Herbie Hancock emphasized the power of a note not played. My reflection on the animated film “Frozen” begins in a fertile silence. It continues with an exuberant gate-crasher whose voice changes everything (“Anna through the Gate”). I waded (late) into this aesthetic reflection because a friend asked me to cosplay Olaf at a demonstration (“Being Olaf“).
Mid-way through the song “For the First Time in Forever”, Elsa approaches a high-window in the castle and gazes outward. Dozens of staff, hundreds of guests, prepare for her coronation. She begins to sing the song’s bridge:
“Don’t let them in/ don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal don’t feel/ Put on a show
Make one wrong move and everyone will know”.
Cut-scene magic conjures a duet: “It’s only for today”
[Anna: “it’s only for today!”]
“It’s agony to wait”
[“– it’s agony to wait!”]
“Tell the guards to open up… ”
We wait with her in the exquisite agony of an unplayed note.
All instruments cut the fourth beat of the measure short as Elsa takes a breath. That burst of quiet allows the words ‘open up’ to linger in space. Then comes…
“The Gate!” [“the gate!”]
Anna rushes to ‘the gate’ because opening offers the possibility of connection. Elsa fears to be known. In a flourish of ‘brush-strokes’, the brief bridge of the song paints Elsa’s state of mind in symbols and body-language. Reflected in a window her face is willfully neutral but a tint apprehensive. She closes her eyes and draws a deep breath to steel herself, then removes her glove as she approaches the painting of her father. His portrait is a serene but alert archetype of disciplined good-intentions; the orb and scepter are in his hands. No explanation is given for why Elsa must handle these without her gloves during the coronation. My interpretation is that those objects represent formal obligations and the ideals of regency coming into contact with her personal realities. Her parents created a regimen that disconnected her from her condition, making it difficult to master. With good intentions, they conflated “control” with “suppress”. There is no leeway to practice, to gain intuition about this inextricable part of her. The glove becomes central. It is the barrier between her true essence and society. Her emotional fluency is in a semiotic bond with the glove: she believes containing her essence is the only way to exist with others. Elsa’s distress hearkens to that brief scene where she wishes her parents goodbye, believing only they can love her entirety. Their death renders her alone with a self she does not fully understand. ‘The Gate’ is a ‘glove’ for the entire castle, its staff, and Anna too.
* * *
This summer has been a flurry for me. I wanted to know why I was drawn to the themes in “Frozen”, causing me to watch it four times. For over a month, I’ve sketched paragraphs.
I knew my brain worked differently but by evading labels I denied a need. Sheer will and determination were enough to juggle some stressors but never too many at once. Terrible and fascinating, both, is that the demon I feared was never mine. I feared I had depression. My mother had doused us all in her abject sadness but I refused to believe I was the same — and I wasn’t. My distress came from constantly wrestling a different beast in a struggle to be and appear competent. My true condition was/is labeled ‘disability’, ‘deficit’, ‘disorder’ — seemingly a polite way to say ‘stupid’. (I’m white but) I know this label is disproportionately applied to black children, bundled closely with implicit biases and sub-par treatment. So, I still struggle with using the term ADD for myself or anyone else. In a flourish of technical language I decided to call it “Interest-Based Cognition Challenges” (IBCC)… but the establishment may never follow my cue. Until then, I must resort to poetic language: my mind is like a series of spinning carousels, the booth of a wizard-turned-disc-jockey, a tumbler for light-beams, a kaleidoscope of DNA strands — recombinant thinking, a poetics forge, and a force I must practice using. What I needed was a saddle for this Dragon and perhaps some medicinal chemistry can be that. My mind is a strong power, not an evil demon.
When Elsa’s true nature showed, some called her a ‘monster’ — dehumanized her.
* * *
The person who snatches the glove rarely understands what is beneath. Anna takes Elsa’s glove.
Earlier in the evening, the two stand adjacent and share the aroma of warm chocolate with contented sighs: we see how kindred they could be. Anna releases the literal winter within Elsa with scorching words. Elsa takes that unwanted first step into the unknown, toward finding-out what she’s capable of doing– forced to embrace the risk of loss. I never wanted that moment, either. I know what it feels like to be a storm pretending to be a statue; to try to hold ‘the stage’; to believe that life depends upon a glove.
She loses control. Others react with fear and aggression. She flees across the fjord and into the mountains. Her fears come true and even worse. Feel that with me.
Beyond the gate– cue the academy award for ‘Best Original Song’ in 2013: “Let it Go“. The virtual ‘camera’ pans in on Elsa, dragging a long cape and a sad piano line behind her. She begins to quote the bridge of the earlier song (above) but deviates: “Conceal don’t feel/don’t let them know”
“Well now they know!” …and she throws off the other glove. She lets the cape blow away in the wind too, reinforcing her release (“The cold never bothered me anyway”). Watch the clip. She glances over her shoulder at Arendelle, her society, and remarks how small it looks from a distance; she crosses a chasm. She starts creating!
Let me ground us. Most of us are not hiding brilliant-awesome-fantastic ice powers. Despite my miraculous strides since February, I still worry about future employers and lovers discovering me before I master myself. Nevertheless, Elsa’s experiences on the North Mountain epitomize our hopes for the full, ungloved expression of our essences. She dons a dress of her own making, glittering in full glory for the first time. “The past is in the past,” she says, pitching her crown — the last vestige of constraint. She builds a perfect, crystalline castle made entirely of her element — gate included. The gloves are off but a new gate forms. Complete self-acceptance at the price of society. She slams her icy doors and ends the song.
She also makes Olaf; I will return to that.
But the peace of perspective! The perfect staircases! The chandelier! Yes, the chandelier is a powerful symbol. It is huge, gorgeous, almost geometrically impossible– and barely held aloft. At the end of the fight-scene, much later, it falls and breaks as her solitude is shattered: we see her glance upward for only a second before its momentous beauty crashes to the floor, knocking her senseless.
How could she imagine a life both in community and fully herself? She could have gone down the mountain with Anna. She did not. That needs little interpretation. What ever made Elsa believe she could be the force on the North Mountain and the person she had been in Arendelle at the same time? Consciously, she could not. When her hackles are raised she makes a giant, angry snow-man. These avatars of snow make layers of meaning beyond the ice-art: they are animate attitudes. When her guard is down the beloved snowman Olaf emerges, and with him profound hope and love!
There is just so much to extrapolate upon in this ‘princess movie’. Ultimately, Elsa’s powers are the greatest force at work in the world and plot of this film. Men hunt her with cross-bows and she almost skewers them with icicles! Hans puts her in shackles but she WASTES THEM! She wanders onto the frozen bay, in the blizzard of her own psyche-unleashed, past ships slowly crunching under the pressure of ice — by then Elsa’s powers are greater than Elsa. She is overwhelming and overwhelmed. The subject of our story very nearly dies. We never love Elsa for an act of heroism– only for being her unique self. Elsa deserves to be saved by Anna because Anna truly loves her, entirely. Both sisters are protagonists but I believe that Anna is our heroine: she loves and sacrifices herself for her sister without needing to changer her.
I think it is important to note, in closing, that Hans can suck it. Yes, Prince Hans can suck it. Spoiler alert, right? Suck it, Hans: Elsa could have impaled you with an icicle if she wanted (but she was better than that) and Anna does, indeed, punch you straight in your lying face–
–let me try something else:
Sometimes the character that best represents the raw amplitudes of our humanity (vulnerability, potential) has the most supernatural characteristic. Art is powerful.