This originally appeared in the twelfth issue of Camera Obscura (Summer 1984). I’m delighted that a DVD of Sally Potter’s overlooked, neglected, and scandalously undervalued masterpiece is finally available, from the British Film Institute. I wrote a short essay for the accompanying booklet. –J.R.
The Gold Diggers: A Preview
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Sally Potter’s much heralded British Film Institute production has been encountering a lot of resistance since it premiered at the London Film Festival late last year. When I saw it at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early February, its presence even there was regrettably nominal: screened only once, and in the Market rather than as a festival selection, it was received rather coolly, and many of the critics present left well before the end. Finding the film visually stunning, witty, and pleasurably inventive throughout, I can only speculate about the reasons for the extreme antipathy of my colleagues.
Historically, The Gold Diggers demands to be regarded as something of a proud anomaly. While it contains many familiar echoes of avant-garde performance art (including music, dance, and theater), its only recognizable antecedent in the English avant-garde film tradition appears to be Potter’s own previous Thriller. (An English language film which is international in conception as well as execution, it is marginal in the best and most potent sense of that term.) Beyond that, the formal and stylistic eclecticism of what Ian Christie aptly calls “a post-modernist musical” seems part and parcel of the film’s overt feminist aggression. As with the otherwise very different Daisies, Céline et Julie vont en bateau, and Born in Flames, one can see the laughter of Medusa shattering form and decorum alike.
Shot by Babette Mangolte in black and white and co-starring Julie Christie and Colette Laffont, the film is well synopsized by Potter herself: “In The Gold Diggers two women are searching for their own kind of gold. One, Celeste, is a black French woman living in London and working as a computer typist in a bank in the City. She starts to ask questions about what lies behind the figures she is typing and gradually finds gold to be the key. Her investigations lead her to the secrets and rituals of ownership that lie behind the movement of money.
“The other women, Ruby, is first seen in a ballroom as the center of attention, being passed from one man to the next during a long waltz. Suddenly Celeste bursts in on horseback, sweeps her up and carries her away. As Celeste questions her about her past, Ruby’s identity emerges. Her search for gold is the search for her own occluded history and a look behind herself as an iconic figure.
“Their story evokes the alchemists’ search for the ‘celestial ruby’ (the formula for creating gold) and also relates to cinematic portrayals of women from early silent cinema to musical entertainers and film noir heroines. Filmed in London and Iceland, The Gold Diggers makes use of visual extremes (deserted night city streets and white snowscapes) and changes of physical scale and time scale to develop the theme of the search for the truths of personal and political transformation.”
The preceding text is taken from Potter’s introduction to her season at the National Film Theatre in London last May, “Gold Diggers and Fellow Travellers,” which presented her film in tandem with twenty-five others, a selection suggesting both influences and pertinent cross-references. Because these other films provide a helpful critical context for The Gold Diggers, they are worth citing in full: The Gold Rush; Way Down East; Kuhle Wampe; Doctor Zhivago; The Lady Vanishes; Queen Christina; Lives of Performers; La Souriante Madame Beudet; Rat Life and Diet in America; Alexander Nevsky; The Saragossa Manuscript; The Red Shoes; Dance, Girl, Dance; Darling; Lola Montes; Hellzapoppin’; Study in Choreography for the Camera; The Trial; Persona; Gold Diggers of 1933; Une Femme est Une Femme; Madame de…; Julia; The Power of Emotions; The State of Things.
In conclusion, here is one more text from Potter about the film, provided in the B.F.I.’s press kit:
“I see this film as a musical describing a female quest. Making it has demanded asking the same questions during the working process as the film endeavors to ask; about the connections between gold, money, and women; about the illusion of female powerlessness; about the actual search for gold and the inner search for gold; about imagery in the unconscious and its relationship to the power of cinema; looking at childhood and memory and seeing the history of cinema itself as our collective memory of how we see ourselves, of how we as women are seen.
“Working with two female central roles meant continuously asking how can I build/find characters and images of women that will serve our intelligence and mirror the complexities of our struggles. The feature film format sets up its own expectations in terms of what it must offer, which makes a useful discipline to work with and learn from and also to push against where it seemed necessary to create a tension with the genre.
“So much for intentions. In practice the ideas were developed through a mass of technical details and decisions: the choice of lens, of light, of movement, gesture, location, timing, cut. There was a brief rehearsal where I choreographed some sections, started to work on the two central characters and to build up a coherent screen presence for performers from diverse backgrounds and ranges of experience.
“Julie’s presence resonates not only with her own work history but also with the iconic power of the face in cinema; through her part we worked to suggest aspects of the history of the cinematic heroine: silent movie stars with their language of exaggerated gesture; the Hollywood belle descending the archetypal ballroom staircase; the film noir mystery woman, an enigma even to herself. I had worked with Colette before in Thriller and with her developed the part of the female investigator, the observer within the frame. The male parts were developed more as caricature – of bureaucratic anxiety, academic stasis (the expert and his assistant) and of anonymous pursuers and street terrorizers. I wanted to call the male bluff and disperse some of the fear and seriousness that usually surrounds those images; to clear the ground. The landscape itself was a performer – Icelandic light changing moment to moment and offering contradictory aspects of itself. In the shoot and in the editing process I attempted to create “layers” in each scene – of genre reference and internal cross-reference (the dancer who “freezes,” the frozen landscape, etc.), the frame as the inner projection (Ruby’s memory), and to work with the conventions of the musical (the dream sequence, the backstage scenes, the songs, etc.)
“Ultimately my own desire was and is to give pleasure; to heal the `pleasure time blues’ of the opening song.”
(from Camera Obscura 12, Summer 1984)