Monday, May 12, 2008

The Piano (1993)

A Reader Request (long time in coming --my apologies Scott!)
#9 Personal Canon: The Movies I Think About When I Think About the Movies

The menu on the 1999 DVD edition of The Piano is a hideously misleading photoshop tragedy. It’s garish, poorly composed and off putting. I won't even reprint it here to illustrate my point. It's too horrifying. I dare say I’ve never seen a poorer match between a menu and the film that follows. It’s the last less than exquisite image one will see once “play movie” is selected. If you’ve never seen the film before and you (like me) have been burdened with the unwitting purchase or rental of this particular edition, press the buttons quickly.

On to the beauty! There's so much of it...

Like mother, like daughter (Anna Paquin & Holly Hunter in The Piano)

I saw The Piano in Salt Lake City in November 1993 and I’ve never forgotten the experience. The movie held me in rapt attention from its first stirring images and Holly Hunter's high pitched but quiet delivery of one of the greatest opening monologues I'd ever heard
The voice you're hearing is not my speaking voice but my mind's voice...

I remember my best girlfriend’s hand gripping my arm during the most brutal sequence late in the movie. She was so upset she nearly bolted from her seat. I vividly remember exiting the theater after the credits rolled, both of us in a daze. We knew we’d seen something great but what exactly had we seen? Watching The Piano for the first time can feel like confronting a gorgeous but alien presence. It’s utterly transporting but also unfamiliar. Your rational mind will tell you that this shouldn’t be the case. But deeply sensual films are uncommon. What’s more, films shot through with feminine mystique, energies and point of view are arguably the rarest forms of cinema. The Piano stood womanly and defiant and far removed from other films that came before it and sadly, perhaps, has remained a foreign thing. It's still a rarity.

Jane Campion’s masterpiece, with its eerily beautiful New Zealand landscapes (before Lord of the Rings popularized the place for Hollywood) and bold femininity, felt otherworldly in 1993 but like all truly great art, it proved unusually accessible despite the challenging gauntlet it threw down. It was a major arthouse and critical success, loved by both the intelligentsia and the more middlebrow Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Before it closed its run it had won eight Oscar nominations, three statues, a sizeable box office gross for the time and a passionate enduring following.

The film begins with a curiously fuzzy image. The next cut reveals it as a POV shot: we’re looking through the fingers of Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) who is partially covering her eyes... from what we’re not sure. The camera doesn't stay subservient to Ada's point of view but rather begins to study her, this curious mute creature. Hunter's fascinating performance, incongruously both stony and expressive, demands it...

Return and discuss if you have something to say.


Anonymous said...

Oo...I wish I'd written that!
Beautifully done.

The Piano, a well deserved #9

adam k. said...

Why the jump from #90-something to #9?

I think I might own that '99 DVD edition, simply because it's the only one that exists. Phooey.

The Brunette said...

This film absolutely needs a DVD re-release in the U.S.! The British version has audio commentary by Campion and a long clip of Michael Nyman talking about the score.

This was a film I'd wanted to see years ago, but I forgot all about it until an ice dancing team used the soundtrack for their free dance this past season. (The program was inspired by the film, but didn't exactly re-enact it; the two skaters would sign to each other at various points. They ended up world champions.)

The result: I wound up absolutely obsessed. I rented it a second time. I borrowed the novelization from the library. I sought out as many academic essays on the film as I could.

I would describe "The Piano" as a fairy tale for adults. And then I would talk about it ad nauseam.

I found the film as beautiful as it was unsettling. It made me think - much like reading a 19th century British novel for school and seeking out the symbolism.

It also made me question myself - George's arrangement with Ada certainly isn't something a feminist like myself should condone. Or is it? It's no wonder why this film is a favorite subject in academia!

One of my favorite aspects of the film is that no one dies (I know some people interpret the final shot at face value, but I am not one of those people). In these sorts of stories, if it's not the villain who is killed, you'd expect the heroine to be punished - either through her own death or that of her lover.

Good call on the hand imagery - my favorite use of it has to be when Alisdair looks inside the hut and sees George dive under Ada's skirt - and George's dog slobbers all over Alisdair's hand!

My biggest issue with the film is George's full frontal scene - and no, it's not because it's Harvey Keitel's penis (that would make a great band name, don't you think?). No, my issue with the nudity is that if he's trying to show Ada how much he desires her, why is he flaccid? Yes, I know, ratings boards. But it certainly bugged me!

This film really made an impact on me, and as a result I sought out the novelization from a neighboring town's library. It's really not cheesy like novelizations tend to be; practically half the book is backstory and content that wasn't in the film. It goes into how Alisdair and George ended up in New Zealand, who the "D" engraved on the key is, and how the town treated Ada after Flora was born (which definitely explains Ada's sexual repression in the film!).

I was awaiting your thoughts on "The Piano" - so thank you for the retrospective! Now we need to launch a campaign for a DVD release befitting its brilliance.

NicksFlickPicks said...

You really like it that much? I've never been that crazy about this one.

Unknown said...

Ah! I've commented a few times that this is my favorite movie, containing both my favorite performance and my favorite scene. How exciting to learn that the conclusion of the scene is the one you chose as your favorite shot!

I love it to bits, and find it as exciting as the best and most kinetic action movies. In particular:
- When Ada looks down on the piano from high above, and then the camera flies over the New Zealand forest
- Flora's fictional account of the origin of Ada's muteness, with the strange cartoon man lighting up like a match
- When Ada looks out the window and we see the piano on the beach during a rainstorm
- The aforementioned performance on the beach
- The whole axe incident
- That ending!

These get my pulse to racing as much as anything in the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I also love).

Another bit about the ending: As beautiful and unsettling a thing as has ever been put on film. In some ways it reminds me (and evokes similar emotions as) of the comparatively haunting final scene in Safe - two women sealed in their own worlds. Although one, it seems, has been set free.

Hate to ramble, but can't stop with this one!

Glenn said...

I did like The Piano very much, but I think I need to see it again. It's been a while.

Adam, I believe this was a reader request from last year hence the jump.


and you'll see more of the jumping on occassion. otherwise i fear i shall never get through more than a few of these. I've just got to write about things in the moment

although I'll probably jump back to the #90somethings for the next one.


Nick, that's all I get? A little inside joke? [listen up people, it's his favorite movie OF ALL TIME] There, now you're mute- woman-and-her-bad-seed-child-and
-naked stocky-lover loving self has been exposed!

what have you got to say for yo'self?


oh and brunette --isn't it funny how sporting events can bring up strange music or movie associations? I once went to a mormon game of some sort and the cheerleaders did a bronski beat number! i don't think they undertsood the song. Hee. Another time they did Tori Amos' baker baker and actually had choreography about making cakes. LMFAO

stephen the first time I saw this movie i was actually a smidgeon annoyed with Anna Paquin and now I l-o-v-e the performance. It's so natural and funny and that scene is the tops. I especially love the "oh... I tell a lie" with her adorable accent. i heart it so much.

Anonymous said...

Yay! The Piano is one of my all-time favorite films. I told my college film professor (an old, stodgy man who looked like he walked off a golf course before entering the classroom) that this was my favorite film, and his reaction galls me to this day. "The Piano?!?! That's a woman's film."

One thing that you did not mention, Nat, was how important Michael Nyman's lush, beautiful score is to the film. I listen to it often 15 years after I bought the CD for the first time (I've had to replace it twice).

Glenn said...

It can't be stressed enough that the two best female supporting performances that year were by a 13 and an 11-year-old. Crazy.

(I speak of Ricci in Addams Family Values and Paquin in The Piano)


yes, pretty unusual. Too bad Christina (she would've been my winner) wasn't nominated.

Eric said...

Holly Hunter is so sweet in this pic. And in The Incredibles. Seriously.

Sid said...

Thanks Nat! I've been waiting for this article for a very long time!

The Piano is one of my favorite films from the nineties (or any decade, for that matter). One of the few films that I consider to be a true "work of art".

Anonymous said...

Nat can I tease you a bit more with tales of travels? I've been to that beach!!! It is indeed... gorgeous!!! black sands, a stream coming down from the mountains and forest behind it...
The Piano disappointed me a bit when I first saw it... because of the soundtrack! I'd heard it over and over on cd... and some of those beautiful piano pieces where only heard in fragments during the film!

High time to re-watch it...


so Nick didn't respond here but he did share some of his feelings on the film here

crazycris ---one more crack about NZ and I expect you to ship me a plane ticket for a sightseeing trip ;)