Thursday, April 16, 2009

Zoë Heyn-Jones: Eye and Brain, Torn Asunder -- Reading Ideology in Sally Potter’s Orlando

Eye and Brain, Torn Asunder: Reading Ideology in Sally Potter’s Orlando
by Zoë Heyn-Jones

An investigation of how gender, genre and politics play out in Sally Potter’s Orlando.


Potter’s Orlando exhibits a high degree of thematic, narrative, and stylistic fluidity and pluralism that would trouble any binary assertion. The film exists within a complex terrain of issues, from Orlando’s status as a literary adaptation, to questions of the politics of the film’s aesthetics and representational strategies, to its engagement within a particular socio-historical context. This paper will address the issue of how these disparate strands of Orlando’s matrix come together to create its “readable ideological orientation” (Monk, 181). An ideological reading of the film is inevitable considering the concerns stated above, and ideology in Orlando can be discussed in terms of the performance of gender, androgyny as transcendence, and the film’s situation in the (post)heritage-film debate.

Costume and the Performance of Gendered Identity

Analysis of costume is often ignored in film studies. Influenced by the work of Pamela Church Gibson, Sarah Street believes that

the possible reasons for the relative scarcity of sustained analyses of film costume… [are] the assumption, held by many academics, that fashion is a frivolous, feminine field; the suspicion that fashion is merely an expression of capitalist commodity fetishism and the opinion, held by some feminists, that fashion is one of the primary ways in which women are trapped into gratifying the male gaze (1).

Just as the analysis of costume itself is given short shrift in cinema studies, so, too, is the analysis of the ‘costume drama’. Julianne Pidduck asserts that “often perceived as a woman’s genre, costume drama shares some of the abuse regularly leveled at soap operas and popular romance” (5). This lack of critical analysis of the costume drama is surprising when one considers the myriad avenues for analysis within the genre: “gendered accounts of (historical) significance, taste and quality are intertwined with the development of the historical epic, literary adaptation, British ‘quality’ cinema and television, melodrama and the ‘woman’s film’” (5). It is with the duality of the under-examination of the costume drama, and its enormous potential, in mind that I will begin a discussion of Sally Potter’s Orlando.

While a discussion of costume might, at first glance, appear to be perhaps a (literally) surface-level analysis, it contains possibilities for radical critique. On one hand, ”’costume’ suggests the pleasures and possibilities of masquerade–the construction, constraint, and display of the body through clothes” (Pidduck, 4). Contrary to its pleasures and emancipatory potential, however, is the sustained view that costume goes hand-in-hand with a patriarchal notion of gendered identity construction. The costuming in Orlando is both a source of visual pleasure and a comment on its inherent role in the construction of gendered identity.

Costume designer Sandy Powell’s elaborate creations are preeminent in Orlando’s diegesis and the focal point for discussions of the film’s stylistic excess. In her discussion of the film’s baroque scopic regime, Cristina Degli-Eposti states:

The grandiose, the redundant, the trompe l’oeil, the excessiveness of the details of the mise-en-scene work together to produce an effect of estrangement and separation from previous aesthetic forms – those forms of the baroque style elaborated, manipulated, “staged”, and translated to excess (79).

The frame is consistently filled with ridiculously large and ornate ball gowns, heavy powdered wigs, and countless other stylized pieces of apparel, making costume the essential part of the mise-en-scene that translates to excess.

While the sheer volume and ornate nature of the costumes could simply signify a postmodern parody or social commentary on the bourgeoisie through cinematic excess, costume also has narrative significance. Queen Elizabeth I slips a garter onto Orlando’s leg as she declares her affection for the young Lord. This scene is remarkable in terms of gender performance: a decrepit Quentin Crisp plays the Virgin Queen, while the Lord Orlando is played by Tilda Swinton, both of whom are swathed in ornate garments. While the garter on Orlando’s leg acts as a signifier of the Queen’s affection for the Lord’s youthful masculinity, it also acts as a narrative tool, as it is into the garter that the Queen slips the deed for Orlando’s house as she coos, “For you, Orlando. And for your heirs.” Costume here plays a central role in both the indexing of gender as well as narrative progression.

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