24 Frames: The Piano

I didn’t work at a movie theater until I was nearly 30, though not for lack of trying. Throughout my late teens and early twenties, I dutifully submitted job applications at numerous cineplexes but was unable to convince any of them to hire me. Apart from a six-week stint as seasonal help at the Suncoast Video in Southridge Mall, I couldn’t find work at a video store, either. I applied to every Blockbuster location I could easily reach by bus and even scored an interview at a local chain, Video Planet, where I flailed to answer questions from an intimidating, burly manager with a thick Eastern-European accent. At the time, I chalked it up to this industry’s competitive nature—what young person wouldn’t want to work at a cinema or video store? Someone more aggressive and persistent than me might’ve scored such a job instead of settling for less desirable, more attainable work—in my case, cashier at an auto parts store and (briefly) busboy at a chain buffet restaurant.

The summer after high school graduation, my good friend Agnes got hired as part-time help at Budget South Cinemas, a second-run, six-screen theater in the suburbs. Since tickets were only two bucks at a time when most places charged at least six or seven, it was immensely popular. My parents and I often drove out there to see stuff that had bounced around other theatres months before, from family-friendly hits (The Princess BrideStar Trek IV: The Voyage Home) to absolute dreck (Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.) Even if the movies weren’t technically brand new, they were new enough. More importantly, you couldn’t beat the price.

Budget South Cinemas, 2014. It closed for good a year later.

Agnes worked at the concessions stand, making popcorn, fetching soda and candy for customers and cleaning up the theaters after every screening. She continued picking up shifts after starting school at UW-Madison in the fall, coming home to Milwaukee every weekend to earn some extra cash well into the next summer. As I came to know intimately as an adult working for a cinema, the job’s greatest (and usually only) perk was free movies. In Agnes’ case, she could also bring along multiple guests for a reduced admission of one dollar each. Any cash-strapped 18-year-old in 1993 would confirm that a buck a movie was even cheaper than spending a few hours at Denny’s nursing bottomless pots of coffee, so of course we saw a lot of movies during her tenure there.

So right was the price that we barely discriminated as to what we saw. Cool RunningsRobin Hood: Men In TightsThreesomeWith HonorsAirheads—nothing, not even the latest Pauly Shore vehicle was too bad for a dollar. Having missed it in the first-run theaters, we ended up watching Jurassic Park there at least six times, partially because it played for months and months but mostly because it was awesome entertainment, a big budget spectacle that truly represented the best Hollywood currently had to offer. I almost considered making it the focus of this essay (I’ll bet I can still recall every single scene despite not having seen it since the 90’s), but then I thought of something else I first watched at Budget back then.

Since discovering Monty Python and the Holy Grail three years earlier, my interest in alternative and cultish types of comedy had flourished but that didn’t fully translate to the kinds of films I viewed. Entertainment Weekly’s “The 100 Funniest Movies On Video” issue, which dropped in October 1992 had a considerable impact, even if I’d just begun to seek out prime Mel Brooks and early Woody Allen flicks. I did stumble upon Midnight Cowboy on TV late one night, long after my parents had gone to bed. I hadn’t seen subject matter so explicitly sexual before, not to mention techniques as arty as the film’s quick cuts and zooms and comparatively rambling narrative.

I was faintly aware of a world of film beyond the likes of Jurassic Park and Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit: movies made for adults that were nominated for awards such as Howard’s EndThe Player and The Crying Game. Driven as I was to comedies, I didn’t think to search for these more serious pictures; even dark satire The Player was difficult to find because it didn’t play the multiplexes I frequented. It follows that I might not have watched The Piano with Agnes one evening if she hadn’t recommended it to me after first seeing it on her own at Budget. I’m certain I’d heard good things about the film but had little idea of what it was actually about. Still, I knew Sam Neill from Jurassic Park was in it (and again, the price was right.)

Viewing The Piano that first time, I recall leaving the theater feeling a little confused but on the whole, transformed. Entirely unfamiliar with the setting (a remote, heavily forested island in 19th century New Zealand) or culture (colonialists living among the indigenous Maori population), I’d also never witnessed a protagonist like Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute, unmarried Scottish woman with a young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). The two are shlepped to the other side of the world to partake in a 90 Day Fiancé-type marriage with frontiersman Alisdair (Neill). No explanations for Ada’s muteness—she hasn’t spoken a word since age six, only communicating with Flora via sign language (who in turn is her interpreter.) She also has this deep near-mystical relationship with her handcrafted piano, which she has lugged along with her from Scotland. She plays it lovingly on the shore, devastated to leave it there when it’s deemed too heavy to carry through the deep woods back to Alisdair’s place by his crew.

Then there’s Alisdair’s friend and fellow frontiersman, Baines (Harvey Keitel) who offers to trade some of his land in exchange for the piano, which he has moved to his cabin. When Ada confronts Baines, he makes another offer, to let her “earn back” the piano key by key in return for lessons where he can observe her and “do things he likes” as she plays (which involves him wearing increasingly less articles of clothing.) While Ada remains cold and standoffish to Alisdair (who is truly clueless in his attempts to connect with her), she negotiates with Baines, setting ground rules and upping the number of keys earned back as his actions towards her get more physical and then tenderer. It’s that last attribute, diametrically opposed to her husband’s awkwardness that moves her to fall for Baines. Naturally, Alisdair’s pissed and it all escalates to a climax where Ada’s spurned hubby ruthlessly cuts off one of her fingers. After some heavy emoting from both of the men in Ada’s life, Alisdair sends her and Flora away to live with Baines and dissolves their marriage. 

Quite a triangle, eh? Actually, the relationship between Ada and Flora proves more compelling than her hots for Baines. Eerily resembling each other as if they were the largest and smallest components of a nesting doll, Hunter and Paquin seem to share a telepathic connection, as if their souls are linked. Director/writer Jane Campion often shifts the attention to these two actresses for extended moments that have little to do with the central narrative, as if to emphasize their bond and how it serves as a lifeline between the two. As Ada spends more time with Baines, it arguably has a greater impact on Flora than Alisdair, as her acting out against Ada (she gleefully spills the beans to her stepfather) directly leads to her mother’s shocking mutilation.

On top of all that, consider the film’s gutsy, startling ending. As Ada, Baines and Flora leave the island by boat with all their belongings and a crew, Ada impulsively decides to throw the piano overboard (“She says she doesn’t need it anymore,” wails Flora.) Whether through guilt over betraying Alisdair or, more likely, grief over losing her appendage (and by default her ability to play music), at the last minute she deliberately sticks her foot in a tangled rope attached the piano so that it pulls her overboard as well. However, a survival instinct in her suddenly kicks in. She removes her foot from the rope, swims to the surface and is pulled up back on the boat. In a brief epilogue, we see her happily settled on the mainland with Baines and Flora, able to play and teach piano courtesy of a metal finger Baines has crafted for her. The final shot is the specter of Ada drowned with her piano, a haunting reminder of what could have been.

Not only more adult than Jurassic ParkThe Piano was also far more unconventional, from featuring a main character who didn’t speak a word (apart from some brief voiceover in the beginning and at the end) to its otherworldly settling and surprising conclusion (which would’ve been even more daring had Ada remained drowned for good.) While I didn’t go back to watch it another five times (I doubt it played at Budget for more than two weeks), I eventually acquired my own VHS copy of it and a published copy of the screenplay. I also saw all of Campion’s earlier films, from the bizarre, purposely disorienting Sweetie (which makes The Piano look like A River Runs Through It) to her earlier shorts.

I felt a little cautious revisiting the film for the first time in two decades: how would the relationship between Ada and Baines hold up? I feared it would feel exploitative, having recalled most vividly the “trading keys for sexual favors” storyline with multiple shots of Keitel’s bare ass (The Piano is from a brief, strange period when way too many filmmakers mysteriously craved some nudity from middle-aged Harvey.) Fortunately, this was not at all the case, thanks to Keitel’s sensitive, nuanced performance and his ability to express how Baines’ lust genuinely transforms into love the more time he spends with Ada. I suspect Campion, who clearly fashioned the screenplay to make Ada not a victim but someone with enough control to negotiate with Baines when possible was instrumental in guiding Keitel as well.

What hasn’t aged entirely well is the film’s portrayal of the Māori indigenous population. Credit Campion with hiring actual members of that community, even if they’re still treated like second-class citizens, savages quick with saucy retorts who engage in such undistinguished activities as humping trees. The pageant scene, where a few are gullible enough to think the fake severed heads dangling from a hanging bedsheet are real provided a lot of laughs at the time; while it’s still amusing in an early-cinema-audiences-fear-that-the-train-on-screen-is-heading-straight-for-them way, it comes across as condescending, not to mention unnecessary. As for Keitel adopting the Māori’s tribal tattoos, I’m just thankful that it’s only his character’s appropriation and not the film trying to pass him off as an actual tribal member.

Also, a faint whiff of what I’ll call “Miramax-ness” infests the film. Consider the bodice-ripping between Ada and Baines (with Alisdair secretly watching!), the bland, verging on “Piano By Candlelight” Michael Nyman score (most bearable when Ada’s simply playing the instrument) or the slo-mo shots of Ada triumphantly emerging from nearly having drowned at the end. You wouldn’t find this stuff in a lower budget or truly independent film from the era like Go FishMetropolitan or anything directed by Hal Hartley. It’s not bad, exactly, but it comes off as overtly middlebrow now, a tony alternative rather than something radical or even transgressive.

However, I’m still in awe of much about The Piano. Hunter, for one, disappears so wholly into Ada I can barely name anyone else that compares (maybe Charlize Theron in Monster?) At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the actress apart from Raising Arizona; it didn’t register that this was the same person. Having grown to know Hunter well through a variety of roles, from Miss Firecracker through The Big Sick and encounter her again as Ada was eye-opening. Naturally, it helps that arguably the actress’s most distinguishing feature, her southern drawl is entirely absent, and yet—after watching her here, withdrawn, bonneted and much younger and catching her diminutive, scraggly, redheaded, aged self in an episode of Mr. Mayor later that day, I was beside myself trying to reconcile these two opposites.

The look of the film also remains startling. Even with a location automatically otherworldly due to its remoteness, Campion emphasizes certain textures that renders The Piano as if it’s been taken from a dream. Greens and blues, both colors often bleeding into the other seem to invade nearly every frame. The empty, languorous beach shots seem a precursor to those in Portrait of a Lady On Fire. The endless forest is an ideal place to explore interior motives and thoughts, for keeping secrets and indulging in the most private fantasies. The muddy terrain is such that one can nearly feel or smell it whenever a shoe gets stuck in the muck or during that terrifying aftermath of Ada’s mutilation, where, dazed and traumatized, she dutifully, naturally sinks into the ground, her hoop skirt acting as a natural if ephemeral shell.

What initially struck me about The Piano and still impresses is a remarkable lack of stuffiness for a period piece drama. Ada, for instance, is unsentimental towards everything except her piano, and even at the end she knows when it’s time to get rid of it. In addition to the pageant and tree-humping scenes, flashes of humor materialize throughout, from the doddering ladies young and old that keep up the colony where Alisdair and Ada reside to the indelible moment when, in Ada’s attempts to try something physical with her husband, we learn that he doesn’t care for butt stuff. Also, you have to admire the exchange where Alisdair asks Flora, “Where’s your mother? Where’s she gone?” and incensed because she knows her mother’s exactly where she shouldn’t be, Paquin explodes at him, “TO HELL!” with crack timing and force for a ten-year-old (and yes, Paquin’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award was as much deserved as Hunter’s for Best Actress and Campion’s for Best Original Screenplay, not to mention the latter’s nod for Best Director—the second woman to ever be nominated in that category.)

Before I re-watched it, I felt like The Piano was somewhat forgotten, in a way that a mid-60’s Best Picture Nominee such as The Sand Pebbles was barely talked about in 1993. Today, you rarely see it play at colleges or revival houses although as of this writing, you can rent it on Amazon to stream. I was pleasantly surprised to see it had more views on IMDb and Letterboxd than that year’s fellow Best Picture nominee The Remains Of The Day. For me, it was an introduction to independent cinema, at least of the Miramax-distributed, Oscar-feted variety, but it didn’t lead to me renting other likeminded films, not yet. The Piano was more like a glimpse into another world: a bridge between what I liked in my youth and what I would love as a grownup when I eventually worked at a cinema myself.

Essay #2 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #1: Monty Python and The Holy Grail.

Go ahead to #3: To Live.

2 thoughts on “24 Frames: The Piano

  1. Michael C. March 28, 2021 / 9:12 pm

    Great analysis, Chris. Makes me want to go back and watch it again!

    Like

    • Chris Kriofske March 28, 2021 / 9:58 pm

      Thanks, Michael! I hadn’t watched anything by Campion since “Bright Star” came out, and want to go back to those earlier features at some point.

      Like

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