Potter Questions Post-9/11 Capitalism
Speaking in an interview with The Crimson after a preview screening at the Harvard Film Archive on April 7, Potter explains her decision to focus on Sept. 11 as follows: “No one death is any worse than any other death but the combination of the multiplication of these deaths in the media and the wake-up call that American foreign policy could incite that much hatred was what made this so specific.”
The film’s protagonist is an Irish-American known only as She (Joan Allen) living in London with her husband, the weary and unfaithful politician Anthony (Sam Neill). At a party, She encounters He (Simon Abkarian), a Lebanese chef, and the two embark on an affair that forces an assessment of themselves both as lovers and in terms of their religious and political identities.
As with Foer, whose novel uses an array of unusual visual and literary devices to convey the characters’ fragmentation, Potter’s film is not a straightforward storytelling expereince. Most startlingly, all the dialogue is in iambic pentameter.
“The strange thing about this screenplay was that from the very first word it came out in verse, which doesn’t have the strict and in many ways pedantic form of prose,” she says. “There may be a way in which verse is closer to the subject of experience, the stream of consciousness that we live in all the time without listening to it. We are all in the middle of giant soliloquies, compared to which ‘Hamlet’ is nothing.”
The film is narrated by a cleaner (Shirley Henderson), who talks obsessively of the dirt of life, the things that cannot be changed or removed but that just build up. This is as much a personal commentary as it is a global one; Potter wonders how to move forward as an individual when so much death and bad blood has accumulated.
Fittingly, Potter’s invesment in the film is both literal and financial. According to Potter, the film’s largest source of financing came from the cast and crew taking deferred salaries. She says the financial structuring created “a really joyous atmosphere on set.”
The loyalty Potter recieved from her cast was built on respect for her track record. After a series of smaller projects throughout the 1980s, 1992’s “Orlando,” an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, brought Potter to the forefront of independent cinema.
Less critically acclaimed, but similarly eccentric, “The Man Who Cried” (2000) is a love story of sorts set against both the cultural backdrop of the opera scene and the physical and social landscape of Europe at the start of World War II.
“Yes” continues Potter’s technique of setting personal stories within political contexts; the film soon turns to Cuba and Cuban communism, as the lovers attempt to forge a new relationship in that country.
For Potter, the controversial country was an obvious choice. With each of the characters struggling to come to terms with their personal ideologies as politicians, mothers, and citizens, Cuba, “a little lonely outpost of a belief system,” allowed her to peer deeper.
While she acknowledges the many problems the country has in terms of human rights abuses, she was excited by her experience in Havana as “a big city without the visual pollution of corporate advertising.” Such a different environment forced her to realizations of the intrusive and problematic nature endemic to capitalism.
In Cuba, both He and She live outside of their previous experiences and customs and, thus, are free to start a future on their own terms. Their refashioning is at the heart of “Yes,” not in the definition of identities so much as the quest for their dissolution.