15 November 2010

WWQTW?: Orlando

Friday night was the last meeting of WWQTW? for 2010. I am so thankful to lead this club and love all the great discussions we've had over the last few months. I am working on some really cool movies and surprises for next year, but until then you're on your own! Check out my list of movies everyone should have seen (and the basis for what we watch in the club) here, or just click on the "wwqtw" label at the bottom to fill your days during the holiday season.

Back to Friday! We had a great turn out and even better eats! I'm going to have to start taking pictures of the spread: stuffed phyllo assorted bites, stuffed brie, crab dip, pizza rolls, Olive Garden salad (love!), and French silk pie to finish. My Sausage Tempeh Puff Pastries were a big hit as well and I will post the recipe on my food blog this week. I wanted to continue along the same themes as last meeting where we spoke about gender and identity from the perspective of "Queer Cinema", but this time I wanted to focus on female/feminist film.

"Orlando" (1992) was written and directed by Sally Potter and based on the book by Virginia Woolf. The novel itself was a love letter to Woolf's mistress Vita Sackville-West, herself an accomplished poet. The film begins in 1500 with the young Orlando (Tilda Swinton) becoming the confidant (and lover?) of Queen Elizabeth I. It is Elizabeth that urges Orlando to "...not whither, do not fade". Here the theme of immortality is introduced in the film. After the deaths of the Queen and Orlando's parents, he falls a sleep for some time and awakens in 1610 ("Love") and begins an affair with Sascha, a Russian noble woman. Later, in 1650, he begins a poem ("The Oak Tree") about his love and hatred of Sascha and women in general. In 1700 ("Politics"), Orlando is made the liaison to Constantinople and remains there until war forces him to rethink his priorities. When we next meet Orlando ("Society"), he is now a she. "The same person, no difference at all, just a different sex". The Lady Orlando now makes her way in the world of upper-crust society as a woman. The limits to her freedom and privilege as a woman are all the more harsh as she still thinks of herself as a man, or if not male than as equal to men. In 1850 ("Sex") she has a brief affair with Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) that ends when she is forced from her estate for being an unmarried woman. Now in the section named "Birth", we see Orlando as a successful mother who is only now able to live the life she always dreamt and be the person she always wanted to be.

The main themes of Orlando are love, immortality, and gender roles. When Orlando is a young man, he is a hopeless romantic more interested in love that station. It is not until he is in love that he recognizes the "treachery of women" and the pain that comes with pleasure. "I can find only three words to describe the female sex. None of which is worth expressing". He is happy then to live a quiet life, alone at home, meditating in the far East, or sitting in a salon (though now as a woman his opinion is worth less). Love comes knocking again in the guess of an American adventurer whom she proposes to upon first meeting. He, however, recognizes her spark and refuses. They have a wonderful conversation about what it means to be a "real man" or a "real woman". When he leaves, she has the exact conversation with him as she did with Sascha, only now Orlando speaks the woman's part and Shelmerdine speaks Orlando's. It is useful to note that the two loves of Orlando's life are both tied to the weather- Sascha must leave when the ice cracks and her ship can sail, while Shelmerdine must leave when the wind changes direction. It is a not so subtle metaphor, yet one that works.

Immortality is another theme of the film. Orlando lives over 300 years and sees and experiences the world in a unique way. He falls in love, breaks his heart, goes abroad, changes gender, falls in love, breaks his heart, loses his home, and generally looks for the meaning in all of it. It is finally in modern times that she is "no longer trapped by destiny" and can live as a free spirit.

Gender is obviously a theme here. Orlando lives multiple lives as both a man and a woman, but it is the female gender that he eventually sticks to and seems to have been working towards his whole life. It is as a woman that he can express himself more freely and avoid the things he finds distasteful. A woman can speak of love, avoid war and conflict, be the mistress of her own home, and an independent person. It is fascinating to see the history of the world played out over one persons lifetime. The way each subtle changes hits Orlando plays across his face. He winks, knowingly toward the camera.

Potter is known for her avant-garde film making style. Her films often seem to follow no discernible plot, characters break the forth wall, and the fantasy of the mind becomes reality. She is also regarded as a feminist filmmaker, though I don't hear her male counterparts labeled as misogynist filmmakers like a badge of honor. Her first film starred Julie Christie as a movie star who tries to understand her roots. It has no real plot and the script is a bit weak. She spent 9 years working on the "Orlando" script, trying to show her detractors that she was capable of a good script. She succeeds here and makes one of my favorite, little appreciated movies here. She followed it up with "The Tango Lesson" in which she also stars. It's better than "The Gold Diggers" but her refusal to write in the Hollywood standard of 3-arch narration may turn many viewers off. Truth be told, the only other movie of hers I liked was "The Man Who Cried" starring Johnny Deep and Christina Ricci. It tells the story of a Russian Jew (Ricci) who is separated from her family as a child. As an adult, she becomes a professional singer, falls in love with a gypsy (Deep), and searches for her father as the Nazi's invade France. Her most recent film, "Rage", is the story of a murder at a fashion party told through the interviews a blogger conducts on the scene. There is no set, only a plain brightly coloured backdrop and the actors speak directly into the camera. While it is an interesting concept, it quickly becomes tiresome and boring.

Tilda Swinton is one of my favorite actresses in history, hands down. She (finally) won an Oscar in 2008 for "Michael Clayton", and has been nominated for several awards for her work in "Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons", "Burn After Reading", "Young Adam", and "The Deep End". I also love her as the angel Gabriel in "Constantine". She is a fearless actress and great talent. The whole club was in agreement that we could not think of any other actor to play the role of Orlando. Her voice subtly shifts up a register when she becomes a woman, and the knowing looks she gives the camera take on a whole new meaning. She would have to be sympathetic for the film to be successful and she is.

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards in Costume design and Art Direction. It is amazing to think this film was made for roughly the equivalent of $8 million. Costume designer Sandy Powell would go on to win 3 Oscars for her work in "Shakespeare in Love", "The Aviator", and "The Young Victoria". It truly is a beautiful film to watch, though the DVD transfer is sometimes a bit sketchy. Maybe it was just my copy. The transitions between decades/chapters was often done on screen and followed by a title card instead of the other way around. This seemed to confuse some of the club (While running through a hedge labyrinth and going from 1750 to 1850: "Where did she find a change of clothes?" -"There was a hedge of requirement?").

Further viewing: The Gold Diggers, The Man Who Cried, Mrs. Dalloway, Thelma & Louise (the male perspective to feminist film), Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Transamerica, The Fountain, Looking for Mr Goodbar, Frida, Lovely & Amazing, The Piano, The Virgin Suicides, The Namesake, Gas Food Lodging, Personal Velocity, Brief Crossing,

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