A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

If Jane Campion had gone with her original plan, Ada (Holly Hunter) would have gone down with her piano like Ahab lashed to the whale. The comparison to Moby-Dick is not, I think, terribly far-fetched: The Piano is one of those works, like the Melville novel, that tempt one into symbolic interpretations. Ada's obsession with her piano is, in its own way, like Ahab's obsession with the white whale, a kind of representation of the extreme irrational nexus of mind and object. But in Campion's completed version, Ada loses only a finger, not her life, and the piano is replaced along with the finger. Does this resort to a happy ending vitiate Campion's film, or should we accept as a given that life does in fact sometimes work that way? I think in a movie as enigmatic as The Piano so often is, Campion has blunted the emotional impact by having Ada and Baines (Harvey Keitel) wind up together in what seems to be a pleasant home far from the wilderness in which most of the film takes place, she teaching piano with her hand-crafted prosthetic and learning to speak, as Flora (Anna Paquin), that devious, semi-feral child, turns cartwheels. (Flora puts me in mind of another child of the wilderness in another work of impenetrable symbolism, Pearl in The Scarlet Letter.) Happily ever after seems like a lie in the mysterious terms with which the film began. We never learn why Ada turned mute, or who Flora's father was and what happened to him, or why she agrees to move to New Zealand to marry and then spurn Stewart (Sam Neill), or find a way to resolve any number of other enigmas. But the great strength of the film lies its power to evoke the imponderable, to make us wonder about Baines's life among the Maori, about the persistence of an imperialist culture (women wearing hoopskirts and men in top hats) in an alien land, about the nature of awakening sexuality, about the function of art, about the tension between innocence and experience in a child's life, and so on. It is, I'm certain, a great film, just because it is so hard to grasp and reduce to a formula.

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