Monday, October 31, 2005

Picked Flick #84: Orlando

1993 marked the first year I penetrated the suburban county line with the explicit purpose of seeing an art movie. I was a sophomore in high school, and with the intrepid Blosser sisters, Susan and Carol, I went to the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7 in Northern Virginia to see first Much Ado About Nothing and then Orlando. We all loved the first movie, drunk as we were on Shakespeare and on our ripe imaginations of Ken and Em as companionate perfection. Remember those days?

I, though, was secretly much more taken with Orlando, a movie I had virtually made up my mind to love anyway. Another anecdote: the first issue of Entertainment Weekly I ever bought and obsessed over was the Summer Movie Preview in 1993, warmly remembered for the moment at which I finished reading about Cliffhanger and Jurassic Park and Sleepless in Seattle and suddenly flipped to a picture of a red-headed androgyne and a withered old man cast as Queen Elizabeth, both of them bedecked in the most outlandishly plush theatrical finery while escorting a pack of grey, almost aqueline hunting dogs down the proverbial garden path. Aside from its sheer beauty, I couldn't believe that this picture was afforded a full half-page, or that the plot explored a literal, magical switching of a person's gender, or that it was written by this "Virginia Woolf" about whom I was just learning. (Albee's pun escaped me entirely; frankly, it kind of still does.) It was hard for me to imagine that Orlando could possibly measure up to the promise of this photostill, so imagine my awe when that shot came and went a mere 10 or 15 minutes into the film. Imagine my elation at actually loving the film, rather than just posing as one who loved it. The minute I reached the end of The Vampire Lestat, which I was then reading, I lept into Woolf's novel, was stunned by how different it was in tone as well as incident, but I loved it just as much, and couldn't stop gazing at Tilda Swinton's arch but somehow sly, Holbein-type portrait on the cover of the Harcourt Brace reprint. We could sum all of this up as a sort of Queen's Throat moment in a wee, proto-queer cinephile's young life, and for all of these reasons, Orlando will always remain a favorite.

There are other reasons, Swinton's gorgeous and utterly impossible face being one. Watching Young Adam last year with a friend, I leaned into his ear and said, "Her face is like a brain." You can literally read her thoughts, in an almost disconcertingly subtle and complete way, and the thoughts are always interesting—sometimes much more so than the movies she's in, though that isn't the case with Orlando. Released as Derek Jarman lay dying, though of course I had no sense of this at the time, Orlando confirmed that both Swinton and costume designer/archangel Sandy Powell would have thriving careers even without their patron and discoverer. I like to think of the frankly wobbly coda of Orlando, when Sally Potter uses rough, handheld Super 8 to render the modern Orlando's return to the field where we first met him/her, as at least in part a gentle elegy for Jarman, who so brilliantly pioneered the interpolation of celluloid and video as a uniquely expressive collage-form for the cinema. I like how many of Orlando's technical ventures pay off, like David Motion's defiantly modern score, as brazenly instrumented as those of Jon Brion but with techno undercurrents and, still yet, some classical melodic lines. I like the use of Russian and Uzbek locations to sub in for, respectively, the dowager Elizabeth's icebound Winter Court and the blistering palace-resort of Lothaire Bluteau's Turkish pasha, and I like wondering how they possibly made this movie for $5 million. I like that cinematographer Alexei Rodionov's mannerist motif of panning back and forth between dialogue speakers, bending if not quite breaking ye olde 180° rule, somehow resonates as clever rather than just as a sterile conceit in this story all about cryptic transitions and spaces between. The later epochs in the narrative get something of a bum's rush after all the visual, musical, and narrative lavishments on the early passages, but Orlando is a hoot, a hit, and a surprisingly boisterous comedy for most of its running time. You'd expect it to smell like scholarly folios, but it doesn't. It's as warm as those morning rays of sun that discover before anyone else does, with no Crying Game anxieties whatsoever, that he isn't a he anymore. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...


that this only reached #84. love the write up.

11:31 PM, October 31, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks, my soul brother. I'm a little surprised, too, but I'm frankly more surprised that High Art isn't, so to speak, higher. You know how much I treasure my Greta impersonation.

11:47 PM, October 31, 2005  

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