Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Piano: Music of the Mind, Music of the Soul

The world of film making has many faults and short comings. Perhaps the most grievous fault is the fact the vast, vast majority of well known film directors are White males, to any even greater degree than many other art forms which are also White male dominated. Anyone who denies that this predominance has greatly colored the world of film making and led film goers towards a certain definition of what is and is not a "good film" is fooling themselves. Seeing the film Do the Right Thing opened my eyes to how different the world of film could be with more Black directors. Now, Jane Campion's The Piano has shown me how much shallower the world of film is for its lack of female directors.

The Piano was an absolutely incredible film. I admit that going into this film I expected it to be over-hyped. I thought that this film might have garnered more acclaim than it deserved simply because it was directed by a woman, which is so rare (and also because it is a film about someone with a "disability," another favorite of the Oscars). However, now that I have seen the film, I can say that is one of the most deeply layered, passionate and emotionally powerful film watching  experiences I have ever had.

I think the best way I can summarize this incredibly dense film is to say that is about Walls: The walls between those who can speak and those who cant/wont, the walls between the female world and the male world, the walls between the White world and the world of native peoples, the walls between the animal world and the human world, the walls between the adult world and the world of children, and of course the various walls that separate individual people.

At its heart the film is about a young woman who cannot, or will not, speak. This causes her to be disconnected from many of the people around her, as they cannot communicate easily. However, this does not entirely bother our heroine, played by Holly Hunter in an Oscar and Golden Palm winning role. As her daughter, played by the also Oscar winning Anna Paquin, informs us, "Mommy says that most of what people have to say is rubbish, and isn't worth listening to." If she must talk, she will write something down or speak through her daughter. The only person whom she initially wants to talk to, her daughter, she can communicate with through sign language. Still, it does bother her that most people think her muteness means that she is dumb or insane (film buffs might notice similarities here to the film My Left Foot). So, to protect her emotions from the cold, uncaring, not understanding outside world, she remains silent and distant from most people, and is very austere.

 Well gee, she doesn't really stand much of a chance at looking happy wearing all that black, now does she?

The barriers between the male and female worlds is brought up in many ways throughout the film. At the very start we learn that Hunter is being forced into an arranged marriage by her father. She arrives in New Zealand surrounded by male sailors who curse, spit and piss with abandon. When she meets her husband (played by Sam Neill), it is clear that he does not understand her at all. He will not take her piano back home with them, even though it is clearly important to her. As she continues in her austerity towards him, he makes no effort to understand her emotions. He merely makes vague references to his servants about how he hopes she will become more "affectionate" over time (sexual frustration is another big motif of the film), as if love will simply develop from nothing. Later, when one of the husband's servants (played by Harvey Keitel) takes her back to the piano, he sees that the main way this mute woman expresses herself is through playing the piano. Infatuated with her, he buys the piano and asks her to come teach him how to play it. In reality, he only wants to watch her play and, as time goes by, get her to show off more and more of her body, an hopefully get to sleep with her. This starts out very creepy, and Hunter's contempt is clear at first, but they slowly begin to understand and love one another, with Neill being at first none the wiser.

"What do you think Harvey? She seems a little to short and pale for me." "Meh, I'd do her."

So many other groups fail to understand each other in this film. The native Maori people do not understand the ways of the Whites around they (attacking an actor in a play thinking he is really hurting another woman in the play) and Neill makes no attempts to understand their culture. Keitel plays a White man who knows the native's language and acts as translator, which is appropriate, as he is also the character who acts as translator between the male and female worlds and the world of speakers and non-speakers through his relationship with Hunter. When Hunter's daughter sees her having sex with Keitel, her child's mind does not understand what is going on, and interprets the situation by creating a game where she and the native children hump trees in the forest. This leads to a hilarious scene where Neill, claiming she has "shamed these trunks" forces her to scrub down every tree trunk she touched in such a way. In a hilarious switching of places, Neill's character himself is put back into the role of a child throughout the film. It is clear that, though he thinks of his mute wife as being dumb, he is the dumb one, being completely emotionally and sexually stunted. When he discovers his wife having sex with Keitel, he watches through the door in the same way that Paquin had done before, and it is clear that he is just as confused and attracted to the sight as she was. He allows himself to be controlled by his emotions like a child. And, when his wife does start make sexual advances towards him (due to her frustration that she cannot be with Keitel) the way she treats him is almost as if he were a child himself.

"Ohhhh, so that's where the penis goes! Huh, you learn something new every day!"

The film even shows that, despite how much proper Anglo-Saxon society in the 1800s tried to separate itself from the "savage" world of natives and animals, it was no different at heart from either of those groups. When their passions are inflamed, the men and women of this White world act little different from the more emotionally and sexually free natives. As for animals, when one servant woman squats in a bush to pee, despite the fact that she asks the other ladies to cover her with blankets, when she is done the camera focuses on the way she scrapes the dirt in which she pissed with the foot, the same way a dog might do. When Neill watches Keitel eat out his wife, a dog comes up and licks his cupped hand, again showing the lack of difference between the human and animal world. I could write an entire term paper on how this motif of walls between groups and people plays out in this film, but I will try to stop here.

The acting in this film is absolutely superb from all actors. Harvey Keitel plays a coold and in control Italian-American gangster who... wait, I'm sorry, I've confused Keitel's role in this film with his role in every other film he has ever made. Yes, I must say, despite the fact that Keitel does give a great performance, at first I though he seemed out of place here. Seeing him with native Maori paint on his face, speaking in a Scottish accent, was quite disconcerting at first. Also disconcerting was his constant tendency to get naked in front of the camera. 

You get to see a LOT of Keitel's dick and ass in this movie, whether you want to or not.

Sam Neill also gives an incredible performance. His sheer emotional stupidity, his lack of ability to understand the emotions of those around them, his lack of desire to even attempt to get to know those close to his, his sheer dumbfoundedness and confusion at the actions of people that seems completely understandable to anyone with some connections to human emotion, is played very well by Neill. He is at turns laughable, pitiable, ridiculous, and terrifying. 

Anna Paquin as the daughter gives one of the best performances by a child actress ever put on film. This was a role that, if done poorly, could have ruined the film, and her ability to realistically display a range of emotions while still being believably childlike is phenomenal. He relationship to her mother is key to the film. At first, she is the only person her mother is close to. Paquin's character clearly resents it when her mother becomes closer to Keitel. The times when her mother is with Keitel are the first times in her life where she is not welcome to share in her mother's inner life and emotions, and when her mother forces her to do things she does not want like deliver messages to him for her. She is so upset by this that she gives a love letter meant for Keitel to Neill, a grand act of betrayal. The whole changing dynamic of their relationship raises an important question: "Can a woman be truly a woman and truly a mother at the same time? Are the two really compatible? Does the sacrifice of being a good and loving mother force a woman to sacrifice her own personal sexual and emotional fulfillment?" I am sure these questions have been asked in countless Women's Studies classes, hopefully after viewing this film. 

"La la la, look at me, I'm so full of whimsy, you know you just want to smoosh up my pretty face and give me an Academy Award, I'm just so pwecious!"

Of course the finest performance of the film comes from Holly Hunter. Without speaking a single word on camera she conveys a depth of emotion that most actors could never obtain in a thousand monologues. The incredible layers of her emotions are expressed through looks, body language, sexuality, facial expressions, and other means. So many other films with romances in them rely on cheesy and cliched dialogue to get their fake emotions across. The powerful emotions in this film, ranging from love to pure lust, are made so much more potent often because they are not directly spoken of. Myself, I found the sexual and emotional awakening of the main character in the book The Awakening to be very poorly done, and for a long time this caused me to have a lack of respect for much of feminist literature on the subject. Seeing the same motifs play out here shows me how powerful they can be when done well, and the talents of Hunter have much to do with the film's success.

God damn you Keitel, you lucky bastard!

This film would, I believe, have been vastly different if made by a man. So often male directors and screen writers fail to portray female characters in a way that seems realistic to me, especially in sexual situations. The feminine quality of this film allows it to be more emotionally impacting than most films I have seen. The layers of emotions are so dense and yet so clear in a way I though impossible. Multiple layers of symbolism are piled on top of each other, yet a keen viewer can understand it all because the emotions they are meant to symbolize are made so clear and understandable by the fantastic story and direction. The film is also more beautiful than most I have seen as well. Many shot seem like fantastic paintings, with objects focused one by the camera both to establish their symbolic meaning and simply to revel in their inherent beauty. This is, flat out, one of the greatest films I have ever seen, a must watch, must repeatedly watch film. I consider it an Essential film, and give it an official rating of 10/10.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right here--this is a very different film from a male director. This is a film about a woman's experiences and it needed someone who could relate to those experiences on as many levels as possible to guide it.

    Good point about Sam Neill's performance as well. It's easy to forget how good he really is in this film. Who knew he could play an emotional brute so convincingly?