All That Glitters
Multi-media and –faceted Sally Potter’s first feature, The Gold Diggers, has been offered in a 35 mm. screening at the Museum of Arts and Design, MAD. Originally in 16 mm, the 1983 pastiche appears as part of a salute to/collaboration with Brooklyn’s newish, all-volunteer tiny Spectacle Theater, thirty seats for “overlooked works [and] offbeat gems.”
The director, songwriter-singer, dancer, scriptwriter, actress, producer avoids the label “feminist” on account of knee-jerk “trigger word” reactions that term arouses. All crew and essential cast are women, the men being characterless, near faceless, interchangeable dark suits or gold miners. Much of the eighty-nine minutes offers up females oppressed in the workplace, forced into gender stereotypes in life and on-screen and -stage, and physically dogged by men through empty chiaroscuro streets while at the same time hollowly enshrined and worshipped as Virgins and Mothers on religious floats.
Non-linear, free associative and occasionally non-associative period, repetitive, distorted near-Expressionism makes for difficult summarizing. Abrupt shifts and minimal or non-intelligible dialogue do not differentiate “reality” from dreams or illusions, the whole as much resembling Dalí or Genet as the silent and Hollywood golden era cinema it also calls up. 1930’s Gold Diggers of course, Berkeley, Powell, Keeler and Blondell, in title, and business references and bullion as man’s god borne aloft and chanted to alongside the madonnas; Iceland here standing in for the Yukon, of Chaplin’s Little Tramp in setting, whining wind, lines of prospectors, precarious cabin; Charles Foster Kane’s dying memory of childhood innocence after gaining the whole world but losing his soul; theater-set movies and those about motherhood, arguably some about sisterhood in its present usage.
In black-and-white that looks more ancient than it is, eleven seekers after wealth trudge in line across a glistening white ice field cut in three by horizontal bars of black rock and faraway mountains. Their faces are unseen and so may well be those of the males who manage banks and businesses and churches, lord it over woman, in unison yawn and hiss live actresses, and fruitlessly pursue like dark Keystone Kops. One miner will momentarily burst in to celebrate his three enormous nuggets and dance with the Mother (Hilary Westlake) and away from the flimsy wooden shack.
The brunette Mother has appeared from time to time, laughing at snow and wind. These supposed parents leave behind their young blonde daughter, who continues to dig in the empty landscape with one rock-outlined road out. She must be the child who grows into adult Ruby (Julie Christie), a Gone with the Wind belle who smiles and rides off (on Sheba) with a Hispanic horseman to then morph into the pale contemporary international movie-star beauty befriended by dark natural-haired Celeste (non-professional French-African Colette Laffont).
Even prodded and coddled, Ruby cannot “remember” her past but visits rehearsing unsatisfied dancers; several times sees a smiling Rosie-the-Riveter welder (Kassandra Colson); frustrates the nocturnal pursuits of men (as does Celeste) whose ironically smiling religious float figure she becomes; flees into a derelict Secret Garden to stumble across Mother and the blonde child and what resembles her slightly older sister; and frightened in exaggerated silent-film makeup is ushered onto a stage containing the cutaway miner’s cabin and the Mother, to be booed by the suited audience that had followed her into the Theater but laughing hysterically back at them.
The story emerges in disjointed repetitions that may stand for dreams or the surreal subconscious. The 2010 Museum of Modern Art nine Potter features and five shorts retrospective pointed out the filmmaker’s continuing “exploration of female stereotypes in Hollywood narratives.” She herself has remarked that her work concerns the world in which both sexes exist, implying that the usual gender rôles are in ways socially imposed and that the one is to be understood in terms of, and complemented by, the other.