"Sounds that creep inside you": female narration and voiceover in the films of Jane Campion.
Jane Campion's film The Piano (1993) generated intense and dramatically polarized debate, especially among women. (1) While some found the film a mesmerizing and masterful depiction of a decidedly female sensibility and sexuality, others asserted that it rendered abuse and rape in the worst possible way as Ada, the victim, ends up loving and running off with Baines, one of the men who abuses her. (2) Though none of Campion' s other films have garnered as much acclaim or as much controversy, they all share with The Piano a focus on women together with complex structures of narration, characterization, and plot development that thwart easy or unambiguous interpretation. In this, Campion's films enact a new kind of feminist perspective that some critics and theorists have called for but that Campion has had the courage and creative vision to implement and explore.
Though writing on feminist politics rather than aesthetics, Wendy Brown articulates the nature of the challenge posed by Campion's films:
The question is whether feminist politics can prosper without a moral apparatus, whether feminist theorists and activists will give up substituting Truth and Morality for politics. Are we willing to engage in struggle rather than recrimination, to develop our faculties rather than avenge our subordination with moral and epistemological gestures, to fight for a world rather than conduct process on the existing one? (48)
In her call for feminists to "give up substituting Truth and Morality for politics," Brown refers to the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment that she feels informs both the epistemology and "political structure" of "much North Atlantic feminism" (45). Ressentiment characterizes the "morality that emerges from the powerless to avenge their incapacity for action; it enacts their resentment of strengths that they cannot match or overthrow" (44). Ressentiment invokes the "good" and the "true" as judgment and weapon against such strengths and thereby ascends to power over it on the basis of morality rather than deeds. Brown, quoting Foucault, argues that feminist politics could avoid ressentiment by forgoing
specifically moral claims against domination [...] and moving instead into the domain of the sheerly political: 'wars of position' and amoral contests about the just and the good in which truth is always grasped as coterminous with power, as always already power, as the voice of power." (45)
Brown's call speaks to the dynamics of the tales Campion tells, tales in which neither her heroines nor the films themselves resort to frameworks of truth or morality to make sense of the struggles with domination the heroines experience and the films recount. Though Campion deals with abuse, oppression, and mistreatment in all her narratives--of women, children, the poor, the Maoris--she resolutely forgoes the moral judgments of melodrama and refuses to portray her protagonists as victims. Though her films reference certain genealogies and pasts--whether familial, colonial or generic--they noticeably refuse the conventional relations usually articulated between past and present in these milieux. (4) Instead, chronicling her characters' struggles with and attitudes toward adversity, she mixes an almost documentary curiosity with surrealist wit and tragic irony. Significantly this approach in Campion's films coincides with some form of female voiceover narration that exists in tension with their other narratio nal structures. The perspective that emerges is consequently plural, ambiguous, and difficult to assume in an unproblematic way. In this respect, her films formally challenge conventional feminist understandings of narration and the female voice in narrative cinema as well as explore a feminist position devoid of ressentiment. Before considering Campion's films specifically, I will briefly cover issues of narration and voiceover in cinema.
II. Narration and Narrators in Cinema
Formally speaking, cinematic narration refers to the way in which a film text composes story information and discloses it to the spectator. All elements of a film--lighting, costume, setting, framing, acting, editing, cinematography, sound--take part in narration, as all these elements shape not only what information the spectator receives but how s/he receives it (Bordwell xi; Branigan 76). Narration can also be aurally personified in a character, speaking on-screen or in voice-off or voiceover, or by an anonymous voiceover, any of whom recount vital story information. (4) Finally, auteur theory maintains that the director of a film is in some sense a narrator, leaving as s/he does some mark on the film text, whether that mark is constructed formally, thematically, discursively, or via the unconscious. According to these various understandings of narration, female narrators could potentially be found in classical Hollywood film, whether in female characters or anonymous female voiceovers who had an explicit storytelling function or in the formal or thematic structures of films that it could be argued were animated by a female sensibility. The latter argument informs auteurist analyses of Dorothy Arzner, one of the very few female directors in classical Hollywood cinema. (5)
But potential is one thing and history another. Thirty years of feminist analyses of Hollywood narrative leave no question that the overriding if not singular perspective of commercial filmmaking, no matter what the gender of the character narrator or director, is male. (6) As such, many feminist theorists and critics have attempted to locate a female voice in films made outside the industry apparatus by women directors working in experimental cinema, many of whom use an explicit female voiceover (Silverman 141-86). In many ways feminist analysis is built around this dichotomy between industrial and experimental cinema. But the recent proliferation of voiceover narration in industry media occasions another look at this phenomenon, particularly as it relates to the work of women filmmakers making narrative fiction film.
Voiceover narration in film and television has a long and rich history that began in the thirties, permeated Hollywood in the forties, shaped the address of television in the fifties, and counted among the favored techniques of the mostly male directors of the French New Wave in the sixties and seventies and of the New Hollywood Cinema up to the late eighties (Kozloff 33-39). Writing on industry film's use of voiceover in 1988, Kaja Silverman observed: "It is a striking fact that, apart from contemporary movies and television revivals of film noir, this voice [embodied or diegetically anchored male voice-over] is largely confined to a brief historical period, stretching from the forties to the early fifties" (52). Silverman further argues that the tendency for female voiceover narration always to be diegetically embodied in a character aurally signifies the disempowerment that feminist analysis had already identified in the visual register. She asserts that only in feminist experimental work, where women dir ectors disembody and multiply female voices is "Hollywood's sound/image regime effectively dismantled" (ix). While this position has tended to be reiterated in film criticism, the fact is that voiceover narration never really disappeared, and, in its current uses, it challenges the ways it has been understood critically.
Indeed, voiceover narration today, whether mobilized by male or female directors, exceeds its classical and gendered uses both in terms of quality and quantity. For example, male narrators in films that are decidedly not noir--American Beauty (1999), Election (2000), High Fidelity (1999), and The Thin Red Line (1998), four very diverse examples--articulate emotional angst in both voiceover narration and direct address. The most notable recent development in this technique is that the voice we hear, and, more importantly the sensibility expressed, is, as often as not, a woman's. While some female voiceover narration was heard in previous decades--in Mildred Pierce and many film noirs, for example--what marks the contemporary moment is its prevalence in industry narratives.
Examples abound. In HBO's Sex and the City, newspaper columnist Carrie Bradshaw ponders urban female sexuality in her column and voiceover, her insights and her narration generated by her own sexual exploits and those of three close friends: Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. Carrie's questions and observations organize each episode, contrasting the very different opinions, experiences and tastes of her friends on an array of different subjects (safe sex, breaking up, telling all), thereby giving sexual agency and voice to a variety of female sexual proclivities represented by this group of white, affluent, heterosexual women. One might wish that the representative group was not so exclusive, but the show does use female narration to make significant interventions in moralistic discourses concerning female sexuality and lifestyle choices, the former primarily through the character of Samantha, who pursues and relishes multiple sex partners and exotic sexual practices and the latter through Miranda, a high-powe red corporate lawyer whose professionalism and ambition complicate her love life. (7) While decidedly tamer examples, the shows My So-Called Life (like The Wonder Years, except not narrated retrospectively) and Felicity each feature female narrator-protagonists who share their triumphs and travails in high school and college, respectively. In Felicity and Sex and the City, the voiceovers are instigated by and mediated through communications technology: through Felicity's tape-recordings to a female confidante and by Carrie's computer, on which she types her column. Significantly, though, while Felicity's musings are private, intended only for an unseen friend, Carrie's are destined for a very public audience. While Felicity reinforces the conceit of women's lives and thoughts having only to do with personal and intimate interaction (in a homosocial private sphere), Sex and the City emphatically challenges it, having Carrie's profession involve making the very private very, very public.
On the big screen, films like Bound (Wachowski Bros, 1996), Fried Green Tomatoes (Avnet, 1991) and The Opposite of Sex (Roos, 1998) also use female narrators to explore (alternative) female sexualities in and of themselves or as part of an overall strategy to tweak genre conventions (Bound). (8) Women directors, both working in the industry or in independents, have made extensive use of female narration in films like Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1996), Clueless (Heckerling, 1995), I Like It Like That (Martin, 1994), Mansfield Park (Rozema, 1999), and Orlando (Potter, 1993). The films of Julie Dash, Sally Potter, and Patricia Rozema illustrate another unique feature of our particular moment: the erosion, or at least attenuation, of the difference between industry and experimental cinemas. All three filmmakers have worked in feminist experimental and avant-garde cinema, a mode that has employed female narrators since its inception. (9) Their films, albeit in a limited way, incorporate marginalized feminist per spectives and experimental filmmaking techniques within feature-film adaptations of novels by women in the case of Potter and Rozema and original narrative in the case of Dash. In addition, Dash's Daughters of the Dust and Darnell Martin's I like It Like That emerge from the vibrant independent cinema of the last decade or so to give voice to women of color, a group that has been almost totally invisible in industry cinema. All four films exemplify the current tendency of independent and, increasingly, industry filmmaking to craft feature narratives that draw from and cater to niche markets and audiences.
Voiceover narration also is a favored narrative strategy in films that deal with trauma. In her survey of what she calls embodied or diegetically anchored male voiceover, Kaja Silverman notes that it is "associated with characters who have been scarred by a major trauma," and that the voiceover occurs because of these "drastic circumstances" (52). Though she restricts her comments to films of the fifties and sixties, including only one war film among the many noirs she considers, her observations readily pertain to almost all the Viet Nam films that have been made over the last thirty years.
To summarize, voiceover narration in fiction film and TV has become much more popular of late and many of the narrators featured are female. The technique is used, in the case of both male and female narrators, in various modes: in coming of age stories; in narratives that have to do with adult sexuality; in experimental, avant-garde work that "uses narration to comment upon or subvert Hollywood patterns" (Kozloff 2); in films that give voice to women of color and others rendered invisible by industrial cinema; and in narratives depicting trauma. Finally, the popularity of this technique is particularly pronounced in the work of women filmmakers and, in some cases, derives from feminist experimental cinema and its attempts to fashion "female modes of expression" (Mayne 2). Thus the status of female narration or the female narrator in fiction film no longer poses a critical oxymoron--that she speaks in the voice and interests of the male subject in a narrational regime that utterly excludes her.
III. Witness and Wittiness: Jane Campion's Female Narrators
In the remainder of this essay, I would like to consider female narration, its implementation and its effects in the work of Jane Campion. Though never an experimental filmmaker per se, Campion, who had training as a painter and an anthropologist before becoming a filmmaker, has had the luxury of cultivating her filmmaking style in Australia and New Zealand, where the film industry allows its directors much more autonomy than does the Hollywood industry. Her films therefore provide an exemplary field in which to explore the construction of female narration in narrative feature films directed by a woman who has a relatively significant amount of control.
Interestingly, Campion has consistently employed some variant of female voiceover narration in all her films. Though she eschews the label "feminist," she has nevertheless explored and cultivated female voices, their silences, their delusions, their insights, and their passions through all her films. She has also explicitly stated that the women in her films have something of her own voice in them. Quoted in a recent article, she declared: "I like to be able to project myself into the parts and being a woman I like to therefore have heroines. We don't have many, you know? So I feel like it's my job. Not a crusade--just a natural thing to want to do" (Lewis 36). Finally, critics in the mainstream press have discursively constructed the name "Jane Campion" as signifying a distinctive filmmaking style and voice, even by those who dislike her films. (10)
Thus the embodied female narrators (narrators who are also characters) in Campion's films constitute only the most explicit level of female narration. At the level of discursive context, the theme of female narration is reiterated in the reviews, articles, press releases, and ads for the films that identify Campion as having a unique voice and style. This context informs the readings of the third level, that of the film texts themselves and their implicit structures of narration, both of which can be and have been understood as intentionally and unconsciously informed by Campion's gender and sensibility. Variously, in Sweetie (1989), An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993), Portrait of a Lady (1995), and Holy Smoke (1999), Campion makes use of female voiceovers in coming of age narratives, narratives that deal with trauma and adult sexuality and those that feature characters for whom madness is an issue. Though her female characters confront and experience horrific traumas in some instances, Campion re fuses to represent them as victims. While the films clearly document their protagonists' experiences and struggles with trauma, they also avoid the manichean judgments and sentimental pathos of melodrama. Rather, the perspective of these texts emerges both as witty and thoughtful, engaged and dispassionate, in part because they all emphasize the storytelling as much as the story told. In short, in Campion's films, narration is always foregrounded in some way.
In all of her films, but perhaps most explicitly in Sweetie, The Piano, and Holy Smoke, films she both wrote and directed and upon which I will focus, Campion uses formal means of narration to insert meta-narrative commentary, evident both in her selection of diegetic and non-diegetic music and in the form of surreal or darkly comic visual puns that both resonate with and complicate the voice(s) of her character-narrators. The "female narration" in Campion's films emerges from these interactions between the character narrators and the film's formal narration and meta-narrative strategies that are then critically comprehended and vested in the name and persona of "Jane Campion." Focusing on the interplay between the embodied and formal narration within the films themselves, my essay will consider how this interplay creatively explores the possibility of an engaged feminine/feminist perspective outside of "a moral apparatus" and focused on "struggle" rather than pathos or "recrimination" as feminist modalities . The development of this perspective is apparent in Sweetie (1989), Campion's first feature released in the U.S.
Sweetie's plot recounts a family "coming apart like a wet paper bag" as the father describes it, but initially it focuses on Kay, the voiceover narrator and older sister to the eponymous Sweetie. The first third of the film depicts Kay's romance with Louis, the two brought together by a psychic, tea leaves, and a sign--a question mark on Louis's forehead formed by a curl and a mole. An elder tree that Louis has planted in honor of their relationship then threatens their intimacy with each other. Kay, who hates trees, secretly pulls up the sapling and hides it. Concurrently she moves into the guest bedroom, presumably because she has a cold, and she and Louis stop having sex. Coming home one evening, they find Sweetie (who Kay identifies as "a friend of mine" who's "a bit mental) has broken into their house. Sweetie has Bob in tow, a heroin addict whom she refers to as her show business manager. Subsequently, Sweetie wreaks havoc in Kay's household, coming on to Louis, telling everyone lies, cutting up Kay's dresses and dyeing them, and chewing on Kay's tiny china horses when Kay tells her she has got to move out.
Meanwhile, Kay's mother leaves her father, and the father comes to stay with Kay and Louis also. Though the father has trouble with Sweetie, he also defends her to Kay and Louis--"People like you two don't appreciate it but the show world is full of unusual types. What's to say Sweetie's any more unusual. She's talented. Jeez she was a talented little thing--sing, dance, tap." Through Kay's point-of-view, we also see Sweetie bathe her father, playing a game where she "oops!" drops the soap and perhaps fondles his genitals. The deteriorating situation at Kay's house is interrupted when mother calls, inviting Louis and Kay to come visit her in the outback. When they do, they take father with them and trick Sweetie so that they can leave her behind. Father and mother are reconciled, Sweetie goes back to live with them and she then, stark naked with paint smeared all over her body, goes on a rampage, taking up residence in the family tree house. She screams obscenities at the neighbors, lures a young boy up to th e tree with her, and starts jumping wildly up and down. The tree house collapses and she dies. Following a scene in a graveyard, the final sequence depicts, in flashback, a young Sweetie, standing by a picket fence in a pink frilly dress, singing "With every beat of my heart," presumably to her father.
Of all Campion's films, Sweetie has the most noticeable formal narration, one registered in the film's insistent transgressions of industry cinema's continuity conventions and invisible style. Especially in the film's first half, Campion employs eccentric framings that often exclude the most important narrative action; sequence transitions that contain no exposition or continuity information; and, as the plot summary above suggests, very elliptical and arcane plotting, characterization, and dialogue. These elements combine to present the film's narrative as less a hermeneutic chain of cause and effect culminating in coherent resolution and closure than a puzzle from which some of the pieces have been permanently lost. In Sweetie, we gather clues, hear testimony, speculate on the significance of what unfolds before us--did Sweetie's father seduce her as a child? How has she come to be "mental"? What really happened in this family? But in her stunning portrait of this dysfunctional and very disturbed family, Ca mpion forgoes the mastery of full narrative disclosure and thwarts conventional spectatorial desires for all the answers, for the full rationale and moral accounting of what we see. (11) Part of the way Campion avoids resolution has to do with how she fragments the narrative among different narrational perspectives. In addition to Kay's intermittent voiceover narration and Sweetie's acting out, we also are given father's and mother's perspectives in lengthy dialogue: the father's articulating his continued delusions about Sweetie's talents and future as a show person, the mother's equally deluded sense that Sweetie has taken over their lives and that she treats her father like a dog. But the most complicating narrational voice is, of course, that of the film structure itself.
The opening sequences illustrate these strategies in microcosm. The film begins with a black screen, as a woman's s voiceover says:
We had a tree in our yard with a palace in the branches. It was built for my sister and had fairy lights that went on and off in sequence. She was a princess. It was her tree. She wouldn't let me up it.
The first shot appears, depicting from an overhead angle a woman's lap and outstretched legs, her feet crossed over one another on a gaudy leaf- and floral-patterned carpet. The voice continues:
At night, the darkness frightens me. Someone could be watching from behind the trees, someone who wishes you harm. I used to imagine the roots of that tree, crawling, crawling right under the house, right under the bed. Maybe that's why trees scare me. It's like they have hidden powers.
With this provocative speech, the narrative begins. The voice, initially disembodied, belongs to Kay, whose voiceovers we will hear intermittently throughout the film. Though the narrative is presumably mediated through her consciousness, this structure fissures a half hour into the story when appears Sweetie, Kay's sister and the princess of the palace in the branches. From that point, the style of the film becomes less noticeably strange, for it renders Sweetie's bizarre and frightening behavior more realistically. But Kay's perspective dominates the first third of the film, her neuroses expressed both by her voiceovers and by a film narrational style whose quirkiness mirrors Kay's sensibility.
Kay is terrified of roots, of what is beneath and behind trees, of what you can't see--in short, she is afraid of the back story, of her family tree. Through her, in the film's opening voiceover, Campion brilliantly puts a genealogical metaphor, the family tree, into play. The film literalizes and narrativizes the family tree along with such other familial metaphors and cliches as daddy's little princess and her pedestal. In this film, as in The Piano, Campion ignores the usual expository function of the opening sequences and instead uses them to present condensed, richly resonant images that provide an enigmatic symbolic key to the story that will follow (in Sweetie, the tree; in The Piano, Ada's fingers). Thus in Sweetie, the film's coherence derives less from a compelling series of events, that as events appear rather desultory and somewhat banal, than from the ominous significance of family trees that riddle the narrative. Trees recur, as visual motif, as crucial plot elements, and as specters that haunt Kay's imaginary and threaten her relationship with boyfriend Louis. Finally, it is the family tree and its palace in the branches that will kill Sweetie. Introduced by but not subsumed within Kay's narration, the trees in Sweetie indicate the character of the film's narration--surreal, associative, dispersed and enigmatic. Through their recurrence, the film articulates a matrix of objective and affective detail thrown into relief by the meta-narrational commentary that keeps the overall tone distanced, dark but comic.
Sweetie has two dominant "narrators"--Kay and the film. (12) Because the film begins with Kay's voiceover, we read the film's narration as expressive of Kay's sensibility. But these two narrational voices become distinct by the end of the film. Besides the eccentric framings that Campion employs, the film's narration reveals itself most pointedly in the three flashbacks that occur, each with less narrative and subjective motivation. The first occurs in Kay's TM class before Sweetie comes back into her life. After impatiently resisting the meditation, Kay closes her eyes and experiences a rapidly changing stream of images that combine frightening trees with shots of a little girl, dancing, depicted from the waist down. In the middle of the film, as the father remembers how talented Sweetie was, we get another flashback, again of a little girl in her underwear dancing and being picked up by her father, she again depicted from the waist down. But the last word and the last sequence of the film have no narrative or subjective impetus.
As with its narrators, Sweetie actually has two endings. The narrative ending takes place at the graveyard, the opening shot of the sequence a lateral track that moves around several trees to find the gravesite. As the camera moves, we hear Kay's voiceover: "Trees never seem to leave us alone. We couldn't even get the coffin down cause some tree root was sticking out the side." When Sweetie's coffin is finally lowered into the ground after the root is sawed off, the screen goes to black and then we get the film's final shot, depicting the young Sweetie, her hand on her heart, singing "With every beat of your heart" in its entirety. Because this last sequence does not derive from the thoughts, dreams, or hallucinations of any of the characters and does not function in the plot in any way, it is clearly Campion who is showing us this moment from the past and implicitly challenging us to interpret or in some way account for its relationship to the narrative we have just seen. How do we read this image based on t he stories, the personalities, and the events already presented? The film documents that her father's adoration of her set Sweetie up for a big fall, literally and metaphorically, and it suggests that this relationship was incestuous. Sweetie is obviously mentally ill. Yet although the film associates the family's past with its present, it stops short of articulating an abuse narrative that establishes a causal or logical or moral relation between the two. Refusing to judge or speak from ressentiment, the film nevertheless witnesses and leaves us to ponder the inextricable tangle of love, weakness, lack of judgment, misplaced desires, and aberrant projections that characterizes any dysfunctional family. In Sweetie, none of the narrators, not even the film narration itself, knows the whole story. Rather, the gaps in Sweetie testify to what in the roots of family stories and trees can never be fully done away with or recounted.
While visually The Piano appears to be a much more conventional film overall than Sweetie, in it Campion also insinuates the perspective of different narrators, albeit with a more subtle directorial style. As with Sweetie, we have an embodied narrator, Ada, whose voiceover begins and ends the film. Like the earlier film, the opening shot of The Piano thwarts exposition and instead presents us with a dense and initially indecipherable visual pun. First we see slanted slats of light with rose and flesh colored margins that we only retrospectively grasp as Ada's point of view when we get the reverse angle shot of her looking through her fingers with her hands in front of her face. Over the second shot, we hear her voiceover: The voice you hear is not my speaking voice but my mind's voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why, not even me. My father says it is a dark talent and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last.
Mute by will if not by choice, (13) Ada communicates through sign and gesture; her fingers constitute her perspective and her "voice." The opening shot cannily aligns Ada's visual point of view with her fingers, only the first of this image's many implications.
All of the primary concerns of the narrative emanate from this visual pun--digits. In addition to the conundrum the opening shot proposes--that image, perspective, and sign can be both evident and inscrutable--it also implicitly references a matrix of visual commentary that will run through the film. Digits as numbers dictate terms of exchange, a motif relentlessly invoked in a narrative that links patriarchal exchange of women to the correlative colonialist enterprise. (14) We hear this connection explicitly articulated as Ada's opening voiceover continues: "Today [my father] married me to a man I've not yet met. Soon my daughter and I shall join him in his own country" (emphasis mine). It is hard to miss both the emphatic (and gendered) redundancy and irony of "his own country," for Stewart, the man Ada's father has contracted to marry her, is Scottish, as is she, yet "his own country" is the colony, identified here as his possession, New Zealand. Ada's statement simultaneously positions her as object of e xchange (between her father and Stewart) and as a subject possessed of a colonialist imaginary--she voices Stewart's proprietary relation to New Zealand. It also registers the perspective and complexity of the film's narration as well. Though Campion received a lot of criticism for her representation of the Maoris, her film nevertheless exercises an ongoing commentary on colonialism and its link to patriarchy, repression, and the containment and confinement of western women who nevertheless embody and perpetuate this proprietary ethos. (15)
Yet the nature of this commentary is less didactic than provocative and enigmatic, embedded as it is in images whose power exceeds the reach of the commentary they articulate. Speaking of his work on The Piano, the director of photography Stuart Dryburgh remarked:
The camera's viewpoint [...] is that of a witness directing the viewer's attention in a very intimate way. Sometimes we go places where the camera can't really go. We've been inside the piano, inside Stewart's pocket, right down at the level of hands and fingers and teacups. It wouldn't be a Jane Campion film without some wittiness in the framing. (141)
The cinematographer's astute, if perhaps inadvertent, pun, of the witness and wittiness of Campion's camera, grasps the remarkable quality of the film's narration. In his brief list of examples, he references two moments in which Campion's surprising surreal images combine humor and complex commentary in a visual frisson de joie.
In the first of these, the camera is literally in Stewart's pocket, depicting his fingers reaching in to grasp a small Victorian cameo of Ada that he pulls out to contemplate as he, Baines, and a group of Maoris make their way to the beach to meet her and her daughter for the first time. The wittiness of the framing also gives witness to Stewart's sense of Ada. Like money, she is in his pocket. He has acquired her in the same way we see him try to acquire the Maori's land and labor--by contract and exchange. But for Campion, the economics of colonialism and patriarchy are enmeshed with issues of representation and identification. As the sequence continues, we watch Stewart look at Ada's image, then tilt it slightly such that it becomes a mirror he uses to look at himself. Even as the scene implicates Stewart's material selfishness and narcissistic self-involvement, it also depicts those qualities as inextricable from his abjection and insecurity. When Stewart meets Ada, he first turns to Baines and asks him w hat he thinks of her before he himself evaluates her as "stunted." (16)
In the second instance, Stewart voices his concerns about Ada (lacking her piano, she has begun to play the table and he fears she is "brain-affected") to Aunt Morag over tea. Continuing on a more optimistic note, he observes, "And with time, she will, I'm sure, become affekktionate," as we see an overhead close-up of the delicate floral tea cup he holds in his hand as he stirs his tea with a tiny silver spoon. The image appoints his hesitant euphemism ("affection" for "sex") with tea and tea-cup, a beverage and an object that epitomize the ruse, the front of British empire--its civility. This civility masks the brutality of colonialism, its tea plantations and other exploitative mechanisms of procurement in the performance of daily rituals and carefully arched pinky fingers. (17) Campion's witty but emphatic framings in these scenes imbricate the fundamental ironies of imperial and patriarchal civility through Stewart and the objects he handles--cameo and teacup. Stewart has internalized the appropriate ritu als and affect that serve as veneer for more acquisitive and aggressive traits. Jilted in land acquisition and love by people who do not share his presuppositions, civility, or world view, Stewart can't understand how the indigenous people "even know that [the land] is theirs"; moreover, he also will cut off his wife's finger to avenge her passion for another man and later explain his act to her with another euphemism: "I clipped your wing, that is all."
Unlike Sweetie, these noticeable moments of the film's framings and narration serve an alternately comic and historical re-fashioning and contextualizing of film melodrama. As various critics have observed, the genre typically features stories wherein problems with speech or expression are foregrounded, sometimes in characters who are literally mute. Consequently, what is repressed or cannot be spoken registers itself dramatically in the mise-en-scene. As Thomas Elsaesser argues:
[T]he domestic melodrama in colour and widescreen [...] is perhaps the most highly elaborated, complex mode of cinematic signification the American cinema has ever produced, because of the restricted scope for external action determined by the subject and because everything, as Sirk said, happens 'inside.' [This] sublimation of dramatic conflict into decor, colour, gesture and composition of frame [...] in the best melodramas is perfectly thematised in terms of the characters' emotional and psychological predicaments. (52)
The Piano does indeed feature a mute protagonist as well as pointed framings and pronounced visual emphases on various body parts (legs, hands, fingers) and objects (ax, piano, tea cup, Victorian cameo), thereby mimicking the representational and affective mode of melodrama. But the film's narration infuses the moral apparatus that conventionally structures these genres with a historical and ethnographic perspective. The marked shots of everyday objects, tea-cup and cameo, both function in this way, foregrounding the colonial moment, its imaginary and its repressive logic such that Stewart emerges not so much the villain as a pitiable and odious example of the destructive weakness and self-deception fostered both by repressive sexual codes and British imperialism. Similarly, Ada's silence does not occasion pathos but rather operates as the source of her power and mystery over both Stewart and Baines.
Where Sweetie confronts impossible issues concerning the family, abuse, and its effects on individuals, The Piano expands the frame, situating patriarchal abuse within a colonialist milieu. Campion's perspective on narration, sexuality, and the social emerge most emphatically in the way she uses sound to blur the relationship between internal and external, subjective and objective, embodied and formal narration. She works particularly with the strong yet paradoxical relationship between non-diegetic sound--that is, sound that, having no source within the narrative, exists outside of it, as is the case with most film music-and internal diegetic sound, defined as "sound represented as coming from the mind of a character within the story space" (Bordwell and Thompson 310). Campion plays the formal similarity of these two types of sound (both can be identified by the fact that they cannot be heard by characters in the story space) against their opposing functions: while non-diegetic sound renders the most omnisci ent narration (that of the film), internal diegetic sound, by definition, gives us the most subjective and limited instance of it (that of a specific character). Non-diegetic film music is an especially interesting example of omniscient narration, as it tends to be used to shape and direct the emotional responses of the spectator to the story. Such music usually serves simply as an affective backdrop to the story we see. One of the very witty and overriding conceits of The Piano is that the film systematically inverts this conventional function by foregrounding the music and letting the images and the sense of the narrative grow out from it.
Campion initially identifies the piano music in the opening scenes with Ada's inner voice, thereby rendering all subsequent instances of what would otherwise be perceived as non-diegetic background music as an ethereal diegetic narrational voice that infuses the mise-en-scene. As Ada looks down at her piano from a cliff or Baines gazes at it in his house after Ada has left, the source of the piano music we hear is undecidable. Are we privy in these scenes to Ada's imagination or to Baine's memory, or are we hearing the film's voice, its narration? The piano music, like the exchange of the piano keys for sexual favors, passes back and forth between the characters of Ada and Baines, but unlike them, it also "creeps inside" the mind of the spectator and constitutes Ada's narrational voice at the level of affect.
Though many filmmakers have used this technique, what distinguishes Campion's employment of it in The Piano is the meditation the film conducts throughout on the significance and physicality of all representation and narration. In a Campion film, not only is the storytelling marked by being attached to distinct voices and perspectives, these voices are also pointedly attached to bodies, both those of the characters and that of the film itself. (18) Thus the confrontations the film stages that have to do with power, however unequally distributed, take place in relation to self-reflexive structures that foreground narration and representation, a component of the film that overrides the polarized morality of melodrama in favor of a much more complicated understanding of such confrontations. The film's pronounced emphasis on mimicry and simulation, (19) epitomized by the church staging of Bluebeard, indicates what Campion is after--to ironize melodrama while retaining its capacity to generate affect and render c onflict between people and forces of unequal power. She is not interested in the pathos of victimization but in the struggle and consequences of engaged conflict between people with unequal access to established forms of power.
In the film's Bluebeard production, the Maori men seated in the audience rush the stage when they see, in shadow, Bluebeard taking an ax to his current wife because she has discovered the bloodied heads of her predecessors. Some critics of the film read this scene as a condescending portrayal of the Maoris and their inability to perceive the difference between reality and representation. (20) Yet in the larger context of the film, their actions can be understood not as a naive reaction to representation itself, but rather as an astute and prescient attack on the colonial imagination and the reality to which that representation attests. Lest we miss this point, The Piano will present us with a "civilized" husband going after his diminutive wife with an ax. That brings us back to digits.
Following the dictates of her will, a force that she does not understand and whose workings are a surprise to her, Ada loses a finger. Subsequently, her mind's voice penetrates her husband's consciousness and insists that he let her go with Baines because "I am frightened of my will, of what it might do, it is so strange and strong." At the end of the film, we too hear Ada's mind's voice again:
I teach piano now in Nelson. George has fashioned me a metal fingertip; I am quite the town freak, which satisfies. At night, I think of my piano in its ocean grave, and sometimes of myself floating above it. Down there everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep. It is a weird lullaby and so it is. It is mine.
Ada still plays her piano but in place of her seamless immersion in her performance, its harmonic and complete production, her music is accompanied now by the click, click, click of her metal fingertip against the keys. No longer a story of delicate goodness and daunting evil, The Piano does not leave us awash in tears and moral absolutes. Rather, Ada plays and struggles to find her speaking voice, the music and the ending irrevocably marked by the consequences of her actions, actions she performed at the behest of her inscrutable will.
While some critics have suggested that in Ada, Campion had imagined a twentieth-century heroine in a nineteenth-century tale, Ada's most distinctive trait is not her modernity but the fact that, as Carol Jacobs has observed, "she is not the locus of decision of mind." Jacobs associates the irrational relation of Ada to her own will with the text's elusive "a-morality" and its "radical politicality" (Jacobs 772). Though Jacobs does not invoke Nietzsche, we can understand Campion as imbuing Ada with an uncannily Nietzschean will to power. Through Ada, Campion creates her own hypothetical ancestor (21) and, by implication, a genealogy for the present that constitutes what Wendy Brown calls a "perverse mastery" over history. One triumphs "over the past by reducing its power, by remaking the present against the terms of the past--in short, by a project of self-transformation that arrays itself against its own genealogical consciousness" (72). Such a transformation allows for different configurations of power and ethics construed outside of established conventions of truth and morality.
Campion effects this transformation by telling a tale in which Ada acts--she follows her will--and both her husband and Baines manipulate and punish her with acts of increasingly horrific violence. Yet rather than condemning this violence, framing it as the reprehensible actions of the strong against the weak, or alternately vesting Ada with superhuman strength, Campion forgoes both melodrama and utopia. In stead, she leaves Ada to struggle, to ponder her own will, to try to find a way out that suits her. In the end, the click, click, click of the metal fingertip that mars Ada's once full and harmonious sound, the drawbacks of Baines as a partner, and the oddity of the narrative's resolution satisfy precisely because all lack the ring of truth, the closure of a moral story.
The Piano is not the only Campion film in which fingers play a significant role. She takes her concern with them in an entirely different direction in her film Holy Smoke. If The Piano correlated colonialism and sexuality in its use of digits, Holy Smoke explores similar themes in its contrast between two different kinds of touching--erotic and spiritual. This meditation on touching occurs within a narrative whose voiceover narration shifts from character to character, finally culminating in the voiceover correspondence that ends the film. In Holy Smoke, Campion contrasts the evidence of the film's formal narration and its rendering of narrative events with versions of these events asserted by her voiceover narrators--Prue (Samantha Murray), the protagonist Ruth's (Kate Winslet) best friend, and P. J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), the cult deprogrammer who attempts to wrest Ruth's soul from an Indian guru under whose sway she has fallen. The two initial instances of voiceover narration register each speaker's inab ility to contain the narrative we see taking place. The voiceovers that resolve the narrative--the content of two postcards sent by Ruth and P. J. to each other--transform their struggles for mastery into an exchange of concessions.
Holy Smoke opens with a symphony of significations, the credit sequence depicting moments from Ruth and Prue's trip to India accompanied by a concert recording (we hear the applause) of Neil Diamond singing "Holly, Holy." The song itself insinuates the hokey and the holy and sets the stage for two very distinct but related tactile encounters. As Diamond croons, the visuals depict the inside of a crowded bus, many people standing, and then, a shot of two hands, one black, one white, pressed on the roof. The camera moves back, showing us Ruth, as an Indian man reaches out from behind her and caresses her neck. She brushes his hand away, and we cut to smoke wafting up to the title, "Holy Smoke." An extended montage follows, culminating in Ruth arguing with Prue about pursuing a guru whose followers she had met. Prue is frightened but Ruth is intrigued. Ruth says to Prue: "I really want to do this. It's some of the real stuff."
On the next cut, the film moves to San Souci, Sydney, where we see Prue hurrying to the house of Ruth's parents. Once in their living room, she begins to tell them what transpired in India. As the image track shifts back to India, Prue's voiceover recounts the story of Ruth's enlightenment instigated by her encounter with Baba, the guru. While Prue narrates the event as a terrible crisis--"but it was scary...some kind of freaky hypnotism happened"--the images we see render a more ambiguous version. Ruth and Prue sit in a crowd of chanting, swaying disciples, the focus blurred save for the center of the screen, where we see Prue looking terrified and Ruth happy and engaged. Baba makes his way through the crowd toward Ruth, reaching out to her. As he touches her forehead, she falls back, swooning in ecstasy. The images then depict her subjective experience of this event: we see an explosion of color radiating around Ruth's head as her third eye opens and a single tear rolls down her face.
Thus Holy Smoke also begins with two narrators, one embodied and one formal, and with two touches, one furtive, trivial, sexual, and transgressive, an anonymous caress, the other fated (Baba picks her out among the crowd), profound, sacred, and transformative (his touch transforms Ruth and the film's mise-en-scene, that moves from the realistic to the fantastic to register his effects on her). Both encounters take place between an Indian man and a white Australian woman in a very specific post-colonial milieu: Australia and India were both colonies of Britain. Yet as the opening of Holy Smoke makes clear in its stagings of these two very different instances of physical contact between differently gendered and raced subjects of empire, the status of these three participants is neither equal nor stable. For Ruth, the racialized sexual touch is annoying, unwanted and transgressive; the racialized spiritual touch is desired and exoticized as an escape from the stifling and claustrophobic normalcy of her life in S ans Souci.
Yet lest we, like Ruth, idealize her orientalist spiritual escape, Campion sets this opening to the catchy swells of the Neil Diamond pop song about spirituality. The song's compelling banality accomplishes two interrelated effects: it imbues the sequence with delirious wit and affect while it also testifies to a certain kind of projective pop orientalism that locates spirituality in "the East," a projection Campion makes manifest and deconstructs by having the Diamond song "become" diegetic, the accompaniment for ecstatic dancing among Baba's mostly Western faithful on a rooftop in Delhi. Campion thereby triangulates the post-colonial encounter her film stages between Australia and India with America, insistently registering America's influence in the U.S. pop songs that dominate the soundtrack and in the character of P. J. Waters who flies in to "rescue" Ruth. (22) In each instance, Campion uses complex configurations of gender, racial, and national identities to complicate and destabilize any easy or facil e understanding of the power relationships she depicts between the characters (Baba and Ruth; P. J. and Ruth). Finally, the applause we hear signals that this sequence and the film both are a performance of sorts in which sexuality and spirituality are inextricably related (rather than anathema to one another) in the context of pop culture, global and national identities, and sexual animosity. Campion's narration filters all these concerns through the myriad uses and misuses of touch.
In a certain sense, Holy Smoke takes up where The Piano left off. The earlier film's concerns with patriarchy, misogyny, colonialism, and their connection to repression and sexuality are moved forward in time. In The Piano, Campion investigates female sexuality as a powerful, frightening, and willful force. In so doing, she exerted her imagination against a claustrophobic colonial Victorian past and invented a new unromanticized genealogy for herself (as a Pakeha New Zealander). In Holy Smoke, she investigates contemporary female sexuality in relation to spirituality as an avenue to power and escape. As anthropologist Piya Chatterjee observes, "It is no accident that Campion mines a tradition [Indian] that from the beginning has seen spirituality and sexuality as completely entwined and has revered and, more importantly, feared the power of the female principle and female sexuality." (23)
In Holy Smoke, this investigation takes place in the context of certain transference relationships that Campion arranges with male characters in the power position (as father, spiritual leader, therapist and de-programmer) and female characters as subject to that position (as daughter, disciple, and client). In these transference relationships, physical and sexual touch are proscribed while this power, through sublimation, fuels the transformations such relationships produce. Campion correlates or maps these relations onto one another by various means -- "Baba" means "father"; Ruth comes back from India because of her mother's breakdown and her father's supposedly imminent demise; P. J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), the cult deprogrammer, begins his work with Ruth by engaging and trying to best her in discussions of philosophy and spirituality. In all these relationships, gender and power positions are explicitly marked in the millenial battle of the sexes that takes place between P. J. and Ruth. Yet as with the o ther films discussed in this essay, Campion again takes up a genre or mode of narrative associated with women and gender (abuse narratives, melodrama, battle between the sexes) and transforms it in her film's structure of formal and embodied narration.
In Holy Smoke, she accomplishes this transformation through the three distinct narrative sections into which the film is divided, each distinguished by different modes of narration and geographic location. The first section takes place primarily in Delhi and concerns stories and their reliability. The analysis of a cult expert who outlines the problem of deprogramming to Ruth's parents serves as an apt description of Campion's strategy in this opening section. He explains: "They make up their little stories, we make up ours." Campion underscores the multiple deceptions that inform this contest between stories in several ways: she casts doubt on Prue's initial voiceover narration and the story she tells in the obvious contrast between what Prue says and what we see on screen; Ruth' smother, Miriam, sets off to bring Ruth back from India with the false story that her father is dying; finally, Campion ironizes the very story she is telling in a recounting of Miriam's "passage to India" replete with a hysterical breakdown--an obvious allusion to earlier stories of colonial encounters. Locating deception, self- and otherwise, in all the characters and the stories within this initial section, Campion troubles any stable understanding of or conventional distinction between us and them, but never allows difference in its myriad forms to disappear from the screen.
Back in Sydney, the film's second section begins with Ruth's return home and the arrival of P. J. Waters, an arrival accompanied by another Neil Diamond song, "I am, I say," an anthem to rugged individualism if ever there was one. In contrast to the first section and its emphasis on competing stories, the second one introduces the theme of the agenda, specifically P.J.'s three day deprogramming schedule (we hear his voiceover: "Sydney, Australia: Case number 190") he lays out for Ruth's family: "Day one--isolate the subject, get her attention and her respect." The tex of P.J.'s agenda then becomes the content of his voiceover dividing up by day and by programmatic step the visual narration of his struggle with Ruth at the Half Way Hut. But agenda is one thing and implementation another. P.J.'s narration moves from the assurance of "The cracks widen, the client falls apart. Bye bye Baba," to "Day three--Oh shit!" as Campion throws into stark relief the difference between the apparent and the operant power rel ations in the clash between the two. Whereas P. J.--older, professional, male--has the added advantages of control over Ruth's environment ("isolate her") and her family's sanction, Ruth comes to the contest of wills with brains, wit, beauty, and youth, together with a ruth-lessness that P. J. cannot match.(24)
But as with Ada's extra-rational will in The Piano, the battle that transpires between Ruth and P. J. is less a matter of their calculation than of their "acting out"--in seductions, transgressions, and violations whose consequences dramatically shift the balance of power in ways that could neither be anticipated nor predicted. Ruth, emboldened with her own youth, beauty, and sexuality, attacks P. J.'s masculinity, ridiculing his middle-aged vanities: "There's no way I can listen to anyone like you who dyes their hair." The crisis that then ensues between "the client falls apart," and "oh shit!" does indeed involve Ruth breaking down. In her very agitated state, she attempts to seduce P. J., who initially resists but then succumbs. His violation of her vulnerability and transgression of his professional responsibility result in her loss of respect for and sexual dominance over him: she humiliates him, dressing him up in drag (she makes him into "just the girl" for him) and then jumps up and down, saying "I'v e won, I'm on top, I'm the winner." He concedes the battle, but, just as quickly, the tables again turn when he writes backwards on her forehead: "Be kind," a message she must look in the mirror to read. Ruth, devastated, sees her own defeat in this inscription--Baba's message appearing on her forehead as P.J.'s indictment of her heartlessness. But Campion does not stop there. P. J. shamelessly exploits his own triumph and Ruth's confessing to him that she fears she is heartless by saying: "I hope that you're heartless enough to abuse me for your own sick pleasure." After the two have sex again, Ruth, disgusted and overwhelmed, attempts to run off with shoes she has fashioned from ribbon and books.
In each instance, the supposed investments of various characters in overarching ideals, morality, or altruism are revealed as thin pretexts for their fundamentally self-interested drives for control and power. Ruth's family wants her deprogrammed because her interest in Baba threatens them, the paucity of their lifestyle; it inspires in them a racialized sexual paranoia repeatedly referenced in the film. They hire P. J. to un-touch her, to restore her to a vapid and soulless normalcy. But P. J.'s influence is neither selfless nor disinterested either. His narcissistic investment in his own mastery compels him to take the bait in Ruth's sexual mockery. Campion also subtly undercuts Ruth's experiences as she moves from an exoticized paternal transference (Baba) to a combative, secularized one (P.J.), clearly depicting Ruth's own faith, her conversion as deeply self-interested. Ruth embraces the touch of the other as a defense against her own life and its claustrophobic dimensions and future. Her swoon, her thr all to Baba elicits a chain of compensatory actions wherein each participant--Ruth's family, P. J., Ruth herself--lays claim to higher morals or truths than the other(s) against which they struggle. Thus Campion sets up these positions of ressentiment only carefully to expose the profoundly vested self-interest of everyone involved.
The vertiginous shifts of power that characterize P. J. and Ruth's relationship precipitate a catastrophe similar to that of Stewart cutting off Ada's finger. P. J. chases after Ruth, hanging on to her to stop her from leaving him. She slaps him off and he punches her with such force that he knocks her out. As in The Piano where Stewart attacks Ada with an ax, a sequence whose graphic visuals and sound make it one of the most horrifyingly violent in the cinema, Campion uses sound and slow motion to underscore the brutality of this punch. Like Stewart's mutilation of Ada, P. J.'s act of violence is inexcusable and unredeemable. Yet while Campion emphasizes the horror of each of these moments, she resolutely refuses to use either act as the basis for a moral or truth that would resolve the narrative. Rather, she traces how these acts skew or pervert the power relations out of which they come.
In this, one of Campion's strategies for avoiding ressentiment might be seen as an example of what Gayatri Spivak calls an enabling violation--a violation whose terms and consequences provide the basis--albeit contaminated--for subsequent resistance against a perpetrator. Identifying the "enabling violations" of British imperialism, Spivak stresses that the violation is never undone or attenuated but its effects enable positions of identification or power from which resistance can be mobilized. For Spivak, nothing is prior to or outside the scene of violation for the violated whose subjectivity within the imperial relation is cast within that scene. In her development of this concept, she notes how Western intellectuals lack knowledge of the history of imperialism and defines this lack, what is not known, as "the epistemic violence that constituted/effaced a subject that was obliged to cathect (occupy in response to desire) the space of the Imperialists' self-consolidating other" (209). Stewart's marriage to , incarceration, and mutilation of Ada, not to mention Baines's bargains and blackmail with her piano, especially function in this way as their violations precipitate her desire, her reacquisition of speech, and her ultimate assumption of a normalized identity.(25) Most significant about Campion's narration is that the effects of these violations are registered without the narrative signaling any moral or epistemic compensation or resolve.
In the case of Holy Smoke, Campion's positioning of Ruth differs significantly from her conception of Ada as ancestor, trapped in interlocked matrices of oppression and repression. What threatens Ruth, historically a descendent of Ada's, is precisely the normalcy that Ada attains. Ruth enters the struggle with P. J. with a power differential that still exists but that is comparatively attenuated in relation to that experienced by Ada. Campion explicitly foregrounds Ruth's youth and sexuality as significant components of her power over P. J. and also emphasizes Ruth's awareness of and readiness to use this power. Yet the beginning and ending of Holy Smoke's second section are marked by two moments of formal narration that clarify the exact nature of Campion's intervention in the schema of violence and difference she puts forth in this film.
The formal narration framing the introduction of P. J., a white American male--Neil Diamond's "I am, I say"--signals via pop rhetoric the fantasy of a Cartesian subject whose being is coextensive with its assertion. This autonomous, self-assured notion, ironized both by the visual introduction of P. J. and the ensuing narrative, is answered by the altogether different model of knowing manifested in the inscription P. J. places on Ruth's forehead. Only through the agency and gaze of the other can Ruth look in a mirror and truly see herself. P. J.'s imperative, that Ruth "be kind" calls upon her to cease being "ruth-less" and to become herself. This scene allegorizes the psychoanalytic and therapeutic understanding of the self wherein insight and self-knowledge can only be attained in collaboration with another. Politicizing this allegory, Campion replaces the therapeutic other of the analyst with an adversarial other marked by difference in gender, age, nationality, and power position. Thus, although these tw o moments of formal narration (like Ruth, we can read what P. J. has written only when she looks in the mirror) articulate very different conceptions of knowledge and self-possession, only the second incorporates difference as crucial in understandings of the self and truth.
Yet Ruth's moment of revelation does not lead to redemption; rather, her self-recognition fills her with revulsion and vertigo. When she flees, P. J. stops her by knocking her out. His act of violence ultimately leads to his total breakdown when Ruth does escape him and he collapses in the outback, there hallucinating her as a Hindu goddess strolling lurid and majestic on the horizon, a vision accompanied by "Baby It's You" on the soundtrack. While the visuals are clearly depicted as P. J.'s delusional point of view within the narrative, the pop song enunciates Campion's narrational voice, a voice that wittily but decisively opens up the diegesis, as have other musical selections throughout the film. Rather than soliciting our emotional immersion in the moment depicted, as film music customarily does, Campion uses this song for its allure and for the disjunction it creates with the visual track to generate extra-diegetic affect. This strategy distances the spectator from the narrative but not in the mode of Brecht or Godard. Rather the distance derives from a comic sense of incongruity laced with the pleasure and nostalgia elicited by the song. Working in tandem with the music, the cinematography borrows saturated color and Hindu iconography from Bollywood, the world's largest film industry, located in Bombay, to add yet another layer of signification to this ludic commentary.(26)
The section culminates in a scene where P. J. writhes in pain and delirium in the back of a pick-up truck as Ruth sits in front with her two brothers and her sister-in-law. Ruth looks back at P. J., bruised, dirty, ridiculous in the tattered remains of the red dress, and she demands that her brother stop the truck. She gets in the back with P. J., holding him, being kind of her own volition.
In the third and brief final section of Holy Smoke, the narrational mode becomes one of correspondence, relayed by Ruth and P. J.'s sequential voiceovers, each narrating the contents of missives they mail to the other. Ruth is in Jaipur, India, and P. J. in Seattle, Washington. We see the image from a postcard and its text swimming on screen in a series of dissolves that finally resolves into an image of Ruth. Initiating the exchange, she brings P. J. up to date on her life a year after their encounter with one another. Her father ran off with his secretary, and Ruth now lives in Jaipur doing animal rescue work with her new boyfriend and her mother. She is still chasing the truth, has read the complete Bhagvagita. She ends by saying, "I don't know why I love you but I do, from afar. Something really did happen, didn't it? Ruth."
Again in a series of dissolves rendering the text of his letter, P. J. answers her, as the image resolves into Ruth's postcard, bearing the image of a Hindu goddess, propped against his computer screen. He writes of having twins with his wife, Carol, and of their reconciliation after his affair with Ruth. Ruefully, he tells her he is writing a novel about a man who meets his avenging angel. He then finishes by saying: "About the something, didn't you notice it just about killed me? Yours anytime (don't tell Carol), P. J." Several things are striking about these final sequences. First, dominated by text and voiceover, the image track in them faithfully illustrates rather than contests what we are hearing. With images and the voices in dialogue, each character concedes the influence and power of the other while each narrates a differently experienced (lack of) resolution. For Ruth, their encounter is a mystery, a "something," an event that was profound, yet somewhat inscrutable. For P. J., his near death exper ience was life-altering--he has become (pro)creative and is no longer completely trapped in adolescent masculine agendas, scores, and vanities.
Finally, then, there is no answer. "Something" happened, the verification of which Ruth seeks from P. J. Yet that something, a violent, traumatic exchange, an event rather than a determinative outcome, cannot be articulated or named. In the film's rendering, Ruth's moment of self-recognition, the violence and the transformations that ensue occur not as testament to some larger truth or moral but as accidental or contingent consequences of vested conflicts based on self-interest and desire. Campion uses different embodied narrators as well as the formal narration of the film itself to produce this effect, one that solicits our identification not only with different characters but also with the complexity of the film's narration itself.
Through the three films she has (co)written and directed, Jane Campion has consistently employed female narration to re-tell stories conventionally associated with women or women's issues: in Sweetie, narratives of dysfunctional families and abuse; in The Piano, melodrama; in Holy Smoke, the battle between the sexes. In each instance, she places the film's formal narration in tension with explicit voiceover to multiply and complicate any one point of view. Campion thereby puts into play and contests the conventional moral frameworks of these genres or stories while also maintaining a focus on women, their voices and perspectives. Yet she also consistently refuses to represent gender difference as singular and unrelated to other kinds of difference. In this and in her kindred refusal to cast women as victims, no matter how horrific the abuse they suffer, Campion not only "reduces the power of the past and remakes the present," but her films and her heroines also illustrate what an aestheticized realm of the " sheerly political" might look like.
(1.) As I worked on this essay, many people were very generous with conversation and insight. I would especially like to thank Piya Chatterjee, Chon Noriega, Parama Roy, Vivian Sobchack, and Carole-Anne Tyler.
(2.) Writers and reviewers who explicitly label the film "feminist" are far too numerous to detail here but some excellent examples and resources include Stella Bruzzi(57), Pam Cook (xii-xiv), Carol Jacobs (758), and Harriet Margolis (26). Margolis also includes citations for articles written about the arguments generated by the film (32n.4). Sue Gillett's essay discusses and cites reviews that argue Campion's film represents a woman falling in love with her rapist (282). She also mentions that when she delivers talks on The Piano, audience members frequently argue that both Stewart and Baines are rapists (282). See also Carolyn Gage (54).
(3.) Such a politics would strive to articulate a different relationship between the present and the past, a relationship that Brown also draws from Nietzsche. He warns against a perspective dominated by "it was," a perspective that leaves the will "powerless against what has been done, [...] an angry spectator of all that is past." The power of the past must be reduced "by remaking the present against the terms of the past--in short, by a project of self-transformation that arrays itself against its own genealogical consciousness" (Brown 72). This type of transformation might well make use of aesthetics and different modes of historicizing and storytelling.
(4.) Critics disagree somewhat on the definition of voiceover narration. In her book on the topic, Sarah Kozloff defines the latter as "oral statements, conveying any portion of a narrative, spoken by an unseen speaker, situated in a space and time other than that simultaneously being presented by the images on the screen." Yet she goes on to say that in practice, films frequently mix voiceover narration proper with on-screen narration or voice-off, that letters read aloud by characters often tell stories and so on (33-39). Ed Branigan considers voiceover to be speech that "is nonsynchronous with an image of the speaker (perhaps indicating character thought or memory) or no image of the speaker is presented (creating an abstract space of speaking)" (237).
(5.) See Pam Cook ("Approaching"), Claire Johnston, and Judith Mayne.
(6.) Feminist film criticism, psychoanalytic and otherwise, is predicated on this insight. The foundational psychoanalytic statement comes from Laura Mulvey.
(7.) Sex and the City gals made the cover of Time magazine (Aug 28 2000), a lead-in to the cover article titled "Who Needs a Husband?" In a poll Time conducted on the show for this article, more than half of women asked said it was a "realistic portrayal of the single life." When respondents were asked which of the main characters they most identified with, Miranda, who has the most successful career, came last (9%), one point behind Samantha (10%). See pages 50-51
(8.) Bob Miklitsch takes this argument in a very interesting direction in "Voiceover Castration: Modes of (Crypto-Male) Masculinity and (Neo-) Butch/Femme Style in Forrest Gump, Exotica and Bound," forthcoming.
(9.) For example, in the films of Marguerite Duras, Laura Mulvey, and Joyce Wieland, filmmakers from three very different avant-garde traditions.
(10.) See, for example, Harriet Margolis's discussion of Campion as an auteur (4-10), and the film reviews she collected in Jane Campion's The Piano. Though the reviews are both positive and negative, all make mention of Campion's distinctive style (167-90).
(11.) From the beginning of her career, in films like Peel (1982) and A Girl's Own Story (1984), Campion has focused on disturbed and incestuous families. In the book of interviews with Campion edited by Virginia Wright Wexman, Campion asserts: "I'm not committed to niceness. I'm committed to seeing what's there [...] As a very young filmmaker, I was particularly committed to what was nasty, what isn't spoken about in life" (9).
(12.) Kozloff distinguishes between the voiceover narrator and the implied narrator in all narrative films and then discusses the difficulty in naming the latter ("narrating agent," "voice," "implied author," "implied director," "implied narrator"), finally deciding on "image-maker" (44). I have decided to refer to this implied narrator as the "film's formal narration" rather than use "image-maker."
(13.) Carol Jacobs observes that Ada's will "is strangely disconnected from conventional concepts of volition [...,] a will, then, that is like a passion outside the realm of tame self-interest and self-knowledge" (771).
(14.) For example, Ada's father marries Ada to Stewart; Stewart trades Ada's piano to Baines for land; Stewart attempts to trade blankets and guns to Maoris for their sacred burial land; he trades buttons for their labor; Baines trades Ada and Ada trades Baines piano keys for sexual favors; Stewart and the narrative exchange Ada's piano key with its declaration of love for her finger.
(15.) Leonie Pihama exemplifies the critical perspective of the film's depiction of the Maori. Margolis's introduction to Jane Campion's The Piano includes a valuable discussion of the debates that took place in New Zealand on this issue (15-24).
(16.) When Baines responds, "She looks tired," he offers Stewart not an evaluation of Ada but an observation sensitive to her and her feelings.
(17.) For a thorough historical and theoretical account of the tea trade and its manifold exploitations and ironies, see Piya Chatterjee's A Time for Tea: Women, Labor and Post-Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation, forthcoming.
(18.) For an essay that focuses on the palpably tactile quality of this film, see Vivian Sobchack, "What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh."
(19.) For example, the Maori mimic and mock Stewart; Nessie imitates Aunt Morag; Flora imitates Ada; Flora rubs up against a tree, imitating what she has seen her mother doing with Baines. At the level of the film's narration, Baines' dog licks Stewart's hand as Stewart watches Baines having oral sex with Ada under her dress, a metanarrational mimicry.
(20.) See note 14, above.
(21.) Campion states this intention explicitly: "I think that it's a strange heritage that I have as a pakeha New Zealander, and I wanted to be in a position to touch or explore that. In contrast to the original people in New Zealand, the Maori people, who have such an attachment to history, we seem to have no history, or at least not the same tradition. This make you start to ask, 'Well, who are my ancestors?' My ancestors are English colonizers--the people who came out like Ada and Stewart and Baines" (qtd. in Bilborough 135).
(22.) Campion's narrative implicitly brings together three former colonies of Britain, juxtaposing them in variable relations of power and empire: the U.S., former British colony, represents empire to Australia; Australia, former British colony, represents empire to India. I am grateful to Piya Chatterjee for pointing out the complexity of the relationships between Australia and India--that Australia is viewed as empire by India.
(23.) Conversation with Piya Chatterjee about Holy Smoke, Sept 23, 2000.
(24.) She also has the script on her side: as film scholar Katherine Kinney remarks, "Ruth gets all the best lines." Conversation about Holy Smoke, Oct 14, 2000.
(25.) Thanks to Carole-Anne Tyler for sharing her insights on this process with me and also suggesting that I take a look at Gayatri Spivak.
(26.) Thanks to Parama Roy for pointing out the allusion to Bollywood. The casting of Pam Grier as P.J.'s partner enhances Campion's delirious matrix of allusions, as Grier was a major star in blaxploitation films and one also associated with Quentin Tarentino's cinema, as is Harvey Keitel. Finally, Campion's use of a fifties/sixties girl group, the Shirelles, to accompany fictional visual footage of a deity recalls Kenneth Anger's similar juxtapositions of girl groups with images of Christ in Scorpio Rising (1963).
Bilborough, Miro. "The Making of The Piano." Campion and Chapman 135-52.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.
___, and Kristen Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 4 th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.
Branigan, Edward. Narrative Comprehension and Film. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Brown, Wendy. States of injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.
Bruzzi, Stella. "Tempestuous Petticoats: Costume and Desire in The Piano." Screen 36.3 (Autumn 1995): 257-66.
Campion, Jane, and Jan Chapman. The Piano. New York: Hyperion, 1993.
Chatterjee, Piya. A Time for Tea: Women, Labor and Post-Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation. Durham: Duke UP, forthcoming.
Cook, Pam. "Approaching the Work of Dorothy Arzner." Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 1988. 46-56.
___. "Border Crossings: Women and Film in Context." Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader. Ed. Pam Cook and Philip Dodd. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993. xii-xiv.
Dyson, Lynda. "The Return of the Repressed? Whiteness and Colonialism in The Piano." Screen 36.3 (Summer 1995): 267-76.
Elsaesser, Thomas. "Tales of Sound and Fury." Home is Where the Heart Is. Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: BFI, 1993. 43-69.
Gage, Carolyn. "No." Broadsheet 204 (Spring 1994): 54.
Gillett, Sue. "Lips and Fingers: Jane Campion's The Piano." Screen 36.3 (Autumn 1995): 277-87.
Jacobs, Carol. "Playing Jane Campion's Piano: Politically." MLN 109 (1994): 757-85.
Johnston, Claire. "Dorothy Arzner: Critical Strategies." Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 1988. 36-45.
Kozloff, Sarah. Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Lewis, Judith. "Wholly Jane." L.A. Weekly. January 21- 27, 2000: 36.
Margolis, Harriet, ed. Jane Campion 's The Piano. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 1-41.
--. '"A Strange Heritage': From Colonization to Transformation?" in Margolis, ed., 1-41.
Mayne, Judith. Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women's Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.
Miklitsch, Bob. "Voice-over Castration: Modes of (Crypto-Male) Masculinity and (Neo-) Butch/Femme Style in Forrest Gump, Exotica and Bound." Role Over Adorno: Critical Theory and Popular Culture in the Post-Marxist Period. Forthcoming.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.
Pihama, Leonie. "Ebony and Ivory: Constructions of the Maori in The Piano." Margolis, ed., 114-34.
Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.
Sobchack, Vivian. "What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh." Carnal Thoughts: Bodies, Texts, Scenes and Screens. Berkeley: U of California P, forthcoming.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Wexman, Virgina Wright. Jane Campion Interviews. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
"Who Needs a Husband." Time (Aug 28 2000): 50-51.
Kathleen A. McHugh (email@example.com), associate professor of comparative literature and film, teaches in the Film and Visual Culture Program at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of American Domesticity. From How-To Manual to Hollywood Melodrama (Oxford, 1999) that reconsiders this film genre and the feminist commentary applied to it in relation to domestic labor and its representation in the U.S. She has published articles on domesticity, feminism, sexuality, and film theory, the avant-garde, and autobiography in such journals as Cultural Studies, Jump Cut, Screen, South Atlantic Quarterly, and Velvet Light Trap. She is currently working on a book-length study of experimental filmic autobiography.
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|Author:||McHugh, Kathleen A.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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