As the conversations start about how and when to peel back the layers of restrictions set up by stay at home orders, I’m thinking about one part of this as a person who loves going to the movies:
Until there’s a widely available vaccine, how are we going to go back to movie theaters?
How can we return to being comfortable sharing that much personal space with a room full of strangers, sitting elbow-to-elbow (or recliner-to-recliner)? Even if theaters adopt a practice of underselling venues, that doesn’t change the basic theater layout that requires you to squeeze past each other to find your seat, go to the bathroom, or get a refill.
But if we’re unable to confidently return to the theater, part of what makes movies so memorable and engaging could be drastically altered.
The crowd is part of the story
My high school drama teacher always reminded us that “acting is reacting,” and that it wasn’t just about reacting to the other performers on stage, but knowing how to draw energy from the audience. It made every performance different.
With a film, the performances are always the same, but the people you view those performances with can shape a completely different experience.
It’s like in 12 Monkeys, when Bruce Willis’s James Cole sits in a theater with Madeline Stowe’s Dr. Kathryn Railly as they watch a movie he remembers from childhood:
“The movie never changes. It can’t change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.”
I thought about this when I read the Indoor Voices blog post I Miss Audiences Losing Their Shit, because it reminded me of all the times that the people I was in the theater with changed the way I saw the movie.
Because it wasn’t just the film that was memorable
I think about the night I went to see Snakes on a Plane on its opening weekend, and how the entire packed theater started howling with laughter from the moment the title card appeared on screen and didn’t stop until the credits rolled.
Or seeing Toy Story 3 at a late evening screening in a theater with few, if any children. Most of us in the seats had been kids when the first Toy Story came out, and while we’d grown up a little faster than Andy, his sense of putting away childish things still felt raw, and the toys’ fears of annihilation felt a little more tangible.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and knowing that the other adults in the room were sobbing just as hard over a cartoon gave everyone that little bit of emotional space to let it all out.
There was the opening night of the 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival, where I sat with my co-workers from the festival in the Michigan Theater, enjoying not only the films that were programmed that night, but the fact that we’d kept the doors open with a Hail Mary fundraising drive and survived a First Amendment lawsuit against the state government.
We weren’t just celebrating the films, but the triumph of preserving a showcase for this type of independent, experimental filmmaking.
And there was the entire third act of Avengers: Endgame, where ten years of storytelling came together, plants were paid off, the crowd cheered at all the big moments, and that long fought battle of good vs. evil finally, finally gave the good guys a win that didn’t hint at a larger conflict still to come.
For once, good could rest knowing its work was done, and we as an audience could exhale, feeling like the most important thing to talk about as we left the theater was the movie we just watched, and not the next one.
But it’s not just the audience: It’s the theater itself
The theater provides a sense of place for the story you’re about to watch. We buy our tickets, find our seats, see an uninterrupted story from start to finish, and watch our hopes and fears made manifest.
It’s a sacred space, cut off from the rest of our day, in which we enter the dark to briefly dream together.
I think about the time I took my daughter to see her first film in the theater. It was Despicable Me 3. She was going to go on a field trip to the movies with her day care the next week, and I didn’t want her first major theatrical experience to be without me.
We were able to go to a matinee on a Tuesday and do the whole traditional theater experience thanks in part to discounted tickets and half-price popcorn.
There weren’t many people there (the film had been in release for over two weeks at the time), and we settled in to our seats. We ate popcorn. We laughed. She was incredibly focused for being so young and never having been in the theater before. But that’s part of it.
There are rules. This isn’t sitting at home on your couch. You can’t just pause the movie, or trade seats, or decide that you’d rather wander over to another corner of the room and play with some toys for a little bit.
When we go to the theater, we share the space and should be mindful of the others we share it with. We want to be a good audience, not only for the film, but for each other.
It’s not the same if the movie plays in your home.
Our family rented Trolls: World Tour when it was released on demand. We talked about how it was actually kind of nice to be able to see a brand new movie without setting up a sitter for our youngest, and not having to schlep ourselves to the theater. To be able to pause the movie (and to watch it again if we started it within the next 72 hours). We talked about the fact that it cost less than taking our whole family to a matinee.
But all the convenience and economy of the moment couldn’t replace the idea of fully surrendering to another world.
We were watching the movie in the same room that we FaceTime our extended family, or do Cosmic Kids yoga videos, check work emails, or let Button roll and wiggle on the floor as he tries to figure out how to crawl.
There was no sense of surrender to the film, or of communion with strangers. We weren’t stepping into another world, but bringing a story into our private space. The story was framed by all the reminders of our present daily life, good and bad.
Right now, a chance to step outside of our world, even for 80 or 90 minutes, would be a welcome thing.
But I think about how people are reacting to a clear and present danger right now, and wonder how I’ll feel about them after the current crisis has been contained.
I think about the people who are ignoring (and in some cases, flaunting their refusal to follow) social distancing guidelines at this time of high rates of infection. And I think about how these are potentially the same people who may also have shrugged off actually washing their hands when they left a public restroom before concepts like “flattening the curve” became part of our daily conversation.
It’s not just a question of when will infection rates and precautionary measures make the risk low enough to return theater-going to a normal part of life: It’s a question of if we will we feel we can trust our seat neighbors to care about the people around them.
Because if we want a chance to share the experience in the theater again, we will all need to agree how to safely share space.
We leave subtitles on the TV as a default in our home. It started as Dena’s personal preference, but became a necessity in order to keep the volume down due to apartment living and shared walls. Then we had a baby, and we didn’t want to disturb Sprout while she slept.
Keeping the subtitles on became habit, and a useful one. Little jokes didn’t fly by unnoticed. Shows and movies became more quotable.
And then Sprout started reading.
The moment this all came together was while watching the Sesame Street anniversary special. Dena and I watched as Sprout used the subtitles to sing along with a song she’d never heard before, and my heart became a puddle of feelings.
Then came the Sunday morning Sprout tromped downstairs to find me watching Solaris. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled up next to me, and started reading the screen.
“That’s not what they’re saying?”
“No. They’re speaking in Russian. Those words on the screen tell us what the words mean in English.”
(five minutes pass)
“Can I watch PBS Kids?”
The next weekend, she comes down while I’m watching Floating Weeds. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled in, and this time started asking questions about the story.
We watched about a half hour before she got bored and wanted to see if there were new episodes of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. But for that half hour, we were sharing a lazy morning with an Ozu film.
I know it’s still a long time before she’ll be fully onboard and I’ll get to watch some of my favorite foreign films with her. I’m not expecting to have a five-year-old who wants to start her day watching Wong Kar-Wai or Ingmar Bergman films.
What I want is to plant the idea in her head that the subtitles are just there. They don’t make the movie something other or more difficult. If anything, I hope she’ll see the value they offer, giving her a gateway to stories from all around the world that she wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
We set expectations for kids with what we enjoy and share with them. My parents watched a lot of black and white movies, so I thought it was normal to watch older films. And that habit never really went away for me.
Or when we listen to music, and we pepper in some of our favorites, or some other genres, in with the kid music. It doesn’t always pay dividends, but when I start a jazz playlist during breakfast and Sprout puts down her spoon to snap along, well… It’s a good feeling.
But I need to remind myself with all of this that it’s not about making sure she likes the same things I like.
Whenever I’m sharing music, or movies, or food, it needs to be about the idea of making sure she gets to try new and different things. She’s very five, so she’s not shy about what she does and doesn’t like.
My hope is that she’ll get a strong sense of her personal taste. She’ll be able to explain and understand what she likes and doesn’t like. She’ll seek out and explore. She won’t passively shrug and accept whatever’s presented to her as vaguely okay, but instead, she’ll look for something to love.
Or, at the very least, that she won’t roll her eyes and think it’s weird when I suggest we watch a movie with subtitles.
There’s a lot to love about Frozen, but for me, the part I always come back to is the way the movie uses doors and windows to express the inner lives of its leads, Elsa and Anna.
It’s symbolism, but not the kind that makes you step back and remove yourself from the narrative. The imagery connecting Anna and Elsa to the doors and windows in their environment feels natural, driven by the emotions and actions of the characters, and works to reinforce a central theme of the movie:
Do you open yourself up to others, or do you shut them out?
Crafting a story for children isn’t just about telling the story on its own, but working to teach children about how stories work.
With Frozen, the filmmakers reveal just a little of the mechanics of this process, while still keeping the story unpredictable and engaging, through how they use doors and windows in four songs.
Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?
After seeing the traumatic separation of Anna and Elsa by their parents after Anna’s injury from Elsa’s ice powers, the audience is introduced to Anna’s desire to reconnect with her sister.
It’s a simple request, and it sets up the main relationship of the song: Anna and Elsa’s door. Through the years the song depicts, Anna directs all her attention and affection in vain at Elsa’s closed door.
In this shot, Anna bursts in from the left of the frame, stopping in the middle at the door. This focuses our attention in the center of the frame, giving what happens there a strong feeling of central focus.
But notice how the scene is shot at an angle, with the wall and door at a diagonal compared to the frame itself. It suggests that the dynamic of what we’re seeing is somehow off-kilter or skewed.
The song starts with an entire verse of Anna singing to the door, giving the audience multiple shots of the door from different angles and a chance to internalize the way that Anna’s relationship with her sister has become one-sided.
These shots are head-on, with wall itself visually balanced. Both sides of the door show equal portions of the red wallpaper and the frame around the door. This echoes how Anna is trying to bring a sense of order and normality back to her relationship with Elsa.
When Elsa finally replies to Anna, the audience doesn’t get to see her, keeping the audience in line with Anna’s perspective. We are denied a look at Elsa the same way Anna is.
As Elsa replies, the shots return to the off-kilter framing of the initial shot, relating to the refusal of Elsa to come back and return things to the previous natural order of her relationship with Anna.
When we are given a look at what’s happening behind the door with Elsa, it’s on her own terms. She’s trying to get a view of the outside world, but only through the glass over her window.
She’s looking for a connection to something outside, but she’s still kept separate. Isolated.
Look at how the first shot frames Elsa directly from behind, but when her powers accidentally discharge, the framing cuts to a diagonal echo of Anna outside her door.
When characters are emotionally off-kilter, so is the framing of their world.
Note the repeating triangular shape to the window panes. And consider the way that Elsa’s accidental ice discharge creeps up the windows, reminding us of the similar appearance between ice and glass.
And pay attention to how we’re seeing this window from the inside looking out. It’s isolating. A barrier, even when it’s transparent, is still a barrier.
Throughout the song, we get more of these shots where doors and windows are prominently featured in the background, highlighting the characters’ isolation and how they’ve been sequestered away from the rest of the world.
As she gets older, Anna continues talking to Elsa’s door, trying to lure her out. Again, the shot frames the wall at an angle, using that off-kilter diagonal.
When Anna begins talking to the art in the gallery, note the closed door behind her. She’s bouncing off the walls with energy, but kept contained in the space.
The room is framed at a slight diagonal, which mirrors the way she describes her actions and emotions as feeling off center and irregular.
As Elsa’s parents try to calm her down, the ice creeps up the wall onto the locked door behind her.
And there’s that diagonal framing again, with the corner of the room placed almost center in the frame.
We should have a quick sidebar about mise-en-scène (the arrangement of actors, objects, and the camera within a shot).
All these arrangements of characters and objects within the set are intentional, and the choice of where to frame them is intentional, as well. Think about how when working in a computer-generated environment, the possibilities of how to arrange space are nearly limitless.
You can’t run into a room that already exists and throw down a camera haphazardly to get the shot quickly and move on. Each element is created for a purpose.
So the choices about what to leave in focus near the characters, like the doors and windows, or how to arrange the characters and the “camera” in the space (including the angles of the shots) are done with what appears to be deliberate attention to keep the closed/locked doors on the periphery of the action as much as possible. There’s a desire to remind the audience of how these characters are kept apart from each other and the rest of the world.
And over the passage of time, Anna has come to accept the idea that this door will remain closed. Years have passed, and nothing will convince her sister to emerge.
Her intense energy as she slides past the door is cancelled out by the static shot and the straight-on framing. She’s full of motion and energy, but she’s trapped in an orderly, unchanging box.
And the framing of this moment is now directly pointed at the door, balanced with the rest of the frame. It tells the audience that Anna realizes the closed door is what counts as normal now.
Also note the direction of her slide: from the right side of the frame to the left. Think about the way that the way a culture’s language reads on the page influences the way they “read” an image.
When language moves from left to right on the page, like with the English-speaking culture that produced this film, the progression of objects within a frame from left to right feels more effortless and fluid. Moving from right to left feels like it takes greater effort; like it’s going against the grain.
This strain highlights Anna’s thwarted desire to make Elsa go against her established pattern and come out. Anna doesn’t even try.
The only thing that forces her to make one more attempt to break through to her sister is the death of their parents.
The tight focus of this shot gives way to a shot framed further away, drawing attention to the shadows in the room, but also a source of light behind her. Anna is isolated in the dark, reaching out to her sister.
The next shot reveals the source of the light —
It’s the window across from Elsa’s door. The outside world is trying to let a little light in to the moment, but they’re both trapped inside, in the dark, apart from each other.
And then the cinematography and set design sets us up for a dramatic, heartbreaking moment.
Anna slides down the door, bracing herself against it. It’s an unnatural choice for support, since a door could technically open, but she knows this one has been shut to her for so long. It’s as solid as a wall to her.
But it’s also the closest portal to her sister, and the closest she can come to actual contact with her.
Notice how the camera drops down with her as she slides to a seated position. She curls up into a near fetal position and makes herself small.
Just like when she was a child outside this same door. She brings herself down to that child’s view of the space right before her song reverts to a child-like plea for connection.
By moving in close at this moment, the audience is moved from the impression of reverting to a child-like attitude to confronting the raw despair on Anna’s face.
She’s confronting a future without her parents as well as without her sister. She feels more alone than ever before, and she’s desperate for any connection.
Which brings us to this amazing tracking shot —
The camera passes through the door to reveal to the audience that the sisters are closer than they think.
They’ve both lowered themselves to the floor — Putting themselves at a child-like height from back in the time before they were separated.
They are both hurting, but mirror images of each other, looking in opposite directions.
However, given the orientation of objects we’ve previously seen in this sequence, we know that they are both sitting with their backs against the door and facing out toward a window.
This placement of the two of them creates a declaration of the tension for the rest of the film:
How do we break the barriers between each other and the rest of the world?
Then the camera pulls back to show Elsa’s room, frozen in anguish. Flurries drift down in the frame, and ice radiates along the floor and the walls from her body. Her grief made manifest.
And as the camera pulls back from Elsa, it dissolves to a similar framing of Anna.
Two sisters sharing an emotion, but not sharing the same space.
And after we fade out, time passes, and we move ahead to the next major event in their lives that forces them together.
For The First Time In Forever
And what’s the first thing we see Anna do after she realizes that it’s Coronation Day?
She bursts out of her bedroom door. We get to see the door open, signaling a change from doors as a static presence to doors as an active portal.
Also, look at the way the dark hallway is brightened up as light spills out from Anna’s room when she opens the door. The pool of shadow is erased on the floor. It’s already suggesting the possibility that openness and connection are a way to erase despair.
In fact, the act of opening doors and windows is so important to Anna that she’s going to sing about it!
The subtext of the previous song becomes the text of this new song: There’s a tension between things that are open vs. things that are shut.
And there are just so many doors and windows to open in a castle.
As the castle staff marches in with plates, where I they coming through? Why, it’s a doorway!
And how has the camera been framing these moments? Lots of diagonals at first, but also pans that change the framing between diagonal and head-on. And then the shot with the plates comes in, and we’re locked down in a straight-forward composition.
A new order is arriving for this castle, disrupting the solitude of the past.
Anna runs past a hallway full of shut doors as she sings about lonely halls, then slides through a doorway into a ballroom. Her kinetic frenzy is in sharp contrast to her earlier moment where she ground to a halt in front of Elsa’s locked bedroom door.
Think about how many lines of this early part of the song are devoted to a reverie about opening doors. Anna has internalized the idea that a shut door is a bad thing.
And as she sings about how excited she is for things to change? She sticks her head out of an open window —
— and then climbs right out through it. She’s breaking through. Crossing over the threshold of what used to be a barrier between her and the rest of the world.
She moves from this off-kilter, diagonal framing into —
A head-on shot framing her swinging in front of a window.
She’s on the outside, looking further out. This is what feels normal to her, and she’s relishing every moment. She’s Swinging, as if to build up momentum to launch herself away from the castle and away from her lonely past.
And again, look at the way a door opening up brings light into a space:
Anna’s portrait gallery, full of her “friends” from her childhood, now brighter than before as she swings the doors wide open and lets the light in. Now the room is shot straight-ahead, highlighting the orderly corners and framing of the door and pictures on the wall.
The end of Anna’s confinement connects to a return to her sense of order and ease, and the framing of shots while she sings reflects this.
But what about Elsa? How’s she dealing with the excitement of Coronation Day?
She’s still on the inside, looking out.
Not only is she separated from the rest of the world in this shot, but the window pane frames her in within the frame. She’s boxed in; constricted. Even her body language and hair suggests someone tightly squeezed into their role.
And while the shot pushes in toward what looks like a straight-on composition, it’s still slightly off-kilter. Vaguely skewed.
And as she looks out the window at all the people preparing to enter the castle, she sings about not letting them see.
We get her reflection in the window, creating a double, divided image of Elsa. There’s the Queen-to-be who must be in view of her people, must be among them, and there’s the Elsa frightened of her power and her secrets, wishing to stay inside.
And then comes a lighting round of back and forth shots of the sisters.
The same line (“It’s only for today.”) delivered in two different tones: Elsa’s resignation as she stays locked up inside her room contrasts with Anna’s joy as she bursts through yet another door.
Elsa prepares herself for going out in public by putting on her gloves. She’s replacing the security of hiding behind a door with the less complete security of hiding her hands, believing that this will keep her powers locked away.
Look at the way she’s framed tightly with a darker background, keeping back from the light of the outside.
Anna rushes out of the castle, skipping and gleeful.
Both of them sing the line “It’s agony to wait.” with alternate, negative and positive takes.
And then a truly big moment —
Elsa finally opens a door.
But notice the difference with this shot versus the many, many shots of Anna opening the doors. There’s no light spilling out. It’s still dim. Elsa is still mired in the negative emotions that kept her locked away.
But she commands the opening of more doors. She’s not going to do it herself, but she’s going to allow it to happen. There’s a disconnect between the new openness of the palace and Elsa’s desire to continue to keep herself at a remove from it.
And this next shot steps back to reveal more of the hallway to Elsa’s room, showing that there is some light coming in from the windows in her hall, but reinforcing this idea that the shadows are still around her. She’s still in the darker world of despair.
Cut to Anna at the gate:
And there’s that contrast again: The shadowy world of the palace sees a crack in that darkness split open by the light spilling in from the giant door in the center of the frame. And Anna is right there, rushing out toward the light.
She bursts through the gate into the bright, open world, surrounded by the citizens of Arendelle.
The composition is diagonal, chaotic, and features two lines of motion. The citizens and guests are moving from left to right into the castle, while Anna moves from right to left, against the flow of traffic, out of the castle.
The people are moving into the castle for the coronation with ease and joyful anticipation, while Anna’s joy comes from escape. Even in a small way, she’s still struggling in this shot to move away from the place that kept her shut away for so long.
And where’s Elsa?
Making a slow procession, in the dark, toward a small sliver of light from a window. The composition is straight-forward, with Elsa also moving from right to left (connecting to the effort she’s exerting to maintain control).
Compare the surrounding people in the two shots, as well. There’s a disorderly crowd surrounding Anna, whereas Elsa’s hall has a few still, silent servants standing at attention.
Kinetic joy vs. restrained order.
When Elsa finally opens a door to a brighter view, she pairs it with the old reminder, based in her fear of failure and revealing who she is:
It’s a reminder that she sees masking her powers as a moral choice.
She’s supposed to be a good girl, and good girls don’t have magic. Good girls follow tradition, uphold rules, control themselves. Her powers are something unruly and that create a sense of difference.
This isn’t just a reminder that she has a duty as the queen-to-be, but that she sees herself as inherently flawed. She fears the world seeing who she is, because she has become convinced that who she is is wrong.
And these shots frame her in straight-ahead, level angles, showing her forcing herself into this mold. She must present herself as part of the natural order. She must present herself as an orderly part of this composition.
And when she steps outside, she stays up high above it all on a balcony. She’s still removed from the people of her kingdom, even at a moment when she’s stepped through a doorway into the light.
She’s removed herself from her captivity, but not from her isolation.
And through this song, we’ve taken the basic thematic elements of doors and windows and expanded on them, going so far as to comment on them within some parts of the song.
But now that all the doors in the palace are open, surely the movie is going to discard this thematic device and move on to something more relevant.
Love Is An Open Door
But you saw that coming, right?
When Anna and Prince Hans begin talking outside of the party, look behind them:
There’s one open door, and a closed door behind it.
Sidebar: Prince Hans Was Always The Bad Guy And This Shot Is Giving That Away
Open doors equal openness and intimacy. Closed doors mean concealing something, either affection or truth.
As Anna opens up to Hans, there’s an open door and a closed door behind them, one just behind the other.
Anna’s openness can only go so far, and there’s something Hans is concealing about his true intentions.
Why have two doors visible in one doorway? One door per person. In a relationship, both “doors” need to be open if that relationship is going to be honest.
“I would never shut you out,” he lies, lyingly.
This film’s thematic work is being shown in the conflict between closed and open doors. Here we see one of each, prepping us for the topic of the song to come.
Anna starts singing and goes beyond the literal descriptions of action in the previous song into the realm of metaphor.
It’s not just about the excitement of open doors and what that openness can mean, but about how she sees her entire life to this point as being defined by being shut out and locked away.
And it’s not just about the doors being shut, but about how those doors have been shut at her. She, specifically, was being kept out.
So when we get to the hook of the song, it makes total sense for her to treat the moral of the story this way:
And we not only open a door on the word “door,” but the camera pulls back and up into the air, soaring out. It’s a big, sweeping camera move to echo the feeling of freedom that comes from escaping a space you’ve been trapped in.
Since the text of the song is all about love being an open door, and Anna feeling like she’s falling in love with Prince Hans, their musical number takes them through many doors throughout the castle and its grounds.
But look at how we have a skewed, diagonal composition as they sing “With you” to each other. Something’s up, and the visual language is clueing us in to the potential for shenanigans.
Even when they’re not going through doors, there are doors in the frame with them, like the doors these mechanical figures emerge from in the clock.
Or when they dance on the lighthouse, and we see them on the outside of a window, lit from behind. It reinforces the idea that windows are another type of enclosure, but that when you’re on the outside of them, you’ve passed through. You’re free.
And the light of the lighthouse echoes the bright spaces from the previous song, suggesting that openness and love can erase the shadows of despair.
Even in this quick Scooby Doo moment in the stables, light shines out as Anna opens the doors.
So, we get it. Open doors are about love and intimacy. Closed doors are about concealment and fear.
So what happens when we get a moment where there are no doors? Wouldn’t that mean a sense of total openness and freedom?
Let It Go
This shot of Elsa on the mountain after she’s run away from the castle acts as a reversal of the swooping shot from the last song. Instead of bursting out in joy, it circles around her, swooping in, like a bird of prey.
Watch as Elsa not only trudges uphill, but from the right of the frame to the left of the frame, accentuating the difficulty of her journey.
And while we can see a clear sense of the direction she’s moving, the curving path of the camera keeps things off-kilter. We’re not viewing this from a diagonal angle, but a continuously shifting diagonal, straining toward order.
She’s out in the open now, but she’s also alone and in the dark. This isn’t a positive kind of openness because we’re not seeing the other signifiers that have come along with the open doors and windows of previous songs: Light, vibrant kinetic movement, or other people.
Think about the way in which this moment in the song recontextualizes the way isolation has been depicted so far in the movie. Instead of being shut away, she’s exposed, but still alone.
And here we get a reminder that our focus on Anna’s feelings about being shut out has its polar opposite (intend your puns, cowards). For Elsa, it was never about keeping Anna locked out, but keeping herself locked in.
Being out in the open feels like a failure to Elsa, because her one goal was to stay concealed.
Again, Elsa feels that there’s something distinctly wrong with her; that her very existence is somehow a moral failing. She’s been raised to believe that she is flawed, and that the only way to deal with that is to let people believe she’s something that she’s not.
Normal. Following the rules and traditions. “Good.”
And she’s reached the point, up on this mountain, where she sees this worldview crumbling. There are no doors to hide behind anymore. There’s no reason to conceal her true nature, since she just showed it to the entire kingdom at once.
She can’t take those moments back, and she can’t lie, so it’s time for a change.
And as she removes the glove she’s been using to contain her powers and conceal her identity, the camera pulls up into the sky, soaring away, much like when Anna had a similarly powerful declaration to make.
This is where we need to talk about “Let it Go” as empowerment anthem.
The song is bold. It’s got a meaty hook, built for belting out in sing-alongs. It’s pulsating with 1.21 gigawatts of pure, raw emotion.
But it’s also sad, and ambiguous, and frightened.
Elsa starts by popping little flurries from her hands, and then she builds the thing that Anna begged for all those years ago: A snowman.
It’s like she’s a printer that was just reconnected with jobs left in the queue. She’s rebooting herself, and remembering what it was like to be a child and take joy in her powers.
This is positive growth for her. So it’s all good! She can keep moving forward and —
“Turn away and slam the door”
Elsa, you are on a mountain. There are no doors here.
You’re contradicting the visual signaling we’re expecting where this open space is now being verbally tied to the restrictive notion of closed doors that the movie established in its previous songs.
And turning away and slamming the door isn’t necessarily an empowered move, especially when your life has been defined by shutting doors to hide behind them.
This song sends plenty of contradictory messages.
Elsa lets go of a restrictive, concealing cape, shrugging it off and allowing it to fly away, but she does so while singing about letting the storm rage on.
The storm sparked by her fear. The storm generated by her powers when she lost control.
She’s not reveling in the possibility of healing brought about by accepting and acknowledging her powers openly. She’s refusing to be responsible for them.
“The cold never bothered me anyway” could just as easily be read as “All this ‘eternal winter’ sounds like your problem, not mine.”
Elsa looks positively joyful, but once again, she’s moving from right to left. There’s difficulty and struggle here.
This line suggests that she’s gaining a sense of new perspective, potentially one that could promote healing by recognizing her problems aren’t daunting and insurmountable after —
And there goes that possibility.
She walks backward, again from right to left, singing about how she’s escaping from her fears. Not conquering them.
She’s literally moving backward in her emotional journey, deeper into the darkness.
She’s balancing these positive couplets that sound empowered and resolved —
With couplets that make her sound like she’s just further separating herself from other people.
Elsa goes full Magneto, declaring herself beyond the moral policing of mere mortals, as she builds a magical staircase to ascend higher than everyone in her kingdom. She wants them to seem even smaller to her.
She wants to be so high above their judgement so that she never feels like she is wrong or immoral again, instead of interrogating those morals that were forced on her by her family and their fear.
When she yells “I’m free!” you need to question the motivation behind the declaration: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
As she runs up the staircase, the song ascends with her, and she makes what sounds like a positive declaration of being “one with the wind and sky.”
She sees herself as a part of the natural world. She isn’t an aberration. She isn’t a defect. She’s not bad and wrong.
At least, that’s what she’s trying to convince herself of.
Elsa still wants to be hidden away. She still feels broken and scared, even if she consciously knows she shouldn’t. She fears the judgement of others.
Again, the camera soars up high on what’s supposed to be a positive, strong declaration of emotion. Elsa is taking a stand. She’s using her power to claim a place for herself.
But the way she claims that space highlights how much further she needs to travel on her emotional journey.
Because what is this business all about?
She’s rising up and building something out of ice for herself.
Something that she’s filling in with doorways —
No, Elsa. Don’t do it.
As the roof freezes into place, it’s entirely clear what’s going on:
Elsa is building herself a new place to lock herself up inside.
She hid from the world in her family’s palace before, but that’s not an option this time. So she’s building a new palace to shut herself away in.
Sure, she’s taking her hair down, but it’s still in a tightly controlled braid.
Everything around her has gone dark again, and all of this reinforces that while she’s singing about letting things go, she hasn’t actually let go of her fear, or her internalized self-hatred.
Because no costume change or fun new hairdo can change the fact that she’s walking through a doorway —
That she’s stepping out onto a balcony, just as she did before on coronation day.
She’s out in the open, but she’s not out in the world. She’s above it. Sequestered from it.
But she’s moving from the darkness toward the light, and we’ve associated that with positive emotions for several songs. There’s still hope that Elsa is going to move away from despair and toward —
Nope. She built herself a door just so she could shut it.
She retreats out of the sunlight, back into the shadows of her freshly chilled castle.
She still has a long way to go on her emotional journey.
So what does all of this matter?
This is how symbolism works when it works well.
The symbolism helps clarify the theme for the audience, and the theme is posing a question instead of making a declaration. The story is there to work out an answer to the question over the course of the full story, instead of using each moment of the story to hammer home a single answer.
But it’s not just the appearance of a single, repeated symbol that does this work in telling the story. All the other elements of craft that go into filmmaking must support the idea if the audience is going to come away with a clear sense of what they’ve seen and what it means.
The door as a symbol doesn’t earn its place until we’ve gotten used to the idea of the door as a natural part of the conflict at the heart of the character’s lives.
Without Elsa hiding in her room from Anna, and without Anna’s persistent attempts to get Elsa to open her door, nothing that follows would work.
The emotions of the characters as they play out the drama of their separation give the door a tangible thematic resonance.
Think about it like a magic spell placed on a lamp so that every time the lamp is touched, it burns brighter.
The more times that lamp is touched, the harder it is to ignore whenever you see it. And the brighter the lamp glows, the more its light reveals to us about what else is nearby.
One-time symbolic gestures don’t grow in influence over the audience. It takes a steady introduction and re-introduction of something useful to telling the story for that object’s thematic and symbolic weight to reach its full potential.
After we’ve seen the use of these doors play out over four songs, we get a sharper sense of how they relate to the overall story, and the way that it’s all about a question of if you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable, or if you instead close yourself off.
The genius of the door as a thematic device is that it doesn’t act as some kind of didactic “Open good. Closed bad.” metaphor.
Anna is all about openness, leaving her vulnerable to Prince Hans and his plot to take over the kingdom. Elsa is constantly closing herself off, but that prevents her from seeing how she can solve the problems caused by her magic and her fear, or from seeing the importance of her relationship with her sister and how the two of them can help balance each other.
And this dual nature of the problems reminds us why a door is such an excellent choice: it can be either open or closed.
A door needs to be either/or. If you just have a wall, nothing can pass through. If you just have an open space, anything can pass through at all times.
The door allows you to choose whether it’s open or closed, but it also allows you to choose to change your mind.
My students ask for my opinion on things, especially when I’m covering film and television in class.
Sometimes it’s a litmus test to get to know me. Sometimes they want to hear if I’ve got an opinion so they feel free to share theirs. And sometimes it’s just pre-class chatting about whatever’s trending.
Mostly because I just don’t feel like spending energy on being negative.
It’s easier to point to reasons why something works well than to explain exactly what’s wrong with it
You can feel fairly confident in pointing out something that’s working in a narrative and why it works. But if there’s something in a film or show that you bump on; that doesn’t work for you, it’s not always easy to tell what caused that disconnect.
For one thing, pointing out what doesn’t work involves making suggestions for what could have worked better. You can offer opinions, but that’s a conversation about some imagined version that isn’t constrained by whatever realities of production shaped the actual finished product.
Without being there in the midst of the process of making a thing, it’s easy to cast blame, but hard to be correct in your accusations.
It doesn’t do my students, or me, any favors to offer half-assed opinions on what went wrong with something.
One thing I’ve gotten more confident with as I’ve gotten older (and as I’ve gotten more experience with teaching) is not having an opinion on everything.
My daughter has the right idea
It was a vocal quirk that she developed early on, but she’s stuck with it as she’s gotten older. When Sprout didn’t like something, she was likely to say:
“It’s not my favorite.”
What better way to put it when something doesn’t bowl you over? When you can see the flaws, but don’t feel a need to engage in a lengthy post-mortem examination. You can just move on.
Because I’d rather talk about exciting things I think we should aspire to instead of wasting time in discussions that say more about the people in the conversation than the thing they’re supposedly talking about.
What good does it do for me to add my voice to a chorus excoriating something for failing to satisfy its audience?
There’s no required response to artistic entertainment.
I’m not required to like it. I can’t be forced to list my disagreements with it. And I shouldn’t point fingers without accurate knowledge of the inner workings of the project.
If given the choice between trying to feel smugly superior to others who have taken on a difficult task, or to admire the work of giants, I know where I stand. I’d rather live in the shadow of the greats, aspiring toward something higher, than spending my time pretending I can trample others under my own feet.