Fables and fairy tales and fires in our souls


From the May/June 1994 issue

NOW THAT THE EXPIRATION DATES HAVE PASSED ON OUR familiar fables and fairy tales about gender, it is time to create some new ones. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim differentiates the enlightening fairy tale from the simplistic sanctimony of the fable, which always explicitly states a moral truth with no hidden meaning and nothing left to the imagination. Fables assume an orderly society and slap our hands to get us back in line. Fairy tales, on the other hand, illuminate the rich mystery of the natural world that lies within us and around us, the primordial forces from which myth and legend arise to haunt human awareness and enlighten human experience.

Fables dominate popular culture, especially TV. They are like fast food: easy to put together, easy to take in and reassuringly free of surprises. Fables pass right through us without a rumble, especially when they reaffirm familiar moral lessons.

Jonathan Demme’s earnest movie Philadelphia is a good example of a fable with a message so clear that it feels insultingly like a sermon for the mentally retarded. It tells the story of yuppie lawyer Tom Hanks, who gets booted from his prestigious firm by mentor Jason Robards when it is suspected correctly that he might be gay and suffering from AIDS. Hanks sues. The only attorney willing to take his case is struggling Denzel Washington, a man so unclassy he advertises on TV. Robards and the law firm are defended by quivery-voiced, velvet dagger Mary Steenburgen. As longtime companion Antonio Banderas and Hanks’ accepting and quite believable family, led by loving mom Joanne Woodward, rally around him, Hanks goes to court, wins his case against the homophobes and dies.

Philadelphia has noble intentions. Its cast is glittery (four Oscar winners and the two most popular male stars in America today). It is a hit and a good tear jerker. But as a moral fable, it suffers from a fatal cowardice. It tries to attack homophobia without offending homophobes.

Demme knows how to make films with subtlety, humor and irreverence.  He made Citizen’s Band and Melvin and Howard, about quirky, lovable misfits, and more recently Silence of the Lambs, in which a psychotic cannibal is the nicest man in the cast. Demme was criticized by gay-rights advocates for his unsympathetic presentation of a quasi-transsexual killer in that film, a man who skinned fat women to sew himself a “girl suit.” Apparently Demme’s critics traumatized him into a state of political correctness that has cost him all of his humor and half of his intelligence. Still, even a demi-Demme deserves honor for tackling the subject of AIDS on the big screen.

Except for Longtime Companion, a low-budget, honestly felt film that reached a mostly gay audience, Hollywood has done all it could to overlook AIDS. Philadelphia takes the risk, but does it so cautiously and in such a calculated manner that it takes on the look and feel of a made-for-television movie. It reeks of homophobe-phobia, especially in the rigid chasteness of the relationship between Hanks and his mate, Banderas. They don’t even kiss. The moviemakers fear we could not tolerate anything physical between them. We learn in court that this carefully controlled man contracted HIV by breaking his longstanding monogamous bonds in an unaccustomed burst of passion at a gay porno theater. The movie asks us to smile with his family on his sexless gay love, but to notice that his only known sexual passion was punished by death. Gay love is okay, gay sex is not.

The filmmakers apparently believed that a straight audience could only identify with a straight character. So Hanks is kept in the background, growing more emaciated and sickly looking, while Washington’s coming-to-consciousness dominates the movie. This innocent man seems to be having his first encounters Philadelphia, starring Oscar winner Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, suffers from a fatal flaw trying to attack homophobia without offending homophobes.

with gay life, and he’s panicked by it, recoiling from the ravaged Hanks. He attacks a young man who makes a polite pass at him in a drag store. Washington seems to be expressing the filmmakers’ presumption of the audience’s homophobia, while almost everyone else on screen gently kids him out of it, as if to say, “It’s okay that you feel this way, but look how naive you’re being.”

There are few actors whose company is more welcome for a couple of hours than Washington, but he keeps getting between the audience and Hanks. The film uses his African-American presence to make simplistic moral points about the similarities between homophobia and racial bigotry, while we just want to know what it all feels like to Hanks.

Hanks, with his boyish curly hair and sad clown face, is ordinarily a superb light comedian (and a superb heavy tragedian as well) but he is kept in the shadows throughout this film. He is not merely dying, he is closeted and won’t let us see who he is and what is inside him. There is only one scene in which he takes off his mask. At his apartment, he and Washington are preparing his testimony for court the next day. On the stereo, Maria Callas is singing the aria “La Mamma Morta” from Giordano’s opera Andrea Cbenier. The dying Hanks explains to Washington that she is singing about the death of her mother, the loss of everything in the French Revolution, and her redemption by love, for which she is now willing and perhaps even eager to die. Hanks stands up with his IV stand and acts out the aria while he translates the words to Washington, who previously has not seen past his client’s proper, yuppie straight-guy act.

Hanks translates ecstatically: “I am life! I am love! I am divine! I am oblivion! The angel draws near, and it is the kiss of death! My body is the body of a dying thing. Take it, then! I am already dead!”

For a magical moment, the tightly closeted Hanks is alive. The voice of Callas seems to flow from his soul and, through her, he lets us feel some of what he feels about his life and impending death. We suddenly see that the tragedy of his life is not his imminent physical death, but the long, slow emotional death that has come from smothering his fire, damping the divine sparks inside him, shielding his soul from a world he sees as too homophobic to know him.

Once Washington has heard this voice of life and love emerging from Hanks, he can care about him; he is now able to touch him, even to adjust his oxygen mask.

In court Washington crusades against the homophobia of those who fired Hanks, a homophobia from which he now feels liberated. He brashly asks Robards on the stand if he is gay, and Robards indignantly responds, “How dare you!” His case is made.

In Philadelphia, gay passion is punished by death, and homophobia is punished by fine. The film tells us that it is lovably naive for poor, young, black men to be so homophobic they would hit men who make passes at them; it is criminally evil for rich, old, white men to be so homophobic they would tell “queer” jokes. Philadelphia, tells us a fable about the meanness of homophobia, but assumes we are so homophobic we can’t take it straight, so it plays instead to what it presumes to be our shared hatred of rich, old, white men. The film’s prejudices are insulting to us.

Despite the film’s lack of brotherly love, that one magical scene with Hanks and Callas made me feel something, a realization that those who feel forced to strictly closet their passions might well find release in dying for love.

BUT THAT IS THE STUFF OF FAIRY tales, and of The Piano. The Piano is ripe, bewitching and perhaps the most passionate film ever made. It is certainly the sexiest fairy tale I know of. Nothing about its peculiarly metaphoric plot, its tortured, noncommunicative characters, and its faraway time and place seem real or familiar except the emotions, which have the power and urgency of a volcanic eruption. The Piano is the work of New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion, whose two previous films, Sweetie and Angel at My Table, told the tales of schizophrenic women. I regret now that I have not seen the films of a woman so willing to take us past understanding into the realm of the senses.

The Piano tells the story of Ada, Holly (Broadcast News) Hunter, a mute, Victorian Scotswoman whose father sells her in marriage to a colonial New Zealand farmer, Sam (JurassicPark) Neill. Despite a childlike voice-over in which she tells us something of herself, she never explains how and why she became mute at the age of six, how she came to have an out-of-wedlock, 9-year-old daughter (Anna Paquin), or what her relationship was with the father who sends her away to join a man she never met. Was she molested or abused, or has she just been in a bad mood for 30 years? Such questions are not answered, and are, apparently, irrelevant to the meaning of the movie.

(I thought of Juliette Binoche’s line in Damage: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.”) Hunter, in her rageful, silent determination, may or may not have been damaged, but she seems quite dangerous.

Wading ashore from the ship that has brought her from Scotland, this tiny woman in a black, hoop skirt and bonnet comes out of the sea and is tossed upon a godforsaken beach with her few belongings and with her two voices her sprightly daughter and her treasured piano. She lovingly, longingly fingers the keys of the partially crated piano. Meanwhile she communicates with her daughter through a violent form of private sign language. Mother and daughter huddle together on the beach in an impromptu tent made from her stiff petticoat, until her dour, impersonal new husband arrives with help to carry her things through the jungle to his inland farm. Her daughter speaks for her, turning Hunter’s gestures into colorful, playful prose. All we see of Hunter is her angry hands.

The burdened, angry Neill insists on leaving her impractical piano behind in the surf. Here is a man who values silence and so has chosen a mute woman for his wife. We sense he is a virgin who has never been close to a woman. When Hunter cannot bully him or his men into carrying the piano, she permits herself to be carried away from her only means of emotional expression, but she looks back in rage.

Neill trades the piano, with piano lessons from Hunter, to his neighbor, Harvey {Mean Streets) Keitel, for a few acres of land. Keitel is an almost stuporously lazy man who went native after his wife left him. He now lives with the primitive Maoris and has had his face tattooed. Keitel does not want to learn to play the piano, he just wants to watch Hunter as she plays it and touches it. He makes a deal with her: she can buy back the piano, one key at a time, by taking off her clothes as she plays. While she sits at the piano, he lies under it running his dirty finger through a hole in her stocking. When she leaves, he takes off his own clothes and caresses the piano.

Hunter and Keitel bargain over the piano keys and, finally, lie together naked. We are startled by the images of writhing, sweaty flesh amidst Victorian trappings in the middle of a stinking, claustrophobic jungle. Their nudity reveals more of them than we guessed was beneath their Victorian camouflage. Hunter is a tiny woman with a pinched, forbidding face and resolutely frowning features. In her hoops and petticoats, her body looks childlike, insubstantial and undeveloped, but when she takes off her cloths, she fully becomes a woman, with a firm but generously rounded and startlingly immodest body. Uncorseted, she becomes a human animal, free, wild, and even beautiful.

Keitel is not beautiful with or without his clothes on, but his thick, squat, muscled body has an unexpected smoothness and hairless whiteness that makes him look like a troll carved in marble. His still, strong body, with its flat butt and round belly, is aging, beginning to collapse upon itself. Naked, he looks tamed and needy. In their sex scenes, Hunter is delicate but determined and overwhelms the brutish but enervated Keitel; she attaches her sexual energy to him and gives life to him, and to herself. Her sexual awakening liberates and unleashes her. She begins to live for her time with Keitel, rather than her piano. She plays him like an instrument.

But Hunter’s jealous daughter tips off Neill, who discovers the affair and tries to hold onto Hunter by boarding her up in the house. Trapped, she fixes her passion on him. When she tries to seduce him, he won’t let her pull his pants off. Her sexuality scares him as much as her silent rage did. The civilized Neill fears all the emotions of this woman; the primitive Keitel draws life from whatever she feels.

Once Hunter’s passion has been aroused, it will not abate. Before the film and all its gothic horrors are over, Hunter has sacrificed her marriage, a finger and even her piano to her passion. But by then she has learned to love, to speak and even to smile, and she has chosen to live.

The tale is so emotionally supercharged, it is in constant danger of collapsing into absurdity, yet it never does. We don’t know quite what we are experiencing.

The Piano might be mistaken for a feminist fairy tale, about a woman’s voice in a man’s world, with Hunter as a Victorian Ellen Jamesian. It also brings in noble, grungy savages and shows us how civilized men enslave women while primitive ones set them free. Campion even drags in the tale of “Bluebeard and His Wives,” a myth of brutal male control over women’s lives that shocks the natives who are freer because they are less concerned with controlling themselves or one another. But The Piano doesn’t get bogged down in either myths of noble savages or gender politics. It is far more interested in the relationship between passion and self-expression. It transports us beyond the world of mere words to a world like music, or sex, in which the feeling is the message.

The Piano never could have been created by a man nor by a feminist woman who fails to understand Hunter’s sexual power, Neill’s fears and Keitel’s vulnerability. Hunter is no damsel in distress; she is a dangerously potent heroine. Keitel is no Prince Charming; he languishes without the music of life that comes from woman. Neill is no Bluebeard; he’s afraid of the music that could set him free. Both are just men dumb, tone deaf and homely. Yet a woman director’s sensibility makes us tolerate them in their unheroic ordinariness.

The Piano can be savored even if it is too ripe to be reduced to a simple message. It is no fable; it has no moral. Like music, it can be felt but not explained. Fairy tales show us that life is far too complex and enigmatic to be fully fathomed or controlled. They don’t have to make literal sense to shake us up.

Both of these films tell us that passion is dangerous, but rightly or wrongly it is still the soul of existence and worth any sacrifice of peace, body parts or life itself. However, The Piano tells me far more about what it takes for people to feel alive and gives me far more tolerance for what people do out of love or out of fear than all the cautious sermonizing of Philadelphia.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.