain Resnais on films such as LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD and NIGHT AND FOG. * YES is hardly a stiff, “arty,” esoteric film, either in itself or its pedigree. This begins immediately with its performances. With the possible exception of her “earth mother” role in 2003’s OFF THE MAP – I’m going to pass over THE UPSIDE OF ANGER here – YES’ She is a sensual and openly emotional Joan Allen as American audiences have rarely seen her, emerging from pinched, stodgier roles such as First Lady Pat Nixon, THE CONTENDER’s tight-lipped Senator, and THE CRUCIBLE’s silently suffering Elizabeth Proctor. Armenian-Lebanese actor Simon Abkarian is a graceful, loose-limbed man; He performs a Lebanese wedding dance for She after one of their trysts (a dance he’ll perform again later at a friend’s wedding in Beirut with obvious hesitation, perhaps conveying his recollection of dancing earlier for his lover). * But the paramount scene in YES for manifesting the tension that contains passion within structure occurs in a restaurant, where He’s hand beneath the table touching her causes She to climax. The polar opposite of that famous WHEN HARRY MET SALLY restaurant scene, in which Meg Ryan’s character loudly calls attention to herself by demonstrating how to fake an orgasm, here is a delicious demonstration of conveying more with less – just She’s hand tightening on his arm, her breath catching. “Delicious” must be the effect that Potter sought too; He licks his fingers playfully afterward, causing She to laugh. * Even intelligent U.S reviewers have not always praised YES. THE NEW YORK TIMES’ A.O. Scott accused Potter’s characters of “overblown tristesse” and her dialogue of “staggering banality” in his 6/24/05 review, just after YES had screened at the New York Film Festival. After a brief September theatrical release in the U.S., the DVD followed in November. But Scott also found the plot in Oscar-winning CRASH “implausible” in its neatly interlocking pieces – that CRASH is about the redemptive power and magic of love, not logistics, sailed over his head. And the heart of YES is not about metrics either. * [1,177]

Friday, March 03, 2006

#39: Greenhouse Effects: RORY O’SHEA WAS HERE & Brian Friel’s MOLLY SWEENEY * 3/3/06 Only this morning I’ve read two reviews in the local paper complaining that films opening here this weekend are formulaic rehashes. I think this quest for surprise is a tad pinched & short-sighted. After all, Fellini’s inventiveness built a whole cinematic career on the stock characters & plots of Italy’s commedia del arte. And the American Western movie largely depends on how a director interacts with its established conventions. Director Damien O’Donnell’s RORY O’SHEA WAS HERE is a 2004 Irish film that’s now available state-side on DVD. It opens Sunday afternoon at the Redhouse in Armory Square for a three week run there, ending right after St. Patrick’s Day. As often happens at the Redhouse, programming in one realm reflects another. J.T. Lee, who runs the film program there, intentionally paired RORY O’SHEA with the current stage production of Brian Friel’s 1994 play, MOLLY SWEENEY, which opened last week. The movie addresses one sort of physical disability (muscular dystrophy & cerebral palsy) & the play another (blindness), both of which occur for people who are ordinary rather than heroic. We meet RORY O’SHEA’s title character (played by James McAvoy) when he enters yet another nursing home at the age of 21. Quickly settled in, his Che posters & photos of himself with luscious babes proclaim a vanished lifestyle. He’s the one with muscular dystrophy. He makes friends with Michael (Steven Robertson) for initially instrumental reasons. Despite his severely spastic body, Michael is willing to spike Rory’s hair with gel when the nurses wear out on that chore, & Rory understands Michael’s garbled speech, thus providing him with a translator to navigate more widely in the world. There’s a girl who’s beyond reach, obstacles to be gotten around, & an authoritarian administrator (Brenda Fricker, ironically evoking this movie’s 1989 predecessor, MY LEFT FOOT, in which she had a very different role). Rory & Michael finagle a way to leave the home for their own apartment & Rory, having served his purpose by streaking across Michael’s dark horizon like a meteor, meets what his father says is his “expected” end. As the title pounds home, Rory’s purpose is to be remembered in another’s redeemed life, not to live his own. Yes, we’ve seen this plot before. For example, there’s Peter Chelsom’s small but admirable 1998 movie, THE MIGHTY, & another variation in the classic ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. And so on. Decried by some reviewers as emotionally excessive & manipulative, Rory’s “expected” death explains his impatience, his short temper & what his minders consider his bad adjustment. Since we expect the disabled – the stigmatized of all kinds – to do the work of making the rest of us comfortable, such stories really demand some device to rescue characters like Rory from simply being labeled poor sports. O’Donnell takes a deeper look at these boys as social outsiders, something he’s done before. His 1999 film, EAST IS EAST (1999), makes use of the stock plot of East Indian immigrants both adjusting to & clashing with London culture that has generated a lively sub-genre of similar films, such as the 1997 MY SON THE FANATIC & the better-known BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (2002). In attempting to live on their own, Michael & Rory are certainly much like foreigners who resist ghetto confinement. Also edgier than we might think is director O’Donnell’s willingness to make us uncomfortable with Michael. Rory is an attractive young man – the phrase “happens to be sitting in a wheelchair” could actually apply to him in the bar scene. Michael’s another matter. Many viewers will have to admit they share the bar girls’ queasiness with him as a potential date. This deepens the abjectness of Michael’s heartbreak when one of those bar girls, Siobhan, who briefly winds up as the boys’ personal assistant, feels she must leave when his emotions become too hot for her. I suspect this was harder for a director to pull off. In a lazier movie, Michael would be the side-kick watching Siobhan & Rory, leaving us all less ruffled. Because of this discomfort, RORY O’SHEA WAS HERE is an apt companion to Friel’s MOLLY SWEENEY, even though we know this decent little film is not going to survive anywhere near as long as Friel’s great play. Especially as mounted at the Redhouse, MOLLY SWEENEY will engage you & make you more uncomfortable in its last moments than you imagined. Director Gerard Moses told me on opening night that the play “really is an Irish RASHOMON,” presenting three radically different versions of blind & large-hearted but rather ordinary title character Molly’s return to sight. Blindness as a rich, multi-hued metaphor goes back to the Greeks & beyond, of course, & it’s appeared before on the Irish stage, in Synge’s work, for one. MOLLY SWEENEY relies heavily on the work of Oliver Sacks with the blind, in particular with the adjustments they encounter when “sight” turns out to be different & harder than they expected, & not all that congenial. There are many things to admire about this production. We are used to Gerard Moses’ nuanced direction & physical characterizations, which often go well beyond what a script offers. But when you know how little guidance Friel’s text provides in this regard, & how quiet & devoid of sets & lighting other productions have been, you will appreciate more what’s been created here. In a deeply moving & arresting performance by Nicole Halmos, Molly doesn’t do well with her new sight. Friel’s language in her mouth is a joy. But look further: in the blocking of her movements, Halmos several times makes a simple, clean change in direction that serves to almost paragraph what’s happening on-stage, a repeated half-turn that could be described as “dancerly” (much the same as in film we see some cinematography as “painterly”). Molly is at home in her blindness & we spend a long, leisurely time with this woman, free to look her over. Then, in her brilliantly performed last scene, Halmos’ Molly turns once more, & we get a taste of how unexpectedly overwhelming acquiring vision might be. For once, I’m not going to tell you any more, but a tiny choice about how to play this provides the kind of shock that makes the best theater. You must see this. Both the movie & the play rely on formulas. Both are parables, & their stock elements relieve an audience of engaging with ambivalence & discomfort at a merely intellectual level – where opinions about political & social “issues” tend to harden – & instead fly under the radar of the audience’s own shame. I think this is a gift. (1,107)