Welcome Back, Potter

By James, Caryn | Newsweek, July 12, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Welcome Back, Potter


James, Caryn, Newsweek


Byline: Caryn James

Director Sally Potter has been nearly forgotten in the 18 years since her sumptuous, androgynous Orlando vaulted her from the avant-garde to the mainstream, but no worries. "My films have long tails," Potter told a British television interviewer early this year when he prodded her about the minuscule audience for her latest film, Rage, a bare-bones production distributed in segments online and for cell phones. Cranky interview questions aside, watching in snippets is the perfect way to see that starry murder mystery, in which fashion-world characters--Jude Law in drag as a Russian model named Minx, Judi Dench as a critic--take turns addressing a student filming them with his phone. Think of the film's segments as high-art Webisodes and you see how pertinent Potter is to the topsy-turvy world of filmmaking today, how smoothly she blends the -cutting edge and the mainstream, how underappreciated she has been. Orlando's rerelease this summer and a Potter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York beginning July 7 should help change that oversight.

Based on Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando remains Potter's masterpiece, with Tilda Swinton as a man who lives from Elizabethan days to the present, waking up as a woman in the 18th century. Potter's kaleidoscopic style is all here, incorporating songs, dances, poems, extravagant colors, emotional heights. The visuals are still seductive: the frozen Thames crowded with 17th-century skaters. The film's wit and layered sense of history seem richer than ever. An angel slyly sings "Eliza is the fairest queen" as Queen Elizabeth, played by Quentin Crisp (inspired casting!), sails on a barge and falls madly for the young male Orlando. A 19th-century hero on horseback rides out of a mist and literally tumbles at the female Orlando's feet, as Potter both indulges and tweaks Romanticism.

The MoMA show exposes her experimental roots, with rarities like The Gold Diggers (1983), in which Julie Christie roams the 19th-century gold rush and a contemporary London theater trying to define herself as a woman in society.

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