Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies
Written for TCM
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Coverage of Yes
A new British film is making the rounds this summer. It is Yes, by Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson). In it, a married, upper-middle class woman (Joan Allen) has an affair with a Middle-Eastern immigrant (Simon Abkarian) who works in a kitchen.
Potter started writing the film immediately after the September 11 attacks. She wanted to explore the cultural and religious differences between the Middle East and the West. The relationship in Yes stands in for many different conflicts in the larger world: class, religion, race, morality, philosophy. It’s no coincidence that He and She (as the characters are named in the credits) both come from places racked by terrorism: She’s an Irish-born American; He’s from Beirut.
These political and personal issues are what Yes is about. But one thing that might attract you to see Potter’s film, instead of someone else’s, is the dialogue. Potter wrote Yes in rhyming iambic pentameter.
Potter explains, “Some early audiences, when there was no publicity, never noticed at all that it was in verse. Later, when they did know, the reaction has been consistently positive, because people have felt it to be very sensual language, enjoyable, pleasurable.
“None of the words that are used in the film are long, complicated, academic, or weird. They are the simplest words of all; they are just arranged in a way that makes it easy on the ear.”
You might think the dialogue would be formal, but Potter says it’s the opposite. “Let’s talk about poetry for a moment. The idea of a poem is that it takes you into the heart of things. It doesn’t push you away; it draws you in. Think about the popular song. Love songs are poems. It’s the oldest and most popular form of language in existence. ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’ — that’s a poem.”
Potter adds that writing in verse wasn’t particularly limiting. “You swap one restriction for another. You swap the restriction of naturalism, which is ‘people don’t speak this way’ — which is an artificial restriction — for the so-called restriction of the form. But that’s like saying the frame of a painting is a restriction. It’s not; it’s a boundary in which to find freedom.”
Potter not only directs, she writes her own films as well. She has also written music, edited, and choreographed for film. While it’s not unheard-of for directors to consistently wear many hats — John Sayles and Robert Rodriguez spring to mind — few, it seems, have had such diverse training.
Many directors and critics will tell you that a director is ultimately responsible for what’s in the film. But Potter knows that the story doesn’t end there. “You’re the only one that holds the whole vision in your head, and the buck stops at you. But you have to create an atmosphere in which everybody feels that the work is also theirs, in order for them to give as much as they’re being asked to give. [...] You don’t really do everything as a director, you delegate everything. You work through the work of others. It is a collaborative form.
“All the different disciplines that I have tried have enabled me to value those people much better than if I hadn’t. I know what an actor is going through; I know what it’s like to look through the lens. I know what it’s like even to print and process in the lab, so when I have a discussion with a lab technician I can talk knowledgeably about temperatures of baths.”
One area where Potter has more training than most is in dance. Potter recalls, “at the age of 21 I did a three-year dance training in modern dance; I did some ballet and tai chi. But mostly what I was concentrating on was choreography.
“In hindsight, it was a wonderful way of training myself to become a filmmaker because it meant I worked a lot with performers. I developed a feeling for movement, and also a feeling for how to work, because dancers work harder than anyone else. You learn the power of daily work to slowly improve.”
Yes is the reaction of an artist to the events of September 11. “Instinctively I turned to love and to verse. Love because it is ultimately a stronger force than hate; and verse, because its deep rhythms and its long tradition enable ideas to be expressed in lyrical ways that might otherwise be indigestible.”
But what if Potter were a politician instead of an artist?
“If I was president for a day, I guess my overwhelming desire would be to polish up the arts of talking, diplomacy, listening, respect, modesty, and all that goes with that.”
In short, her political answer might have looked something like her artistic answer: not a ‘No’ but a ‘Yes.’