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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "The Gold Diggers" (Sally Potter, 1983)

Sally Potter doesn't buy the dictum about how all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. In the opening song for her 1983 debut feature The Gold Diggers, singing in tones that recall those of Dagmar Krause, Potter sings of violence (particularly male-perpetrated violence) as manifested in both film and literature, and how it messes with her head, and pleads, "Please give me back my pleasure!"

In its resolutely non-narrative way, and even with its convoluted dialogues involving the nature of capital and alienated labor, The Gold Diggers is, on at least one level, all about a feminist re-claiming of pleasure. But pleasure doesn't have to be soft, or undemanding. Here it is most definitely found in the awe-inspiringly austere landscapes captured in fabulous black and white by Potter and Babette Mangold Mangolte—the ground through which the film's titular diggers relentlessly toil, seeking the element that gives capital what meaning it has. It's found in the modernist waltzes that dot the score by Lindsay Cooper, a co-screenwriter of the film (along with Potter and the suspiciously named Rose English) who was also the bassoonist/oboist for the great progressive ensemble Henry Cow. It's found in the presence and form of Julie Christie, here seemingly transported from the likes of Far From The Madding Crowd and/or The Go-Between; she plays Ruby, a representation of Victorian or Edwardian Englishwoman "kidnapped," as it were, by modern-day alienated laborer Celeste (Colette Laffont) and subjected to an interrogation by the working woman.

"I am concerned with redressing the balance," Celeste says. "Are you reconciled with your own history…do you know what it is?" she asks Ruby.

"Tell me everything you know," Celeste then demands.

"I remember very little," insists Ruby.

"Why?"

"Because I’ve been kept in the dark."

"Why?"

"Because of the conditions."

"What conditions?"

"The necessary conditions for my existence…"

There, in a nutshell, is the key to the film's anti-linearity, among other things: a passionate stab at jettisoning the putative aesthetic conditions for a film's, a feminist film's, existence. From that nugget everything else about the film proceeds: its contemplations of the notion that feminism can transform capitalism, its mirroring and dovetailing imagery that springs the film forward into a/the past ("Live in the present, my dear, don't dwell in the past," a tap dancer advises Ruby, with special emphasis on the word "dwell;" but is this even possible for the character?), its insistent suspicion of the idea of "essential truth." And from all those aspects, too, pleasure may spring.

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At least for those who are willing to find/take pleasure. In a thorough essay for the wonderful new BFI DVD presentation of this film, Jonathan Rosenbaum is still bemused by the reaction of then-New York Times critic Janet Maslin to this film when it finally played in the U.S. in 1988: "pure torture." Maslin is a friend, but I'm kind of taken aback here too, detecting in her critique a bit of the anti-intellectual resentment I find in recent internet attacks on Douglas Sirk, say. (Interesting that one detects similar notes reading the reviews of Potter's latest film, Rage, which I admittedly have not yet seen. A lot of "why can't she go back to making a nice film like Orlando?" hints throughout.) And also because I myself find The Gold Diggers wonderfully easy, a film I could watch—and listen to!—again and again and again. A lot of the particular quality of the work has everything to do with Potter's unique discernment. Her decision to work with only women behind the camera could have resulted in a series of tokenism gestures, but let's get real: Babette Mangold Mangolte is what bourgeois patriarchs would have to call a "world-class artist," as are all the members of Lindsay Cooper's ensemble. (The drummer, Marilyn Mazur, who went on to work with noted feminist Miles Davis and many others, gets a nice solo in the film itself, playing on a set of empty bookshelves.)

The BFI package is wonderful—the booklet has engaging texts from Potter herself as well as Rosenbaum's exemplary appreciation, five short films by Potter including the really delightful and provocative 1985 The London Story and a good number of downloadable PDF files pertaining to the film, which is itself given a gorgeous transfer. Superb all around; and readers should also know that they can watch the film on The Auteurs. After which I predict you'll want to add this disc to your library.

It’s Babette Mangolte. And yes, she is a world-class cinematographer, but it sure would be nice if her underseen directorial efforts surfaced a bit more often.
Having suffered through The Tango Lesson I thought I’d never watch another Sally Potter film ever again, but yeah, hm, maybe.
Argh. Correction made. My proofing skills have gone right out the window lately. My karmic payback for coming down so hard on others, perhaps? Or just creeping dementia? Only time will tell.
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