the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Piano (1993)

The Organ-Grinder

Jane Campion's The Piano is this year's darling amongst the films which were viewed as more than mere entertainment. Ms. Campion has had other art-house successes (An Angel at My Table, Sweetie) but this film  has firmly established her as a director of note to the general public. It has garnered numerous awards at film festivals but more importantly American audiences have been mesmerized. The box office gross might not compare to a Hollywood blockbuster but it seems to be the film on everyone's lips in theaters from New York to Seattle. The most remarkable aspect of this film that there is little in its conception or execution that is remarkable.

This film is about two kinds of passion, carnal and artistic. Holly Hunter is the mute piano-player mother protagonist. She is the linchpin of a love triangle which involves Sam Neill, a misplaced country-gentleman, and Harvey Keitel, the frontiersman gone native. The backdrop is a 19th century New Zealand jungle inhabited by a Maori tribe. The sheer exoticness is captivating. The scene in which Ms. Hunter's arrival is especially enthralling. The unkempt bawdy sailors' laughter is juxtaposed with long dresses and horrified expressions of the mother and daughter as the two are carried across the raging surf. Instead of being thanked the sea Captain is greeted by the pianist's snobbery. The aristocratic mother and daughter are abandoned on the desolate beach along with all their very worldly belongings; including, of course, the piano. Completing the magnificent tableaux of civilization confronting untamed wilderness is the arrival of the suitor and his Maori luggage carriers. Unfortunately Sam Neill and his band lead the two new arrivals into the jungle. The expectations generated by this brilliant opening disappeared into the muck and mire. The story is as old as the hills and the hills themselves are grim and oppressive.

The film is set admist a group of hut-like houses in a swamp where the sun rarely shines. Holly has difficulty adjusting although the young daughter quickly falls into step amongst the free-spirited natives and the weird colonialists. (The malleability of the young). The plot thickens. Holly sells herself for her true love; the piano. Holly eventually discovers her true love is really Harvey Keitel. In the end Sam Neill discovers Holly is not his true love. The daughter plays and plays and plays. All this takes far too long. Ms. Campion has a penchant for over-telling the story. This was even exhibited during the opening sequence. The brilliant beach scene was preceded by an unnecessary voice over in which the mute pianist speaks philosophically about her life. The film comes full circle and closes with Ms. Hunter verbally musing about what has already been clearly shown. The verbal narration sandwiches a smoldering love story and two stylized moments of violence in which Holly barely escapes death: Sam Neill's cruel mutilation and Holly's dramatic attempted suicide (or was it a well placed accident). It is doubtful anyone will forget Holly being hauled to the chopping block. It is equally jarring to watch her being dragged under the ocean by a piano. Unfortunately Ms. Campion fails to integrate these shocking moments into the plodding general narrative. Holly is re-born. Her finger is replaced by a garish silver prosthesis. She becomes the town freak (a role she relishes). Harvey loves her even more. The child plays and plays and plays. Hmmmm. Well at least everyone is out of the dingy swamp.

Ms. Campion's view of carnal passion pales when matched against Terrence Malick's in Days of Heaven. The films' structures are closely matched: A mute traveling with a young girl becomes ensnared in a tragic love affair. Mr. Malick countered the bland storyline with visual grandeur. There was no need to travel to the remote jungles of New Zealand. Malick honed exoticness from a region which prides itself on ordinariness - the Mid West. Under Nestor Almendros' eye  the heartland becomes surreal. This was Richard Gere's best film performance because he let his finest attribute, his looks, speak for him. This was a story of love set in a earthly paradise. Ms. Hunter's physical presence was only mildly more appealing than her character's personality. Mr. Keitel's lust seemed to grow from sheer isolation. Wheras Mr. Gere was a magnet for sensuality, Ms. Hunter was the only thing worth hearing or viewing within a thousand miles. Ms. Campion is telling a story of desperation set in a latrine. In addition, Malick's tough little girl was far more appealing than Ms. Campion's prissy waif.

Days of Heaven failed to address the issue of artistic sensibilty. Ms. Campion added the attribute of the obsessed musician to her silent protagonist. Holly Hunter played a brooding premadonna who possessed a maniacal need to practice her piano. Unfortunately the art was as dull as the cartoonlike view of artists. Paul Cox's Man of Flowers focuses exclusively on the driving force behind creativity. His protagonist was infatutated with playing the church organ ever time he had a sexual desire. This misenthrope was also sexually attracted to flowers. Ms. Campion's mute pianist becomes as stale the overweight church organist.

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