Dreaming Wide Awake: Sally Potter’s Yes, and In My Country, The Interpreter, War of the Worlds, Kings and Queen, Heights, Saving Face, Off the Map, and The Upside of Anger, with Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband

The political is personal

by Daniel Garrett Volume 9, Issue 9 / September 2005 27 minutes (6716 words)

There may be no final answer regarding how much of the weight of reality art must bear, but it is a question one is likely to ask when watching films that avoid recognizable reality or that present pressing problems very badly. The film director Sally Potter—her other films include Orlando and The Tango Lesson—has said that the destruction of the World Trade Center and its aftermath of suspicion and vengeance inspired her new film Yes. Yes focuses on the relationship between a married western (Irish-American) woman scientist played by Joan Allen and, played by Simon Abkarian, a middle eastern (Lebanese) man who, though trained as a surgeon, works as a chef in England, where the two meet and become lovers; and the film is about how we see people, and about how history becomes intimate, threatening. Yes throws a backlight not only on such matters but on other films, as I suspected it would when I heard Sally Potter and Joan Allen speak about the film at Barnes & Noble on Union Square in Manhattan on June 23, 2005, an early Thursday evening, before the film’s New York opening the next day. That evening, commemorating the publication of the screenplay, began with a dimming of lights, and a screening of short clips from the film. After photographs were taken of Sally Potter and Joan Allen, a store representative introduced the director and actress, and Potter began to speak about the character of a cleaning woman in the film Yes, a woman who was invisible to many but who herself saw the traces of what people leave behind. (The cleaning woman, in the film, is played by Shirley Henderson.) Allen read the cleaner’s opening statement about a principal source of dirt—the human body; and she would later read a piece in which the cleaner says that dirt doesn’t go away, it just gets moved around (she mentions the mites, germs, and viruses that live in and on what the body throws off). The character of the cleaner represents the effort it takes to maintain an elegant, moneyed environment and she offers commentary—philosophical, social—on what is ordinarily taken to be private experience: she connects worlds.

Intelligence—balanced, fair, informed reasoning and response—is one of the things the film promised. Potter spoke about the film as being about a love affair and global conflict, a response to what seemed, with September 11, 2001, to be a hate story, a clash of fundamentalisms. (Potter was in the English countryside camping on September 11.) The screenplay took about a year and a half to write, with updating and adaptations. “Screenplays are not written but rewritten,” said Potter. Potter described the word “yes” as the most beautiful word in the English language—“we need it, though ‘no’ has its uses,” she said—and she invoked James Joyce’s Ulysses, which gives yes as its last word. “We need affirmation in times of conflict and despair,” asserted Potter. It was surprising to learn that Potter, whose works are ambitious, experimental, and philosophical, had—according to her—no training and no education: obviously education has many forms. (Potter left grade school before graduating in order to make films, and joined the London Filmmakers Co-op and then the London School of Contemporary Dance.) In response to an audience member’s question, Potter described a great actor as being like Joan Allen, unusually intelligent, hardworking, generous, and subtle. {Potter would say also that casting is the single most important decision a director makes: “the actor is the embodiment of the text.”} When asked, Potter said that a great director has to have stamina: “you have to learn to do without sleep—first to rise, last to go to bed.” (Allen would speak later of how Potter had discussions with the cast, read scenes, and did video documentation—of how Potter prepared them all for the film.) Potter and Allen described a scene in the film in which the personal and cultural conflicts between the lovers in the film become explosive—their differences are those of nation, gender, religion, and finance. The scene was rehearsed and the actors were very emotional during rehearsal but when actually filming the actors felt a fatigue and that mood turned out to be the right one for the scene. Joan Allen, after speaking of her love for moments of discovery in her work, moments that seem more common in film than theater because of the intimacy and concentration of doing short scenes in increments, also spoke about the tolerance and the power of listening she found expressed in Sally Potter’s writing. Seeing and listening are important aspects of all film-viewing experience and yet some films use sight and sound to distract us, to confuse us, to offer false maps and false destinations. Other films, sometimes well, sometimes not, try to convey a vision that is truthful: In My Country, Kings and Queen, Heights, The Upside of Anger, and Yes are to be numbered among them.

In My Country (Country of My Skull), directed by John Boorman, shows us the glory of southern African land, land worth fighting for, and the film is focused on an investigation into South African apartheid crimes that are being reported on by an African-American journalist and a white African (or Afrikaans) writer who become friends and briefly lovers. Samuel Jackson’s African-American journalist has a recognizable pride and intelligence and he is also too quickly angry. (Self-righteousness is a believable attitude: it is also a false one. It indicates a sureness of authority and a purity of motive that are unassailable—which no man has really. Intelligence doesn’t prove its falseness; experience does.) The events that unfold in the film, not only his own attraction to the married white writer played by Juliette Binoche, but also black-on-black brutality and complicity in injustice, force Jackson’s journalist to see that his assumptions and his understanding must be broader than they have been. In My Country is not a definitive film about South African apartheid or the revolution that followed, but it is an intelligent and honest story about the diverse perspectives of people—the powerful and the powerless, the cruel and the well-intentioned, the foreign and the native—and how they shape and are shaped by history. Torture, murder, and bodies casually ditched were revealed by the investigation—in life, and in the film. In My Country, written by Ann Peacock (based on a book by Antjie Krog), with Seamus Deasy as cinematographer, Derek Wallace as production designer and Ron Davis as editor, offers a historical situation—there were well-known hearings attempting justice and seeking truth and reconciliation; they were an experiment in justice, and an expression of spiritual power—and the film features many African actors in small but significant roles and provides the entertainment of romance, the friendship and love affair that develop between the two critical observers. Do we want to repeat the mistakes of history in our own lives (what could be gained from such a choice)? The lovers in In My Country, like those in Yes, attempt honesty and understanding. In My Country’s calm and its fairness are a kind of wisdom. Another film involving Africa, Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter offers a strong performance by Nicole Kidman—her voice here is deep and rich, sensuous, and she conveys her character’s vivid awareness and mystery. Kidman plays an interpreter in the United Nations who overhears in a unique African language a plot to kill an African revolutionary-turned-despot. Sean Penn, who plays an investigator trying to protect the visiting dignitary, has some good moments, though there’s a little too much angst and eye-squinting in his performance for my taste —he creates a presence that is somehow both lifelike and a cinematic cliché. However, the story centers on an African country that has been invented for the film and that subverts the urgency that might otherwise be brought to viewing the film (it’s hard to worry about the fate of a place that doesn’t exist). The film suggests that the difficulty of achieving justice in the world inclines one toward vengeance—which can destroy not only our enemies but our own integrity. Kidman’s character has not been simply an interpreter but also an active participant, an agent—someone both committed and compromised. She once picked up a gun—and just as when Simon Abkarian’s character picks up a knife when threatened by a coworker in Yes, the charges of partisanship and violence cannot be easily shaken. That the issues involved—a poor African country, a people’s hope placed in a leader that knows first-hand their suffering, and his subsequent power-mongering—are those that are familiar and important lends the film a special disappointment. Whereas one senses that In My Country is intended to present a truth—the fact of white people’s abuse of black people and the unique choice black people made and make to try to forgive that abuse—it’s hard not to feel that The Interpreter is using its own historical and political themes for mere entertainment, for a drama, for a sense of importance, it has not earned. Sahara, directed by Breck Eisner, stars Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, and Steve Zahn, and is a colorful and fun adventure film that is also set in contemporary Africa and it alludes to the social turmoil there. (Sahara’s director of photography is Seamus McGarvey; and some of the film’s images are the most beautiful I have seen.) The sympathy the lead characters have for the Africans does not suggest their depth, but gives them depth. Sahara, involving a lost treasure and an old ship that went off course during battle, makes a few historical references to the American 19th-century civil war and slavery, but its intentions are clearly to entertain—and the honesty of that—makes its reference to serious matters part of its inherited context and plot and consequently less objectionable. We might share a laugh, a meal, or a friendship while a storm rages, our preferred political party is defeated, or a treasure is lost or found. Implicit in being a social being is that we sometimes put aside something that is of importance for something that is not—on behalf of the pleasure that we can bring to others or receive in their presence.

Light pleasures? Of the action films I have seen in months just passed, Doug Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt was the most entertaining. Jolie and Pitt are appealing—witty, erotic—together in what becomes a black comedy of marriage and work. (Jolie, at the moment, may be the sexiest person in film; and the strongest eroticism in film has less to do with explicit sexuality than with flirtation and suggestion, with openness to experience. Jolie exudes strength and sensuality.) The thrills granted by personality, irony, beauty, invention, surprise, and danger are all here. I saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith twice and want to see it again, though it may have no provable intellectual content or social value. Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds has some images of destruction that are very convincing, and its star Tom Cruise is aging well—though muscular, Cruise’s body is taking on a fuller, more rounded shape—and while I cannot say that Cruise gives a bad performance, he does not, it is not a performance with a lot of feeling, with a lot of nuance. The moments when excited curiosity or self-mocking humor or exasperation or fearful uncertainty break through are his best; determined heroism gets boring. That the alien invaders are implacable and unknown renders politics mute—survival is all (it’s a simplified view of human existence and motivation; and simplification is what a film such as Yes rejects). It is still interesting that in War of the Worlds the germs that humans have gotten used to—the germs Yes‘s cleaning woman character notes may be invisible to the eye but which exist in the millions—may offer protection from a more hostile invasion. Despite the attempts by director Christopher Nolan and his co-writer David S. Goyer to fill out Batman Begins with spiritual rumination and character development and forms of figural continuity (the reference to and use of bats, for instance), and despite my regard for Christian Bale as an actor (here, as Batman), and regardless of what Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkerson, Gary Oldman, and Katie Holmes add to Batman Begins, I watched the film with a low level of interest and left the theater with a low level of pleasure. (I despair at the use of the Irish actor Cillian Murphy as a villain—Hollywood has a long habit of considering vivid sensitivity, sensuality, and intelligence foreign attributes in a man: useless, unmanly, and perverse. Johnny Depp is one of the few actors who has made this cultural scenario work for him: he creates anti-heroes, men who inspire admiration and love or at least sympathy despite their defiance of common values, whether in Ed Wood or the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) I may have seen all the Batman films made in the last twenty years, and now I cannot remember if any of them were satisfying. I may have liked Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer when each acted the caped crusader, but was the surrounding film enough? (Many of these large “entertainment” films do not seem composed for a human response, but rather designed to overwhelm the senses; and that is something Pauline Kael noted decades ago.) Batman Begins gives us a view of flawed human character and the deterioration of civilization, but which comes first? The film honestly shows some of the obstacles to doing good—and that subterfuge (a mask, a disguised identity, informal alliances) and distrust of authority and probably public misunderstanding are also likely—is a dark vision indeed. Does the vision qualify as thought or just atmosphere, attitude, and gesture? George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith, another in the Star Wars film series, was even worse—it is simply the worst film I have seen all year, and one of the worst movies I have ever seen: it is unnecessary and stupid, with bad acting and writing. The film implies evil can be chosen for good reasons, a possibility I have not seen ratified by my observance of others or by self-reflection; instead it seems that evil is chosen as it does not require nobility or patience, and promises to demolish whatever stands in our way efficiently, quickly, and for all time, often an irresistible promise: evil is chosen out of laziness and for its destructive force. Ewan McGregor and Samuel Jackson are the only features of the film that seemed at all respectable to me (how they managed to maintain any semblance of dignity and intelligence is worthy of a master class in acting, though maybe McGregor simply closed his inner eye and thought of England, while Jackson closed his and thought of Ethiopia or of Harlem’s Sugar Hill).

Sin City, like Crash, is a blatant and brutal film, the former containing invented cruelties and the latter containing cruelties that actually occur, though Crash exaggerates them. The spectacular use of black-and-white imagery and sudden explosions of weird color make Sin City a cineaste’s dream. Sin City was directed by Robert Rodriguez, with Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino, based on Miller’s graphic book. That effective actors Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, and Benicio Del Toro are in it make it even more seductive. It may be an irony that with so many repellent attributes and themes—cannibalistic violence, child molestation, prostitution, and corrupt religion—the film finds ways of providing beauty and pleasure. Whereas Sin City is an epic fantasy, Paul Haggis’s Crash attempts realism and, for me, its best moments are found in the performance of its actors such as Thandie Newton, Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, and Ryan Phillippe. Newton’s character is the kind of elegant black woman many Americans hardly recognize as real (she’s not merely glamorous, she’s elegant—and elegance indicates not only money spent or appearance achieved but refinement of taste and judgement, knowledge and subsequent choices; but that she is introduced while engaged in a sexual act may imply her character’s sexual freedom or the script’s first degradation of her). She both speaks out of the current moment and out of her own mood, for instance when she argues with a police officer, but also she speaks out of history, as when she reprimands and mocks her husband for not doing more to defend her from the police officer, using a language, a tradition, of black shuffling cowardice to shame her husband, played by Terrence Howard, who himself has scenes when pride struggles against professional expedience, when shame is balanced by amusement, when rage overturns common sense. In Crash, Don Cheadle has one of his great moments—when his character has the (bewildered, depressed) understanding that he will not be understood by his mother, who prefers her dead criminal son to her live decent and successful son. Brendan Fraser is convincing as a district attorney who thinks through how to present to the public the fact that he’s been mugged, knowing his personal response will carry symbolic weight (does he have the self-respect to be intolerant of crime, and does he have the compassion to understand someone else’s desperation?). Ryan Phillippe, who may have been at his best in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park—there he was deceptive about his profession and sexually wanton in a role originally planned for Jude Law, is here a policeman (partner to Matt Dillon’s roguish cop), and Phillippe’s policeman is well-intentioned and self-deceived, intelligent and naïve, open and suspicious (a believably contradictory human). If casting is the most important decision a director makes, as Yes director Sally Potter has claimed, then Paul Haggis has cast well. Crash, which demonstrates (through dialog and plot, in a script by Haggis and Bobby Moresco) that a demon of acrimonious prejudice lives in almost every one of us, neglects—with one or two exceptions—the art, social rituals, politics, and private moments that sometimes achieve community and transcendence: it is the actors who bring to the film complex humanity.

I much preferred the view I saw of humanity in Kings and Queen, Heights, Saving Face, and A Lot Like Love to anything I saw in Sin City or Crash. I had liked Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into An Argument, and expected to like Kings and Queen. The story of Kings and Queen is that of a French woman, Nora played by Emmanuelle Devos, about to be married to a rich man her son does not like; and after she learns her father is ill, she wants to reach a former lover, Ismael, who got on well with her son, to find out if he would become her son’s guardian. While finding things to like in Kings and Queen—intelligent characters speaking intelligent dialog amid an interesting situation, with formal explorations of comedy and tragedy, of knowledge and secrecy, of objectivity and subjectivity—I was disappointed that, despite Mathieu Amalric’s charming performance as the worried mother-daughter’s former lover, an eccentric and opinionated man, the pleasures were so few. I had the exact opposite response to Heights, arguably a less inventive film. I liked almost everything about Heights. Heights, based on a short play by Amy Fox and directed by Chris Terrio, features Glenn Close as a respected actress whose daughter has photography ambitions that are clear but unfulfilled and is about to be married to a man, a lawyer who has unresolved personal issues. Elizabeth Banks is the daughter, James Marsden the fiancé. Jesse Bradford plays an actor Close, whose character’s husband is having a serious affair, wants to know better. Close is impressive—confident, concerned, flirtatious, hurt, intrusive—and Banks conveyed the gravity and doubt of someone who seems to have a life some might envy but which she’s not sure she wants, and Marsden is sensual, tormented, exasperated, and cunning in ways that are convincing, while Bradford has a charm (Close’s character calls him adorable) as well as a wounded aspect that the film’s end helps to explain. The image of New York City in Heights is of a place that is both demanding and rewarding: we see the struggles people go through for art, love, money, and power. There may not be enough that is new in the film, but almost everything is well-handled (I did not like a final surprise regarding Marsden’s character—I thought the circumstances of the revelation were contrived). Alice Wu’s Saving Face features the Chinese community in Flushing, Queens, and is about a young woman doctor (Michelle Krusiec) who becomes infatuated with another young woman (Lynn Chen), a dancer and the daughter of her boss. Will the young doctor admit her love of another woman to her mother and her community? Will the dancer choose love over career? That the doctor’s mother (Joan Chen) is herself pregnant without a husband is the wild card in the film—exemplifying the unpredictability of human behavior and the limits of moral stricture and social preferences. Michelle Krusiec as the doctor does not have the easy charm of her two co-stars but in her performance are the professional tenacity, emotional uncertainty, blushing infatuation, and family loyalty, of a real person. The film is about love, pride, honesty, community, and career; and it is intelligent, funny, and sometimes unbelievably melodramatic but its spirit makes that forgivable. A Lot Like Love, directed by Nigel Cole, was less charming than Heights or Saving Face but I liked Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet as young people who meet, have a quick affair, and stay in touch but face various obstacles before they consider having a serious relationship. Kutcher has an innocence that is very winning, even as one wants more from him as an actor, and Peet’s intensity—whether that of lust, impatience, sorrow, or anger—complements him. Kings and Queen, Heights, Saving Face, and A Lot Like Love are about the kinds of dramas that are in most people’s lives—the drama of relationships, of reconciling and satisfying desires and needs. However, it is Heights that presents the most complete social world.

It is a rare person who decides to live by his or her most idealistic, most difficult ideas, who decides to leave the social world behind. Off the Map, written by Joan Ackermann, takes the form of a memory piece: a woman remembers her unusual childhood in which her parents live outside of society and a tax man arrives to find out why they haven’t paid taxes and stays to become a painter whose legacy is work that develops an intriguing reputation. Sam Elliott’s performance as the girl’s father—melancholic, proud, and funny—is impressive. Joan Allen, featured in Yes, is in Off the Map as Elliott’s caring, practical wife, and Allen’s sensuality and spirituality are things that are discovered as the story unfolds. (Amy Brenneman plays the adult Bo, and Valentina de Angelis the child Bo.) A view of people who choose not to compete in society, and not to make wealth a goal, is one we do not get often—and the film is attractive partly for that reason. That the lives of the people shown seem worked-out, expressive of their real needs and pleasures and habits, is the greater part of the film’s appeal. When the taxman arrives, he sees Allen’s character standing in the family garden, nude, watching a wild animal, and he is smitten with her and the family’s way of life; and he tries to recapture that image in art. Directed by Campbell Scott, with the cinematographer being Juan Ruiz-Anchia, production designer Chris Shriver, and set designer David Schlesinger, Off the Map is an exploration of what might be found at the end a road not often taken: independence, creativity, friendship, and spiritual peace. In Gurdinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, social approval and the desire for wealth and how it affects prospects for love and marriage—the film is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—returns us to values we’re very familiar with in a setting that is very unusual—that of an Indian musical in which everything is extremely pretty and individuals and groups suddenly break out in song and dance. While entertaining—the lead actors (Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Naveen Andrews, and Indira Varma) are very handsome and beautiful, as expected—the film is a fantasy. The Upside of Anger is not. In The Upside of Anger Joan Allen gives a performance—bitter, smart—as a wife whose husband has apparently left her and left the country—she takes to drink and coruscating remarks that bite, then she develops a friendship with a neighbor, a radio commentator and former baseball player and fellow drinker, played by Kevin Costner. She is skeptical of his intentions, but their relationship develops—and once when she makes him very angry, it’s obvious that she fears he will hit her and that small, unspoken moment is an accurate one. (Mike Binder plays Costner’s sleazy coworker, who has an affair with one of Allen’s daughters—Allen hits him; and Binder directed and co-wrote the film.) There is tremendous laughter in the film but it comes out of things that seem true. The surprise at the film’s end seems more than clever—it suggests the prevalence of accident and presumption in life. This seems a great year for Allen, with The Upside of Anger, Off the Map, and Sally Potter’s drama of existence, love, and politics, the film Yes.

The conflict between West and East, between Muslim and Christian, that Yes alludes to is hundreds of years old, as the film Kingdom of Heaven reminds. Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons are two of the serious actors whose bodies (and integrity) were rented for use in Kingdom of Heaven, and I like Orlando Bloom, and Bloom’s beautiful blandness made Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven a watchable film, but the film’s own rhetoric—the attempt to impose modern intelligence on old world conflicts between Muslims and Christians—made the film difficult viewing. The importance of a tolerance for cultural and religious difference is a theme of the film, but the Crusades, the subject of the film, were fought because of western Christian intolerance. The rhetoric of the film and its own spirit—the desire for pageantry, for dramatic conflict, for heroism—could not be easily reconciled. It is, of course, troubling to be reminded of the limits of what we have learned, something Sally Potter’s Yes makes plain, though in Yes conversation, intimacy, love, political awareness, and a certain courage create hope.

The films I saw—(in order of viewing) Off the Map, Bride and Prejudice, In My Country, The Interpreter, Sahara, Sin City, The Upside of Anger, Crash, Kingdom of Heaven, A Lot Like Love, Kings and Queen, Revenge of the Sith, Saving Face, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Heights, War of the Worlds, Yes, and Batman Begins—are a mixed bag, and it may be an accident of commerce, if not of history, that these films were released within the same year.

Yes, written and directed by Sally Potter, and starring Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill, and Shirley Henderson, is a film that attempts much. It is written out of intelligence and passion; out of the desire to speak of what one thinks and feels is important and useful, out of a desire to speak to individuals who come together and form an audience. It is written in verse, which adds precision and invention to the dialog and only infrequently seems unnatural: rather, verse is a traditional but now rare form of created beauty. Potter dreams and demonstrates connections and possibilities that others suspect or believe exist. Potter’s main characters, a woman and a man, a scientist and a surgeon-become-chef, their names unknown to us, meet at a formal London dinner at which She is a guest and He is a worker, they glimpse each other’s private selves, and they are sophisticated enough to know who they are and what their choices cost and promise—they can tell each other, they can tell us; and that is a first step in the direction of creating meaning. (He is played by Simon Abkarian, an Armenian actor who grew up in France and Lebanon, and starred in Greek tragedies and won the Prix Moliere, an important French theater prize. She is played by Joan Allen, previously in Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm.) He and She have inherited the history—that is to say, the conflicts—of the world, and when they remember that, when they allow themselves to be only social beings, not individual beings, they begin to trip themselves and each other up. He has a fight about politics with a coworker that makes him economically vulnerable in a way that highlights her social security and then the lovers argue. He begins to see her as other; and He forgets what She became for him. The importance of seeing and being seen, of speaking and listening, is dramatized. Is the Lebanese man who falls for a western woman a free spirit or a betrayer of his tradition; and was his leaving his medical profession a form of practicality or a defeat—and is his fight with his restaurant coworker, a fight that exiles him from work, manly or stupid? Is the compromising politician, Allen’s husband played by Neill, who gets things done but done imperfectly a success or a failure? Is the woman who judges him according to her ideals but herself is not politically active, the woman played by Allen, a moralist or foolish? One of the interesting events in the film is the husband’s sharing a shattering confidence with a young woman who admires his wife—it seems that just as the wife doesn’t allow him to have illusions about himself, he refuses to allow someone else to have illusions about his wife. Is our highest estimate of ourselves merely illusion; and is exploding the illusion truth or vengeance? The film presents characters and situations that have the ambiguity of life. When the two lovers argue and talk—whether trading accusations or recalling an intimacy each has begun to turn into a myth—we see that how someone is understood can mean the difference between whether he or she is loved or hated, abandoned or supported; and that is the story not only of individuals but of entire peoples. Whether we choose to understand, how and what we understand, are also steps in the direction of meaning. In Yes, a man returns home to be with a friend, and a woman travels to see a place of political promise important to a beloved relative; and travel means both separation and reconciliation. Sally Potter’s Yes, with production design by Carlos Conti and cinematography by Alexei Rodionov, suggests that we can choose to give our lives meaning and that meaning can be loving and liberating.

Yes is ultimately an affirmative love story that is magically enhanced by the ecstatically expressed feelings of the two lovers in the enchanted cosmos that Ms. Potter has fashioned from the politically well-chosen locales of London, Belfast, Havana and Beirut,” wrote Andrew Sarris in The New York Observer, June 27, 2005 (the commentary appeared online June 22). Sarris concluded, “Ms. Potter has gambled heavily with her ambitious conceit, and the bet has paid off magnificently: The loveliness of Yes is sublime.”

The Los Angeles Times’s film critic Kevin Thomas (June 24, 2005) wrote, “Bold, vibrant and impassioned, Yes is the work of a high-risk film artist in command of her medium and gifted in propelling her actors to soaring performances—yes, ‘soaring’ is right, just as ‘searing’ is.”

Unfortunately, and possibly with devastating effect, A.O. Scott wrote in the June 24, 2005 New York Times, “There is no denying Ms. Potter’s skill at versifying—or for that matter, at composing clear, striking visual images—but her intricate, measured lines amount to doggerel, not art. Her formal ingenuity (also on display in Orlando and The Man Who Cried), which it would be unkind to dismiss as mere pretension, is yoked to ideas of almost staggering banality, and she sacrifices the seriousness of a group of superb actors on the altar of her own intellectual vanity.” Newsday’s John Anderson gave the film a review that was damning and mockingly rhyme-laden: and so, the two New York daily newspapers that might be counted on to defend or support an intelligent film did not. When buying my ticket for the film screening at the downtown Manhattan Landmark Sunshine theater, I heard someone on the ticket-buyers’ line remark on how pretentiously bad she had read the film was: such a dismissal seems a cultural injustice. In less than one month the film became unavailable in Manhattan. Has the time passed for films that respect human experience; for films that assume what happens between people can be of personal, philosophical, and political importance?

Potter has said that the film has been sold to sixty-one countries and that is more than consolation, as is the fact that other cities in the United States are discovering the film. Roger Ebert in the July 8, 2005 Chicago Sun-Times described the film as being like no other he has seen or heard—Sally Potter “sees no point in making movies that have been made before.” Ebert savors a scene in which Abkarian’s He massages Allen’s She into an orgasm while the two are seated in a restaurant: “The camera regards not the details of this audacity, but the eyes and faces of the lovers. They take their time getting to where they are almost afraid to go. They look at each other, enjoying their secret, He looking for a reaction, She wary of revealing one. Her release is a barely subdued shudder of muffled ecstasy. This is what sex is about: Two people knowing each other, and using their knowledge. Compared to it, the sex scenes in most movies are calisthenics.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum, a critic for The Chicago Reader and the author of Essential Cinema, Movies as Politics, and Placing Movies, has called the film a masterpiece. In his July 8, 2005 review, which I read online July 18, 2005, he noted the hostile reviews in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times, and Potter’s feeling of vindication that audiences who see the film respond to it, before himself invoking Yes’s likeness to Hiroshima, mon amour, about an affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect in the context of the explosion of the atomic bomb in Japan and the French woman’s wartime affection for a German soldier. Rosenbaum thinks the male in Potter’s film is more of an erotic object than the woman, and that “Potter, who’s a trained musician, is using her own poetic language, cuts, camera movements, canted angles, periodically slurred action, and other visual strategies to create emotional gateways into intellectual concerns.” Rosenbaum cites dialog that calls attention to the fact that western culture is better known by the non-western world than the eastern world’s culture is known to the west. That is an ignorance that can create misunderstanding and conflict.

In an article for the July 15, 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Bill White wrote that the film’s power exceeds its weaknesses and that, “The film’s most passionate scene takes place in a Belfast hospital where She pays a belated visit to her dying aunt. The dialogue is almost entirely the interior monologue of the comatose aunt, which seems to be telepathically understood by the prodigal niece.” The death of that aunt, a political activist, reminds Allen’s character of the importance of her life choices: in love, in politics; and the ending of the film has the two principal characters, She and He, taking a look simultaneously at history and their future.

Has the time passed for films that respect human experience; for films that assume what happens between people can be of personal, philosophical, and political importance? Such a question would have been laughable—possibly unaskable, as Susan Sontag might have said—during the age of great directors such as Bergman: but I am reminded that the age of Bergman is not yet ended. Ingmar Bergman’s new film Saraband has a force that is nearly incomparable, though when it begins, the situation it presents seems so simple—a woman looking at photographs from her life, and planning to visit a former husband—that one wonders not only whether the film will satisfy but even whether it can sustain interest. The answer is that of course it does, as Bergman is a master: and that means apprehension of significant experience, clarity of thought, vision, passion, craft, and more. (Bergman’s “film” was recorded on digital video, something that I would not have suspected but for a couple of quick sequential long-distance landscape shots that didn’t have the shimmer or detail I expected—they conveyed the idea of beauty, rather than actual beauty of color and form.) I do not know if many people in the world act as the people in Bergman’s films do, but I know that some people capable of self-consciousness do feel as his people do. Art, which allows contemplation of states both dreaded and ideal, is about emotion and experience rendered so that it is perceptible and meaningful to others: and having just seen Saraband, it seems that only a few new works I have been thinking about even exist in the same artistic or moral universe—In My Country, Kings and Queen, Heights, The Upside of Anger, and Yes. In Saraband, a woman goes to visit her ex-husband, with whom she’s had two grown daughters (one is successful in Australia, the other is in a home for mental patients). The woman, now in her early sixties, and played by Liv Ullman, seems in search of contact with someone she loved once very much. That man, her former husband, about eighty, and played by Erland Josephson, has a hateful relationship with his son (himself in his early sixties) but a good—loving, supportive—relationship with that son’s talented cellist daughter, who is spending a great deal of time with her father following her mother’s recent death. The story then is about love, hate, and indifference, about language and silence, memory and the present, cruelty and kindness, and even money and debt; and it grows in depth, intensity, and reverberation as it continues: the conversations, details, and developments create a situation that becomes very powerful. Will the former spouses find solace in each other, and affirm what they once had? Will the old father and son come to understand and forgive each other? Will the father and daughter see that they have become too close? Will the granddaughter leave to begin her own life and career? The oldest man, the grandfather, who is thought by many to be arrogant and cold, says at one point that he is too small for his anxiety. That anxiety makes him seem alone, but he gets comfort—and that is because others, including the woman he was once married to, and who comforts him, have known anxiety too. One sees in Saraband the insanity of familial conflict, and possibly its inevitability, and also the limitations of manners under pressure from strong emotion and difficult truth. I left the screening of Saraband thinking that to love and to know it may be more important—and certainly easier—than being loved or knowing that one is loved. Cinema remains a medium not merely for provocative images but for experiences, perceptions, thoughts.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 9, Issue 9 / September 2005 Film Reviews   reviews_several_films