Monday 5 January 2015

Book Review: Naked Cinema: Working With Actors by Sally Potter (Faber and Faber, 2014)

Always an exceptionally honest, erudite and insightful commentator on her own work and that of others, Sally Potter now offers her most sustained reflection yet upon her collaborative creative process in this thoroughly absorbing volume. Naked Cinema: Working with Actors finds Potter opening up about her filmmaking practice by focusing on the relationship that she posits to be the most central within that equation: that between director and actor. “[F]or a director, understanding how to work with actors is, in many ways, the most important, delicate and powerful skill he or she must develop,” Potter claims. “And this skill must be developed amidst a maelstrom of activity” (p. 4).
As a director who started out as a performer – and who returned to that role, somewhat controversially, as the star of her 1997 The Tango Lesson –Potter has certainly experienced both sides, now, over her forty year career, and she brings to bear an understanding approach to the demands and difficulties, the pressures and pleasures, of both roles. Accordingly, the perspective on the performer/director relation that’s advocated in Naked Cinema is one based around empathy, attention, rigour, challenge, flexibility, play. And yes: love.
Naked Cinema has a structure that reflects - indeed, embodies - its own emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between artists. It’s arranged in four “Parts” – “Preparation”, “The Shoot”, “Post-Production” and “The Interviews” - and opens with an Introduction in which Potter offers a short (or “potted”, if you will) autobiography. The Introduction sketches out her singular background in feminist-influenced dance, choreography and performance art, her first forays into experimental shorts, and her early inspirations. Then, in easily digestible sections, the first three Parts of the volume examine the various stages of filmmaking itself - from casting, financing and rehearsal through framing, blocking and editing to premiere and reception - always with an eye fixed firmly on the actor/director dynamic at every stage of the process.
All of this is rendered in eloquent, accessible language that invites the reader in rather than repelling them with jargon, and that combines reflection, enquiry and advice in equal measure. A self-described “autodidact” (p. xvi), Potter has learnt the craft of filmmaking “on the job” across avant garde and more mainstream productions, and her commitment to keeping film form fresh has been evident throughout her career, whether in the use of verse in Yes (2005) or the series of monologues that constitute Rage (2009). Frank and honest about her disappointments or perceived “mistakes,” and about what she’s learnt through working with others, Potter isn’t in any sense prescriptive or theory-based here. Rather, the filmmaker stresses “the necessity of a flexible, individual approach to actors” (xxiii) developed through close collaboration with each one in “an attitude of adaptability, flexibility and responsibility” (p. 69). The director, in Potter’s conception, isn’t a detached and distant figure, but an active, listening, watching presence, fully engaged with the work of the actors in an empathetic, loving way.

Potter is fully alert to the ineffable, spiritual side of her collaborations she’s developed, writing rhapsodically of special moments on set which have made her intensely aware of “the very roots of what acting can be: a profound circuit of energy between the watcher and the watched, in which we are reminded that we are alive” (83). However, at some level Potter’s project here is iconoclastic. She’s out to demystify the actor/director relation and to emphasise instead the extent to which it involves practicality, application and sheer hard graft. She’s out to democratise, too, eschewing the (patriarchal) notion that successful strategies of communication are gifts mysteriously bestowed upon a select few “geniuses”. Rather, for Potter, these are skills that are open to everyone, skills that can be learned, channelled, developed and honed. And yet what also emerges very strongly is Potter’s own fortitude and resourcefulness in bringing to completion challenging projects in the face of what she refers to as “the cultural discouragement at large” (182).
Reflecting her counsellor training, there’s the occasional shift into self-help mode in the volume, the use of statements of the “you can’t change what’s happened but you can change your attitude to it” variety. But the book is none the worse for its intermittent recourse to such uplifting affirmations, and its ability to inspire is best summarised by the “Postscript” that concludes “Part Three”: Potter’s “Barefoot Filmmaking manifesto”, which includes a number of coprecepts to encourage the aspirant or established artist, among them “Practise no waste – psychic ecology – prevent brain pollution (don’t add to the proliferation of junk)” (p. 139).
Naked Cinema would be a richly rewarding work if made up exclusively of Potter’s stimulating words. But in opening up the text to include the voices of a diverse range of actors who’ve appeared in her films, the book achieves greatness. The fourteen one-on-one interviews that conclude the volume may be, for the more general reader, the main draw to the text, and they are sensational: detailed, serious, touching, fun. It’s simply wonderful to hear performers as diverse as Jude Law, Julie Christie, Joan Allen, Steve Buscemi, Timothy Spall and Elle Fanning talk with more depth and insight about their craft and process than they’ve ever been invited to do before, and their evident ease with Potter yields terrific results
The interviews connect, complement and contradict each other in fascinating ways, as each performer outlines what draws them to a project, their process, and what they require from a director to aid them. The interviews range widely, taking in the whole culture as they touch on ethics and economics, on issues of gender and age. Simon Abkarian speaks movingly and poetically about his desire for the director to create “a space that is absolutely palpable for both of us, intellectually and with feeling” (p. 146). Riz Ahmed defines acting as, in part, “an escape from the labels that are put on me” (p. 164), and notes how, in a period of image-saturation and shrinking attention spans, cinema must continue to function as “the moving image at its most charged and emotionally potent” (p. 179). Christina Hendricks and Jude Law incisively assess the less palatable sides of the fame game, and Annette Bening describes the difficulties of dealing with the “demon” of self-doubt (p. 207).
Judi Dench discusses the mysteries of “presence” and the differences between acting for theatre and cinema (“In film, if you have the actual thought in your head, that will be seen in your eyes…” p. 282). Elle Fanning describes learning the value of rehearsal during the making of Ginger & Rosa (2012), of feeling more empowered to ask questions, and of how breaking for lessons as a child actor may actually help to keep a performance focused and fresh. Several of the actors speak quite touchingly of their need for respect and “kindness” from a director, and the setting of what Potter herself describes as “a tone of safety, integrity and openness” (p. 118) is identified by most as the condition under which good work can thrive.
Naked Cinema sets just such a tone for the reader across its intimate and involving 400 pages. Full of insight and intelligence, its concerns may seem specialised and particular, but the book turns out to resonate much more widely, its close focus on collaboration, communication and the forging of productive working relationships resulting in a text that inspires and empowers whatever your career or your creative pursuits.

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