Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Searching for Divine Inspiration at Walt Disney World

Mere hours after debuting our Divine-inspired, Swampflix-sponsored Mardi Gras krewe this past Fat Tuesday, CC & I found ourselves riding in the back seat of an SUV, exhausted, and headed toward Disney World. An immersive, three day adventure to the Happiest Place on Earth is always going to be a disorienting vacation no matter what mental state you’re in. Yet, there was something especially absurd about diving head first into such a wholesome fantasy space after running rampant through the French Quarter all morning, dressed as famous drag queen and frequent John Waters collaborator Divine in the alcohol-enhanced sunshine. 

At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to accomplish while at Disney World besides checking off a few boxes as a film buff. That part was easy. A visit to a Walt Disney memorabilia museum titled One Man’s Dream, a similar Star Wars exhibit, a charmingly outdated 3-D Muppets screening, and a regularly-running “short film festival” of interactive Disney & Pixar selections all satisfied my apparent addiction to sitting in the dark, watching moving images. What was a much more difficult itch to scratch was maintaining our focus on our previously most recent task of keeping Divine’s legacy alive. You’d think that finding anything related to Divine or John Waters at large would be an impossible feat in such an aggressively clean environment, but Divine’s presence can be found in all things. And in Disney World, it can be found in Ursula.

The sea witch Ursula, of course, is the main villain in Disney’s modern animated classic The Little Mermaid. Although the construction of her persona can be attributed to many different influences, including both Elaine Stritch & Joan Collins, Ursula’s physical form was directly modeled after Divine (the top, non-octopus half was, anyway). The Little Mermaid‘s animators scrapped an initial idea to adorn Ursula with a hairstyle similar to the one Divine rocks in Pink Flamingos for being “too over the top,” but they did notably maintain her signature eye makeup & unmistakable body type for Ursula’s final form. The characters’ resemblance isn’t exactly uncanny, but it is blatant.

Ursula’s gigantic presence in The Little Mermaid, both physical & narrative, is a difficult effect to replicate in a kids’ amusement park, not least of all because the park would likely want to avoid scaring the shit out of children. It makes sense, then, that human actors would only be asked to portray Ariel from the film for the park’s rigidly scheduled photo ops & daily Festival of Fantasy parade. That doesn’t mean Ursula (and, by extension, Divine) has been locked out of the park entirely, though. She’s lurking around with her slithering eel accomplices (mostly in the form of large animatronic puppets) if you know where to look for her. Hopefully our search for Divine inspiration within Disney World parks will help expedite others’ in the future, in case anyone finds themselves visiting Orlando while as thirsty for Divine content as we were.

We started with the most obvious place you’d think to find Ursula lurking in the Walt Disney World parks: Magic Kingdom. There is exactly one The Little Mermaid-themed ride in Disney World’s oldest & most iconic park: Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid. Outside the ride you can wait in line to meet & take pictures with a professional Ariel cosplayer in her “grotto.” In line for the actual ride, Scuttle, the hoarder seagull, tries his best to simplify & recount the film’s plot in a digestible morsel to temper your boredom & distract you from heat exhaustion. Once inside, you’re strapped into a slow-moving clamshell vehicle that glides peacefully by two animatronic Ariels. One sings, “Part of Your World” and the other dances along to the ride’s centerpiece: a colorful, puppet-filled rendition of “Under the Sea” that’s doused with the widest variety of day-glo paint you’re ever likely to see in a single room.

None of that underwater glitz & glamor is our concern here, though. We’re looking for Divine. Ursula arrives in the ride just after the second Ariel in the “Under the Sea” number, isolated all by herself in a dark cove. She is a beautiful, oversized mechanical puppet I can only picture in my memory as cackling maniacally, even though in reality she sings a song. The purple sea witch is a breath of fresh, menacing air in a literal sea of smiling faces. Soak it in, because it will not last for long. After a glorious moment of hearing Ursula belt out the chorus of her show-stopping number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in front of her giant crystal ball, she fades from the rest of the ride (or at least her inhuman, Divine-inspired form does), never to be heard from again. It was an all-too-brief Ursula encounter, but it fortunately wouldn’t be our last.

The next stop for Ursula content was a little less obvious and just happened to be something we stumbled into. As a park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) is a little less cartoon-heavy than Magic Kingdom. This will be especially true once its current in-progress overhaul bulks up its Star Wars & MCU-themed attractions (for obviou$ rea$on$). The park is intensely focused on live theater, though, with attractions like The Tower of Terror & whatever the monstrously obnoxious Aerosmith rollercoaster is called existing as total outliers in an environment typically dedicated to more traditionally dramatic modes of entertainment. We were already having enough fun in the park being traumatized by the uncanny valley nightmare of the Robert Osbourne-hosted The Great Movie Ride (R.I.P.) and the distinctly Norman Bates theatricality of our server at the 50’s Prime Time Café, but there’s no good time that can’t be improved by a little Divine. Thankfully, the Divine lurking in Hollywood Studios was a large one. Freakishly large, even.

Located in the park’s Animated Courtyard area, the routinely performed indoor show Voyage of the Little Mermaid is very similar in content to the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride at Magic Kingdom (as if you couldn’t tell by their titles). Fish sing “Under the Sea;” Ariel sings “Part of Your World;” Ursula sings “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then promptly disappears before the happily ever afters. It’s the same tidy retelling of the animated film with one major exception: the puppets. Whereas the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride is all 100% animatronic puppetry, the Voyage of the Little Mermaid is more of a mixed media affair. The fish puppets are all hand-operated by performers working in the stage’s shadows, Ariel & her boy toy Eric are portrayed by live human actors (as is the more degrading role of Eric’s dog), and the whole show is substantially beefed up by projections from the original animated film, laser light displays, and a waterfall curtain that smells authentically like seawater (whether or not the effect is intentional). It’s a totally pleasant, refreshingly cool way to spend 17 minutes of your life in the park, but what’s most impressive is the way the mini-play brings Ursula to life.

While Ariel & her fishy friends are given a new form of representation in Voyage of the Little Mermaid to distinguish them from Journey of the Little Mermaid, Ursula remains animatronic puppet. She’s so much more impressive in the show than she is in the ride, though, as her size is blown up to 12 feet high & 10 feet wide. I already fell in love with the mechanical puppet from the Little Mermaid ride (which is the more strikingly beautiful one in terms of basic visual craft), but it’s just absolutely dwarfed by the intimidatingly gigantic puppet from the show. It’s the kind of scale & magnificence that almost makes you want to fall to your knees in worship. In other words, it’s absolutely Divine.

That giant puppet would be the last Divine presence we located at Disney World, but, honestly, her magnificent size would’ve been difficult to top by any other display. Maybe there was an Ursula lurking somewhere in one of the three parks we didn’t have a chance to visit (Animal Kingdom, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach), but that seems highly unlikely. The only other places to search for our Divine inspiration, then, would be the park’s other other main attraction besides rides & shows: merchandise.

Disney villains from decades-old cartoons aren’t going to move nearly as much merch as the likes of an Elsa or an Olaf or an, um, Other Thing from Frozen. That doesn’t mean there’s no Ursula merch to be found in the parks, though. You just sometimes have to accept her as a package deal with other characters. For instance, outside the Finding Nemo ride at Epcot (which dumps you into a surprisingly decent aquarium), there’s an underwater-themed gift shop that sells a collection of Little Mermaid “squeeze toy” figurines. Ursula’s included, but you have to buy the whole collection to get her. Similarly, I found (and, of course, purchased) a purple baseball cap that features several of Disney’s more infamous female villains like Maleficent, the Evil Queen from Snow White, and, duh, Ursula. According to a brief search of the term “The Little Mermaid” on Disney World’s creepily helpful Disney Go app, there were some really nice Ursula “couture de force” figurines, art prints, and blouses for sale, but we never laid eyes on them (and they would’ve been far outside our price range anyway).

If you really want to take home Ursula’s visage isolated on some affordable merchandise, your only viable option is to find her on an enamel pin. We happened to purchase some Ursula pins at a kiosk located outside Space Mountain, but Disney has a surprisingly strong, park-wide enamel pin culture. You could probably find the damn things in any shop you poke your head into, as a lot of the stores seem to carry overlapping merch. (The same also goes with the squeeze toy figurines we found outside the Finding Nemo ride.) There’s also a lot of annual turnover on the merch that’s sold within the parks, so not only is it possible that we missed out on some sweet Ursula gear when we happened to be there, but you can also likely find excessed deadstock of old Ursula merch at the various Disney outlet malls sprinkled throughout Orlando.

We really have no clue where Krewe Divine’s headed in the future in terms of scale or membership. It’s only a matter of time until one of us dresses as Ursula on Fat Tuesday, though, so it really was a treat to cap off our first year as a microscopic Mardi Gras krewe by treating Walt Disney World like an unofficial Divine scavenger hunt. As the release of The Little Mermaid is already nearly three decades behind us, it’s likely that Ursula’s Divine presence within the amusement park is on borrowed time. As is, she’s seemingly only represented in the form of two (beautiful) animatronic puppets and a few enamel pins already. Even that’s enough representation worth celebrating, though. I was overjoyed to see her there in any form. In a way it’s a kind of a miracle that there was ever any John Waters-adjacent content to be found at Disney World at all. It’s even more of a miracle that it happened to be Divine.

-Brandon Ledet