When Sally Potter’s first feature film The Gold Diggers opened in London in 1983, the British Film Institute invited her to curate a season of films that had influenced its conception. It included silent Hollywood classics, such as D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), to which her black-and-white film pays homage. Its star Julie Christie also featured in Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965) and Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965), and there were spectacular female star turns from European cinema in Queen Christina (Robert Mamoulian, 1933), Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955), Une femme est une femme (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961) and Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966), among others.
But the programme also announced another lineage: avant-garde women’s cinema, including a short by Joyce Wieland, Germaine Dulac’s ‘La Souriante Madame Beudet’ (‘The Smiling Madame Beudet’, 1923), Maya Deren’s dance film ‘Study in Choreography for the Camera’ (1945) and Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers (1972). Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Dorothy Arzner’s best-known film, showed that women were active in the Hollywood big leagues as well as at the cutting-edge margins. Between her explosive début ‘Thriller’ (1978) and shooting The Gold Diggers, Potter had toured with her first film from the Edinburgh Film Festival to college campuses across the US, becoming a part of a thrilling new conversation: feminist film theory. Stoked by Laura Mulvey’s call for a feminist counter-cinema in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in 1975, artists such as Rainer – who, like Potter, trained as a dancer and choreographer – were realising the possibilities of ‘another gaze’, and scholars had been re-reading cinema’s past to attend to filmmakers such as Arzner, Deren and Dulac as proto-feminist forebears.
40 years later, female filmmakers are still regularly left out of the conversation when it comes to curating canons and tracing influences. Kent Jones apparently couldn’t think of a single female filmmaker (and only one non-white filmmaker) to interview about their relation to the Master for his cinephile documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) – despite Potter’s film ‘Thriller’ being well-known as a critique of Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). And so female filmmakers have to be rediscovered again and again. In Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory, Clare Hemmings invents a pair of words that are useful for thinking about how this kind of film criticism and canonisation works: hetero-citation and hom(m)o-citation. In other words, feminist theorists are always attributed influences from male theorists, and rarely from female theorists; while male theorists are attributed influences from other male theorists, and rarely from female theorists. Hemmings gives the example of Judith Butler, who is always seen as influenced by Michel Foucault rather than Monique Wittig or Hannah Arendt.
The same practice operates in film criticism, so that female filmmakers – as and when their existence is admitted – get written out of being influential, and are only admitted as A Woman Under the Influence, to quote John Cassavetes. We need to invest in what Lucy Bolton calls ‘feminist geneaology’ in her book Film and Female Consciousness, which connects women and their work to each other, but might also admit that female filmmakers could influence individual male filmmakers – or even film culture more broadly. Calling Agnès Varda the god/grand/mother of the French New Wave is a good start – but we need to follow feminist film critics such as Ginette Vincendeau in her essay on La Pointe Courte and consider exactly what aesthetic Varda invented and how her influence was transmitted.
In 2009, I published a book about Potter, where I talked about the films that influenced her – not just those she programmed for the BFI in 1983, but the myriad references that surface in her intensely cinematic and cinephilic work. I didn’t have the opportunity to reflect on how Potter’s four decades of filmmaking have influenced contemporary cinema. The Institute of Contemporary Art recently curated Onwards and Outwards, an extensive touring programme of films by British female arthouse filmmakers, which offered an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary emergence of a generation that includes Carol Morley, Clio Barnard, Andrea Arnold, Joanna Hogg, and Xiaolu Guo, as well as trans filmmaker Campbell X, and to consider the influence of Beeban Kidron and Potter, who began making features in the 1980s.
In fact, the feminist genealogy extends even further: the ICA screened Potter’s best-known film, Orlando (1993) with ‘Where I Am is Here’ (1964), a short film by one of the best-kept secrets in British film history, Margaret Tait. Tait began making 16 mm films in the 1950s, having studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia in Rome after she was demobbed from war service in the medical corps. Returning to Edinburgh, and then Orkney, she worked as a GP and made exquisite film poems – and, in her 70s, a feature. Blue Black Permanent (1992), which tells the story of a feminist artistic genealogy within one family, will hopefully be available as part of a box set of her life’s work, some time in the next two years. But viewers at the ICA could contemplate two films paired for their extraordinary sense of presence in place, a kind of wild, sensual Britishness that can also be seen in Arnold’s films, particularly Wuthering Heights. Orlando the restless traveller, always on the move, becomes a signature figure for many British women’s films, from Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002) to Xiaolu’s She, a Chinese.
Orlando played a key role internationally in both Hollywood’s Year of the Woman and what B. Ruby Rich identified as the New Queer Cinema (or, her preferred term, ‘homo pomo’). Instantly-identifiable stills of Tilda Swinton graced the covers of feminist film studies by Maggie Humm, Annette Kuhn, and Patricia Mellencamp, as well as Rolling Stone. It was a defining cultural moment – and a lasting one. It’s not hard to see a trace of Orlando’s play with British history and costume drama in Amma Asante’s recent film Belle (2014), and to argue that Potter’s success gave filmmakers permission to approach the past – and classic fiction – in a new, incisive and intersectional manner. The closing scene’s golden angel (sung by Jimmy Somerville) hovers over the end of Channel 4’s Civil War drama The Devil’s Whore (created by Martine Brant and Peter Flannery, 2008), which also has a cheeky visual quotation from the opening of The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993).
Cheeky quotations from Potter’s work relate mostly to The Tango Lesson (1996), with versions of the film’s most dynamic and original dance scene – a pas de quatre through a long, empty warehouse, shot in a single take – popping up in reality TV dance shows and ads. But, as Corinn Columpar notes in her 2003 essay ‘The Dancing Body: Sally Potter as Feminist Auteure’, Potter’s stroke of genius in The Tango Lesson is to put herself in the frame, playing the protagonist, a filmmaker called Sally. It was something that many male critics found distasteful, but obviously struck a chord with filmmakers such as Miranda July and Lena Dunham, who write, direct and act in films that draw on their lived experience. While their work is stylistically different, there’s that sense of permission again. It’s curious that July makes her character Sophie, in The Future (2011), a dancer-choreographer; Greta Gerwig’s titular character in Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), which she co-wrote, is also a dancer-choreographer: a tribute to Potter and Rainer.
But The Tango Lesson also interweaves its seemingly autobiographical narrative about a frustrated female filmmaker who learns to tango while navigating the fraught waters of studio pre-production with highly-stylised glimpses of the feature film being pitched, a fashion femicide investigation called Rage (and Potter did later make a fashion femicide investigation called Rage , just to make things more meta). Recent films such as Morley’s The Alcohol Years (2000) and Dreams of a Life (2011), Barnard’s The Arbor (2010), Gillian Wearing’s Self Made (2010) and Desperate Optimists’ Helen (2008) all oscillate similarly, and with a comparable high-wire style that brings together narrative fiction and avant-garde imagination. They make use of all kinds of performance strategies and remediations, mirror mazes that lead the viewer to reflect on identity, authorship, and the ownership of our stories.
While it was The Man Who Cried (2000) that first gave film viewers a luminous Cate Blanchett channelling classical Hollywood – a role she would go on to repeat in The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004) as well as Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) – I think it’s The Gold Diggers that has had the deepest, influence on film culture. Withdrawn from circulation for thirty years, it has entered film’s unconscious. Its spiral narrative of dreams, backstage hijinks, and danced messages must be a critical source for David Lynch’s imagery from Twin Peaks onwards. But its central, mixed-race lesbian relationship remains singular, in British cinema, for decades: with Shamim Sarif’s films, Pratibha Parmar’s Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006) and Campbell X’s Stud Life (2012), Potter’s pioneering work is showing its true influence.
Sophie Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009), and co-editor of There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond (Wayne State University Press, 2010) and Lo personal es politico, an anthology of essays on feminist documentary (INAAC, 2011).She is a member of queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and campaigners Raising Films.