Present in the Picture: Potter’s Inclusion of the Audience in ORLANDO
27 March 2011
It is difficult to articulate why Sally Potter’s Orlando is so captivating. It is not just the bold statement on gender roles and sexuality; although, the film’s brilliant critique of sex is clever and biting. It is not just how aesthetically pleasing the film is; although, juxtaposing black and white/light and dark, as well as its use of vibrate colors, stunning (yet intentionally ostentatious) costuming, and beautiful sets are a treat for the eyes. And, it is not just how enthralling the film’s music is; although, the score, composed of sounds ranging from classical to new age, builds intensity and adds poignancy. In part, what makes Orlando so captivating is Potter’s camerawork, which, at times, pulls the audience into the film and into Orlando’s (Tilda Swinton) timeless yet timely life.
The most obvious examples of Potter’s inclusion of the audience come from Orlando’s asides. Several times in the film Orlando looks or speaks directly to the audience; sometimes Orlando shoots the audience a telling look and other times Orlando articulates a thought or insight. These moments are significant because in them Orlando establishes a consistent, loyal relationship with the audience, which Orlando does not have with any character in the film. Although surrounded by various people, Orlando only shares candidly, free of pretense with the audience. These asides incorporate the audience as silent characters experiencing Orlando’s life as he/she does, with his/her commentary as a guide.
On a more theoretical level, Potter’s unconventional use of asides explores the relationship between scopophilia and cinema. Scopopilia, simply, is the pleasure gained from looking and/or being looked at, and film theorists argue this is a significant part of people’s interest and satisfaction in cinema. In Orlando, not only does the audience look at Orlando, Orlando looks at the audience. Generally in film, the audience is made to feel they can look, or gaze (to be even more theoretical) without ever being “caught,” meaning the characters will never acknowledge they are being watched by an audience. In Potter’s film, asides identify Orlando is aware of the audience’s presence. Moreover, the candid relationship between Orlando and the audience, established through the asides, suggests Orlando is comfortable with being watched, perhaps even enjoying it as much as the audience. Although Orlando exposes the audience’s scopohilic delight, the audience becomes more responsive and alert to Orlando because, not only has he/she has made each audience member a confidant, but Orlando is also satisfying the audience’s desire to be looked at.
Beyond this, Potter often uses panning and tracking camera movement, which increase the shot’s duration, to prevent an excessive amount of cuts and disruption in vital scenes. This technique supports the strong bond, established by the asides, Orlando has with the audience. Often times in filmmaking, when capturing two or more characters engaged in a conversation, directors cut back and forth between close-ups or mid-shots of each character as they dialogue speak. The continuous, abrupt cuts interfere with the audience’s emotional investment in the scene. In Orlando, Potter intentionally avoids frequent cuts during Orlando’s most intimate conversations. The continuity reveals every detail in real-time, which make the audience feel present in the moment with Orlando.
For example, directly after the two meet, as Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) and Orlando drink tea at her home and Shelmerdine introduces himself to Orlando, Potter uses effective camera movements to avoid cutting. Although, Potter briefly uses the traditional cut pattern, back and forth between each character in a series of close-up shots, in the beginning of the scene, as soon as the conversation deepens to the topic of “liberty” and, eventually, freedom from gender expectations, Potter transitions into a single swaying shot. She places the camera at a high angle behind the characters and slowly sways back and forth between the two as they speak. This movement, like the asides, invites the audience into the film. The camera moves the same way a person’s head would if he/she was standing behind Orlando and Shelmerdine watching their discussion. In mimicking how a person’s head would turn if actually present for this conversation, the audience enters the film, once again taking one the role of the silent, loyal character by Orlando’s side.
Audiences cannot help but by mesmerized and captivated by Orlando because the camerawork allows readers of the film to feel a part of it. The audience knows Orlando; in fact, the audience becomes Orlando’s best friend. As centuries pass, through “Death,” “Love,” Poetry,” “Politics,” “Society,” “Sex,” and “Birth,” the audience remains by Orlando’s side. The coy, insightful, and sometimes humorous looks Orlando slips the audience are lasting, relatable images. And, the way Potter sways the audience around Orlando’s most intimate conversations makes the audience feel they are not only present, but significant in the film.