Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Some useful notes on 'The Piano' by Jane Campion


















The Piano - Melodrama and representations of Gender through Binary Opposites

The colonial dimension of The Piano (it is set on a ‘plantation’ in New Zealand), points us neatly towards a further set of theoretical ideas suggested by the social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Genre theorists borrowed Strauss’ idea of a conflict structure based on binary oppositions to explain how many genre films were constructed. The oppositions which we can find in colonial melodramas are striking and provide us with useful insights into how a colonial narrative produces meaning. These narratives are based on ideas and values that the characters are likely to have had at the time. Consider the following oppositions:

White Settler ‘Native’

Civilised
Savage
Educated
Ignorant
Controlled
Wild
Sexually restrained
Sexually promiscuous
Moral
Amoral
Rational
Superstitious

You can probably come up with further oppositions which explain how the Victorian settlers viewed ‘native’ peoples. These are not necessarily presented as straight opposites. Rather, they map out a terrain. The European melodrama is rarely interested in the ‘colonised’ peoples, so the main work of the melodrama narrative is to look at the struggle of white male and female settlers to develop a healthy emotional state in the midst of the overpowering ‘otherness’ of the colonial environment. Usually it is the white woman who ‘succumbs’ – this always been thought more shocking than the white male with the ‘native girl’. In terms of mise en scène, it is worth thinking about the colonial environment, in which the heat, the scents of spices and exotic flowers, the strange animals and spectacular landscapes all appeal to the senses (‘arouse’ emotions) more than the familiar ‘home’ environment.

In The Piano the woman is drawn, not directly to a native (Maori) figure, but instead to a white man who has ‘gone native’ – in some ways an even more despicable figure for respectable society than the native male (who can sometimes be stereotyped as the ‘good native’ or the ‘noble savage’). The white man who adopts native habits has not only betrayed his own culture, but has also degraded what is worthwhile in native culture. When you see The Piano you should find little difficulty identifying sequences in which these binary oppositions are emphasised and which clearly propel the narrative forward. What makes The Piano particularly interesting (and perhaps led to some of the controversy over reactions to the film) is that the central woman character is also trapped in another set of oppositions – as a woman in the strictly patriarchal Victorian society. She has been sent/brought to New Zealand essentially as a piece of male property. Her transgression – the affair with Baines – is doubly marked, she has both broken out of her marital relationship, her enslavement as property, and sullied herself with a ‘degenerate’ man.

It is this double marking or ‘over determination’ which makes The Piano so much a melodrama. We have emphasised so far that melodrama mise en scène is expressive and excessive – everything seems to be exaggerated, almost to the point of hysteria. In this context, over determination can apply to both the events – piled on top of each other – and particular aspects of the mise en scène. To take just one example, much comment has been made about the costumes in The Piano. The woman wears a crinoline – a voluminous skirt supported by a rigid cage. This is both supportive (the woman and her daughter use the crinoline as a tent when they are landed on the beach) and restrictive (as she tries to cross the uneven and boggy ground – the endless rain is also a potential sign of sexual release). This supportive/restrictive clothing also provides great erotic excitement for the man in terms of what it hides and obstructs him from accessing.

The double marking of the woman in The Piano means that the colonial ‘discourse’ or argument is to a certain extent obscured by the feminist discourse – does our positive response to what the woman achieves by breaking out of her unhappy marriage prevent us reading the colonial discourse?

Exercise
Try to map out the oppositions you think might be relevant for middle-class men and women in Victorian society. Which qualities would be expected from men rather than women etc.? What other binary oppositions can you identify?

Some Useful Definitions when exploring gendered cinema at a macro level:

Woman’s Picture – like youth pictures, these films are defined by their audience address rather than by specific themes or styles. The central characters will be women and the narratives will centre on issues important to women. Some films may be ‘romances’ or comedies. Many of the 1940s melodramas were targeted directly at the disproportionately large female domestic audience during the war years. They were often disparagingly termed ‘weepies’ or ‘tearjerkers’. A more modern variant is the idea of the ‘chick flick’.

Defining Melodrama - Action films tend to be ‘goal-orientated’ - they progress to a particular resolution such as the war is won, the killer is captured etc. Action narratives have conflicts which are tackled through action - characters go out and do something. It follows from this that the editing of sequences to represent movement by characters is of central importance. By contrast, melodramas are about relationships between characters and the resolution of a melodrama narrative concerns the restoration of one or more relationships, or their replacement by others. In a sense, melodramas are more ‘circular’ than ‘linear’. The conflicts in melodramas can often not be resolved by ‘action’, it is the failure of characters to act or even to speak about ‘the problem’ which creates the conflict. The emotional struggle in a melodrama must be expressed or ‘displaced’ in some way. Instead of the editing of action sequences, melodramas deal in mise en scène, performance and music.

Extract taken from original posting on following blog: http://itpworld.wordpress.com/category/womens-film/


Some Extra 'Piano' goodies to assist you in the exploration of Gender representations:


An exploration of gender representations in the film:

Book chapter on gender themes in The Piano and Thelma and Louise

Cambridge University Press Film Analysis
http://assets.cambridge.org/97805215/92581/sample/9780521592581wsn01.pdf

Feminist Critique of 'The Piano'
http://diana.saco.name/Female_Gaze.htm

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