Questions of counter cinema and Sally Potter’s YES

by Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz

Sally Potter’s 2004 film YES is a point of intersection for some overlapping questions that have occupied counter cinema discourse, feminist film theory and discussions of postmodernism since the 1970s. These questions revolve around the politics of representation, particularly about how to navigate the role of ideology in the construction of our subjecthood, and accordingly, our representation. (Here I am specifically concerned with screen representation and I use the term “our” to refer to any human subject that is said to be represented on screen.) As both feminist film theory and counter cinema politically negotiate with the ideological apparatus (i.e. mainstream cinema), there’s generally a tension between rejection—and turning to and territorializing the concept of avant-garde as oppose to mainstream—and recognition—still seeking mainstream representation. Since patriarchal ideology is understood to reinforce specific subject positions through binary oppositions and to subordinate delineated others, for feminist and counter cinema scholars representational politics on the level of the mainstream generally has meant a self-defeating attempt at independence.[1] [open endnotes in new page] It is perhaps fair to say that that was the case in cultural and media studies until the (now-out-of-fashion term) “postmodern turn,” which welcomed hybridity and paradox.[2]

Potter’s film YES emerged at a time when the discussion of postmodernism (then on decline) seemed potentially helpful to discuss new feminist practices, ones that aimed to create signifiers and aesthetics that could speak beyond representational politics. I am talking about a historical, transitional moment during which paradoxical formations and fragmentation in art and life in general were welcomed, while gaps between cultural dichotomies such as avant-garde and popular or counter cinema and mainstream were relatively eased. I will argue in this article that Sally Potter’s cinema, and particularly YES, epitomizes this transition. The film offers us a cinematic experience that can help reflect on what happened to postmodernism, for that term is in crisis, and to reconsider the crisis of representation that still continues to infiltrate many discussions surrounding (feminist) cinema.

Situating Potter

In her cinema, Sally Potter has traced how representational politics work within a Western context as well as explored aesthetic-theoretical constructions of the gendered subject—which have been frequent topics of research for feminist film scholars for decades now.[3] As Sharon Lin Tay discusses in detail, Potter’s filmography has responded to turbulences within feminist film theory, from her earlier works, such as the mid-length Thriller (1979) which has been regarded as one of the ultimate examples of “feminist theory filmmaking,” to her later more “mainstream art-house” productions within which Tay positions YES (84-85).[4]  

The main character speaking into a mirror as a self-reflexive method of adaptation in Thriller. Reading and internal voiceover, blurring subjective and objective sound perspectives, have been frequent features of Potter’s cinema since Thriller.

The discussions around how to penetrate the sexist ideology of Classical Hollywood and how to create a feminist cinema have involved critiquing a rigid distinction between counter cinema and mainstream—a distinction feminist film theory also often reiterated within its domain. Tay suggests that a change in Potter’s direction reflects this, moving from experimentalism and formal subversion—found in Thriller and The Gold Diggers (1983)—towards an embrace of more traditional forms of narrative progress and visual pleasure in her later films. This artistic move can be seen as a sign of awareness in terms of how feminist thought involves ideas that can contradict and transform over time. On the one hand, some feminists called for an emancipated space through the concept of feminist counter cinema and rejected Classical Hollywood’s potentiality for such reclamation following the publication of Laura Mulvey’s influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975. On the other hand, there continued to be an ongoing call for mainstream representation. These perspectives have been in communication and later became closer to each other, therefore I don’t yet intend to make a distinct division between them. It is exactly the shifting of this feminist scaling that Potter responded to. [5]

In her analysis of Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997)the forebearer of YES—Lucy Fischer underlines how Potter’s cinema involves some of the critical positions that “disputed Mulvey’s rejection of classical form and attempted to locate gaps and fissures in mainstream works that voiced female rebellion” (45). Arguably, these tensions in feminist film theory and practice were relatively loosened after the “postmodern turn” as Mulvey herself revisited her theories in 1989 in “Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure.” There she proposed some combined effects of “tradition and mass culture” on narrative cinema that manifested alternative potentials for visual pleasure.

Similar to how Mulvey later embraced possible multiplications of “the look,” counter cinema discourse later also included into its territory some potential mainstream forms that could accommodate avant-garde elements (Perry). In this regard, it is important to remember that postmodernism was for a while the framework that helped to make sense of blurring of counter cinema’s borders, just as it was a useful concept for feminism as it negotiated reclaiming space and language within popular culture. We can still observe that struggle continuing in our post-postmodern time within public discourse since the issue of representation has become harder to differentiate from the tricky subject of objectification of women (which has specific trajectories in Hollywood and genre systems). The issue of representation has also been more vocalized in relation to industrial aspects of sexism, such as the gender pay gap (though this particular issue on mainstream media mostly involves the industry’s 1%).

Character voiceover turning into clearly diegetic when Orlando looks at the camera and speaks onscreen for only three words: “That is… I…” An internal voiceover completes the sentence: “came into this world."

Orlando’s hand over the empty page (they won’t write anything yet), coupling the ambiguity of voiceover with Orlando’s self-construction of their own story.

Tay touches upon this point about blurred borders of feminist concepts, for example, in her delineation of feminist political film practices based on the contemporary poststructuralist rejection of sexual difference. Tay maps Potter’s film Orlando (1993) directly onto this feminist-political tension, stating that Orlando’s “budget, production values, and status as a European co-production situate it very much within mainstream cinema in British industrial terms” (88). Here, the postmodernist discussion of counter cinema-blending-into-mainstream coincides with the feminist problematization of essentialism and a potential “exit from a film movement that assumes the essentialist idea of sexual difference” associated with 1970s feminist film theory (Tay 89) (see the Orlando opening shots using internal voiceover/self-reflexivity as an ambiguous expression of gender). At this crossroads, we still face the question of representation that is supposed to decide what is the right way of representing an assumed subject, be it women, or other others.

Currently the question of representation, especially with respect to marginalized identities, seems to have become one of the most-attended-to issues in contemporary media. However, in the recent past, the idea of the “postmodern condition” used to seem potentially helpful to delineate the very process of marginalization itself, as postmodernism welcomed the concept of fragmentation when it came to identity (McRobbie). Now, even though discussions around how representation has replaced the concept of selfhood (e.g, we don’t actually have a “real self”) still resonate (Matthewman and Hoey), postmodernism as a concept has lost much of its significance. For example, in her article “Love’s Cosmopolitan Promise in Sally Potter’s Yes,” Jackie Stacey conceptualizes YES and the cultural binarisms that are put into scrutiny in this film in relation to “cosmopolitanism” —a term that seems to replace postmodernism.

Here I don’t intend to revive postmodernism or attempt to prove its usefulness in our current time. Rather, I would like to explore the mobilizations of signifying terms, such as the assumed subjects of postmodernism, feminism or counter cinema. This is the sort of mobilization Judith Butler talked about when they tried to avoid the trap of defending postmodernism in their response to the critiques of postmodernism, utilizing the concept of postmodernism in pointing out societal fears around the “loss of significance” in terms of self and subjecthood (“Contingent”). Butler used the critiques of postmodernism as stepping stones to trace how subjects can be mobilized away from regulatory limitations toward understanding the process of representation’s exclusionary practices. In that sense, “postmodernism” became a useful catalyst to question the limits of subjection. That is also why I retrospectively make use of this term, as there is still a lot to unpack in terms of why and how these discourses heavily correlated with each other and became unfashionable in time.

Judith Butler mentioned the rhetoric “What happens to materiality if everything is discourse?” which pervaded the postmodernism-critical perspectives in the 1990s. Butler also found sense in the tactic of deconstruction associated with postmodernism: a sense that deconstruction helps mobilize the meanings of terms commonly used to describe certain aspects of the materiality of human bodies, like “sex” (168). Perhaps now we can contextualize the disappearance of the term “postmodern” in relation to such mobilization, as it lost its signifying quality. What is it that postmodernism signified at the time and now is lost? I argue that the trouble lay with representational politics—the struggle to represent macro-level problems with micro-level stories.

Butler marked the image of the Middle Eastern subject as the ultimate other (during post-September 11) in discussing how the construction of certain subjects in popular U.S. media regulate what those figures signify in order for their image to perpetuate specific oppressive ideologies (160-161). Similarly, Potter made a film, YES, that carefully deals with the politics of representation by way of creating an abstract confrontation between the “Middle Eastern other” and the “Western feminist.” She made the film precisely as a response to this harmful war-on-terror media rhetoric of the post-September 11 era. And perhaps we can see that this era also marks the weakest point of postmodernism; the counter cinema argument also started to fail in its capacity to address the complexities of fragmented significations at work in mainstream media.

In the next section, I look back at what “political cinema” meant to the counter cinema theories in the 1970s and their connection to the later postmodernist take on identity as a schizophrenic position. I hope to highlight here how the distance between the “signifier” and “signified” in these early theories can be traced through the discussions of a subject’s representability in postmodernism. In particular, this is precisely the crisis that Potter visualized in her film YES as a response to contemporary politics.

From counter cinema to postmodernism

In his article “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent D’est” in 1972 (74), Peter Wollen differentiated through Jean-Luc Godard’s work “the seven cardinal virtues” of breaking with Classical Hollywood cinema. The border between counter cinema and Classical Hollywood was quite clearcut in Wollen’s theory: the unorthodox juxtapositions and re-contextualizations of film form should lead to a confrontation with cinema’s own economic conditions, resulting in the creation of a critical aesthetic, such as Godard’s, which describes counter cinema (Wollen 79). These defining features of the critical aesthetic of counter cinema have been revisited by film scholars who coined the term “new media” by looking at the changes in cinema-going cultures. For example, Guiliana Bruno’s reading of Ridley Scott’s now-more-famous film Blade Runner (1982) “as the metaphor of the postmodern condition” (“Ramble City” 62), shows that cinematic methods of juxtaposition can be adopted by certain Hollywood productions as much as by art-house. Bruno demonstrates that deconstructive cinematic approaches—especially with regards to subjectivity, selfhood and urban identity—that once were perceived as counter cinema can also be manifested in mainstream films, specifically in the form of post-industrial tech-noir aesthetics and postmodern architecture. Similar perspectives focus on various visual media as cultural documents of the fluctuating consumerist society whose relation to representation constitutes one of the major political concerns since the 1980s (Hutcheon 7-8); and these discussions around the representational methods of the consumerist society continue to engulf categorical discussions around political cinema.[6]

In conjunction with these developments, we saw that deconstructive effects of self-reflexivity, estrangement and reconstruction of reality (the effects Wollen identified as counter cinema virtues) don’t solely seem to belong to what is categorically assumed as the avant-garde. This shift towards theories around postmodernism in the discourse of ideology and cinema, perhaps partially if not entirely, blurred the border between counter cinema and the mainstream—a border more clearly visible for Wollen as well as for Cahiers du Cinema contributors. As time passes, the relevance of counter cinema terminology can be questioned when it starts to seem redundant—as Steve Cannon did in his article on “The Myth of ‘Counter Cinema’” where he considers Wollen’s approach reductive. But it still remains a strong milestone in film theory, especially for the purpose of uncovering the transitional moments, parallels and detours in the history writing of the politics of cinema.

Even though “political cinema” had a specific meaning, certain ambiguities remained in the counter cinema theories and Cahiers Du Cinema’s Marxist film critique. As Colin Perry observes, they aimed to produce “distinct readings of the real” while “both denying and asserting its importance” (Perry 23). Bearing this in mind, the cinematic elements I consider interconnect the ambiguity in depicting reality, identity and the role of ideology. This interconnection runs on the function of the reality effect which assumes “real” subjects through film form, mostly with acting and language. This realism has been also what Cahiers Du Cinema sought to explore in cinema, as well as the concern for postmodernists in relation to the experience of identity. Potter’s YES further adds to the discussion of counter cinema a perspective that detours from realism towards representation, and I would first like to contrast this approach with the canonical Cahiers approach to political cinema in the next section. Potter’s aesthetic in YES involves a self-reflexive fantasy in terms of resolving political conflict through narrative. In particular, I explore Potter’s choice of self-reflexive aesthetics and artificiality in this film–a product of how September 11 affected the filmmaker and the world, as she stated that “the destruction of the World Trade Center and its aftermath of suspicion and vengeance inspired her film” (Garrett).