Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Potter at MoMA: Thriller (short)

Eighteen years after its initial release, Sally Potter’s Orlando still seems as fresh and oddly engaging as ever. Newly re-mastered in high-definition, a full review will appear here shortly in conjunction with Sony Classics’ upcoming rerelease. In contrast, Potter’s 1979 short film Thriller has arguably depreciated within her cinematic portfolio. Still, it generated a great deal of critical attention for her at the time, so it can hardly be overlooked during MoMA’s Potter retrospective, where it screens tomorrow as part of a program of short films.

Casual film patrons may take issue with the self-consciously experimental Thriller’s title. Largely consisting of frozen tableaux and still photos, it tells the radically subverted story of La Bohème from the perspective of the recently deceased Mimì. Her affair with Rodolfo did indeed go tragically awry, but maybe her death was more nefarious. Not necessarily criminal (though perhaps so), it may in fact be the result of social iniquity, specifically the negligence of Rodolfo and his bohemian cronies. Lest we miss the point, Mimì’s rival and pseudo-doppelganger Musetta reads quotations from Mallarmé, Freud, and Marx. Indeed, Thriller may be the first recorded instance of bohemian artists taking the brunt of a Marxian social critique.

Like many of Potter’s later works, music plays an important role in Thriller. Logically, we hear excerpts of Puccini’s opera performed by Royal Opera House’s company. However, the frequent use of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho theme feels clichéd, even for the late 1970’s.

Potter’s stark DIY cinematography is certainly evocative in an unsettling way, as is the minimalist attic set (the traditional repository for mad women and inconvenient literary females in general). Ultimately though, Thriller is so tied-up in its post-modern theoretical underpinnings, it never rises above a dry intellectual viewing experience. Highly recommended, the high-def Orlando screens at MoMA tonight (7/7) in advance of its 7/23 rerelease. Of purely historical interest, Thriller screens tomorrow (7/9) and next Wednesday (7/14) as the Potter retro continues at MoMA.