Prev Home Next


Sula Reviews The Piano

They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. Well the ways of love are pretty mysterious too. I finally saw "The Piano" last evening. Mostly I had heard it was pretty erotic and I guess it was. I also heard it was a "beautiful" picture, and I guess that's true too. The film also gave me plenty to think about. But first, a brief digression.

On Friday I had lunch with a young man who used to work with me. He's a more "conservative" type, you might say, and we frequently get into rather serious discussions about political matters, usually with neither of us giving an inch. But he at least thinks about what I have to say before totally disregarding it, so I enjoy talking with him.

Somehow we started talking about The Piano. He told me he had read bell hooks' review of the film (I assume it's the same one contained in Z Magazine's February issue) in which she compared aspects of the film to "gangsta rap" and other misogynist stuff. I had also read the article and, in it, bell hooks coins a phrase I find fascinating, to wit: "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy", or wscp for short. In any event, my young friend explained how reading hooks destroyed the beauty of The Piano for him because, rather than just watch a great movie, he spent his time analyzing it (and disagreeing violently with hooks). So he's probably not going to be reading her movie reviews any more.

I found myself analyzing the film too, but that's what I like to do. Analysis doesn't destroy the beauty. In fact, it helps me enjoy and understand whatever beauty is really there. Frankly, I understand where bell hooks was coming from with her wscp construction. To me, the story was about a woman's search for love -- _true love_ -- and also about freedom. In the film, Ada's father arranges a marriage for her to a man in New Zealand. That's the polite description. To be more blunt about it, he "sells" her into the "slavery" of marriage to a man she doesn't know and certainly doesn't love (although we all probably hope they can eventually learn to love each other).

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Well, it turns out, Ada doesn't love him nearly as much as she loves her piano. She can't talk but is able to communicate musically just fine. When her new husband won't arrange for safe passage for the piano to her home, Ada becomes furious and ultimately finds another way. Baines, an illiterate white settler who has sympathetic aboriginal tattoos marking his face, trades with Ada's husband and acquires the piano. He also arranges for Ada to give him lessons.

But Baines never plays the piano. Instead, he gradually seduces Ada into what eventually turns out to be some fairly passionate lovemaking. Again, that's the charitable way to look at it. The erotic way. An alternative view is that Ada loves and wants the piano so much that she is willing to sell herself to Baines for payment of one, two, five, ten piano keys at a time. She loves the piano, not Baines. (I wonder if prostituting herself in this way is any different from being sold into married bondage?). Of course, the film does not pass judgment on any of this.

Ultimately, love is mysterious. Ada _is_ seduced. The "seduction" is successful. She falls for Baines. She is willing to throw away her marriage to a man she doesn't love to be with one she does. All she needs is the freedom to make that choice. But, as always, some ugly things happen on the way to freedom (a theme to which we shall return). In the process of gaining her choice, Ada loses a finger (chopped off by her loving husband), loses her piano, and almost loses her life.

What's Love But a Second Hand Emotion?

Ada's story is probably historically accurate. Women didn't have the right to choose their mates, didn't have the right to love who they chose. Ada was lucky that she was allowed to love and express herself through her piano. hooks' formulation of white supremacist (white settlers taking over a foreign land while the Maori natives participate uncritically, a la Tarzan) capitalist (hey, money is the motive, the only motive) patriarchy (the male domination of Ada by father, husband and her "john"/lover) was accurate, even if a little harsh.

I also read Toni Morrison's novel, "Sula" this week. Call me crazy, but The Piano could have been written by Morrison. Both stories are really allegories about, among other things, the role and value of women in society. Sula was a woman of a different sort. Growing up in a poor black mid-western town, she lives in a home where men often visit, but don't stay very long. Her grandmother and mother allow men to satisfy their respective sexual desires, but don't need them in their lives on a permanent basis.

Out of this environment, and through other events in her youth (including ten years in the outside world attending college and living in different parts of the country), Sula arrives back at home as an attractive woman who, like her mother and grandmother before her, "uses" a different man every night to satisfy inner urges but nothing else. There is no love for Sula. She has exercised her freedom and independence by becoming the ultimate "player", loving and leaving them all over town, married or not. She even loves and leaves her best friend's husband, destroying both marriage and friendship.

And with nary a care. Until one day when an older man, Ajax, comes calling. He is kind but not possessive. They are a perfect match. They enjoy each other's company, and they certainly enjoy their time together in bed, but they don't need each other. They are two free spirits who can love and stay with each other precisely because their partner could care less. That is, until Sula starts to care. When she sets the table for two, cleans house, makes the bed, and "expects" Ajax to show, well, that's the end of that.

love, love, love,
makes you do foolish things.
sit alone by the phone,
a phone that never rings.
hoping to hear you say
that you love me still,
knowing, knowing, you never will.

As in The Piano, some pretty nasty things happen to and around Sula on the way to her adulthood of free and open choice. In freely bedding any man she chooses, she becomes hated. She is the town pariah. A witch. Evil incarnate. In fact, the whole town measures their worth, their piety in direct contrast to Sula's evil. She is their yardstick. When she dies, when the yardstick goes away, they have no feedback loop, and fall into evil chaos themselves. Toni Morrison presents a clear view that evil makes us virtuous by comparison. In Sula, the entire town finds virtue by hating Sula.

Sula, was, until Ajax, the only woman in the town who could resist the standard operating procedure, the moral code: "You need a man". To achieve that level of freedom in her time, she had to become, in many respects, the epitome of evil. Like Ada in the Piano, she must make some awful choices or sacrifices to be the person she chooses to be, to live her life as she pleases. Ada loses a finger to her husband's ax. The young Sula mutilates her own finger with a knife to prove herself a worthy opponent. "If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I'll do to you?"

In the end, The Piano and Sula operate on different levels. Toni Morrison uses Sula to help the reader analyze the conditions that have created black life in America. The picture is not always appealing, but there are some clear issues available for our perusal and for our corrective actions. The Piano is totally uncritical. It presents no moral viewpoint. Sure, the husband who mutilates Ada is a bad person, but he was merely trying to protect his property, his investment. We are supposed to be enthralled with the pageantry, the beauty and the eroticism. Ada found sexual and emotional fulfillment. We are supposed to be happy for her. We are supposed to be turned on. Like my young friend, we're not supposed to think too deeply. That would only spoil it!

Prev Home Next

Meanderings 1.04 -- April 11, 1994