Department of Theatre and Film
Two Timing Cinema: The Hybridization of Independent and Mainstream Filmmaking Trends in The Piano
by Nina Orechwa
Nina Orechwa is a film addict from the Chicago area. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in English before moving to Bowling Green where she currently teaches literature and studies philosophy.
In Jane Campion’s film The Piano (1993), Ada (Holly Hunter), a young widow (and self-proclaimed mute) takes her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) from their native Scotland to New Zealand during the mid-nineteenth century to marry Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neil), a man to whom her father has promised her hand. While no romance of any sort develops between Ada and her new husband, she engages in a sexual relationship with Alisdair’s overseer, Baines (Harvey Keitel) who, after purchasing Ada’s piano from her husband without her consent, orders her to provide him with eighty-eight X-rated piano lessons in exchange for the return of each of her piano’s keys. What begins as sexual coercion morphs into an erotic game of cat and mouse between the unlikely pair—a game with dire consequences, including the forced amputation of one of Ada’s index fingers. Ada’s lack of an audible voice, her piano, her sexuality and her strength are the ingredients in this complicated tale to which gender ideology is tightly woven, and the uncomfortable truth of Ada’s story lies in the fact that while Ada and Baines are indeed romantic with one another in the film, and that their relationship is, after a time, quite erotic, the question of why the two are either romantically or erotically linked isn’t easily answered. In the absence of any real evidence of genuine romantic love between Ada and Baines, one is left with only an unsettling sense of the misogyny inherent in their relationship as well as a deeply disturbing connection between violence, possession and pleasure.
The film is undoubtedly sadistic in many respects, but its accessible story and inclusion of famous actors depicting characters many viewers can mostly identify with could easily cause one to label the independent film as one considerably more mainstream than what the independent film industry is typically used to. Upon closer inspection, however, the unsettling darkness of film’s mise-en-scène and its disturbing thematic motif of silence render the film one that is decidedly more alternative than much of what can be found in mainstream normative cinema. Indeed, a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between the often insincere portraits film reviews paint for potential audiences and how such portraits possibly alter an audience’s ultimate reception of the film is hallmark to understanding the nuts and bolts of advertising in independent cinema culture, and offers a probable explanation as to why certain films seem to teeter on the fine line between independent and normative cinema. In addition, careful deconstructions of some of the central metaphors in a film like The Piano can reveal exactly which elements might categorize it as independent, and in turn, also help to explore thematic details of the film that might veer it closer to a definition of mainstream cinema. There is a compelling defense for the value of hybridizing these two types of films, particularly for filmmakers who seek to spread a strong political message to as wide an audience as possible.
In Cinema & Culture: Independent Film in the United States, 1980-2001, film scholar Deidre Pribram discusses the dichotomy of how independent films are often misrepresented due largely to macabre content not easily digested by the masses. In addition, Pribram takes American feminist bell hooks to task for dismissing The Piano as sexist and misogynistic. hooks argues that “young, African-American men are blamed as individuals for sexist, misogynistic, and violent lyrics although no attempt is made to identify and critique the cultural context in which gangsta rap exists” (Pribram 141-142). hooks’s argument centers around the hypocrisy of high society’s aversion to gangsta rap while simultaneously celebrating a film like The Piano (which is, in hooks’s estimation, at least equally misogynistic), as the epitome of “high art.” While Pribram acknowledges the validity of hooks’s view, she doesn’t agree that The Piano need necessarily be categorized as a frankly misogynist text: “while wholeheartedly agreeing with hooks’s assessment of the widespread omission of social, political, economic, and psychic aspects in the analyses of cultural products dealing with gender, race, and many other issues, I would argue that her example of The Piano is a poor choice precisely because it is one of the rare filmic instances in which female sexuality and identity are expressed in cultural and ideological terms” (142). Subsequently, Pribram even accuses hooks of merely reading the reviews of the film rather than further engaging with the film’s actual story: “[hooks’s] indictment of The Piano as a misogynistic film may reside more squarely with the film’s critical reception then in her having exhausted potential readings of the narrative text itself” (142). Just how much the distribution of a film may be impacted by its reviews is a hot topic in film culture and a complicated debate.
The distinction between a film itself and its reviews can be quite difficult to make, for while reviews in periodicals can lend insight into how films are read and interpreted by some individuals, they obviously can’t represent the thoughts and emotions of all viewers. Because reviews are public, however, they may very well help to shape what come to be known as widely accepted readings of a film. In truth, it is certain that the movie industry takes film reviews very seriously, as evidenced by how often quotes from choice film critics are cherry-picked from reviews and incorporated into a film’s promotional material. Pribram notes an important difference between independent and mainstream cinema in her observation that independent filmmakers must rely far more than mainstream Hollywood filmmakers upon the outcome of critical reviews if they hope to achieve any degree of commercial success. The influence of reviewers, she explains, “may be even greater for the independent industry, which considers positive reviews an important measure of a film’s likely success in its decision to distribute a work, and one of the most effective means of promoting of promoting it subsequently” (143).
Regardless of the extent of the influence reviewers can have on the reception of a film, the reviews themselves can collectively reveal what the public thinks ought to be thought about any particular issue. Without a doubt, while many reviewers likely feel that they don’t mandate what an audience should think about any film in particular, they have a great deal of control over dictating the boundaries of what is thought of wholesome and, under this term, effective filmmaking at any particular moment in time (144). Consequently, as Pribram argues, one may just take a look at a collection of film reviews at any one point in history and get an accurate reading of the larger cultural context of the film review and the cultural climate in which it was written (144).
Consider the critical reviews of The Piano, which was widely touted as a “love story.” As noted earlier, bell hooks asserts that The Piano’s untenable position in the library of art house cinema protects it from the ideological scrutiny that plagues gangsta rap (144), but Pribram astutely points out that much of the sentiments within the critical accolades of the film surely seem reserved for audiences more likely to frequent more mainstream films; after all, sex is what sells. Indeed, the buzz surrounding the film focused more on the erotic “love story” that develops between Ada and Baines that the raw facts of the matter, including that the affair was born from prostitution, coercion, and emotional manipulation, all of which resulted from Ada being forced to participate in a loveless marriage arranged by her father, a plan designed to get her as far away from him as possible, presumably because she’d dared to bear a child out of wedlock. However, this fictional train wreck of human lives was nevertheless hailed as “A wildly beautiful love story!”, “A Masterpiece! A tidal wave of sensuality!” and “A riveting, erotic film” by various influential film critics (qtd. in Pribram 144-145), revealing the effect that reviews depicting more mainstream interests within a film can have on a film’s public reception. If The Piano had been more accurately marketed as “the tragic story of a beautiful mute woman who is forced to prostitute herself for the return of her beloved piano, piece by piece, as the instrument is the only means she has of expressing herself emotionally” the film may very well have attracted a considerably smaller audience and not have been nearly as successful commercially.
By the film’s end, however, all readings remain potentially ambiguous (161). The Piano’s startling conclusion provides further evidence of the film’s dichotomy between alternative and mainstream cinema; on one reading, the viewer can walk away from the experience with the happy notion that all is well in the end, that Ada releases herself from the rope, and lives happily ever after with Baines and Flora, and ignore the larger implications of Ada’s fate, in which Baines still calls the shots—in the final exchange between the lovers Ada, shy about teaching herself to audibly speak, shrouds her face with a black square of fabric through which Baines kisses her passionately, as if silencing any comprehensible word she may have the gumption to utter.
Another, even darker reading is perhaps more plausible given Ada’s character; Ada is drawn down into the ocean’s depths with her piano and drowns; the epilogue of the film is merely her pre-death musings of how her life might have unfolded had she chosen differently. Indeed, it seems this is the ending Campion must have intended for her protagonist, who seems most at home within silence, evidenced by her final interior insight: There is a silence where hath been no sound there is a silence where no sound may be in the cold grave, under the deep, deep sea. This darker interpretation of The Piano’s conclusion is certainly not an ending for the mainstream Hollywood crowd, and the ambiguity of which ending ought to punctuate a correct reading of the film showcases the desirability of films which are hybrids containing significant elements of both independent and normative Hollywood cinema for audiences, critics, and filmmakers alike.