National Identity in Film

The Piano, by Campion, and Truman Show, by Weir both interact with concepts of national identity in separate ways.  Both of these films are products of New Zealand culture, either through production or in cultural discourse.  Both films have also been well received and heavily awarded.

The Piano tells the story of Ada McGrath.  She is a Scotswoman from New Zealand who is sold into marriage.  The film is staged in 1851. She doesn’t speak throughout the majority of the film, but expresses herself through her piano playing; this is until her husband leaves her piano on a beach.  This is symbolic of his lack of love for her and an example of the emptiness in Ada’s life.  The piano is then sold to their neighbor George Baines who convinces Ada to give him piano lessons and eventually sexual favors.  As Ada gradually falls in love with Baines through their connection of the piano, she finds meaning for her life.

The Truman Show is directed by Australian Peter Weir and written by New Zealander Andrew Niccol.  The story follows Truman Burbank who is unaware that his entire life, since birth, has been an organized farce for a television series/project.  He is luckily chosen, out of a group of five baby orphans, to be the star of the show.  The Truman Show represents Truman’s life.  Viewers are told that Truman’s birth was broadcast live on television, but his child rearing is not presented in the film.

The idea behind national identity is that one defines their self through the identity of their nation.  In their article, National Identity and Self-Esteem, Jeff Spinner-Halev and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse analyze the nature of national identity.  They adopt the theory that if the self-esteem of an individual is tied to their nation than it’s the perfect proponent to maintain safe and secure nations.  They feel that there is an immediate connection between self respect and group identity; so much so, it could lead to one sacrificing their own personal needs for the good of the group.

They also acknowledge that there is a competitive nature within group self esteem; this meaning that most groups want their group to do better than others.  This is often seen in the patriotic nature of political propaganda, carried out by many countries to convince soldiers to go to war.  This system of control is one known for cajoling groups to fallow a certain program or way of thinking by catering to individuals’ wants, needs, or taking advantage of their fears.

This complex of national identity is a major aspect of a government’s societal control, as well as a significant ideal satirized in The Truman Show.  It is most visibly personified in the character of the show’s producer Christof.  He argues that human beings accept the world in which they are presented, and uses this to justify why Truman hasn’t figured out his predicament up to this point.  All of the employees, of the studio, acting as Truman’s family, friends and extras living within the town, can all be viewed as nationalists to the studio’s regime.

The National Identity of these films can be directly corresponded to the culture and history of New Zealand.  In 1945, the New Zealand Film Critic Gordon Mirams argued that if there was a New Zealand culture, it was a mostly a Hollywood creation. The only thing more popular than going to the movies, in New Zealand, was drinking tea, during that time period. This idea is supported by the statistic that for many years New Zealanders were the most frequenters of the movie world.

In their book New Zealand Film 1912-1996 Helen Martin and Sam Edwards analyze the filmography of many films produced during this century in New Zealand.  This book basically analyzes the entire history of film in New Zealand.  The two authors managed to find more than 162 films.  In formulating their list and deciding on what they would identify as New Zealand Films, they decided the film had to have a significant connection to the location in terms of the film’s creators, cast, copyright holder, financiers, production team, and technical equipment.

They also felt that a film that holds a sociological connection to New Zealand should be categorized as a New Zealand films as well.  Thus, they included The Piano in their list of films pointing out that though it was not filmed in New Zealand, its story was still set there.  The authors also felt it the film addressed social issues pertaining to the history of New Zealand within the time frame it was set.

The Piano, identified as a socially conscious New Zealander film, it is identified as such through its understanding of national identity and the plight of the New Zealand people.  This can be seen in the fact that the film is a historically place romance, and has much cultural significance.  The film is often credited for its style, in that it is deemed as a historical romance and a contemporary romance in a historical setting.

In his article, Lost causes: the ideology of national identity in Australian cinema, John Slavin does an in-depth analysis of the cultural connotations present in cinema when using it to understand a nation.  His stance is that cinema as well as reality have an interweaving relationship with each other that ultimately define the national identity of a nation.  He further explains this in his closing statements when he says,

Ideology transforms individuals into constitutive social subjects by interpelation, the Althusserian term for the seductive mirror images of coherent identity promoted by cultural artifacts such as the popular cinema. But this thesis follows the suggestion that it is the purpose of ideology to represent an imaginary relationship of the cinematic viewer to his/her real conditions of existence. Those real conditions, based on psychic and social displacement are symptomatic of the Marxist definition of alienation… In other words, representations of identity, both national and individual, are thrown into critical doubt within the mythic narratives. (Slavin, 2002).

Slavin’s view that though ideology is used in film, national identity is virtually dependant on film narrative is very ironic, considering that he uses ideology by connecting his argument to Marxism.  In the end, the interpretation of his argument, just like national identity, are both dependant on the work and views of their creator, no matter how drenched in history they.

Even within this corruption of the true nature of things, Slavin acknowledges that the transitional tendency of film images, etiquette and social relations over the years is a perfect source for study of socio-economic change.  Once one grasps a clear understanding of cinema’s use of ideology to mold national culture, the only question left is, how is ideology used, and national culture shaped, specifically within these two films?

In their novel, Piano Lessons: Approaches to the Piano by Felicity Coombs and Suzanne Germmell, the authors work to claim a better understanding of The Piano.  They point out the films originally human nature in the fact that there is no main villain.  The audience is often incited to pity, empathize and despise all three main characters.

Baines, Stewart, and Ada can all be viewed as human because they all have their flaws.  It is wrong for Stewart to disregard his wife they way he does, though the nature of his arrange marriage is a notable statement pertaining to the era of the film’s plot.  The audience is allowed to relate to this sociological circumstance, while at the same time despise Stewart for his treatment of Ada.  Whereas Ada is presented as a victim of the cultural norms of her time period, she still transcends beyond this, to adopt contemporary ideals and relate to the audience.  The fact that she cheats on her husband is a motive for dislike, but it is also key to the liberation she achieves from her mundane existence.

The fact that she does not embody the role of the victim throughout the entire film is testament to the film’s reality.  Baines also becomes an equally likeable figure in that his sexual advances evolve from something seemingly corrupt to an actual full blown love affair.  This triangular relationship between the three main characters says a lot about male and female relations during the time.  The authors also correspond to Ada’s relationship with men to the nature of post-colonialism, which was also a big part of New Zealand at this time and also a big part of this film.

The relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is a key theme in the relationships Ada has with men.  The colonial history of 1850’s New Zealand is encompassed within the plot.  This is an example of how ideology is used in narrative to enhance the value of a message more relevant.  In confronting these ideals of colonization, the film came under much scrutiny.  Many felt the film gave a false presentation of race.  During this time there were many Maori, who argued they were the product of White New Zealanders’ social injustice.

They felt the film’s disregard for their cultural relevance was a form of national mythmaking, in avoiding the argument that whites staked claim on their land. This conflict is overlooked by the plot, but the nature of its severity is still implied through the topic being completely disregarded. It is also a common controversy within the land that many foreign investors come and buy land, from potentially the wrong owners. By disregarding their true history, the national identity presented for New Zealand is that of a small land with a history for sale. The connection with national identity here is cultural.  This differs from the connection visible in The Truman Show.

Just like The Piano, The Truman Show poses an argument larger than itself in respect to national identity, only this film speaks more metaphorically.  The idea previously posed in National Identity and Self Esteem, was that national identity is largely the product of a model that is followed by a group of people.  These people are so caught up in the ideals of the group, they rather sacrifice their own individual comforts for the good of the team.

The authors found that these groups are also very competitive with one another, identifying their identity with that of the group and basing the groups identity on their contrast from other groups.  This becomes very relative to some of Rene Girard’s views.  In his seminal theory of mediated desire Rene Girard argues that human desire is imitative.  His views is that the goals we hold most personal are actually the desires of others which we want to achieve because others want to achieve them.

This is very compatible with the ideals of national culture and the cult group fallowing it incites.  This is also seen constantly in The Truman Show, the main motivation for Truman to escape the studio/town is to travel to Fiji after his one true love.  If the character personifying his school crush had never desired to move there, Truman would have never desired to follow.  This is a direct personification of Girard’s theory, as well as an example of Morse and Halev’s version of national identity.  Here it is easy to see the differing way in which The Truman Show represents national identity from how it is used in The Piano.

In sum, through an understanding of identity theory and New Zealand culture, we can develop a better understanding of the directors’ use of national identity in the films The Piano, and The Truman Show.  National identity is depicted in The Piano through its cultural connotations, historical representation, and it authenticity to social norms.

Despite all of its awards, the films inability to stay true to the ethnic history of the town is proof that it attempts to mold national identity through its filmic ideals.  The directors pick and chose the ideology they identify with and disregard the other aspect of New Zealand culture.  Whereas The Truman Show does not attempt to shape the national culture of New Zealand, it is virtually unidentifiable as a New Zealand film, except for the fact that is written by a New Zealander. What the film contributes to national identity is its use of the theories backing it, and its own underlying message on the nature of the conflict.

What the film reveals about national identity is its dependency on the narrative of a film.  The ironic fact is that it does this through its own abuse of the power.  Truman represents everyman against the crowd.  The complex world he interacts with is very similar to the real world, only in his world he really is the center of attention.  The most intimate aspects of an individual’s life, like marriage, personal goals and beliefs are all a product of a false reality.

This concept is very similar to Freudian theory, Marxist theory, biblical references and even many science fiction narratives.  What the films reveals about national identity is its core nature.  The entire town operates in one direction and for one purpose.  Truman is the only one who is unaware of this purpose, but he still seems to follow along contributing to what he feels is the best interest of the group.  His desires are compatible with his nation’s desires, until he breaks free from this methodology of control.  Both of these films interact with national identity theory; both are products of New Zealander culture, and both are great films.

Work Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. 1947. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.

Chatman, Seymour (1978) Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

Cheshire, Ellen. Jane Campion. Great Britain: Pocket Essentials, 2000.

Eric Young (Executive Producer). (1998). “How’s It Going To End? The Making of The Truman Show, Part II” [DVD (Special Feature)]. Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.

Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film, 1912-1996. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997. vi+215 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Kaufman, Cynthia. “Colonialism, Purity, and Resistance in The Piano.” Socialist Review 24 (1995): 251-55.

Sanes, Ken. Truman as Archetype. Transparencynow.com. 1996-2001. 29 July 2004. <http://www.transparencynow.com/truman.htm>.

Slavin, John (2002) Lost causes : the ideology of national identity in Australian cinema. PhD thesis, Department of English, University of Melbourne.

The Piano. (2007, January 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:37, January 22, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Piano&oldid=101515698

The Truman Show. (2007, January 19). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:33, January 22, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Truman_Show&oldid=101870034

The Truman Show (1998) Directed by Peter Weir, screenplay by Andrew Niccol (Hollywood, CA: Paramount).