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					Title: DEMYSTIFYING TRADITIONAL NOTIONS OF GENDER , By: Dowell, Pat, Cineaste, 00097004,
Jul93, Vol. 20, Issue 1
Database: MAS Ultra - School Edition




            DEMYSTIFYING TRADITIONAL NOTIONS OF GENDER
                                         An Interview with Sally Potter

Sally Potter began making 8mm films as a teenager and later made several short films at the London
Filmmakers Co-Op before training at the London School of Contemporary Dance and forming her own dance
company in 1974. She returned to film-making in 1979 with the black and white short film, Thriller, which played
at film festivals worldwide Her feature film debut came in 1981 with The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie in
a story about the circulation of gold, women, and money. Subsequent projects have included the TV films
Tears, Laughter, Fear and Rage (1986), a four-part series on the politics of emotion, and I Am an Ox (1988), a
documentary on the history of the postrevolutionary Soviet Union through images of women in cinema. Sally
Potter was interviewed via telephone from London in June by Pat Dowell.

Cineaste: I understand that you read Orlando when you were quite young. What did it mean to you then?

Sally Potter: I found it a very liberating book because it broke all boundaries of time, gender, space, and place
in a very light, kind of intoxicating way. It was as if Virginia Woolf was really in love with history and with
imagery and, of course, in love with language. I remember the book burning its way visually into my mind.

Cineaste: How old were you?

Potter: Oh, about sixteen, I think.

Cineaste: Has what the book means to you changed? When you started to make a movie of it, did you find that
it was a different thing for you now?

Potter: I think that over a period of time, when you work on a book or an adaptation or on a film, it has to grow
with you as you grow, or it's something static. Certainly its meanings have changed, but probably the original
impulse toward the book remains very similar.

Cineaste: The theme of androgyny in the book is one that's, to put it mildly, in vogue right now. Certainly in the
U.S. that's true.

Potter: I think that it's true across the world at the moment, and Virginia Woolf was really ahead of her time
when she was writing about these themes in 1928. But in a curious way they're also timeless themes. I mean,
one has those themes going back through centuries in many cultures. It's just that, right now, it's as if there's a
kind of crisis around masculinity and femininity, in the Western world at least.

Cineaste: Why do you think that is?

Potter: I think that coming out of the last two decades of the women's movement, and men really asking
themselves if they want to be the kind of man they are, in quotes, "supposed" to be, has led to a sense that we
really don't know any more what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman. I think Virginia Woolf's
hypothesis--that we're all born simply as human beings who are then shaped one way or the other, masculine
or feminine, and that mostly it's how we're perceived by others that makes the difference, rather than what we
are--that hypothesis really holds good.

Cineaste: The central moment when Orlando becomes a woman and says, "Same person, just a different sex,"
raises a lot of questions. There's thinking, even among certain feminists, that there is something special about
the female nature. Some would argue that women are superior because of those qualities. Woolf's idea, and
your idea, seem really quite different from that.

Potter: Yes, absolutely. I think that most notions of sexual difference are really about mystification, and that it's
much simpler than that. The human race, like most species, is divided into two species simply for the purposes
of reproduction and very little else. Most of what we think of as maleness or femaleness is simply taught, it's
learned, it's acquired. There are some physical differences, of course, but they don't justify the extraordinary
mystification of what it supposedly is to be a man or to be a woman.

Cineaste: In the ways that you've changed the book you come up against that to some extent, particularly in
the ending--you give Orlando a daughter instead of a son and you have her losing Knole, the ancestral estate
that the real-life Orlando, Vita Sackville-West, lost to male heirs of her family. The fact that you give the sex
change a motivation in the film, when Orlando confronts war, suggests that there are inescapable qualities that
go with each gender.

Potter: In the case of Orlando's change of sex, what I simply wanted to do was put Orlando as a man into a
kind of crisis of masculinity, in other words, to have to face the issue of whether to kill or be killed on a
battlefield, which is the issue that most young men all over the world have to face as a possibility in their
lifetime. I think that's an extraordinary thing to have hanging over your head, and most women don't have to
face that. So if you work backwards from that, that has incredible implications for a young man growing up. To
me that does not mean that men are more inherently aggressive or warmongering, but simply that that is the
role expected of them.

Similarly, the notion that women are just waiting to be swept up into the arms of their hero, which is the
common ending of so many stories and so many films, and that they will find their identity through a man, as if
somehow a woman is inherently incomplete, is equally false. These are both false, acquired or learnt
characteristics. I feel that we are born innocent babes with a whole gamut of possible lives, possible ways of
being, that include the so-called masculine characteristics of courageousness and a positive kind of aggression
and intelligence and curiosity, as well as the so-called feminine characteristics of nurturing and empathy and
intuition. These are simply human characteristics that have been labeled with one gender or the other.

Cineaste: You kept Orlando's motherhood, even though you felt free to change the novel to make it as modern
now as it was in 1928. Did it ever occur to you--since the idea of finding true meaning in motherhood is a fairly
common end in popular fiction and films for women--to just jettison the idea of motherhood?

Potter: That's very perceptive of you, because the ending I rewrote, and then rewrote again--yes she will have
a child, no she won't have a child, yes she will have a child, no she won't. And I realized that it was a sort of
symbolic dilemma within the story that echoed the dilemma that I'm sure many of us feel in our lives. The
reason for keeping the child and for having Orlando be a mother is, first of all, because the majority of women
experience motherhood at some point But I thought it was much more interesting for Orlando to have a
daughter than a son because, within the storyline, it would mean that Orlando would lose her property. I found
that more interesting--the idea of Orlando finally, if you like, emerging from the shackles of the property-owning
classes, emerging simply as a human being in her own right, not having to justify her existence through
inheritance and not having the male line to carry her on. Also because it's, in a way, time for women to take up
our inheritance, an inheritance of a different kind That's why the daughter is, at the end, playing with a little
movie camera.

Cineaste: It certainly projects the film into the future in a way and gives it a kind of triumphal air.

Potter: History is so weighted on the side of women having sons, as if that is in itself some kind of triumph. In
many cultures even now it's considered a subject of despair if a woman has a daughter. And I thought it would
be nice if we could have a daughter at the end of the film in an atmosphere of transcendent celebration.

Cineaste: I understand you've said that this film should not be construed as a feminist statement.

Potter: What I was against was the use of the word `feminist' because it's become a debased word and people
usually use it to categorize or ghettoize or write off, really, a whole area of thinking. If by feminist you mean in
favor of the liberation and the dignity of the female sex, then that's great. But mostly when people use the word
it tends to mean a movement with a rather limited appeal, with a certain kind of date on it. I think the film is for
both men and women, and it's about celebrating, really, both sexes.

Cineaste: It's amazing that the film cost $5 million. It looks likes it cost five times that.

Potter: It was actually $4 million plus rubles, and because rubles are not a hard currency, it's difficult to quantify
them precisely. Indeed, in theory, the film should have cost five times that and would have cost five times that,
in fact, had people not been prepared to work in very ingenious ways on an incredibly tight schedule, for very
long hours, and often to improvise with meager materials. But I think if you accept that film is all about illusion
and that what counts is what's in front of the camera and not behind the camera, then you can work magic with
very little.

Cineaste: "Improvising with meager materials"? Nothing about Orlando looks meager. Or improvised.

Potter: Well, what I mean is that, however much you prepare with a film, at the last minute you always have to
improvise with what's there. You can write a scene for 500 people on the ice in brilliant sunshine and on that
day it's snowing. So if you don't have the flexibility to change, you have to start incorporating the notion of snow
into the scene in a way that wasn't there before. That's the kind of improvisation I'm talking about. Also,
because we were shooting the winter scenes in Russia, in St. Petersburg, there was an incredible shortage of
materials and often we would have to change things or invent things that were originally planned in a different
way. But I think none of us ever thought that that meant we would have to compromise, but simply change. You
use the luck, sometimes, of things as part of your creative muscle.

Cineaste: To cast Orlando, one might have done several things, including casting a man, or casting two
people. How did you decide what to do and why did you choose Tilda Swinton?

Potter: I think if the role had been played by two different people, we would have lost exactly the sense of
seamless individuality across the genders. This really is the story of one person who happens to be a man and
then happens to be a woman, so it had to be one actor throughout. It could be played by a man, except it
makes more sense to end up in the gender that the actor really is, rather than the other way around, and, of
course, our story goes from a man to a woman.

In the case of casting Tilda Swinton, for me there really never was anybody else. As soon as I saw her on
screen and then on stage and met her, it was absolutely dear to me that she was right for many, many reasons.
Not just the way she looks, but the way she works with her presence on the screen. It's a kind of extraordinary
minimalism with which she manages to express very profound emotions and ideas. She has enormous
technical skill. And she's a very committed individual to work with. We did endless preparation over a period of
years together, for which she never had anything less than complete enthusiasm and committment. So she
was, as far as I was concerned, the perfect choice.

Cineaste: There's no attempt to fool the audience into thinking she's a man to begin with.

Potter: No, this isn't a trick. This certainly isn't a film that depends on a secret to be revealed. People might
already know the book, the story, or might have read some advance publicity, or will anyway know that this is a
woman playing a man, but really that's irrelevant. I think it's more about a suspension of disbelief that is
echoed, for example, in the casting of Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I--that nothing is quite what it seems,
but let's hope the audience goes with us on this journey. That was the premise of the casting.

Cineaste: You thank Michael Powell at the end of the film, and Orlando certainly belongs to the tradition of
British film that he exemplifies. What did Powell do for you?

Potter: Well, his life's work, primarily. I think I learnt so much from just watching his films over and over,
particularly A Matter of Life and Death, which I think is called Stairway to Heaven in the United States. But also
I was fortunate enough, in the years before he died, to meet him. I first invited him to speak in a documentary I
was making, and then I came to know him outside of that. He was very encouraging to me at a time when,
really, nobody thought it was possible to make the film, and financiers weren't willing to take the risk. But he just
looked me in the eye and said, "You will do it." And that was a great gift.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Sally Potter

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Orlando (Tilda Swinton) finds favor with Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp)

~~~~~~~~

by Pat Dowell



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Source: Cineaste, Jul93, Vol. 20 Issue 1, p16, 2p
Item: 9709061312

				
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