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The importance of being over earnest

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The importance of being over-earnest

I am in the middle of digesting critical opinion of YES in the UK. It seems – to my delight and surprise – that most of the reviews and articles have been very appreciative of the film, of the risks taken with form and of the political and personal passions which motivated its making. But I have spotted two words, which have appeared here and there as caveats in otherwise positive pieces, which I have found puzzling. One is ‘intellectual’, usually used pejoratively, and the other is ‘earnest’ or ‘over-earnest’ used to describe my work, and me.

To be wary of intellectualism is an understandable, though very English, tendency. The French, Italian, Mexican and Japanese, to name just a few other cultures, have no such feeling of revulsion for the reminders of the activity of the mind in cinema or elsewhere. I sometimes wonder if the English are not equally embarrassed about having a mind as having a body. It is ironic, given that I left school at 16 and have largely made my own way in the world based on intuitive decisions, treading the boards, doing plies in dance classes, singing in smoky clubs, spending hours in laboratories and cutting rooms, peering through lenses, addressing surfaces, colours, clothes, objects, and – above all – people, that I should be so identified with language and the intellect.

Perhaps overt displays of thinking bring class connotations of privilege with them, the haughty reek of Oxbridge and its long tendrils of power exercised behind closed doors. But I have never been part of that world. Or perhaps it is my very lack of formal education that has pushed me, hungrily, towards books and writing, and perhaps my hunger is indecent, somehow, and certainly uncool.

Which brings us to earnestness. I confess, unreservedly, to being an earnest person. As a teenager this lust for engagement with people and ideas manifested as a tendency to blushing. I tried to cover my rosy, mutable cheeks with thick white make-up in an attempt to look pale and interesting rather than pink and passionate; it never worked. I have always cared too much, in some people’s eyes, about everything.

At thirteen I was marching for days on end, my feet raw and blistered, against the atom bomb. During the Cuban missile crisis I was handing out pro-peace leaflets in my school uniform at underground stations after school. I heckled fascists in the street when they set up their horrid little stands; as a small girl I always intervened when I saw bullying – rushing in earnestly, my arms rotating like a circular saw to compensate for my diminished stature.

I have stayed up all night more times than I could ever remember to try and perfect a paragraph, whether in a school essay, a letter to a friend, a grant application, or a script. I have driven grown men to tears in my perfectionist capacity to go on and on in the quest for the right degree of contrast in a print, or to maintain the precise, unique range of harmonics in a voice or a musical instrument whilst in a recording studio.

I fear I will never be cool, but will remain relentlessly unfashionable, and eagerly, blushingly over-earnest until I am a thoroughly embarrassing old lady.

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Earnest at six

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Hiding, earnestly, at 15

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Earnest in tights at 18

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Earnest with Tilda

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Thinking, earnestly, in Buenos Aires

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Embarrassingly Earnest?

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Earnest with Ernesto

Text © Sally Potter. All pictures © Adventure Pictures unless otherwise indicated