Talking Pictures

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Early short films by Sally Potter

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2014

Thriller

Thriller

This was the opening event in a full retrospective of this filmmaker at the Bradford International Film Festival. The films varied in length between 2 minutes and 32 minutes and were filmed on various formats, including 8mm and 16mm. The Festival included a quote by Potter in a 1998 interview:

“Sally outlined the questions she implicitly considered in these early films: ‘what is film space and film time? What is the frame?” However watching the films I was also struck by a focus on bodies and movement – a preoccupation that explains why, though she says she always wanted to become a filmmaker, she also studied dance and ballet.

The programme consisted of five films. The three shortest are clearly early experiments in the medium of film. The other two are more substantial explorations of narrative worlds. The London Story (1986, colour 15 minutes) seemed to me to be a nicely produced but essentially lightweight spy story. In fact, it was the only one of the film funded by a public body, the BFI. I rather thought that said something about film funding in them UK.

Thriller (1979, black and white, 32 minutes) was a much more substantial work and really impressive in its linking of themes and style. There are two major strands in the film: the first is a series of still photographs of a performance of Puccini’s opera La Bohème in Italy in the 1930s. This accompanied by a recording of an opera performance in London in the 1950s. The second strand combined a drama and dance rendering of the opera’s plot. The setting is some sort of attic room. The performers are in contemporary dress. And the lead performer, re-enacting Mimi, is a young Afro-Caribbean woman. In the course of this we hear Bernard Herrmann’s accompaniment to the shower sequence in Psycho (1960) several times on the soundtrack. Towards the end we also hear a commentative voice that asks questions about the drama.

One question poses what would be the effect if Musidora rather than Mimi was the protagonist in the drama? This pursued only briefly. The main question suggests that Mimi’s death could be murder – hence the use of Herrmann’s score. This raises a much larger question given the predilection of modern melodrama to present the woman as victim, and therefore as an object rather than a subject.

Like much of Potter’s work the film is full of what seem to be deliberate references to cinema and to other arts. She appears to have a taste for references to Surrealism. I discerned hints of Luis Buñuel, Marcel Duchamp and Rene Magritte. I found the film both enthralling and stimulating. It also seems to illuminate preoccupations that recur in Potter’s later work. There is certainly a recurring address of issues found in Feminist theory and practice. And there is a continuing interest in what is called intertexuality – the way that cinema, and other arts, intertwine their meanings and motifs.

 

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