Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Goddesses, Pianos, Princes, and a Book You Should Must Buy

After being on quite the roll there for a minute, I haven't posted in over two weeks, so I may as well pack a lot into this entry. Yesterday was, after all, a High Holy Day: the birthday of my grandfather, but also of the late, impossibly great Katharine Hepburn, who would have turned 101 if she hadn't died five years ago. (Has it really already been five years?) I believe I have already made clear my semi-religious feelings about Katharine Hepburn here. May 12 is always a delicious day for me, but then Nathaniel came along to make it even sweeter, even as I sat languishing in bed with an illness so bad I had to cancel my classes and stay home from work. Telepathically aware that I needed as much restorative bliss as I could get, Nathaniel offered this sterling tribute to Jane Campion's The Piano, and though I still don't understand how or why Nathaniel loves eight movies even more than this one, I of course thrilled to his evocative, beautifully illustrated ode to the film—especially since it sounds as though he might like it even more now than he once did! Nathaniel's subsequent blog posting is about princes, but he is obviously a prince himself to be this publicly and appropriately worshipful of the most important movie in my life, and surely one of the best ever made.

I've shown even less restraint on my own list of the 100 greatest movies (a feature that needs a qualitative as well as a formatting overhaul), where The Piano still reigns at #1. Yes, I grant that its crucial arrival at the absolute, most poignant onset of my movie-loving life has a great deal to do with this unusually robust claim on the film's behalf, and I've never gotten around to writing the public defense of this position that I obviously owe. I'm getting there; I always mean well. Happily, another prince of the blogosphere, Tim R. of MainlyMovies—who keeps even more mum on his blog lately than I do on mine—furnished me with a brilliant occasion to celebrate The Piano in print. That occasion was a book he co-edited called The DVD Stack, now in its 2nd Edition, and not to put too fine a point on it, YOU HAVE TO BUY THIS BOOK. Within, you'll find succinct but searching reviews of over 350 movies that are either masterworks in themselves, or the welcome recipients of brilliant presentations on DVD, or both. The writers are mostly staffers of major British publications like the Daily Telegraph, Time Out London, the Sunday Times, and Sight and Sound, but they found room for me in that august group. I got to wax awestruck about 16 of my favorite movies, from Persona to The Cell to Daughters of the Dust to Singin' in the Rain to Harlan County, U.S.A.. If that small sampler doesn't sufficiently convince you that The DVD Stack breaks significantly from the usual All-Time Best roll call—but without petulantly avoiding some objects of universal and deserved adoration—then you haven't experienced the back-to-back tributes to DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story (a surreally inspired DVD, apparently) and La Dolce vita. I would absolutely buy and treasure this book even if Tim hadn't edited it, and I would absolutely shill it even if I weren't in it. As an appetizer course, and as a reciprocal gesture to Nathaniel's lovely tribute, here's what I have to say about The Piano ... and yes, we are absolutely talking about that spectacular and affordably priced R2/PAL edition that completely wipes the floor with the despicable and un-extra'd U.S. print. I was limited to 400 words (a first time for everything!), but I hope you get the drift:

The film: Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is a 19th-century Scotswoman who has refused to speak since she was six years old. She arrives in New Zealand as the purchased bride of a taciturn colonist, but neither she nor her fatherless daughter (Anna Paquin) make any easy concessions to domestic custom. Ada's proud resolve is shared by the film, which forges ahead into tense, exotic circumstances and allows us, indeed forces us, to fend for ourselves within its fertile landscape of desire, violence, envy, and enigma. The piano in Jane Campion's magisterial film is an instrument, a voicebox, a prize, a symbol, a concept, a thing-in-itself, a means of communication, and a bulky rampart against it. Campion's ingenuity is to read all the same paradoxes into human personality and sexuality. Her film looks askance at daily life, brimming with unexpected angles and an almost subconscious language of images and tones, and yet it stares forthrightly into extraordinary conflicts: the worst of what people do to each other, and the remarkable, ambiguous ways in which we save each other. None of this, of course, would be possible without the flawless cast, the superb locations, the eccentrically beautiful score, and the utterly persuasive production design.

The DVD: Heretofore available only in an undistinguished and feature-free version, The Piano finally attains a proper showcase, with an impressive gallery of key creative personnel gathered for the occasion. Campion and producer Jan Chapman provide a chummy but detailed commentary track, but even more illuminating are the generous interviews with both women as well as composer Michael Nyman, all furnished on the second disc. Campion speaks for a full, congenial hour about her creative process (including glimpses at her sketchbooks), her casting decisions and varying methods with different actors, her close collaboration with her cinematographer, and her charmingly ambivalent response to the film's Oscar successes. Chapman elucidates with passion the role of an independent film producer, specifically when securing international funds for a risky screenplay, and Nyman, without winning any trophies for modesty, sheds valuable light on how and why the film was tailored to the score, rather than the more customary reverse. A shorter making-of featurette from the time of the film's production expands to include the lead actors' perspectives. Best of all, the print transfer exquisitely captures the rolling waves, the plashy mud, the burnished glow of the interiors, and the eerie, aqueous light of the New Zealand bush.

Thanks, Nathaniel; thanks, Tim; thanks, Jane; thanks, Holly, Harvey, Anna, Sam, Jan, Stuart, Veronika, Michael, Janet, Andrew, Tungia, Kerry, Genevieve...; thanks, Katharine; thanks, Opa; overwork and underpay and all-nighters be damned, all is full of love today on Nick's Flick Picks.

Photos © 1993 Miramax Films/Ciby2000; and © 2007 Canongate Ltd.

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Blogger tim r said...

You are an absolute sweetheart -- this is my favourite promotional plug for the book, anywhere, and it would be a much lesser thing without you.

How are you feeling though? That bug sounds nasty. Hope you're on the mend.

I've started BSG and wow. Hope we have an encomium on that to look forward to!

2:39 AM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

no, thank you...

limited to 400 words you still out do me on your favorite film.

7:24 AM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

oh and not to be greedy or terribly unsympathetic to your "sickness" (likely story) or anything...

but can't we at least get a tiny reference to your jury duty at the IIFF. I await your words on the American Spectrum. I'm sure I'm not alone!

12:29 PM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger John T said...

It has been five years-Kate Hepburn actually died on my birthday, which may have made it the saddest #19 ever.

12:35 PM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: It's such an easy book to promote, and to feel great about promoting... (And for all of you reading, Tim says the most deliciously thoughtful things about The Company, Junebug, The Earrings of Madame de..., and several other jewels. Plus some movies he likes more than I do, and some movies he's seen that I haven't: so, I have another list to fulfill!)

@Nathaniel: I so don't outdo you, and yes, I have lots to say about IIFF. Stay tuned...

@John: How terrible! I remember that day clearly - I got lots of condolence phone calls, which seems sweet and also funny and also strange. But the people who know me apparently know me well. I don't know how I would have dealt with that happening on my birthday.

1:51 PM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Just want to chime in belatedly to say that I <3 you. Because that little emoticon heart looks weirdly wrong, like a rear end sending a fart the wrong way, let me clarify by saying that I HEART you (and hope that I just made you laugh).

6:50 PM, May 19, 2008  

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