Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Piano: A Film Review

"My body is not only an object among all objects, ... but an object which is sensitive to all the rest, which reverberates to all sounds, vibrates to all colours, and provides words with their primordial significance through the way in which it receives them" - Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The Sacrifice, (Michael Nyman) courtesy of grcinque

Cinematic Culture's Essay Question No. 11:In her article in the reader, Vivian Sobchack states that what moved her (and other critics), about The Piano was the degree to which it engaged her bodily senses. What do you think prompted critics to emphasise the 'tactile force' of The Piano, and to what extent do their comments speak to your own experience of the film.

This cinematic culture's essay about the film The Piano, will attempt to explore the complexities of the human condition involving an arranged marriage, which, will be expressed in the combined film mediums of imagery and music. Therefore the prime ingredients of greed, lust, love and the unexpected twists of fate in a time long past will be revealed as the film unfolds. This Scottish woman called Ada who is the main character of interest was just a husband's possession that could be traded for an item of higher value. Ada's prized piano that would be viewed as her sensual instrument of communication throughout the film. This piano was as a result connected to the forbidden sexual fetish object namely Ada, the new wife, of Stewart. The piano and lessons were exchanged for an invaluable parcel of land belonging to the other man, Barnes. There will also be references to the notions of 'tactile force' engaging Vivian Sobchack and my own experience of viewing this film The Piano.

There is the unsettling reference concerning the silence in the beginning of the film to the mute state of the main character Ada. The Scottish woman is however able to find her voice in the playing of her beloved piano, which expresses her suppressed emotions of sensuality. This sensual music will be used as a communication tool for the audience throughout the unfolding of this unusual storyline of love in this film, The Piano. A marriage had been arranged for Ada, by her father to live far, far away in a strange land. These unrealistic, expectations of Stewart, a patient man living in New Zealand wanting to acquire a wife despite her disability of silence and one illegitimate daughter ( The Piano, 1992, DVD Video). In the non-academic world, movie reviews differ, because the audience's experience, is simplex and in the moment. Whereas in the field of academic film analysis, for scholars, there will always be the need to either explain or dismiss the overall cinematic experience altogether and why this is so through film theory (Sobchack, V. 2000, p.231).

The musical sounds of nature play a very important role such as the pounding of the waves on the shore of the beach. When the mother and daughter find they are abandoned with a sense of isolation among their belongings with the piano in a crate. The pair shelter for the night in Ada's hooped, crinoline cage covered with a white petticoat shining from within with a glowing candle and secured by large stones. One can almost imagine the bracing scent of salt in the air and the overwhelming reality of the vastness of the ocean complete with the surreal shapes of the sea-gulls flying overhead. There is also the gritty textual feeling of the sand underfoot and the chilling melody of the unwelcoming wind's rhapsody right up to the forbidding cliffs. The arrival of her new husband Stewart is just the first disappointment of many when her beloved prize the piano is left behind on the beach. The rain, mud and the lush greenery do little in the way of a welcome for this unlikely woman of resolve. The husband, Stewart is quite blatant in his disapproval of the size of this woman and openly states what he does not like about his new bride Ada, to Baines (The Piano). This is some of my descriptive impressions of The Piano, which is apparently is similar to examples in the popular press and referred in some detail in Sobchack's article in the reader (Sobchack, p.231).

The unnerving experience of Stewart and Ada, being photographed, as a drenched to the bone, married couple. This conceptual reality is further, emphasized, by the insistent downpour of rain and flashes of lightning as well as the horrible textual feeling of the muddy ground. There is however the downgrading elements, of the shabby bridal gown, which does not fit, draped and tied over the black clothing of the bride does little to soothe her fragmented nerves. The bridegroom's habit of combing his hair is extremely irritating and shows a pathetic attempt at trying to look his best for the wedding photograph. Ada runs into the house showing her frustration by ripping off the bridal over-garment and tearing the material in her haste to escape from this symbol of imprisonment. Her anxious white face, is shown in close-up, framed in the window, as the rain trickles down, like tears of regret on the panes (The Piano). There is the mention of Eisenstein, in the reader, he is considered to be the most influential in the field of motion pictures. There is the reference to how "the moving body was conceived and configured cinematically" is so true when you are dealing with the story of The Piano (Sobchack, p. 232).

The husband, Stewart has to go away, for several days to try to acquire land, which is so important for the future of his new family. The wife, Ada approaches the man called Baines who will help her reclaim her sense of being one with her beloved piano. Baines is amazed at the beauty of Ada's playing of the black and white ivory keys of this piano marooned in the middle of this vast expanse of sand. The sounds of the sensuous music, reflective like the forbidden sexual desires against the backdrop of the silver-hued foam-caped sea rushing on the seashore. The salmon-pink colours of the sky are too beautiful for such a hostile aspect of an uninhabited space controlled by the vagaries of nature in an untamed landscape. The imagery of the hand-made seahorse is truly breathtaking in the sand as two sets of footprints lead away to an uncertain future for this mother and daughter. Barnes walks at a respectful distance, in wonderment at his experience of having listened to angelic sounds so unearthly. But something was stirring, in a certain part of his anatomy, for Barnes, of a canal nature, as he was lost within his confused thoughts concerning Ada (The Piano). There will always be the question for some academic film scholars about the connection of the sensory affect on the audience when exposed to the imagery and the music of this film The Piano (Sobchack, p.232).

The husband, Stewart came home and notices the make-believe notions of the carved piano keyboard into the surface of the kitchen table, which strikes him as decidedly odd. Barnes, the other man is a calculating shrew, in his business transactions, counting on the greed of the husband, Stewart as he strikes a deal to exchange some of his land for the piano and lessons. Therefore the expected volatile reaction of anger and frustration echo in the exposed emotions on the surface for Ada, who has no choice but to comply with her husband's demands. The sound of breaking china shows that her prized piano is being denied along with her inner voice of hidden sensuality and expression of being too human as a woman. The price for her husband, Stewart will be too high, as he will lose all the necessary life props, needing to be accepted within this Christian society embedded in this Maori land like a righteous weed ( The Piano). There appears also to be a certain degree of snobbery on how cinematic films are judged by some scholars as just examples of manipulative texts of emotion purely for the benefit of the audience (Sobchack, p.233).

The music is hypnotic as Barnes listens to another man's wife, Ada, playing the piano in a small dwelling somewhere lost in the lush damp greenery of the forest. Therefore the piano is attached to his sexual feelings of wants and needs concerning this pianist, Ada. The touching of the visible skin through the hole in her stocking is quite strange, yet moving, as Barnes caresses the whiteness of her skin. The white keys, like the skin are used as bargaining chips until they are exchanged for the black keys and the removal of the protective mantle of Ada's clothes. Barnes, gets the desired outcome, but is unsatisfied by this arrangement and gives back the piano to Stewart's wife, Ada. Her husband is thus alarmed, and terrified at the concept of giving back the land. Fear is also constant in this film The Piano, as the four characters try to come to terms with their isolation through living in an alien landscape unfamiliar from their native country (The Piano). How do you explain how movies touch the audience in sensual ways that encourage 'canal thoughts' which cinematic theory scholars are unable to explain the needs of the living body (Sobchack, p.235).

Childlike curiosity, bordering on voyeurism is why the husband, Stewart watches and listens through a gap in the wall of Barne's house. The two adults, Barnes and Ada, too, involved, in their lovemaking totally unaware. They are the entertainment for Ada's husband, transfixed and unable to leave (The Piano). Sobchack's observations in her essay in the reader, reveal that the cinematic interpretations of 'canal desire' are unable to be grasped by some scholars. They have to make sense of the conceptual reality of sex in the film first (Sobchack, p.234.) This discipline of analysis, separating the meaning of the vision, of the female human body, as the forbidden sexual fetish object, is problematic, because the cinema is grounded in subliminal codes (Sobchack, p.233). Therefore, the spectacle of Ada, redressing is a experience that Barnes relishes, as he watches the sensual curves of her body disappear within the black layered stifling clothing of the forbidden territory of her husband. There is the sense of loss for Barnes, as he gives back the control of ownership of this woman, back to Ada's husband, Stewart (The Piano). There is very little in the way of sustained scholarly writing on the taboo subjects of carnality and sensuality, until recently in the work of Johathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer, which is referred to in the reader (Sobchack, p.233).

Unhappily, for the husband, Stewart, he has to face the hard cold reality that the other man Barnes, has trespassed on this rightful property, namely his wife Ada. The overwhelming wetness of the rain is always there as a constant reminder of the surreal tones of despair, of how miserable this life is for anyone of an Anglo-Saxon background. The husband, Stewart, tries to justify his actions of chopping off his wife's finger from a Christian's point of view to himself. The terrified daughter delivers the finger in a blood-soaked piece of white cloth to the other man, Barnes as an unforeseen token of warning that another finger will be removed until there are none. To threaten to take away his wife's Ada's fingers, is paramount to condemning the soul, of pianist, to a living death of blackening ashes. Without the ability, of her white slender artistic fingers to play her beloved prize, the piano. Ada will be truly mute without a voice to communicate her musical notes of hidden passion (The Piano). The expression of the horror of the loss of the finger is somewhat detached from the lover's reality of the 'tactile force' of the touching of flesh as the example of pushing the boundaries between the real and unreal for the audience (Sobchack, p.237 ).

The husband, Stewart, is embittered with the realization that he will never possess his wife, Ada, in the same sensuous manner of the other man, Barnes. He can hear the inner voice of his wife, Ada, echoing within his head with all the despair and longing for the other man, Barnes, instead of her husband, Stewart. The solution for Stewart would be to kill this intruder, Barnes and so he goes armed with a gun with this murderous intent. But, the sight of the other man, Barnes, asleep in repose with Ada's daughter who is feeling protected from harm. Barnes looks too human and the husband, Stewart feels remorse at a cruel action based on being caught up in a temporary moment of madness that can never be undone. He decides to admit defeat at the hands of the other man and advises Baines to take away the woman Ada, and her child, otherwise something beyond this man's Christian character will turn this husband into a murderer of two people (The Piano). Roland Barthes, states in his Rhetoric of the Image, that the linguistics of an image will yield the first message, which in this case is Ada's husband, Stewart appearing as a broken man walking away from the unhappy state of an arranged marriage (Barthes, R. 1977).

The angry state of the ocean is apparent as the man, Barnes, the woman, Ada and the daughter travel over the waves with the prized piano. Ada, demands that the piano be thrown overboard into the icy cold unyielding depths of the sea. When the piano is cast into the seawater, Ada, gets caught within the coils of rope, dragging this mute woman into the ocean's melody of infinity. The choice is given to her to embrace life, but the only jarring note in this happy ending, is the ornate silver finger replacement, which is a constant embittered reminder of the past. But, in hindsight, for her, the finger has also restored Ada's life-force, in which to appreciate the magic tones of the new piano and life. There are also the unlimited capacities of being truly loved by this special man, Barnes who accepts all the responsibility of her human needs as a woman. Learning how to speak words for Ada, with a harsh voice unused to expressing sounds of communication and empowerment for a woman in a man's world (The Piano).

In conclusion, this cinematic culture's essay has tried to provide an overview of The Piano. The piano is portrayed as the sensual instrument of communication for this mute woman, Ada. This Scottish woman, without an active tongue of speech, was viewed as a forbidden sexual fetish object by both men such as her husband, Stewart and the other man, Barnes. The impact of nature in New Zealand reflects throughout the film in the notion of the wetness of the rain that never ceases, to the mud-soaked ground and the liquid reality of the ocean. The midas-gold threads of the husband, Stewart's life-tapestry start to unravel as Ada, a broken-hearted woman approachs, the other man, Barnes for help. So, ensuring that she will be able to find her inner voice of sensuality, by playing her prized piano out of the sight of her new husband, Stewart, too far away. The husband, Stewart had futile expectations of his new wife, Ada, and daughter that could never be realized because of the nature of his greed for land. Ada, was willing to accept the arranged marriage, but not the loss of her only form of communication. The husband, Stewart chose to first deny her beloved piano and than use his wife as a mode of tradeable currency right up to the value of the barter of the land. The unforeseen outcome of this trading of human currency would be these two lovers, Ada, and Barnes would start a new life with another man's daughter faraway from the gossip of these narrow-minded Christians.

The other aspects of this essay were further complicated by the dilemma of the analysis of the cinematic theory in the field of academic film scholars. The idea that scholars can sometimes be dismissive about the film experience in all its richness of imagery and music is truly unfortunate. My descriptions of my personal experience of the film The Piano seem to mirror most articles in the popular press, which is also mentioned with some interest by the article in the reader by Sobchack. Eisenstein is also mentioned because of his influence on how the actors were portrayed in their roles in the cinematic reality of films. The film-related, connection of the effects of the sensory will always pose a question of whether the imagery and the music can impact on the audience. To a degree some cinematic films will always be judged as emotion-based examples of text, manipulated to cater to the whims of the audience. To be a human being is to be affected by "canal thoughts" and movies are made to appeal to real living people in the audience, which is a concept some cinematic theory scholars are unable to grasp as yet. Taboo subjects such as 'carnality' and 'sensuality' will always be treated with reserve from most scholars. The reality of "the touching of flesh" in cinematic films will always be regarded as the concept of 'tactile force'. The linguistics of The Piano's imagery show the message of the husband, Stewart, as a man broken by the conceptual reality of his greed for land in New Zealand at the cost of too many precious things forever lost to him.

Barnes, R. 1977, Image, Music, Text, translated by Heath, S. Rhetoric of the Image, Hill and Wang, New York.

Campion, J., and Pullinger, K. 1994, The Piano: a Novel, Bloomsbury, Great Britain.

Sobchack, V. 2000, What my Fingers Knew: or Vision in the Flesh.

The Piano,
1992, DVD Video, Jan Campion Productions
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