Gender in Orlando (1992)

Topics: Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, Sally Potter Pages: 8 (2942 words) Published: March 11, 2013
In the heyday of figurative painting, it was customary to classify and evaluate works of art by their subject matter. This tendency is reflected by French chronicler of the arts André Félibien, writing in 1667 that “the most noble of all these [kinds of painting] is that which represents History in a composition of several figures” (qtd. in Duro 2). While the genre of historical painting in contemporary Western art has almost vanished, re-presentations of historical subjects in other forms of art, such as film, occupy very prominent positions. As filmmaker and film scholar Jeffrey Skoller suggests, “fiction and history are genres that signify in the same manner, producing the effects of self-contained verisimilitude” (xxii). Some movies, like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Titanic (1997), create their own verisimilar narratives, providing a mediated experience of official history shaping national and cross-national collective memory. Curiously, other films, such as The Alamo (John Lee Hancock, 2004) and Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee, 2008), despite having what seemed like the right ingredients and following the usual recipe, fail in all possible respects. Movies created with some degree of independence from studio systems (either from major entertainment industries, like Hollywood, or from state-sponsored ones) tend to display more flexibility in form, content, and audience impact. Oftentimes, alternative cinema dealing with historical subjects strives to unsettle both historical and fictional verisimilitude. Skoller characterizes James Benning’s Utopia (1998) as a film that “constructs history as a complex interplay between ‘what actually happened’ and the virtualities and imaginings to which such events give rise” (101). On a more mainstream end of the spectrum, Mabel O. Wilson discusses Jim Jarmush’s Mystery Train (1989) in comparison to the re-presentations of official history in The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, concluding that the latter displays “static historical narrative,” while the former with its “playful fusion of local myth, collective memory, and popular culture captures the polyvalent leitmotifs of the blues” (20). The above examples address historical narratives from the perspective of film production; equally important is the examination of the effects of such narratives on the audience. The impact of movies on the formation of individual and collective memory cannot be understated. Anton Kaes suggests that “surpassing schools and universities, film and television have become the most effective (and paradoxically least acknowledged) institutional vehicles for shaping historical consciousness” (112). Rather than considering alternative production modes, in this article I intend to look at a particular alternative mode of reception. The mode in question was theorized by Alison Landsberg in her 2004 study Prosthetic Memory, exploring the process and effects of memory prosthesis in fiction and in reality, creating a more optimistic (and arguably, more constructive) approach than, for example, Kaes’. In order to formulate a model of alternative spectatorship, I apply use Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory to analyze Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name. The circumstances of Orlando‘s production are quite unusual: the film is a co-production of the UK, the USSR, France, Italy and the Netherlands, and was filmed in the UK, Russia and Uzbekistan. The film is far from a conventional historical blockbuster. When discussing its funding, lead actor Tilda Swinton claims that “the Americans didn’t understand it at all” (qtd. in Glaessner 13), hence the necessity of finding financing for the film within Europe. The subject matter of the film is equally far from that of a typical historical epic: the title character is a man who later becomes a woman, and who does not age (at our first encounter of Orlando in Elizabethan...
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