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Sundered

The Piano

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Would you all believe that the one time I saw this film, it was on a double-bill with a sneak preview of Richard Attenborough's version of Shadowlands? I went with a bunch of friends from church, which made the whole experience kind of funny. (I was aware that Keitel would appear nude, because the interview with Campion in a local newspaper mentioned that she had ignored the advice of those who thought Keitel should have had an erection... but the film still went further than any of us expected!)

I'm not commenting on the film with this anecdote -- it's been almost 12 years and I haven't seen it since, and I would have to see it again before I could comment on it, as such. I just think it's a funny anecdote.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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On this point.  Are Ada's actions really so immoral?

I never said Ada's actions were immoral. They're completely understandable. What's immoral is to write a film that puts a character into that kind of desperate situation and then celebrates her capitulation.

Like Peter, I haven't seen the film in 12 years either, so there's a lot of finer points I'm not going to comment on. I am reporting the impression the film made at the time I saw it.

My reaction is of a piece with my wife's, so the gender gap here is not unbridgeable (is that a word?).

The film explicitly takes us into the realms of emotion - like Ada's decision to go mute, it doesn't try to explain itself because it's not necesarily meant to be understood.
I'm always suspicious of statements like that. Even absurdist and Dadaist art has content and carries some kind of meaning. I'm reminded of the individual who claimed on this board that David Lynch made Mulholland Drive "to provoke free thought."
The music, granted, does not fit the period but it entirely fits the film, the character and the situation.
All the more reason it shouldn't have been a period film.
religion is tied in with colonialism - the indigenous maids sing God Save The Queen to try to please their bosses
That's primarily an expression of patriotism, not religion.
Also, it's not Scotland, it's colonial New Zealand.

Yes, but Ada comes from Scotland, and in the Scotland of the period, religion was an inescapable part of one's identity.

As for the disbelief Ada chooses Baines (and she does choose, explicitly gives her heart to him)
Again, you're responding to something I didn't say. Sure, she chooses him, but what other choice does Campion give her, really? Edited by mrmando

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

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A lot to reply to here. I recommend reading this. We have had a lot of talk about The Piano on the various forms of this board over the year. It was halfway through In The Cut (an unfortunately mediocre/bad film) that I realized that Christian males, even non-conservative ones, have a really hard time understanding feminist texts.

I did the search, so I shall weep profusely if I am "ahem'd." This is a draft of something I'm working on for my blog which is why it sounds so stuffy. However, should anyone else enjoy this film...say so!

That was well written. I don't agree though that she is "immature" or incapable of surviving in an adult world. She is so perpendicular to her environment as a consequence of not fitting in with her husband and others' notion of what "being a woman/wife" is. They would look at her and call her "immature" or "selfish" as a way of validating their own preconceived notions as to what a woman should be like.

The music may be enjoyable on its own terms, but its style doesn't match the period of the film.

Why should films be stylistically limited to the time periods they are operating in? Rohmer's Perceval comes to mind on this point. The alterity of the music in this film is an indication of what Campion is trying to do in the first place. She is not attempting to evoke a sense of time or place (an perfect irony considering her attention to landscape detail), but rather a sense of the feminine within the context of the storyline she is working with.

FWIW, she also finds the lack of reference to religion in the story of a 19th-century Scotswoman historically implausible.

I don't find this as problematic. We have to watch Campion like we watch Denis. She is often working with pre-existing texts, but her films are about rooting out the gender tensions and positions of power within these texts. Questions of historical plausibility don't enter this arena. If Campion wanted to make a film about a 19th century Scotswoman who trades her body for freedom of expression, then historical questions would apply. Campion though is making a much different film in The Piano.

Perhaps Roger Ebert and Sundered are right, and the film really is about psychologies, not people ... in which case none of the events or characters should necessarily be read at face value. Of course, once you make that claim, you can slap nearly any interpretation you like on it.

The first sentence here is spot on. That much is plainly clear, and her films can't be watched any other way. If anything, this is the primary characteristic of all successful female directors excepting Varda and Spheeris (Denis, Taymor, Campion, Deren, Breillat, Ahwesh, etc...). They are psychologically focused often to the point of expressionism.

But the second sentence is does not logically follow. Expressionism as a discipline does not produce inherently relative readings. Yes, it evokes a privatized, personal response. But if an expressionist film is read correctly, then the reading will be affected by the cultural and gender tensions that undergird it. And these are commonly experienced tensions. We aren't allowed to "slap nearly any interpretation you like on it," we are implored to share the perspectives of the lead character and let that critique whatever world we bring with us to the film.

The film explicitly takes us into the realms of emotion - like Ada's decision to go mute, it doesn't try to explain itself because it's not necesarily meant to be understood.

In this respect I think it's a difficult film to defend or argue against.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Thanks for the link to the Campion essay, mleary. I found it very helpful in placing The Piano in context. And your whole post, I thought, was very insightful in re-reading this thread so far. Difficult film, I agree, but certainly not easily dismissible.


There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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I don't agree though that she is "immature" or incapable of surviving in an adult world. She is so perpendicular to her environment as a consequence of not fitting in with her husband and others' notion of what "being a woman/wife" is. They would look at her and call her "immature" or "selfish" as a way of validating their own preconceived notions as to what a woman should be like.

Well, this certainly does seem to be the part of the film that I've interpreted incorrectly! However, her refusal to speak exists long before she sails to New Zealand. Also, Ada was (presumably) silent with her first lover whom she (presumably) loved. What about the final scene has changed and caused Ada to feel that she can reach to the outside world in a different way? Is she compromising her independence in this possibility of 'domestic bliss' while abandoning the gorgeous yet sad solitude suggested when she is dragged underwater?

Fantastic link, thanks.


I reason, Earth is short -

And Anguish - absolute -

And many hurt,

But, what of that?

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mrmando,

Yes, Baines intially bribes her for sex--this is what I meant by "fumbling to get that 'thing' only women can give"--but he realizes that he can't get this 'thing' that way. Yes, what he wants is sexual, but he wants something more (i.e. intimacy). Ada understands this, and this is what allow her to choose Baines. It's also what makes Baines a more likeable figure, imo.

I agree with Gigi when she says,

Baines wins her heart not because he bargained for sexual favours but because he recognises it as a fundamental part of who she is and allows that voice expression. That he gives it up in the end ("I am sick, Ada") demonstrates that fundamentally he is just a weak man that made a mistake when in love. Her determination to regain her pride and control even when he subjects her to humiliations further demonstrates that what occurs between them is much more complex than a reductionist reading of it as a simple capitalist exchange of service for goods.

And later

The Piano criticises an institution that has resulted in bondage and sexual oppression, and what is elevated is something that through struggle eventually becomes a mutually supportive relationship that is respectful, tender, accepting and loving between two people that learn how to compromise and surrender themselves to one another. In my own view the latter is a much truer expression of marriage than the former, just missing some formalities. It's also a lot more human.

But I also think the film is about two men who are drawn to a woman, and want something from her. Both struggle and clumsily try to get that "thing."

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The music may be enjoyable on its own terms, but its style doesn't match the period of the film.

If only someone had observed this about Star Wars, man, I never would have given it so much attention. wink.gif


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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The alterity of the music in this film is an indication of what Campion is trying to do in the first place.

Very good point...the problems that arise when one considers the film as narrative cinema should act as hints that one should seek alternative interpretations. I suppose this means I'll have to reconsider Like Water for Chocolate and Heavenly Creatures, other feminist films with narrative problems. Wunderbahr.

She is not attempting to evoke a sense of time or place (an perfect irony considering her attention to landscape detail), but rather a sense of the feminine within the context of the storyline she is working with.

Dunno, maybe she's trying to do both ... especially if you think she's addressing colonialism. Thus the relationship between Ada and Alisdair becomes a metaphor for the relationship between the colonists and New Zealand. Or maybe it's the other way around.

Questions of historical plausibility don't enter this arena.

Awfully convenient claim.

If Campion wanted to make a film about a 19th century Scotswoman who trades her body for freedom of expression, then historical questions would apply. Campion though is making a much different film in The Piano.

Again, I think you're being a little too dismissive here. What if what she's made is an uncomfortable hybrid of expressionism and narrative

Edited by mrmando

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

Do you know the deep dark secret of the avatars?

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Dunno, maybe she's trying to do both ... especially if you think she's addressing colonialism. Thus the relationship between Ada and Alisdair becomes a metaphor for the relationship between the colonists and New Zealand. Or maybe it's the other way around.

I think it is the other way around, which is why the historical question is not so important. We just need loose indications as to its existence. Campion doesn't seem too interested in the tired questions of colonialism.

Questions of historical plausibility don't enter this arena.

Awfully convenient claim.

Of course it is convenient. It frees Campion up to make the film that she wants to make. It is not a documentary.

Again, I think you're being a little too dismissive here. What if what she's made is an uncomfortable hybrid of expressionism and narrative
Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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I suppose this means I'll have to reconsider Like Water for Chocolate and Heavenly Creatures, other feminist films with narrative problems. Wunderbahr.

w00t.gif Count me in! I found them both very worthwhile!


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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A couple of points of meta-discussion here, although I hope we don't devolve entirely into that realm.

Calling something expressionist in tone and intent doesn't mean "this film is not narrative and doesn't follow narrative conventions."

Ah, so by "expressionist" you mean only in tone and intent


Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

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Can I clarify the following point:

"No one has suggested that 'it's not meant to be understood.' "

Those were Gigi's exact words. You even quoted them. The conversation has run thusly:

Gigi: It's not necessarily meant to be understood.

Me: I'm always suspicious of statements like that.

You: As long as we're suspicious of statements like that, we'll be suspicious of people who make films like that. [implying some degree of assent on your part with Gigi's statement]

Me: Come now, you can't talk about correct readings and then say the film isn't meant to be understood.

You: No one has suggested that "it's not meant to be understood."

See why I'm confused? Maybe the above is really an expressionist conversation, 'cause it sure as heck doesn't hold up as a narrative one.

"I was just trying to say as irenically as possible that there are other ways to read the film that make it an expression worth at least a cursory critical glimpse. We could probably make a film about Esther or Ruth that would look and feel a lot like The Piano."

I should have made my meaning more explicit than I did by adding "rationally" and perhaps even "metaphorically" to that statement. I apologise if it's led to further confusion. Perhaps that's why I was so bemused when I read that you're suspicious of people making statements such as those because I thought "Really? On a Christian board?" My intent with regards the discussion of emotion after that was to try and illustrate that there are many ways of 'understanding' film that aren't limited to the above two approaches and I think that the Piano walks a fine line between the two and draws strength because of that. It's the antithesis of those well plotted but boring and predictable films whose characters are all brought down to a simple cause and effect. Incidentally, I agree completely about the Esther/Ruth idea and I think it's a shame that so few films have been made about female biblical characters. Within this scope, Medea by Lars Von Trier is an interesting reference point (also his best work in my humble and very random opinion).

Can I just mention here that the comparison to Wharton also struck a note with me. I think that stylistically they're incredibly different and that results in a completely different product although they occasionally tread on similar thematic territories. Ironically I would say that Campion is more in keeping with Henry James (ironically because Wharton is often compared to him and not because Campion adapted Portrait of a Lady) who relies a lot more on the ambiguity that, as the first link mleary posted on here points out, is a critical part of Campion's work.

As for correct or incorrect readings: I wouldn't argue that there are correct readings though I would agree that there are incorrect readings. The difference lies in the approach and I thank Mleary for introducing some useful ideas for further investigation with regards to this.

Will try to answer some more issues raised when I'm not at work!

Edited by gigi

"There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic" - Vladimir Nabokov

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I should have made my meaning more explicit than I did by adding "rationally" and perhaps even "metaphorically" to that statement.

Yes, that would have helped! All art is meant to communicate, i.e., to "be understood" on some level, even if that level is emotional and not rational.

One other remark that might be worth making. I said:

The music may be enjoyable on its own terms, but its style doesn't match the period of the film.

Then MLeary said:

Why should films be stylistically limited to the time periods they are operating in?

Which of course is a non sequitur. My argument was not that films should be stylistically limited to the time periods they're operating in. If that were the case, then there could be no such thing as a Shakespeare film, or a film set in the 19th century

Edited by mrmando

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

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... Two, what kind of feminism is that? I thought a feminist would say she shouldn't have to use her body to get what she wants.

One, that isn't true at all. All films do offer a multitude of readings, some better than others. I was just suggesting that we often bring very masculine terminology to what are truly feminine texts. The brutish callousness of such language can render them incomprehensible. You are reading Ada through the language of capitulation and domination. Someone more versed in feminist theory would really take you to task for this, as it is very confrontational, chauvinistic language. Here though at least is a feminist reading that tends your direction, I would probably lean this direction as well.

Two, the alternative reading I offered (which I only halfheartedly agree with) is pretty much just a Third Wave feminist reading. Well within contemporary feminist dialogue. I will defer to someone more versed in this school of thought, as it isn't my field at all. And Breillat would probably be better for this discussion anyway.

I'm no expert, but FWIW, here's an article about and interview with the authors who more or less invented the term Third Wave Feminism in their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future.


There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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A couple of points of meta-discussion here, although I hope we don't devolve entirely into that realm.

It has been a while since I have seen the film, so I am certainly coming to an end of my specific knowledge of the film. Meta-discussion becomes so boorish after a while.

Ah, so by "expressionist" you mean only in tone and intent

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Can I clarify the following point:

Within this scope, Medea by Lars Von Trier is an interesting reference point (also his best work in my humble and very random opinion).

Hey, now that is provocative! Please, do tell more... Stef Loy is a big fan of this one.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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I bet we could, but those are both stories that include sexual transactions described in brutish masculine terms. After we make the movies, will we then no longer be allowed to talk about those transactions in those terms?

That isn't exactly the situation in Esther's case, and the kinsman redeemer phraseology in Ruth isn't brutish at all, it is just technical. But that is beside the point. I was just toying with the thought that movies could be made about either narrative as very feminine expressions that would really unpack what it meant to be a woman in either of those contexts.

Well, I was being somewhat facetious, but I'm sure there are some feminists who would object to the situations in both stories: risking death in order to speak to one's husband in one; a widow being purchased along with her husband's property (instead of being able to inherit it herself) in the other. Both could certainly sound brutish.

Isn't someone working on an Esther film right now?


Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

Do you know the deep dark secret of the avatars?

It's big. It's fat. It's Greek.

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