By Hannah Eaves
June 27, 2005 - 5:08 AM PDT
The thing is, no-one told
This week Sally Potter will let her new film, Yes, go out into the ebb and flow of audience reaction, critical acclaim (or disdain) and the eventual, widening outlet of artistic posterity. For the last ten months, she has been touring with the film, talking about it incessantly, examining its relationship to the critical world (see, for example, Scott Foundas's recent interview in the LA Weekly) and, times being what they are, blogging about it. But as with her previous successes Orlando and The Tango Lesson, Potter knows when to say goodbye. "Not only do I let it go once it's finished," Potter says, "I forget it. I go into complete amnesia about what I've made before. But while I'm in it, I am in it. At this point, I'm still in the universe of this film, albeit in an evolving form. I'm obsessively in the world that I generated."
Simon Abkarian and Joan Allen in Yes.
The world she's talking about, that of Yes, was created in direct reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, and took its form in the shape of Shakespearean iambic pentameter. Just because it rhymes doesn't mean that the language used isn't contemporary. Potter started off by writing a scene in which a man and a woman, known only as "He" and "She," end their Middle East-West affair in an empty parking lot. Simon Abkarian, who had previously worked with Potter on The Man Who Cried (in a role that was largely cut), played the part of He, and the experiment proved so powerful for Potter that she developed it into a feature. "It only crept up on me bit by bit that it was the first time ever that a screenplay had been written entirely in verse in the present day specifically for a film. There have been plays that have been adapted, but mostly very old ones. It's terribly thrilling to do something for the first time and of course completely terrifying for financiers." Potter and her producers deferred payment, and many others involved took pay cuts, to get the film made with Potter's vision intact. "There has not been a film I've made where somebody said, 'Hey Sally, what a great idea, here's the check!' No, it's been, 'Oh my God, can't you do Orlando again?' or 'Can't you do this? Can't you do that?' because for some reason or other I enjoy risk. The real joy in the end is not cash in hand but work on the screen - to have complete artistic control and in the end to do something with meaning. The rest is just debts, and who cares? Low budget films go on to a completely equal playing field with films at the other end of the spectrum."
Joan Allen was cast in the part of She. At the San Francisco Film Festival to receive the Peter J. Owens Award, Allen is somehow both more American and less serious than her roles. "I got the script first," Allen recalled of her initial involvement with the film. "I was working on another film at the time but I managed to read it. I knew Sally's other work and love her tremendously and respect her and was a little intimidated by the verse. Shortly thereafter, she came to New York and I met her. She came to my home and we read through some scenes, we talked and she videotaped me. We called Simon who lives in Paris and we read some scenes over the speaker phone. It was actually very fun and strange in a wonderful way. Then he flew to New York a day or two later so that we could read some scenes together."
Joan Allen in Yes.
"She" is an Irish-American scientist living in London and quietly skating through a loveless marriage to a British politician (Sam Neill). "He" is a Lebanese doctor living in Paris and working as a cook and waiter. They begin a very sensual affair, one that starts earthy and culminates in crisis. Verse was chosen not just for its musicality, but because it elevates the dialogue out of reality and in to flights of both fancy and serious debate. While their affair is very human, both its existence and its unnatural spoken form allow it work as a tool for discussing the issues surrounding the relationship of the Islamic Middle East to the democratic, spiritually floundering West, particularly with regard to the perceptions that the two worlds have formed of each other. This theme, very tender in the days following 9/11, drew Allen to the film. "To me, she [Potter] struck a chord in terms of trying to address the issues that we're globally dealing with but in a personal, loving way. I thought that I would like to be part of this story, to have people see through the microcosm of this couple the questions that are brought up about prejudice and stereotypes and lack of understanding and lack of compassion, and what is really possible. So it spoke to me personally." The entire film is framed by the Greek Chorus monologues of She's housecleaner (Shirley Henderson), who takes this microcosm one step further, into the ever-present particles and germs beyond our sight even in the most spotless of houses. Eventually beyond these even into the biological and spiritual debris we become at death.
Simon Abkarian's performance will be a revelation for those people who (don't) know him from silent performances in Ararat and The Truth About Charlie. Abkarian has met with great success in the Parisian theater, both as a director and actor. When he first read the scene-long script he was immediately struck by Potter's understanding of what he himself had experienced, having spent much of his childhood in Lebanon. Abkarian is a commanding presence, sympathetic yet cut through with straightforward integrity. "I remember having a nice talk with Sally when we did the wrap party in Paris for The Man Who Cried. We talked for quite a long time about issues. We tend to forget, this is all man talk here, the talk between the Arabs and the Americans and the French - it's all man talk. My mother suffered so much. Because of war, because of absence, because of many things. At that time, I wanted to do a play about the Trojan women, after the Trojan war is finished [which he did]. My issue was women in war and I talked to Sally about these things. She listened. And we didn't know each other at this wrap party. Then one day she called me about a year or a year and a half later and said, 'It's Sally Potter.' And I said to myself, 'Why?' Then I read the thing and thought, this needs no effort from me! Just learn the lines and you blow up, because it's so right, because it's so you. I am always moved when I think about that. How does she know me so well, when she doesn't? When you read Shakespeare, you think to yourself, how does this person know me so well? Or Chekhov. I don't want to put flowers on her head, but in this case, she wrote something really strong about something she's not supposed to know. And because she's an artist, that's her duty. She's watching her world from the inside and from the outside. She's listening. The common point that I have with great people that I've met in my life like Sally, like Jonathan Demme, like Peter Brook, all these people have one thing in common. They really listen to you. That also makes people great directors. There's no secret about it."
When Potter expanded the short into a feature, she workshopped frequently with Abkarian and chose to include several of his stories in the script. "When He talks about operating on someone that he saves but is then shot in the hospital because he's not on the right side, it is a true story. It happened to my cousin. She was a nurse and someone came into the hospital and killed a man she was taking care of. I was 16 [when I moved back to Paris from Beirut]. I was in my teenage crisis. I became older sooner than I should have. I quit school, I worked, looking for money to survive. It was survival for years. Becoming an actor saved me, because I had no perspective in life. My father was down in Lebanon, my mother was working like hell to feed us and, because we were in a poor neighborhood, I was resisting what was dangerous to me. But how long could I have resisted?" He also had access to the feelings of other Middle Eastern friends whose sentiments didn't always echo his own but were drawn on to help deepen the contradictions of his character.
Simon Abkarian in Yes.
"In order to draw something, you have to create volumes and contradictions, lightness, darkness, and He has it all. He has to wound this woman to see if it is possible to overcome the pain and come together again. He's like a child at that moment. Like an abandoned child that says, 'I want you. I need you - bitch,' 'I hurt you - love.' That's why it's very touching, to say all these things to Joan. Because you cannot escape that fact that, in front of you, you have an American woman. An actress, but an American, taking all this shit that you're giving to her. And after the takes, I said to her, 'Oh, I don't feel good.' I was not feeling good about it. But in a way it had to be said because it's frustrating that people actually have to say this at all! It's true when He says, 'I know Elvis,' and 'I know Eminem.' Because it's true. I know Elvis and I know Eminem, I know Warhol's art, etcetera, and it's true that most of the Americans don't know anything about Eastern people."
The intensity of feeling on the set was shared by Allen. "We each had different days when it would happen. I think there was one scene where I had to be really angry and I felt like I was really blocked. Sally was like, 'Let's stop and let's talk about what that is.' And I started talking about how it's really difficult for me to express anger, which helped me break through. Then there would be days when Simon's character was talking about a particular incident where it was very moving. I do remember quite vividly before we were shooting the big argument scene in the parking garage; Sally felt a tremendous responsibility to get it right. She was going over passages that she had edited out in the past, trying to make the argument clear, because that scene is so critical to what she was trying to say. I remember having a very emotional rehearsal where we all ended up crying. Sally was crying and then I would do my part and I was crying, Simon, we all had this very emotional rehearsal and then I remember when we actually shot it I was a bit concerned because I expected that emotion to come out; and actually, it ended up being the right thing that we had done it in the rehearsal room because we'd gone through whatever it meant to us on a personal human level."
Yes begins as a love story and transitions slowly into an examination of death and how it should affect our living choices. Inevitably, as the title suggests, it is optimistic. We can, with perspective and decisiveness, overcome the seemingly concrete obstacles of the past and of our cultures. As the cleaning lady reminds us, whether we like it or not, we all contribute to the living cycle. All three main players, Potter, Allen and Abkarian, are hopeful. "I think we're in difficult times," Potter concedes, "but I think that for the film it was a conscious decision to end it with hope. Hope is a choice, a point of view and it's a much more energizing one than choosing despair."
Me I'd have all this time, but far too late
To use it for the things I dreamed of.
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Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.
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