The Empire’s New Clothes: Sally Potter’s RAGE

By Sophie Mayer

sally-potter.jpgSally Potter on the set of RAGE

RAGE isn’t so much a film about fashion, as about refashioning film. Told through a series of monologues (and equally telling silences) delivered in front of a greenscreen and addressed to the cellphone camera of the invisible, inaudible schoolboy protagonist Michelangelo, RAGE goes beyond an easy satire on fashion as a world of appearances (sur/faces) to reveal what has become a world of disappearances.

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There are allusions to the disappearing female body eroded by anorexia and air-brushing, the disappearance of the land and resources necessary for human survival, the disappearance of manufacturing from the US, the disappearance of an independently-owned media and concomitant eradication of free speech, the disappearance of public space and the right to protest, the disappearance of males of Middle Eastern appearance (regardless of origin) via Homeland Security’s draconian reach: all of these inform and deform contemporary cinema’s visual field, a field that RAGE alters beyond recognition in the attempt to lay bare what shapes it.

TRADE

If it wasn’t that {+} could be read as the kind of branded shorthand that the film eschews, RAGE could sport Jem Cohen’s double anchor on its sleeve. Sally Potter’s first film Thriller (1979) uncovered the poor conditions in which Parisian female pieceworkers laboured, linking the harsh reality to the Romantic myth Puccini wove around the seamstress Mimi in the film’s source text, La Bohème. RAGE, like Thriller, is compelled by the relationship between the garment worker’s alienated labour as critiqued by Marx, and the alienated labour of the film viewer. Unlike the most severe of the Marxist structuralist films, however, Potter’s cinema has never eschewed beauty and humour, but has sought to reappropriate them from their literally de-meaned existence in commercial cinema.

Through ravishing and original visuals and poetically witty banter, Potter offers the viewer a trade – in return for our attention to detail – that precisely inverts commercial cinema’s asymmetric relations. In RAGE, the viewer has to work alongside the film to construct the relations between the characters, and the dramatic events offscreen, through the details of the dialogue and performance. It’s not an easy task, but it’s one that respects our viewing intelligence, genuinely involving us as detectives in a thriller. Through this joint labour, the original sense of trade – like consensually and freely exchanged for like – is restored.

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LABOUR

By revealing the inner workings of the thriller genre, as if turning a garment inside out to look at the stitching, RAGE invites the viewer to participate in meaningful labour rather than the passive disengagement of being told whodunit. Potter said that for her, “a whodunit is called a mystery because it evokes the unknown, so it provided a very useful structure for an invisible world.”

That invisible world isn’t the backstage hysteria familiar from reality TV, nor the realist underworld of The Wire, nor even the sweatshops carefully archived in The Song of the Shirt, which screened alongside Thriller at Edinburgh in 1979. It draws on all of them to mine the profound and multiple meanings of film’s invisible world, offscreen space. Plot incidents familiar from all the genres mined by the film happen offscreen, in an imagined world arising between the brilliant sound editing, the performers’ gestures and gazes, and the audience’s familiarity with genres and settings.

But offscreen space comes to mean more than just the grisly details and fabulous designs withheld from our avid gazes: it comes to encompass all sorts of over-theres, from the individual and private spaces where characters converse with themselves to the world that the Western media ignores by fetishing. It’s the over-there of contemporary textile and apparel manufacture in sweat and slavery conditions, in an insidious new Empire that chillingly resembles the nineteenth century’s cotton fields and indigo factories.

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What we seek to ignore when we consume is brought into our field of vision – although Potter never renders such visibility unproblematic. Michelangelo is like the child at the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” who believes that speaking the truth is a self-evident good. As a citizen journalist he obtains a patient and revealing record that suggests how violence on a larger scale, only symbolised by the murders we long to see, is done invisibly by money and power. But his revelations, which he posts online, are challenged not only by those whose authority they threaten to undermine but by Anita de los Angeles, an illegal immigrant working as a seamstress who protests her right to remain invisible as a strategy of resistance against a government that uses visibility to punish and disenfranchise.

Anita’s rage at Michelangelo’s threat to her livelihood and family forces the audience to reckon with our addictively-gazing complicity. Despite her reluctance to appear on camera, Anita – played with a rare integrity by Adriana Barranza – is the only character who is truly unself-conscious when faced with Michelangelo’s lens. To a greater or lesser degree, the other characters – models, PR men, money men, the designer and critic – initially play the camera, becoming more honest as the murders challenge them to confession. Anita is the only character who cries when the two models die. In her reactions, and in her constant personal address to Michelangelo, she is the affective heart of the film, the audience’s most likely point-of-view (or, rather, of feeling) in an ensemble piece that privileges no one character over another.

Her centrality is a brilliant reversal of her marginality as an older woman of colour, and as the only character conspicuously not dressing for effect. She is the bearer of human dignity in her refusal to be circulated online without her consent and her continued participation in Michelangelo’s project. Her centrality also honours the film’s setting in the world of fashion, frequently dismissed by dominant culture as of interest only to women, and by counter-culture as of interest only to the bourgeoisie. Anita – and Michelangelo, who appears, finally, in sneakers that recognise the inescapability of global branding – give the lie to both of these views. They remind us that Engels and Marx both began their great books with garment manufacturers. In Anita’s passionate, even authorial, responsibility for her work – “visible or invisible” – fashion is returned to its makers.

FASHION

Long before it referred to the marketing of high-end clothing and/as lifestyle, even before it meant a style, fashion meant the “action of process or making,” derived from the Latin verb facere, to make or do, which exactly translates the Greek poien, the root of the word poetry. So fashion is equivalent, at root, to poiesis, the act of creative making. Its meaning has progressively narrowed, from the creative agency of making to the consumerist agency of purchasing power.

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RAGE sets itself the difficult challenge of uncovering creative agency in characters who work as “creatives” in agencies. Merlin, the maverick designer, is a metaphor for the filmmaker and all artists. As his name implies, he highlights the contradictory nature of the artist in a society that confuses beauty and goodness: he is magical, masterful, mercurial, mystificatory, and (like Arthur’s Merlin, the spinner of nationalist myths) morally ambiguous. Like all the characters, he is missing something. His carefully-cultivated transnational persona can no longer protect him from attacks based on his ethnicity, and his pose of camp slowly crumbles to reveal that it’s no longer the detached form of resistance that Susan Sontag advocated but one more lifestyle choice sold back to us by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Simon Abkarian’s brilliant (sharp, faceted, luminous) performance as Merlin was crafted through workshops, the term connecting theatre to artisanal labour. Potter said that, because she “got to know Simon so well so well while making YES, [she] was able to ask him to come and test the idea a couple of times. Because of his background in theatre, he knows how you develop something in the privacy of a workshop, the freedom it affords you.” Refashioning film (back) into an artisanal industry, Potter lensed the film herself (“with the camera at hip level,” according to Abkarian, to convey Michelangelo’s height), with Jean-Paul Muguel also onset, recording and mixing sound at the same time.

This working triangle refines filmmaking as a practice to the same simplicity as the form. Each actor worked with Potter for two days, earning Equity minimum: Potter says she “saw it as a celebration of poor cinema. It probably takes filmmaking closer to the feeling of theatre, the sense of a family come together for a period of time, carrying their own bags and doing their own make-up. It takes away the alienation” described by Walter Benjamin in relation to the inorganic nature of performance on film (shot out of sequence, reaction shots artificially produced) and to the constructed nature of celebrity in which commercial film comes draped.

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NAKED/CLOTHED

RAGE’s practical form – each actor shooting in sequence, working almost alone with the director as their interlocutor, with no props or complex action sequences to work around – allows for a naked cinema, derived entirely from what Potter sees as “what’s enriching about film: seeing the soul of another person, the richness and glory that lies behind the human face.” To-camera address as mirror to the soul is hauntingly familiar from Big Brother’s diary room, YouTube videos and online chatting. Our face has never been so much our identity.

RAGE might draw on classical traditions of portraiture as much as the Hollywood close-up and documentary talking-head, but it also brings into the frame the desires and anxieties expressed around ID cards, biometrics, plastic surgery, CCTV and the ‘threat’ of female veiling, which resists the branding of the face by taking it out of circulation. Through Merlin, RAGE plays cannily with the veil as a site of multiple and fractured meanings too easily propounded by those who don’t wear one. After his second model is murdered, Merlin turns his ever-present black sash (reminiscent of Byron’s Orientalised costume as a Greek freedom fighter) into a veil, throwing it over his head to hide his face.

He threatens to redesign his collection as burqas, and then rend them as if in an explosion. Reflecting on Merlin’s designs after the final show turns into carnage, critic Mona Carvell (Judi Dench) relaxes her customary moue of disdain and concludes, “His clothes are shrouds.” Clothes, she reminds us through her meditations on ageing and decay, are a thin film that hides the naked fact of death. Through its re-representation of clothing, RAGE redefines nakedness as something other than Biblical, Freudian shame: as vulnerability. RAGE is about people coming undone, fraying at the seams. Frayed and afraid. In a phrase that resonates with the doing –knotting, knitting, stitching, seaming – of both fashion and storytelling, Judith Butler says in Precarious Life: “we’re undone by each other. . . and if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

Butler is speaking from the US’ missed opportunity to realise its profound connection to the developing world as mutually affective sites of vulnerability after 9/11, an event that echoes subtly in the final confrontation in RAGE, sounded out first through screams, then sirens, helicopters and police radios. Embodying a chaotic offscreen confrontation between anti-globalisation protestors, police and business interests, the sounds have a bare profundity that connects the protests against globalisation to Merlin’s fears of being disappeared for his ethnicity as material symptoms of America’s fear of vulnerability. Merlin’s models, toting guns on the catwalk, are as much about American defensive violence as they are about the terrorism America fears.

COLOUR

Only one character appears physically (almost) naked in the film. It’s not Minx (Jude Law) or Lettuce (Lily Cole), the two models who act as contrasting informants on a life on display; as Minx proves when she talks about herself in the third person, a model, in John Berger’s terms, may be nude but – clothed in other people’s gazes – she is never naked. Flaunting her cheekbones, Minx performs an extraordinary, knowing deconstruction of the work of glamour shared by fashion and cinema: the use of lights, framing, make-up, costume, shapes and colours to create illusions predicated on very real bodies.

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Unsaid but implicit is that the architecture of appearance is predicated, specifically, on white skin. The chemical composition of colour film (which continues to dictate settings on digital camera) was designed specifically to accommodate lighting white actors amidst saturated colours. Colour on film and in fashion is not just about “this season,” but about power: in RAGE, the models and financiers are white, the seamstress and bodyguard are not. But rather than a black-and-white division or a Benetton rainbow, RAGE – a film of the Obama moment – presents ethnicity as diverse not only in skin tone but in characters’ experience of their identities.

As much as monologues referring to inequity, its daring use of saturated colour critiques the equation of skin tone with the construction of “race.” The characters speak in front of a field of pure colour sampled from their clothes, hair, lipstick or even irises, problematising the notion of a person’s “colour” meaning their skin. It’s at once an invocation of New York School abstract expressionism, which pushed at representation as RAGE pushes against narrative, and a witty, provocative essay on the meaning of colour.

This is most apparent in Vijay’s (Riz Ahmed) dazzling appearance after his bike ride in the first show is implicated in Dorothy’s murder. He was Michelangelo’s first interviewee, wearing a lurid red polyester uniform (complete with the polysemic logo “HOT!”) that designated him by his pizza-delivery job. Called to appear in the show, Vijay is now almost unrecognisable: naked apart from an open leather jacket and a pair of blue Y-fronts, he is covered in cerulean body paint and heavy metal jewellery. The intense blue both obscures his skin colour and – in its evocation of Krishna – redoubles it.

The body paint’s layered meanings are thickened by reference to Leigh Bowery’s most iconic look, combining blue body paint with cheap Indian jewellery from Brick Lane and gay club leathers, which he provocatively dubbed “Pakis from Outer Space.” Outer Space is at once ‘out’ queer subculture and the over-there of the former British Empire, spaces provoking fear and loathing as they intruded insistently on 1980s Britain. Absorbed into Merlin’s show and onto Vijay’s body, Bowery’s look confronts us with multiple layers of Orientalism.

MATERIAL

As Edward Said argued, the Orient feminised, associated with ornament and colour, coded as surface without depth, not least in the fetishisation of Chinese and Indian fabrics. RAGE suggests that these associations might underlie the outsourcing of fabric and apparel manufacture to sites like Thailand and Honduras. Such anxieties are apparent in Merlin’s loving description of the massive Chinese braided wig that Bonnie was wearing when she is shot, and in Detective Homer’s (David Oyelowo) comments on how “the mother of all wigs” makes the bullet’s path hard to trace.

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The wig’s fetishised and feared material associations with over-there contrasts with showroom manager Edie’s loving account of the family business where all labour, from weaving to finishing, used to in be in-house. Even before Edie tells us that her parents founded the company back when fashion was known as the rag trade, Dianne Wiest’s sweet-smart face, familiar from Woody Allen’s autobiographical films, invokes a material history of the kind that inspired Marx and Engels: the working-class Jewish New York of sweatshops and shmatte merchants who made New York the capital of mass clothing in the early 20th century. As well as being the film’s most visible trace of its New York setting, Wiest’s Edie acts as a reminder that America – a place where, as she remarks, hardly anything is made anymore – is not so far from its days of slavery and sweated manufacturing, nor as different as it likes to think from the countries to which it shamefacedly out-sources production.

Edie is the thread that connects Merlin’s protests against anti-Islamophobia to the Triangle Shirtwaist protests. That she eventually joins the anti-globalisation protestors in the over-there is prefigured not only in her wistful desire to have become a civil rights lawyer and so have a material effect on history, but in her brilliant first line: “My name is Wrath. Edith Roth.” It’s this kind of linguistic play that enables the film to weave a tissue of words that sustains and inspires the viewers’ imagination of events offscreen. Like the swindling weavers in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Merlin conjures his designs out of words and gestures. In Andersen’s story, the material woven for the emperor is described as “filmy, cobweb-like,” and RAGE reconnects film both to its material meaning and to the wonderful text/ile of words out of which its inner life is woven.

THREAD

It also connects film, as a mesh of connections, to another web: the Internet. Potter identifies her moment of inspiration in developing RAGE from its earlier form as the film-within-the-film in The Tango Lesson (1997) in her first experience of social networking. “The YES (2005) website gave me such a profound experience of connectedness.” As the characters offer their opinions and stories, responding to each other and to the unfolding events, the viewer is aligned with both Michelangelo and his young websurfing viewers. RAGE offers a viewing experience of connectedness similar to participation in a discussion thread on a message board.

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It’s a sharp, and occasionally uncomfortable, contrast with the conventional reassurance of cinematic suture, which reassures as, through shot/reverse shot, the omnipotent camera shows offscreen space. Instead, RAGE suggests a seamlessness between the film and the world, such that our hunger for the reassurance of offscreen space can be realized as a hunger for the world. And the film leads us to understand that it can answered through our actions as viewers. We are already positioned as activists by the very act of watching the film. As Lettuce says, in the film’s final line: “It’s, like, my turn.”

FILM

Lettuce then turns the camera on Michelangelo, but like everyone else in RAGE, the filmmaker disappears as he appears, running across a sunlit wasteground, his white sneakers flashing in and out of visibility in the grainy, over-exposed shot that moves to the rhythm of Lettuce’s movement. It’s the first time that the camera has travelled more than a small push-in, the first time it’s been turned on either Michelangelo or the outside world, and the first time that the camera has had the drama of figure movement towards the vanishing point in its sights.

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Film – that material word that conjures ephemerality, transparency – can be about disappearance rather than appearance, can erase closure by running towards the vanishing point and turning the story over to us. We leave the cinema with the catwalk show score (finally audible, finally played through uninterrupted by bullets) pounding in our ears to the rhythm of Michelangelo’s line of flight. Composed of history as encoded by light, colour, sound and textures, RAGE’s cinematic evanescence leaves its trace in us in untraceable ways, which – in our turn – we are released to thread back into the fabric of the world.


RAGE is forthcoming. Thanks to all at Adventure Pictures

Sophie Mayer is the Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anglophone and Francophone Cinema at the University of Cambridge. Her book The Cinema of Sally Potter is out with Wallflower Press in the Spring.