Essays (book reviews)
Jane Campion’s The Piano
How do you know that a film has become a canonised classic – even (in the breathless language of the marketplace) a modern classic? Quite simply, when it has passed beyond evaluation. As in literary studies, fine-grain discussion of a cinematic classic moves beyond whether this particular text “works”, whether its parts cohere successfully, whether it succeeds in whatever it sets out to do. That much, it seems, has already been decided.
The analytical discussion of a designated classic can go on forever. Scholars look into each aspect of the film, its sources – its mix of genres, the traditions and contexts into which it might usefully be fitted. Heated debate gets restricted to questions of cultural politics: is the film sexist, racist, colonialist, class-ist? But even the most violent polemics in this realm assume, tacitly, that the film must be, at some level, great – great enough, at any rate, to be worthy of all this attention. Not just interesting, and more than simply (in whatever sense) notable or significant. It has to be some kind of goddamn masterpiece!
Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) has marched into the Hall of Classics faster than just about any other film of recent times. Is this baptism of absolute quality perhaps a little premature? It is easy to see why The Piano made such a splash on its release. It was an international, crossover success, drawing together costume drama, independent or arthouse cinema, and a bold exploration of essentially female experience. And it was the perfect film to argue over, whether in the letters pages of newspapers or at dinner parties. It stirred up a great deal of mass media discussion.
Until the graceless, downhill slide of her later ‘90s films (The Portrait of a Lady  and Holy Smoke ), Campion’s career benefitted from extraordinary fortune and canny timing. The international attention and exposure given to her early short films in the mid 1980s – and the critical support they elicited from high-level programming players such as Pierre Rissient – was unprecedented; even her minor telefilm Two Friends (1986) won a spotlight at Cannes. Several years later, similar blessings lifted the status of what she herself modestly called a “little TV film” (An Angel at My Table, 1990) into a major, epic, global event … and, in that case at least, it was worth it.
When Campion came to make The Piano, she was already regarded, in many countries, as a major figure with a full and impressive decade of work behind her; in truth, it was only her second cinema feature, after the often remarkable Sweetie (1989). Somehow, Campion managed to meet these massive expectations with a film bold, attractive and contentious enough to capture the imagination of both audiences and critics. The modernity of its stylistic mannerisms and attitudes struck sparks against the period setting and characters. It is a trick that, in this precise form or concatenation, has eluded her ever since.
Nonetheless, at the dawn of the 21st century, Campion enjoyed a publications boom. Apart from the Holy Smoke novelisation, co-written with her sister Anna, there was a book of interviews from University Press of Mississippi, and two anthologies devoted to The Piano; there at least two further monographs (by Dana Polan for BFI and Deb Verhoeven for Routledge) in the pipeline as I write this. Of the anthologies, Harriet Margolis’ effort (part of the decade-long Cambridge Film Handbooks series) is far superior to Piano Lessons: Approaches to The Piano (eds Felicity Coombs and Suzanne Gemmell, published by John Libbey) – managing to elegantly and comprehensively cover in six essays what the latter book fails to span in twelve.
On the British TV series J’Accuse (1991), Robert McKee cheekily summarised the critical literature on the Big Daddy of all film classics, Citizen Kane (1941): there are old-fashioned, humanist readings that posit the film as profoundly meaningful; and modern, semiotic readings that declare it to be blissfully meaningless, merely a free play of signifiers – plus, we now have deconstructive readings that argue the film to be open, because it is impossible to decide, once and for all, whether it is meaningful or meaningless.
Whatever your opinion, most of the time, of McKee (mine is pretty low), it does seem true that in the modern academy of cinema studies, the code word for great is indeed open – and The Piano, unsurprisingly, turns out to be, like Citizen Kane, an open sesame. It is fascinating to observe, across the deftly argued and well-written essays in Margolis’ collection, how such magical openness can be formulated.
In “The Last Patriarch”, Ann Hardy suggests that Campion’s film “holds in tension patternings from different sources, two centuries, and several societies, producing an eerie sense of dislocation out of familiar materials and narrative structures”. In another variation on the theme of eerieness, Claudia Gorbman on “Music in The Piano” stresses the ambiguity of Michael Nyman’s score in the ways it is placed over scenes by Campion, or played/mimed by Holly Hunter: it is impossible for us to know, she argues, how apt, expressive or meaningful this music really is (or is meant to be) at any given point. It is an intriguing analysis that jibes with neither the typical love-it or hate-it reactions to the rather “structuralist” music typical of this former composer for Peter Greenaway.
John Izod, in “The Piano, the Animus, and Colonial Experience”, takes an unfashionably Jungian approach to the film’s content, and finds a dream-like overlapping of many psychological states, phases and archetypes. Stephen Crofts’ “Foreign Tunes” – productively linking a textual analysis of the film with a case-study of its reception within the popular press – argues that its “originality, richness, and rare evocation of unconscious registers” arises from its “unusual investment in the fluid ambiguities of the preoedipal”.
Political commentaries on The Piano are not so given to celebrating openness, strangeness and ambiguity. Where Izod indulges a strained piece of wishful thinking – for him, the Anna Paquin character “hints at the coming of a mind-set of which the colonial whites around her are not yet conscious”! – offended critic Leonie Pihama judges that the film “neither criticises nor challenges the stereotypes that have been paraded continuously as ‘the way we were’”, in her provocative contribution, “Ebony and Ivory: Constructions of Maori in The Piano”.
More forcibly than usual, this book serves to remind us of the enormous gap, both in terms of objective achievement and of social privilege, between professional film criticism (including reviews in the popular press) and university-based cinema scholarship. Certain newspaper reviews of The Piano published on the day of the film’s public release (most likely written quickly after a single viewing) make for easy targets in retrospect – with their casual assumptions about gender and race issues, and their irritated, normative reactions to Campion’s aesthetic liberties. Books like this one help set the record straight – but with the disconcerting side-effect that a neo-classic comes protected, on the academic side of the fence, by what Crofts calls an “effectively unassailable critical reputation”.
Unassailable? At the back of this book, there is an excerpt from a sparkily sceptical piece by American critic Stuart Klawans of The Nation, a second-take review from late 1993 that wonders aloud whether the film is “contrived, allegorised, rhetorical and altogether too eager to tell people what they want to hear”. He has a point there! I would add that The Piano – like every Campion movie – is terribly uneven in its conception and execution alike, veering from passionate, inspired scenes to thunderingly banal and clunky ones. In my own opinion, it has not stood the test of time well; one wonders whether, in the canons voted 15 years hence, it will still count as a pillar of cinematic achievement.
I guess unevenness can always be construed as a sign of open form – but I strongly suspect it is, first and last, indications of a failing in a filmmaker’s craft and art.
© Adrian Martin May 2000