My kids are, as is now mandatory, huge fans of Frozen. Fortunately it’s a pretty good movie; I don’t know if my increased tolerance for schmaltz is due to parenthood or if it’s simply concomitant with the increased confidence of age, but god I love me a showtune. Let it Go has inevitably joined Jabberwocky and Where the Wild Things Are in the limited pantheon of things I can recite the words to by heart.
Look, I’ve had to watch this film a lot, OK?
The other movie I’ve been able to (re)watch recently was Jarhead. There’s a bit where all the marines are watching the Ride of the Valkyries scene in Apocalypse Now – you remember, the bit where a load of other fictional marines fly in on attack helicopters and massacre an entire village – and whooping and cheering the place up. On the DVD commentary Anthony Swafford (the ex-marine who wrote the book) explains the incongruity of soldiers cheering this massively anti-war film by saying simply that when shown to marines, every film become pro-war. With that in mind, you’ll enjoy this clip; skipping forward to 2.10 is well recommended.
So then, The Death of the Author. Once your work is out there you’ve no control over how people will perceive it, and your opinions on whatever its ‘truth’ may be are no more or less valid than anyone else’s. If people want to see your charming family comedy as a fist-pumping salute to American exceptionalism and martial power (“I don’t care what they’re going to say.”) then that’s entirely their prerogative. Or if they want to see it as a big coming out party for Elsa in specific and Disney in general then that’s just dandy. You’ll probably guess that I personally favour the second of those interpretations.
Woolf originally saw Orlando as a “writers holiday” after the more exacting To The Lighthouse (it says here), and was pleasantly surprised by how seriously it was taken after its publication. Like Elsa, it’s an exercise in hiding in plain sight, being as it is a fictionalized biography of Vita Sackville-West, an aristocratic bon vivant upon whom Woolf apparently had a bit of a crush. Not without a certain irony, in Orlando Woolf gives us a writer who resolutely refuses to die, as the title character in born in Elizabethan times and lives for over 300 years. And changes sex halfway through (Sackville-West was bisexual). I use sex as opposed to gender, as this is clearly a very significant work in the way it preempts the performative turn, i.e. the theory that identity (and gender as an aspect of identity) is not innate but performed; it’s not the case that people are male or female, but that they perform maleness and femaleness. Your gender is what it is as a result of how you act it: Orlando pays the physiological aspects of her transformation from man to woman no heed whatsoever; it’s only once she has to start wearing dresses and petticoats that she feels herself becoming/acting (the two words are largely interchangeable here) female.
So there’s substance beneath the froth, clearly. But froth there is, and it’s worth noting that for all the genuinely important issues addressed in Orlando, there’s still a very clear sense of fun. I managed to get a fair bit of the satire, so can only hazard a guess at how much more is there for people who actually know about this stuff, but even if you miss the in-jokes Woolf still does a great line in metatextual bathos:
Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon; Is there land or is their none? to which, if we are prophets, we make the answer ‘Yes’; if we are truthful we say ‘No’; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence…
She’s funny, is what I’m saying. And without resorting to comedy sidekick snowmen, either. It’s still a product of its time and place though, and the occasional racial epithet can’t help but remind you of this and jar you out of your progressive gushing, and for all that it seeks to question attitudes towards gender it still seems to accept the underlying paradigm as essentially binary. Still, a journey of a thousand miles and all that, and when there are so many battles still to be fought you take what succor you can. Let the storm rage on.