Friday 15 August 2014


(August 2014)

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.
There’s also the undeniable fact that Frozen contains some storytelling that’s so well crafted as to be almost elegant. It’s not just the way the opening number sets up the main conflict(s) for the entire film (“Beware the frozen heart” indeed), but how Anna and Elsa’s play in the ballroom basically prefigures the entire second act. Elsa freezes everything and makes a snowman, after which Anna slides/gets pushed over a jump by someone she loves, climbs higher and higher, and finally gets accidentally hurt by her sister. The crucial difference is how she gets to see the trolls and is healed; as a child she’s taken by her parents and their response, while well-meaning, is arguably both worse than the original problem and downright abusive, but as an adult she’s guided by an equal (actually an inferior, given she’s a princess and Kristoff’s an orphaned ice salesman, though even then he’s basically just a proxy for Elsa (really into ice, loner, isolated, desperate for “human hugs”, but eventually thaws (HA!) once the right sort of emotion is applied); he’s the yin to Elsa’s yang, but what with her being cooped up in her ice palace she needs an avatar with which Anna can actually interact, plus this is still a Disney movie so we can’t do away with the heteronormative romance entirely) and ultimately takes it upon herself to make things right in a journey representing, as it does, the path from the dependence on flawed role-models which we all experience as children to the independence (however flawed that too may be) of adulthood.

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.


  1. Miraculously, I have seen (in full at least) exactly zero of the films and books you reference here. (We have the Frozen soundtrack, but the kids have headphones; the movie has been on at other people's houses, but I've been talking to adults, etc.) Nonetheless, the way you move between them all is most impressive. It is a very enjoyable read.

    1. Thanks. I'd say about 50% (or more) of my free time is in some way linked to Frozen right now, even if it is just saying, 'No, we can't watch it right now. Maybe later,' over and over again, so it was good to find an excuse to talk about it here, however tenuous the link (though I appreciate the 'impressive' line, however tatemae it might be ;)