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The Piano

See it, love it, become part of it

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 19, 1994.

One of the problems with being a creative artist these days is that no commercial entity can afford to let its biggest potential money maker go unheralded to increase sales. If you were a screenwriter, for examples, your fine, subtle plot development, however loaded with action components to satisfy the plantlife in upper corporate Hollywood management and its beloved public, will be rendered worthless by the trailers and other forms of advertising the movies use. If you , like me, knew instinctively the plot of The Crying Game before you saw it, based almost entirely upon the advertising and the smarmy references in print, the whole joy of the movie was lost. There was no shock, no shared surprise with the protagonist, and so a vital element was gone. Or there, I suppose. It has rendered movies no more vital than a rock concert, where people go to see the artist's video done live, with no actual surprises beyond the very few sound gaffes that occur. As a result, the most vital and significant art form this country has produced is merely numbing. It is worse here in Boulder, where people line up to see politically correct films, anticipate key scenes based upon reviews read, and start the appropriate emotional response before logic dictates.

This is a long introduction to my thoughts on The Piano, a pleasant film by Jane Campion that I probably should have liked all right if I hadn't been told I would adore it. But it rankles, and because it touches upon so many of the things that I consider important to art, my annoyances have come into focus, or print, or at least a sustained temper tantrum that I choose to inflict upon you.

The movie takes place in the 1850's, although there is little outside the press releases to so fix the time. It has a host of politically correct characters. The physically and emotionally impaired are represented by the heroine, who chooses not to speak and has an illegitimate child. She may have been shipped off in an arranged marriage by her father, or she may have initiated it herself as an expression of her independence. Or something. There are aborigines, played by the Maori, the original New Zealand inhabitants. One of them is gay, and everyone is so tolerant you want to throw up. The villain, needless to add, is a WASP male insensitive to superior souls, although he's the only one in the movie who does any work. Inexplicably, he chooses not to have his men lug an 800 pound piano through the swamps and mountains to his home and so leaves it on the beach. This remarkable instrument, however, has kept perfect tune after a trip literally around the world in a wooden ship of sail and two weeks in the surf and rain on the beach. From this we are to conclude that he is an artistic Neanderthal.

Most likely, however, it might be because he has an inkling his blushless bride can only play a few scales, a few bars from favorite pieces, and one composition, the movie's theme, that Liz Storey and George Winston might consider too derivative and meandering and - dare I say it? - boring. But nobody in the last century or the first 75 years of this one would notice it as music, much less an expression of the inner HER. In a film that takes some pride in realism and attention to detail, the keyboard artistry of Holly Hunter resounds as accurately and precisely as if she had broken into boogie woogie, a medley of Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson, or signed "Getta Down, Getta Funkey" to her sometimes charming, sometimes Punkey Brewsterish daughter. Imagine a story of the Punic Wars with a score by Pearl Jam and you get the general idea.

Annoying is the fact that the director assumed the public would neither note nor care; she was correct.

It tires me to list the intended profound moments, but let it be said that the movie could have been entitled Metaphor Alert, and nobody would blink. Campion's deft hand at incomprehensible analogies and syllogisms would not have been affected if a computer icon of Gabby Hayes ringing a triangle had appeared in the upper left hand or the screen whenever Holly Hunter and her lovers flared their nostrils in incendiary passion.

In fact the love scenes would have been helped by Gabby, perhaps in a menage a trois. This is a movie that features talented actors naked, clean, shaven and unblemished despite the fact that they live a swamp, one with neither insects nor disease for the English settlers. They sleep so soundly in this peaceful land that jealous neighbors clumping in boots on their front porch do not awaken. They engage in cunnilingus without hesitation, because in 1850 New Zealand, men who have not seen a woman in years are terribly concerned about her satisfaction and are simply up to date on all the latest requirements of 1994 sexual arousal. Of course, they would never jump upon her and have their way. Never. Not until she is satisfied.

In fact, this is a movie that should have starred Fabio, because it is nothing more than pornography for females filtered through the demographic marketing geniuses that profit off middle class white women. All the stigmata of porn is here, including incomprehensible and inconsistent redeeming social value segments that touch upon feminist issues but never actually take a stand on them beyond the minimal requirements of her audience.

Now, believe me, I enjoy what is normally called pornography, or men's pornography. The difference here is not subtle. Men's pornography is graphic and stupid and in no way exists as a substitute for the real thing. It is solely designed to excite at a basic and juvenile level. What I call women's porn, such as soap operas, is far more dangerous. It passes itself off as both possible and desirable and, increasingly, likely. You do not have to be Freud or among the more extreme of the feminist authors to note what bells would be rung in this movie's intended demographic of single mothers getting on in years. In a life or depressing responsibility and wasted chances for something more, the altogether unbelievable heroine of the Piano must seem wonderful indeed.

But you know, if I had seen the movie without any warning of its contents, without any pre-tested audience responses, it is altogether possible I might have liked it. But as it stands, it rankles in its hypocrisy and its pretension.

Just go see it. You will anyway.