Peter Weir

b. August 21, 1944, Sydney, Australia

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Commanding Waves: The Films of Peter Weir

Peter Weir helped to define the rebirth of Australian cinema, while addressing some of the most pressing concerns of the nation in the 1970s and 1980s. His intriguing images of Australia, evocative and transcendent, made an impact in the international art house scene, eager for compelling visions of geo-political areas and cultures overlooked by mainstream cinema. After achieving international recognition as an emblematic Australian filmmaker, Weir made his transition to Hollywood while maintaining a sense of experimentation and artistic exploration. His films, including his Hollywood ones, can not be pigeonholed in terms of themes, genres or geographical locals; but they do display an approach to filmmaking, a sensibility, a drive, that amount to one of the most searching trajectories in contemporary cinema.

Weir’s work has received a considerable amount of journalistic and critical attention, including four scholarly books, each of which offers a sense of the Australian director as an auteur with identifiable characteristics. Don Shiach shows that Weir’s films repeatedly offer intimations of alternative realities; Mark Haltof argues that the tense encounter between distinct cultures is Weir’s dominant concern; Jonathan Rayner underscores Weir’s consistent amalgamation of European art-house characteristics with genre conventions; and Michael Bliss highlights Weir’s ability to evoke hallucinatory, dreamlike states. These illuminating views complement each other: Weir’s cinematic exploration is often realised in films in which generic conventions border on the iconoclastic, alternative realities and cultural incompatibilities abound, and numinous yearnings challenge staid conventionalities. One could add that Weir’s films are invariably concerned with the struggle for authenticity, and that his most memorable characters – often confronted with danger, uncertainty, or betrayal – become uneasy with the world as they have found it, or as it has found them. They are often exposed to unsettling aspects of their own realities – sometimes traumatic ones – that lead to their loss of innocence or naiveté. Weir’s camera draws their worlds of grief, confusion, or spiritual awakenings with adroit cinematic techniques that convey subjective states: oneiric compositions sometimes bordering on the surreal, distorted sounds, slow motion, and un-naturalistic light exposure. Weir is more of an observer, a dreamer, even a debunker, than a mythmaker, and his sensibility – sometimes bordering on, but never fully reaching, a comic pitch – is ironic rather than tragic. A glance at the careers of actors who have worked with him suggests that Weir has been a catalyst of their growth. He elicits natural performances from children and first-time actors, while extending the range of established talent from Mel Gibson to Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.

Always shunning the comfortable resolution, Weir’s signature films move audiences beyond the commonplace while keeping them in an unsettled state to the end. His own career has been one which parallels this aspect of his filmmaking: from the start he has preferred to take risks and to wait for a meaningful challenge, rather than follow a winning formula or style.

Formative Years

Born in 1944, and raised in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Vaucluse, Weir attended a private boys school before doing the first year of an Arts degree at the University of Sydney. After withdrawing from university, in 1965 he embarked on a ship voyage to Europe that would influence his life’s course. During the long trip he met his wife and future production designer, Wendy Stites, and made his first film, of sorts: using the ship’s closed circuit television system, he directed and filmed a comedy revue. Weir’s year abroad, most of which was spent in London working a variety of casual jobs, seems to have afforded him a fresh perspective from which to contemplate what it means to be an Australian, a question that would inform all his early full-length features.

Weir returned to Australia at a propitious moment. The earlier period of Australian film production, from the 1900s through to the 1930s, had long dwindled, and there was mounting governmental will to rekindle Australian film output (13 features were produced in Australia in the 1960s; 134 in the 1970s). Weir would benefit from this initiative, after making modest in-roads as a stagehand at the Channel Seven television network. At Channel Seven, Weir started learning his craft through directing what were in effect two short “student films”, Count Vim’s Last Exercise (1967) and The Life and Flight of the Rev. Buck Shotte (1968). On the potential evident in these first endeavours, Channel Seven offered him the opportunity to direct film clips for a television program: The Mavis Bramston Show. A year later, he became trainee director at the Commonwealth Film Unit, which was beginning to produce feature films after having subsidised mainly documentaries for decades. It was at the Commonwealth Film Unit that he would write and direct his first short feature: Michael (1969). The film was his contribution to a trilogy called Three to Go, with each segment fashioned by a different director, dealing with various aspects of contemporary Australian youth culture.

Michael won the 1970 Grand Prix award from the Australian Film Institute and Weir’s subsequent hour-long feature, Homesdale (1971), funded by the Experimental Film Fund, would win the same prize the following year. The success of these two films secured Weir a study grant from a government body appointed as a precursor to the Australian Film and Television School. Weir used the grant to return to England in 1971, where he spent time on film sets at Pinewood and Elstree studios in London. While travelling in Europe and the Middle East, he wrote the initial treatments of what would become The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), The Last Wave (1977) and The Plumber (1979) (1).

Picnic at Hanging Rock

On returning to Australia in 1972, Weir resumed work at the Commonwealth Film Unit, directing a series of short documentaries, some intended as educational resources. In these early non-fiction pieces, Weir experiments with filmic elements that will become characteristic of his subsequent work: the inclusion of a film within a film; lighting inspired by German Expressionism; the incorporation of puppets, shadows and still photography; and shot compositions borrowed from the horror genre. These characteristics are all at play in Incredible Floridas (1972), a 12-minute portrait of the Australian composer, Richard Meale. More than a straight documentary, Weir’s film is an homage from one artist to another, and a celebration of the connections among the arts. In voice-over, the composer observes that the poetry of his muse, Arthur Rimbaud, “ … is filled with visions of horror, that appear to be evil, but in fact are not, [his work] is strange, you can’t fully penetrate it, it leaves you haunted”. It appears that Rimbaud, perhaps via Meale, may have also inspired Weir, as the composer’s reflections on the poet could serve as commentaries on Weir’s first signature works: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave.

One of the most salient characteristics of Weir’s directorial style is his capacity to convey a range of subtle and shifting emotional responses, through close-ups of the human face, as a moving image (2). He was apparently already developing this skill while working on these early documentaries. Two of them – The Billiard Room (1972), an opaque seven-minute piece presenting two young men playing billiards as they discuss whether they should withdraw from university, and Australian Colour Diary #43, an 11-minute documentation of three visually and musically distinct bands performing live on stage – appear, in retrospect, to be studies in mastering the close-up shot, as repeated shots of faces provide a commentary on adolescent angst in the former, and artistic expression in the latter.

A longer documentary of 55 minutes, Whatever Happened to Green Valley? (1973), examines a failed social experiment. “Green Valley” refers to an estate, some 40 kilometres west of Sydney, developed to provide affordable housing to needy families but which was lacking adequate services, amenities or distractions. Weir shared the filmmaking project with six residents of the community whom he assisted in producing short films to document their personal experiences. He filmed a public forum, included in the documentary, in which he personally introduces the resident’s films and moderates an open discussion with the broader community regarding their content. The viewings are preceded by his own brief mockumentary, a parody of previous patronising reports of the community. Weir’s film does not make any overt political statement, yet succeeds in casting scepticism on public officials who ignore the voices of the people most directly affected by their policies. As Weir makes his transition to fictional features, these too will often convey implicit social commentary.

The Australian Feature Films

Michael

Weir’s first short feature opens dramatically with documentary-style footage of Sydney looking like a war zone, as rebellious youths attack the city. It soon becomes apparent that the events are being staged and filmed. The central actor, Grahame (Grahame Bond) a radical in “real life”, will later befriend Michael (Matthew Burton), the eponymous protagonist. These kinetic images of upheaval and abandon are juxtaposed with a shot that could pass as one from The Truman Show (1998), of identical suburban houses, out of which the suit-clad protagonist strides, newspaper neatly folded under arm. Despite Michael’s conservative garb, the earlier image of conflict represents his inner state. The opening sequence establishes the thrust of this early film, and an underlying concern throughout Weir’s oeuvre: that of the disconnect between inner feelings and vacuous conventions.

Dissatisfied with his stock broker colleagues and his conservative parents, with whom he lives, Michael befriends the group of radicals who filmed the staged “revolution” of the opening sequence. Michael feels out of place with the empty conventionality of his parent’s world, but will come to feel equally uneasy with the emotional shallowness of a “scene” whose experimentation with drugs and radical politics may amount to snobbery and posturing. The film ends inconclusively with a tracking shot of Michael looking forlorn, ambling away from his new friends in no particular direction, while heavy-handed lyrics on the soundtrack lament: “You’ve led me along this path and I don’t know what else I can do”. The vicissitudes of a character who does not feel entirely at home in any milieu is a theme that will underwrite much of Weir’s future work, and one that will become a central concern of The Last Wave, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Witness (1985) and Fearless (1993). The narrator of The Year of Living Dangerously, Billy Kwan, suggests that such a feeling of disenfranchisement may well be a preoccupation of Australia, as an immigrant nation: “We’re not really certain we’re Australian… we’re not quite at home in the world”.

In Michael, Weir was clearly consolidating his artistic sensibility. The continuous sense of movement, created through rapid editing, brief scenes and the layered effect of moving cameras filming moving subjects, is effective here in conveying social and personal upheaval and will become a characteristic of his directorial style. Viewing the film today, Weir appears to have exercised remarkable restraint with dialogue for a first-time feature director, suggesting unusual talent for telling a story through visual and other aural means. Some film theorists, most notably Rudolf Arnheim, have argued that exploitation of uniquely filmic devices is the principal hallmark of a great director. This early display of filmic acuity, which has evolved into Weir’s current mastery of visual storytelling, seems to have developed, to some degree, in response to a presumed obstacle: the Australian accent. In an interview with Sue Mathews, Weir explained it was so unusual in the 1970s to hear the Australian accent on film, that the actors were uncomfortable speaking, so he conceived alternative ways to move the story forward (3).

Homesdale

Weir’s subsequent film Homesdale (1971) was funded principally by the Experimental Film Board, and as such constitutes a persuasive argument for creating opportunities for young filmmakers to develop their skills in an environment free of market pressures. Various thematic and stylistic aspects of Weir’s later work are evident in this bold, at times rough, but charmingly inventive film, which, at 52 minutes, is approaching feature length.

Homesdale

“Homesdale” is a guesthouse, the nature of which is never made entirely clear, situated on a secluded island, run by a sadistic manager who receives groups of six guests for short visits. The manager entertains the guests with bizarre activities, at times cruel or threatening, some of which get out of hand. The film, with touches of macabre comedy and horror, begins with a group of guests arriving on the island. A sign adorns the imposing front gate, declaring: “Homesdale hunting lodge, health in hospice. A new experiment in togetherness”. “Hunting lodge” foreshadows the savagery that will indeed take place there, while “hospice” implies it might be a place for the dying. During the guests’ first meeting with the manager, it appears that each has come to Homesdale to recover from unresolved encounters with death. When they convene around a dinner table, their spontaneous revelations manifest various characteristics of traumatised psyches: disjointed, fractured speech patterns; inability to listen to others; obsessive focussing on the pain of past events or, conversely, denial of their gravity. As the film unfolds, like a melodramatic nightmare, we realise the manager, aided by a churlish gardener (played by then film student Philip Noyce), is apparently determined to break the guests’ already fragile egos.

Weir himself has a fleeting part as a performer in an evening organised by the manager, where the entertainment is a ploy to taunt and humiliate the guests. In one instance, the performers act out the words as they sing “one fine morning a dotty old man, without warning, shot someone”. An elderly guest, Mr. Levy (James Lear), who may have killed a man in bizarre circumstances, desperately pleads that they stop, so as not to reveal his shameful secret. Reactions as perturbed as Mr. Levy’s are also featured in a startling moment later in the film that anticipates the main conceit of The Cars that Ate Paris. During a dinner party, one of the residents, Kevin (Grahame Bond), comments: “Remember the Milo case? In 1927, he faked road accidents to kill his wives and here’s how he used to do it”, at which moment a motorbike crashes into the room, releasing a life-size doll of a woman hanging by her neck. The scene typifies the somewhat disjointed exuberance of a film whose creative kernels and underlying concerns will be more persuasively realised in future projects.

The Cars that Ate Paris

The offbeat Cars that Ate Paris extends Homesdale‘s macabre atmosphere, comedic register, horror film techniques, and preoccupation with death and trauma in a story that centres on the leaders of a small apocryphal town, Paris, set in an unspecified part of Australia. The residents of the town redirect passing traffic in order to cause road accidents and subsequently sell the damaged vehicles’ parts and conduct medical experiments on the survivors.

Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), the meek protagonist of the film, falls prey to the town’s machinations after surviving a car crash (orchestrated by the town residents), in which his brother, the driver, dies. The event triggers a previous trauma: a year earlier, Arthur inadvertently killed an old man in a driving accident, and since then he has been unable to bring himself to operate a moving vehicle. He moves into the mayor’s home, a captive of sorts, and experiences the town as an extension of the politician’s dysfunctional family: “One thing close families don’t do – they don’t talk to outsiders …”, the mayor cautions.

Considering this was Weir’s first full-length feature (at 91 minutes), made on the tight budget of AUD240,000, in 27 shooting days, it remains an impressive achievement. Through bold mise en scène, Weir creates a grotesque and coherent portrait of a town made up of corrupt elders, rebellious youths, and “accident” victims who reside, predominantly, in the local hospital.

The Cars that Ate Paris

The corruption and hypocrisy of the conservative town leaders, as they orchestrate their death traps after attending church services, are surpassed by the younger generation. If the elders manipulate passing cars into accidents, the youth take the sadistic instinct further by themselves driving cars through town as weapons to taunt, and ultimately murder, the elders.

The final sequence of the annual fancy dress ball, abruptly interrupted by roaring vehicles, is a daring display of imaginative black humour by a young director learning his craft. The initial scene of the ball – a swirl of garish colours, with balloons and streamers floating amongst outlandish outfits of vicars, sailors, cowboys – cuts to a stark exterior night shot of a hilltop where a herd of car headlights menacingly appears. Animal sounds emanate from the vehicles, as a cut returns us to the town to show the cars – in fancy dress every bit as garish as the elders, with silver spikes and bumper bars boasting red teeth – wreaking havoc on the ball and eventually the entire town.

During the final chaotic melee, as the generations take up weapons against each other, Arthur obeys the Mayor’s order to kill one of the youths by repeatedly reversing a car into the victim’s decorated vehicle. Arthur obliges reluctantly at first, but then proceeds systematically with the killing. After the murder he exits his car, solemnly removes his hat in a grotesque gesture of respect for the dead, and stares at his victim in disturbing silence for a long take of 25 seconds. With calm relief, he finally observes, “I can drive” and, with a confident smile and against the Mayor’s protests, Arthur drives himself out of town.

The murder sequence is made up of a total of 12 assaults, each shown in consecutive individual shots, rapidly edited. The effect mirrors Arthur’s obsessive psychological state. Arthur had not deliberately caused the initial death that traumatised him, nor the death of his brother, yet was paralysed with guilt over both. In murdering the youth, he does act with volition, but overcomes the symptom of his guilt (his driving phobia) in the very act of killing. He has shifted from a neurotic state to a psychotic one. As Arthur gleefully departs Paris, we wonder if he might in fact be taking with him the sadistic practices and murderous heritage of the town he is abandoning.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

In his next project, Weir portrayed another insular community, in a rural environment, which collapses under pressures it cannot bear. But where The Cars that Ate Paris, with its highly-strung male protagonists and stylised town, borders on the absurd, Picnic at Hanging Rock explores the uncanny as it emerges from the realistic setting of a boarding school, at the dawn of the twentieth century, in the recognisable landscape of the Australian bush. Picnic‘s protagonists are vulnerable adolescent schoolgirls in white, flowing virginal dresses, who fall prey to their surroundings. In this, his second full-length feature, Weir’s assured cinematography, mise en scène composition and affecting sounds lull the audience into a dreamlike ambience, while simultaneously retaining an engaging rhythm that propels the story forward at a satisfying pace.

Picnic opens with a landscape composition covered in a veil of mist, which gradually clears to reveal a large rock. While our gaze rests on the rock, the mist reappears in the lower half of the frame, threatening to enshroud it once again (4). Instead the image slowly dissolves into a low-angle shot of the imposing monolith, now dominating the sky, its power palpable. The sequence is accompanied by an ominous sound, reminiscent of a didgeridoo, that seems to emanate from the earth itself. The hum fades as the subsequent shot introduces the comparatively feeble and prosaic colonial school boarding house.

As Valentine’s Day dawns in the year preceding Australia’s Federation, 1900, a group of pre-Raphaelite-looking adolescent girls of Appleyard College, Victoria, prepares for an excursion to nearby Hanging Rock. While they swoon over sentimental love letters and tighten each other’s corsets,

Picnic at Hanging Rock

their adolescent romantic yearnings and fledgling sexuality mingle. As they are driven away in horse and cart from the confines of their institution, their delicate faces to the wind, they remove their white gloves and trustingly launch into their surroundings, only to return hours later, devastated by the unexplained disappearance of three students and a teacher.

Much of the film’s appeal lies in the disquieting effect of the enigmatic disappearances remaining unresolved. The girls’ absence at the core of the story, symbolised by the cavernous rock that seems to have devoured them, will command a disturbing presence in the life of their school and the town, now acutely aware of threatening possibilities and sudden loss. When one girl is found alive after a week alone on the rock and she is unable to recall any aspect of her ordeal, the intrigue only deepens. The film focuses on the community’s varied responses to the mystery, from hysteria in some to a quiet sense of desolation in others.

The incongruity of a privileged European-informed sensibility confronted with a forbidding new-world environment is the story’s underlying preoccupation. How do non-indigenous Australians of European heritage reconcile themselves with a landscape that confounds them? The nation may well be on the verge of federation, but its people still exercise no real control over their appropriated territory. The trappings of breeding and class, which signified power in the old world, are useless in the face of uncanny, intimidating natural forces.

Many consider Picnic to be the film that spearheaded what is often referred to as “the revival” of the Australian film industry in the 1970s (5). It was the artistic quality of Picnic, its sensibility for the uncanny coupled with its period-piece atmosphere, that garnered this film, and by extension the Australian film industry more generally, serious critical accolades abroad. The film certainly established Weir as a significant directorial talent.

The Last Wave

Weir more explicitly addresses the role of non-indigenous Australians in the new world in The Last Wave (“Wave”), focusing specifically on white Australia’s relationship to ancient Aboriginal culture and law. The story can be read as either a spiritual awakening or a psychological break down of the protagonist, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a white corporate lawyer, married with two daughters, who is called upon by a friend at legal aid, Michael Zeadler (Peter Caroll) to defend four Aboriginal men charged with murder. While working on the case, David comes to believe he may be a spirit from the Aboriginal Dreamtime and he finds it increasingly difficult to function as a family man and professional in white society.

The film incorporates many of the same filmic techniques as Picnic – slow motion, timelapse photography and eerie sound effects – to create as intense an uncanny atmosphere, and as intriguing a mysterious undercurrent. However, where Picnic is a study in restraint, Wave approaches the excessive in its surrealistic elements (rain pouring in through car radio), expository dialogue (“You’re in trouble, you don’t know what dreams are anymore”) and the introduction of more complex elements than the film can fully integrate, including the suggestion that Aboriginal culture may have had ancient contacts with the pre-Columbian world of the Americas. In an interview, Weir explains that Wave evolved out of a period of reading and talking about Aboriginal culture and that he remains frustrated that in the film he captured so little of what he learnt (6).

The Last Wave

Despite his own frustrations with the finished product, we do see in this film Weir’s effective use of creative cinematic techniques to convey ineffable qualities. In a series of scenes in which David is conversing with other characters, for example, the background of his shots, unlike that of his companions, is infused with over-exposed lighting, subtly suggesting the prophetic, supernatural gift the script suggests David possesses. When, later in the film, David’s eldest daughter talks of dreams in which “there was a beautiful light”, we wonder whether she too may share his gift.

An early sequence of David and his family (including his stepfather, an Anglican minister) at a backyard barbeque, overshadowed by a prominent church, recalls a similar scene in Michael, of the protagonist and his family exiting a church service. The scene in the earlier film served to illustrate the extent to which Michael felt alienated from his environment; here too, the church will come to symbolise that with which David cannot reconcile himself, namely the Western tradition of rationalising mysteries. The explicit references to Western religion both foretell what will become the protagonist’s spiritual awakening and serve as a counterpoint to Aboriginal mysticism, which Weir implies embraces mysteries and, in so doing, is privy to powerful insight.

Weir was aware that any film of this kind is vulnerable to charges of romanticising (or “orientalising”, in postcolonial discourse) an indigenous culture (7). With this in mind, it makes sense that he would insert a dialogue within the film to address the propensity to represent non-Western cultures in a patronising way. When David suggests to his legal aid colleague that there may be more going on with the Aborigines on trial than is superficially apparent, the pragmatic solicitor retorts: “That middle-class patronising attitude towards the blacks revolts me … you come in here with this idiotic, romantic crap about tribal people”.

Funded and, crucially, distributed in part by American finance and starring the American actor Richard Chamberlain, Wave was Weir’s first film to reach and impress American audiences. It was in the wake of its success that Picnic was released in the United States and quickly became a favourite of art-house cinemas.

The Plumber

After the positive reception of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Weir went on to direct a small-scale television movie. A psychological thriller funded by the South Australian Film Corporation and Australian television’s Channel Nine, The Plumber incorporates absurdist touches and disconcerting psychological portrayals.

As in Wave, The Plumber features a character – anthropology student, Jill (Judy Morris) – who is left troubled after an encounter with a non-Western culture. Jill has recently returned from fieldwork in New Guinea where, while undertaking research for her Masters thesis, she experienced a threatening encounter with a male sorcerer who entered her tent uninvited. Jill seems to have felt both afraid for herself and uneasy about her own intrusion into the lives of an indigenous people. The trauma of this encounter will be triggered once Jill is back in Australia living in university housing with her husband, a medical doctor specialising in the nutrition of indigenous peoples. She is visited by Max (Ivar Kants), a plumber who proceeds to wreak havoc in her bathroom, as well as with her politically correct disposition, which is already troubled by the incident in New Guinea. When the sorcerer intruded upon Jill during her fieldwork, Jill apparently chose not to expel the interloper or to leave the tent herself. Instead, she defended herself by throwing a bowl of goat’s milk in the sorcerer’s face, which caused him to break into tears. Jill appears to feel confused and guilty in the face of his unexpected reaction: “It was really awful, he cried, just like a child”, she explains to her husband.

The plumber makes much of the class and educational differences that separate him from Jill, compelling us to see him, like the sorcerer, as very much an “other” with respect to Jill’s norm. Weir makes adroit use of shot compositions and editing to subtly convey the internal association Jill is constructing between the plumber and the sorcerer. When she walks into her apartment, undresses and then, on hearing, “Is that you Jilly?” realises the plumber is present, threatening music accompanies a close-up of Jill looking panic-struck. Weir immediately cuts to still photos of indigenous research subjects. Later, as Jill struggles with her disabled kitchen taps, the soundtrack introduces the drumming from her research tapes, as she yells “bloody plumber”. A cut then reveals an ingenious zoom shot symbolising her mental superimposition of Max’s behaviour onto her previous trauma. An interior shot of the black face of a male statuette shares the screen space with Max’s face, outside the apartment, spying through a window. The split image forms a single face, half black and half white. As the camera zooms in on Max, drawing him into the apartment, the shot retains only a trace of the black image. The sequence, then, simultaneously depicts Max’s actual spying and Jill’s troubled mind, in which the plumber seems to be displacing the sorcerer as tormenter.

It would also seem that Jill is reliving the emotional impact of her experience with the sorcerer when, rather than taking immediate measures to expel the raucous plumber from her home, she allows him to destroy the bathroom and drive her to a state of emotional distress. Her sense of impotence is heightened by the unaccountable indifference to her pleas for help demonstrated by her husband, her best friend and the building’s administrator. To rid herself of the intruder, Jill frames Max for a theft he did not commit, ensuring the police will physically remove him from the premises. In so doing, she visits upon this intruder, as with the sorcerer before him, a humiliating fate, which is simultaneously emotionally unsettling to herself. From the moment she devises her unusual retaliation scheme, Jill appears in a dissociated state, able only to utter platitudes. Her confused feelings of fear, anger and guilt towards individuals of different cultural and class backgrounds proving too much to process, she cuts herself off from emotions altogether.

In this low-budget, television film, Weir demonstrates instincts remarkably well attuned to the psychology of trauma, as he portrays the repetitive patterns, protective mechanisms, and emotionally self-punishing behaviours often enacted by victims of trauma. He will continue to explore traumatic episodes in his next film, which makes a poignant statement about the expediency of war.

Gallipoli

In Weir’s own words, Gallipoli (1981) is his “graduation film”, by which he means the first film he directed where he felt fully in control of his artistic resources (8). The screenplay, based on a story by Weir and written by David Williamson, takes on one of the founding myths of Australian nationalism: the 1915 Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, during which approximately 8,000 Australian soldiers were killed, and over 20,000 wounded, in a hopeless battle against the Turks.

Gallipoli was internationally received as a statement on the irrationality of warfare, and it continues to be a reference in select discussions surrounding the “Great War” (9). In Australia it was also received as a statement about the damaging results of British arrogance on the Australian psyche. Earlier film versions of Australian participation in the First World War, most notably Charles Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), highlighted Australian pride in its special role assisting the objectives of the British Empire. Weir, however, underscores the perils of the Australian connection to Britain, as the crux of the film rests on the premise that the British commanders knew that the operation was doomed to failure, and had little compunction in sacrificing the lives of Australia’s youth. In this sense, Gallipoli is closer to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) in its anti-war sentiment than to Chauvel’s militaristic Forty Thousand Horsemen, but is no less nationalistic than its Australian antecedent.

Gallipoli

Within the context of WWI, the film centres around the mateship between two young national-class sprinters from Western Australia, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), who first meet as rivals in athletic competitions, but soon decide to enlist together, and eventually become part of the same Light Horse unit. The film consistently portrays Australia, in part through its emblematic protagonists, as young, affable and charmingly naïve, in contrast to the callously self-serving British. This sort of dichotomy, necessary to foster nationalistic sentiment, provides a telling contrast to the complex ambiguities of Weir’s previous work. Here he is developing a more linear, direct style of storytelling, with fewer obviously stylised effects, while still conjuring richly atmospheric moments to portray the subjective confusion of traumatic events. When a group of soldiers swims in the ocean before the main combat has started, bullets rain into the water, wounding one of them. The graceful, slight slow-motion, underwater sequence of calm movement, abruptly pierced by bullets, and the subsequent bloodflow staining the liquid image, is reminiscent of a surrealistic underwater shot from Wave of David sitting dazed in his submerged car, as corpses float around him. In Gallipoli, against a backdrop of dusty realism, the eerie beauty of this underwater sequence captures the surreal aspect of sending boys halfway around the world to be pawns in a military manoeuvre.

The grief at the heart of the story saturates the film with emotional resonance. It is evoked no sooner than the opening titles roll, accompanied by Albinoni’s mournful chords (Adagio for Strings and Organ) only to return brutally in the final image as we see Archy Hamilton, blond and muscular, caught in freeze frame arching forward to meet the bullets that will kill him. Australia here is grieving not just the loss of such handsome potential, but more portentously, its own lost innocence. The message of the film is plain: Australia entered the “Great War” in solidarity with the motherland, only to experience betrayal by the country to which it felt a loyal bond.

This is the stuff of self-righteous national definitions, and the film did play a role in identifying, and giving expression to, the emotional impact of the Gallipoli campaign on Australia for a new generation. Indeed, as Geoff Mayer has underscored, by emphasising Australia’s innocence and Britain’s guilt in the conflict, and by repressing any sense of Australian brutality and aggressive behaviour, Weir creates an image of Australian nationalism that struck a chord with contemporary audiences at a time when the nation was reconsidering its role in the changing geopolitical circumstances of the Pacific (10).

The Year of Living Dangerously

In many ways Weir’s last Australian production, The Year of Living Dangerously, another period piece again featuring David Williamson as screenwriter and Mel Gibson as lead actor, continues Gallipoli‘s exploration of Australia’s geo-political role in the world. Year resonates with a historical moment when Australia has distanced itself from the motherland and must define its role in its own geo-political region.

The Year of Living Dangerously

A young Australian journalist, Guy Hamilton (Gibson), described in voice-over as “ambitious, but naïve” by the narrator, Billy Kwan (a male character played in an Oscar-winning performance by Linda Hunt) is sent to Djakarta. His posting coincides with the months leading up to the overthrow of President Sukarno, the Indonesian leader. Guy gradually discovers that the relations between the Indonesian people and the expatriate community are more complex and treacherous than he had at first perceived. The Indonesian Wayang puppet theatre provides an apt metaphor throughout the film for the layers of manipulation taking place. While Guy, and we along with him, try to discern who is manipulating whom and to what end, he becomes enmeshed in manipulations of his own. When a British diplomat, Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he has become romantically involved, offers him classified secrets that could secure his safety, Guy compromises her by publishing the information as a journalistic scoop to further his career.

Weir makes economic use of the film medium to subtly portray the psychological shift in Guy once he has betrayed Jill. On realising that he too is capable of betrayal, Guy immediately becomes suspicious of those around him, aware now that others may well betray him. His assistant, Kumar, exchanges hushed words with a local female assistant, and Guy looks on, wondering if he may be the subject of the exchange. The young woman smiles at Guy and his once easy grin now becomes an unsure tightening of the lips. That night, in Guy’s troubled dream, the same woman appears as a floating corpse, but as Guy swims toward her in a rescue effort, she playfully smiles at him only to suddenly turn fierce and hold his head under water, as he struggles in vain to free himself. Now, more cognisant of perfidy, Guy is no longer the naïve journalist that Billy Kwan described on the young Australian’s arrival in Djakarta.

As Guy’s self-respect diminishes, he cavorts with a brazen American journalist, Pete Curtis (Michael Murphy), whom he had previously held in disdain. Curtis drives him to visit the hordes of desperate young prostitutes who elicit business at the local cemetery. Guy becomes conscious of his own degradation when dozens of Indonesian women press their vulnerable bodies up against the car window, and he flees directly to Jill to try to mend their relationship and to curb his excessive opportunism. In a romantic twist, Guy risks his life to accompany Jill out of Indonesia, just at the moment when staying would secure his professional success.

This film represents a substantive step in Weir’s oeuvre: the portrayal of a sympathetic protagonist who betrays another and tries to redeem himself. If in his earlier work Weir had often focused on characters who are helpless victims of events beyond their control, this story involves the agency of those who feel responsible for their actions. Gallipoli closed with grief and anger at having been betrayed by the motherland. Year acknowledges Australia as an independent nation state, as capable of betrayal as any other, with Australia’s complicity in the 1969 overthrow of Sukarno the political parallel to Guy’s opportunistic drive.

The Hollywood Films

If Weir’s Australian projects can be read as working through various aspects of a young nation coming-of-age, his American projects throughout the 1990s can be read as further meditations on a recurrent theme, now devoid of nationalistic connotations: the search for an authentic individuality. Within this shift, Weir will continue to incorporate many of his signature themes and characteristics: the meeting of distinct cultures, confrontations with death and grief, spiritual dimensions, oneiric atmospheres, and traumatic episodes. It is impressive that despite significant studio pressures, Weir has managed to combine his arthouse sensibility within generic Hollywood expectations, as Jonathan Rayner has adeptly demonstrated (11).

Witness

Weir’s first entirely American feature is an amalgam of the Western and thriller genres, without being circumscribed by either. It was produced by Paramount Studios, with an all-American cast, starring one of Hollywood’s biggest box office names: Harrison Ford. The setting is also distinctively American: an Amish community in Pennsylvania renowned for living a simple life off the land and eschewing modern technology.

When a young boy from the community, Samuel Lapp (Lucas Haas), on his first trip away from his protective environment to the city of Philadelphia, inadvertently witnesses a brutal murder, he and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) are exposed to lurid aspects of the contemporary, urban world their community has actively shunned. Having witnessed brutality, they will never be entirely free of it. When an elder of the pacifist Amish community, Eli (Jan Rubes), lectures Samuel against killing, the boy, now more aware of ethical complexities, answers “I would only kill a bad man… I can see what they do. I have seen it”.

Witness

Just as the boy encounters evil in the broader world beyond his community, the cop assigned the case, John Book (Ford), discovers corruption within his own tight knit community – the police force. The killing Samuel witnessed was committed by a policeman trying to conceal his involvement in the illicit sale of a drug haul. When an attempt is made on Book’s life, he realises his formerly trusted superior, Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), is in on the scheme. Wounded, he flees with the boy and his mother to the Amish community, where he is offered shelter and care.

The story is all about seeing and, aptly, Weir employs uniquely cinematic tools to convey decisive points of character development through the act of looking. The early chapter of Samuel’s city trip features repeated sequences beginning with close-ups of the boy’s big, innocent eyes, followed by point of view shots of that which Samuel is observing for the first time, frequently captured at his eye level. The camera surveys the train station, and subsequently the police station, devouring the world at navel level, often pausing with a low-angle shot, as Samuel cranes his neck to take in more than an innocent boy should have to see: a murder, a suspect violently pressed up against a car window, an assailant in hand-cuffs.

Shots underscoring the act of seeing also convey the shifting emotions between Rachel and Book and, in turn, the community’s reaction to the couple’s burgeoning relationship. Rachel’s affectionate gaze itself becomes the subject of a point of view shot when an elderly woman tenders a disapproving glance at the young woman who is admiring Book from a distance. Although he depicts the Amish in soft focus, harmonious colour schemes, and endearing compositions, Weir does not shy away from exposing the inhibiting aspects of their restrictive codes. The pathos of Rachel and Book’s untenable relationship is interrupted when corrupt police officers arrive at the rural community: three dark silhouettes, wielding guns, bearing down on the town in a classic Western composition. The ferocity of the ensuing shoot-out violates the serenity of the Amish whose focused stares will save the lives of Book, Samuel, Rachel and Eli. As the four stand surrounded by Amish men and women, Schaeffer’s gun is rendered impotent: how can he shoot four defenceless people, with so many witnesses?

After this brutal invasion leaves Rachel terrified for her son’s life, and subsequently her own, she can no longer see herself in Book’s world or him in hers. In the aftermath of the violence, Samuel stares out his window at Book, surrounded by city law enforcement officers. The boy’s eyes are no longer trusting; they register suspicion. Rachel gently ushers him away from the window, assuming his vantage point, and observes with sad disdain the figures who have forever stripped her son of his innocence, before turning her back on them, and on Book. Defying generic imperatives, Weir concludes the film with Rachel and Book, each in silence, returning to their respective, incompatible worlds. In the film, an individual can be traumatised by witnessing an act of violence, or her agency violated by a community’s castigating gaze. Conversely, a collective gaze can prevent violence and in so doing bear witness to the protective power of a pacifist community’s beliefs. This is hardly the neat resolution one would expect from a big-budget Hollywood studio production.

The Mosquito Coast

Released the following year, The Mosquito Coast was the least commercially and critically successful of Weir’s Hollywood films. It was a script, adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel of the same title, that Weir had been keenly invested in directing for years before it was finally green-lit.

The Mosquito Coast

A somewhat eccentric, though technically savvy, American, Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), disgruntled with what he perceives to be the unwholesomeness of his own country, transfers his wife and three young children to the Central American jungle. Believing that the refrigeration of food can be a boon to the indigenous people of the area, he sets out to build an ice-making machine. His sense of mission is matched by another American, the proselytising preacher, Reverend Spellgood (André Gregory) persuaded that the locals are in need of his religious guidance. Both are imposing their preconceptions onto a world about which they know very little, and their misguided passions permit Weir to explore the hubris of men driven by a sense of superiority.

With the labour of locals, and the help of his wife and children, Allie develops a functional small town – on a piece of land known as Jeronimo – and succeeds in building an enormous ice-making machine. Just as the family is settling into their new environment, however, the realities of the local world prove too much for Allie’s idealism: he engages in a struggle with local armed bandits which leads to the destruction of his utopian hopes.

As with the novel that inspired the film, the story is narrated by Allie’s eldest son, Charlie Fox (River Phoenix), who is in the process of coming to terms with his father’s limitations. After Jeronimo burns down in an apocalyptic (and ingeniously choreographed) scene of explosions, flames and anguished cries, Allie’s fanaticism turns destructive and delusional. He tells his family, mingling his own previous predictions of nuclear attack on the United States with the actual devastation of Jeronimo, that America has been attacked and no longer exists. The younger children are confused and scared, but Charlie’s emotional response is more complex:

I knew Father had lied to us about America being blown up. That lie made me feel lonelier than I had ever felt before. I wanted to… tell him… I would stay and work beside him forever, if he would only take back the lie.

From that initial stage of lost innocence, Charlie will arrive, by the film’s close, to a point of seeing his father realistically, grieving his loss and feeling free to face the world, poised for adulthood. As the family sails from the confines of the river to the expanse of the ocean, Charlie comments in voiceover: “Once I had believed in father and the world had seemed small and old. Now he was gone and I wasn’t afraid … and the world seemed limitless.”

The images leading-up to Charlie’s catharsis display a directorial willingness to embrace ethical ambiguities. As the film draws to a close, Allie and his family – homeless, hungry and weather beaten – are making their way up the local river in a fragile boat, when they sail past the Reverend’s church. Allie, somewhat crazed, sets the church on fire, which in turn incites the preacher to violence. In a kinetic night-time sequence, combining extreme low-key lighting with a fire-blaze red colour scheme, Weir cuts between shots of Allie, making his getaway, and Spellgood pursuing him, rifle in hand, each man looking as out of control as the other. With his hellish colour scheme, moving camera and rapid editing, Weir creates a frenzied atmosphere, punctuated only briefly by a calm take, filmed with a static camera, of the back of Spellgood’s torso as he lowers his gun, after having shot Allie. The take is 3.5 seconds long, in a sequence comprised otherwise of typical brief action-sequence shots, of 1 to 1.5 seconds, and the frame is bathed in a mystical haze of soothing, cool blue. The shot is not long enough, nor discordant enough, to disrupt the action, but it works perfectly to offer, almost subliminally, a moment’s repose. A cut then reveals Allie collapsing, not dead but dying, followed by a shot of the family nursing him as they now sail home, positioned in the same calming blue and mystical mist that had enshrouded the preacher after he shot Allie. Scenes like these sanction Weir as a master of ironic ambiguity. In the sequence in which he establishes the preacher as an exploitative murderer, he simultaneously and subtly suggests that in fact it is through his killing that the family is released from a misguided patriarch and free to return to safety.

Dead Poets Society

Both The Mosquito Coast and Weir’s next feature, Dead Poets Society (1989), foreground fathers myopically invested in misguided personal aspirations. A significant critical and commercial success, Dead Poets Society is a period piece set in the 1950s in Welton College, a private boys school, at the heart of New England’s establishment. It is a study in the mechanisms with which the ruling class absorbs and expels rebellious influences before proceeding undeterred in its primary mission of reproducing itself.

As in Picnic, Weir introduces eager young lives both oozing potential and straining under expectation. In both period pieces Weir deftly establishes the restrictive weight of the institution’s traditions through repeated interior, constricted compositions. Here, however, the challenge to the status quo, far from being a mysterious force, is an enthusiastic, unconventional teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), who nevertheless will play a role in leading the boys to a traumatic awakening.

Keating’s passion for literature moves his students to personal quests of self-expression: “Make your lives extraordinary”, he pleads. The film evokes the American spirit of democratic self-actualisation, as epitomised by the poet Walt Whitman, a portrait of whom Keating displays in his classroom and gestures toward when inciting the boys to emulate his free spirit. Inspired by Keating, the boys re-establish the “Dead Poets Society”, a club that Keating himself had participated in when a student at Welton. They convene at night in the romantic setting of a nearby cave and share poetry.

Dead Poets Society

Keating’s encouragement proves most successful with one of the “Dead Poets”, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), a teenager so neglected by his parents that he is fearful of human interaction, and petrified of public speaking. Weir subtly conveys the evolving effect Keating’s presence has on Todd, through dexterous camera placement in a series of scenes. In the initial scene, Todd chases his roommate, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), around their dorm room, trying to retrieve a poem he was composing as an assignment for Keating, which Neil is now playfully reciting aloud. The camera captures the action in a continuous spiralling, pan shot of the boys running in circles within their confined space, creating a spirited, flowing sense of movement. Later, in a long take (28 seconds), the static camera observes Todd, again in his room, as he reads his poem to himself while walking in circles. He is initially pacing at a steady rhythm and smiling to himself, animated by his work, but he then gradually slows and begins to look less sure, before ultimately stopping and despondently tearing up his poem. A cut transfers us to the boys’ classroom the next day, where they are reading their compositions. Todd cowers, insisting he did not prepare a poem, but is encouraged by Keating to usher forth inspiration from Whitman’s portrait for an improvised composition in front of the class. As Keating covers Todd’s eyes, eliciting poetry from the student, the two walk around in continuous circles, followed by the camera, which in turn circles around them in a continuous shot. The effect is a vertiginous one of dizzying movement, which captures the moment of release and rupture for Todd, as he overcomes his inhibitions and spontaneously recites a heartfelt creation, eliciting impressed silence, followed by applause from his classmates. This series of circular movements, suggesting Todd’s burgeoning capacity for self-expression, represents Weir at his most subtle and sophisticated. Todd’s ability to spontaneously compose and recite is rendered all the more persuasive by the almost subliminal referencing of the previous moments of circular movement.

Keating’s influence holds different consequences for Todd’s roommate, the kind and charming Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). When Neil’s father learns that his son has discovered a passion for theatre, he forbids him from performing in the local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Neil defies him, only to be informed after the performance that his father is removing him from Welton the next day and sending him instead to military academy, after which he will attend medical school. The news constitutes a ten-year sentence for the artistically inclined teenager, who cannot bear the prospect. That night, in a haunting sequence of elisions, we learn through his parent’s distraught, slow motion reactions that Neil has killed himself.

John Keating is indirectly blamed for Neil’s death and the school authorities coax some of the boys Keating had taken into his trust into condemning his unconventional teaching. Rather than presenting a facile depiction of a repressive establishment’s collapse against the ultimately victorious seekers of self-expression (a favourite American tale), Weir explores the scapegoating mechanism through which the establishment responds to a challenge to its symbolic order.

As Keating’s class sits sheepishly, listening to droll instruction from the school principal who orchestrated Keating’s dismissal and who is now teaching his poetry class, their former teacher enters the room to collect his belongings. Before Keating leaves, Todd, previously unable to talk in front of a group, boldly stands on his desk (a position Keating had occasionally encouraged them to assume in order to “change their perspective”) and turns in one last circular motion, this time to face Keating and address him with the teacher’s favourite Whitman address, “Oh Captain, my Captain”. Rousing music builds to a crescendo as the school principal repeatedly orders Todd to get down or risk expulsion. The boy stands firm, looking more composed than ever before, as various other students follow his lead. A high angle point of view shot reveals Keating, with eyes watering, from Todd’s vantage point. With this final scene of defiance, Weir suggests that the seeds of discontent that will usher in the counter-culture of the 1960s have been sown.

Green Card

Weir’s romantic comedy Green Card (1990) has sometimes been cast as the least emblematic of his films – a light-hearted anomaly in an otherwise weighty oeuvre (12). It is important to note, however, that while it may be different in tone from his previous work, it is very much his own project, and in fact one over which, as writer, producer and director, he had more creative control than any of his previous American endeavours. He developed the script from scratch, found his own Australian and French funding and directed it within the Hollywood independent studio Touchstone Pictures (13).

Brontë (Andie MacDowell), a progressive woman with a healthy lifestyle and a love for gardening, agrees to a “green-card” marriage with Georges (Gérard Depardieu), a bohemian, cigarette-smoking, French bon vivant with musical inclinations. Brontë has not given much thought to the legal or emotional implications of an arrangement that suits her own hopes of securing a Manhattan apartment featuring a unique greenhouse, in a cooperative building whose board will rent only to married couples. The story unfolds along the lines of screwball comedy conventions, as the unlikely couple, whose interactions are fraught with awkwardness and conflict, discovers that they are actually in love.

After Brontë and Georges have spent a day preparing for their green card interview by sharing their life stories, they each retreat to adjacent bedrooms in her apartment for the night. Through inter-cutting and camera placement, Weir choreographs a scene that suggests the possibility of physical intimacy between the two. Despite the characters being in separate rooms, Weir’s camera moves back and forth from one character to the other as if they were undressing in the same space, their yearning glances appearing to meet, like those of a couple about to make love. After each settles in their respective beds, Georges asks Brontë on which side she prefers to sleep, as if they were a couple initiating an intimate relationship: “OK, I’ll take the left side”, he replies, as Brontë stares at the door that separates them.

This scene suggesting their mutual physical attraction is complemented by a subsequent one signalling their emotional compatibility. During their immigration interviews, in which Weir alternates, once again, between the two separate rooms in which they are simultaneously being interviewed, Georges and Brontë now reveal their potential for emotional intimacy. The sequence begins with each stating “I do”, not as a wedding vow, but as the initial response to an interrogation in which they are pledging to tell “the whole truth” in a legal proceeding. Each is ostensibly describing the others’ character in an effort to persuade the immigration officers that their marriage is bona fide, but they are in fact revealing tender feelings they have not yet expressed to each other. The audience is assured of their potential for intimacy, even before they realise they are in love. Weir shows Brontë describing Georges as a “ … very sensitive man [who] makes me laugh”, before cutting to Georges characterising Bronte as being “… very kind to people.” As the harmonious editing rhythm continues, Georges admiringly observes that “she has peace” and Brontë says that “he has passion.”

Weir retreats from the dictates of the screwball comedy genre, with a bittersweet ending that leaves the protagonists emotionally bound, yet physically separated. As the story draws to a close, they exchange wedding rings, but not in the classic romantic comedy denouement mise en scène of composed church setting and white-clad bride, signifying resolution and permanence after the madcap antics. Here Georges and Brontë are placed in an under-saturated colour scheme, on a drizzly day, amongst the disconcerting shuffle of a New York street corner, as Georges is whisked off by the immigration officer, who has determined that their marriage was a ploy and has declined Georges’ application for residency. As in the early Michael, Green Card‘s closing is accompanied by soundtrack lyrics that serve as commentary to the final images. In his earlier film, the lyrics underscored the protagonist’s uncertain predicament; here they strike a reassuring tone: “Everything is going to be alright … some day.”

Fearless

Fearless

In his next project, Weir returns to creating an ambience rife with depictions of subjective states, and meditations on complex, and even contradictory, emotions. Through the opening hand-held, point of view shots from the perspective of Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) as he stumbles through a cornfield, Weir immediately introduces the central concern of the film: the subjective state of the protagonist in the wake of a plane crash in which his best friend and many other passengers have died. The sequence proceeds with devices that effectively convey the chaos of the accident: moments of silence, distorted sound, over-exposed lighting and slow motion. Max, a middle-aged architect, emerges from the crash a survivor; soon after, he will be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a consequence of the ordeal.

The film is structured around depictions of Max in the present, as he tries to readjust to life in the aftermath of the crash, and his flashbacks of the accident. As we observe Max evolve from initially denying he was even on the plane, to eventually integrating the reality of events, the memories are made available to us only as they become available to Max himself. Many of Weir’s films have incorporated sophisticated depictions of traumatised individuals or groups, such as Arthur Waldo, after his car accident in The Cars that Ate Paris; the young soldiers in Gallipoli and Neil Perry’s friends after his suicide in Dead Poets Society. Others have touched on the dynamics of guilt and shame, such as Homesdale, The Plumber, and The Year of Living Dangerously. In Fearless, explorations of trauma, guilt and shame become the primary focus of the film.

As Max’s initial dazed confusion develops into a precarious sense of invulnerability, a psychiatrist suggests he speak with another survivor of the same accident, a working class Puerto Rican woman, Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), whose infant died in the crash. Max, in his fearless, restless state, distances himself from his wife and adolescent son by spending all his time away from home, walking the streets and repeatedly placing his life at risk. Carla, meanwhile, is paralysed with guilt and depression, unable to move beyond her room (now a shrine to her deceased son) and the neighbourhood Catholic Church. Carla inappropriately blames herself for her son’s death, and Max becomes indifferent to danger. The two, differentiated by class, race, gender and their distinct responses to the accident, nevertheless play pivotal roles in each other’s healing processes. In his reckless abandon, Max helps to persuade Carla that she was not responsible for her child’s death; and she helps to persuade him that his sense of invulnerability is a delusion. Their respective healing processes involve coming to terms with human limitations in the face of death.

The Truman Show

The theme of an individual struggling towards authenticity in a suspect environment is taken to metaphysical dimensions in The Truman Show, where Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) gradually realises he has been deceived throughout his entire life from birth through to his recent marriage. The entire world in which he has grown up – his schooling, his profession, even his name – is a fabrication that is constructed in a massive television soundstage in which all the individuals who interact with him are actors under contract.

The Truman Show

A series of opening shots, reminiscent of a sequence in Weir’s 1973 “mockumentary” on Green Valley, presents the uniform, immaculately planned community of Seahaven, Truman’s antiseptic island “paradise” populated by perennially perky neighbours. Truman’s life is fodder for the manipulation of television producers and the entertainment of viewers. The film, released in 1998 before Reality TV dominated network programming, represents a prescient awareness of the voyeuristic inclination of contemporary television audiences. We frequently see the same skewed camera angles of Truman that the television audience would be watching, as he is filmed from ingeniously concealed surveillance cameras – in his steering wheel, or a neighbour’s garbage can – and we too, at times, share the viewers’ responses. In a scene in which the father Truman thought had died many years earlier is reintroduced to the story, the two men slowly approach each other on a pier at sunset, as emotive background music reaches a crescendo. We are drawn into the moment in precisely the same way the TV audience is. It is sobering when Weir cuts to a shot of the show’s producer and director, Christof (Ed Harris), skilfully controlling every technical aspect of the scene to maximise emotional impact. We realise that we too have been manipulated.

Much of the film involves the struggles of Christof to keep Truman under the illusion that his fabricated world is in fact real. Truman, however, becomes increasingly aware that something is not altogether right about his existence. As he expresses feelings and thoughts that challenge the expectations and desires of Christof, some of the paid actors themselves cannot bear the deceit, while the awareness of the TV viewing audience (whose reactions to Truman’s life are featured throughout the film) that Truman is discovering the truth of his situation, generates a sense of solidarity and hope that undermines the original conceit of the show. The TV audience itself becomes less voyeuristic and more empathetic as Truman sheds the character that has been imposed on him to reveal an autonomous individual.

This multi-layered film, which makes insightful use of Jim Carrey’s comedic talents in a weighty role, affirms the notion that a sense for what is authentic can undermine the most carefully conceived contrivances, designed to manipulate our feelings and thoughts. Beyond its sociological implications, The Truman Show can also be read as a mediation on the uneasy relationship between Truman and Christof, as one between a son and an absent, God-like father, and on the deeper human drives that trump the superficiality of social and theological conventions.

Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World

A maritime adventure drama set during the Napoleonic wars, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World (2003) tells the fictitious story of Captain Jack Aubrey’s (Russell Crowe) determination to further the British war effort by preventing the flagship of the French navy, the Acheron, entering the South Pacific. In his humbler vessel, HMS Surprise, he manages to lead his crew through icebergs and storms to ultimately outmanoeuvre the vastly superior Acheron. As in each of the maritime novels in the twenty-title series by Patrick O’Brian, upon which the screenplay is based, the story centres on the friendship between Aubrey and the ship’s physician, the naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Aubrey and Maturin entertain each other by playing chamber music together in their moments of leisure, their harmonious music-making suggesting the complementarity of the military and scientific objectives of the British Empire. Whilst on duty, however, the pre-eminence of the captain over the scientist is in keeping with the priorities of the moment. Aubrey is willing to accommodate the scientific curiosity of his friend as long as this does not interfere with his military mission.

Aubrey, a determined leader and strategist, achieves his objectives through enforcement of rank, obedience to tradition and impatience for those who will not or cannot fulfil their roles. As a guardian of hierarchies, portrayed in a positive light, he represents an unusual protagonist for a Weir film. Aubrey’s charge includes developing the leadership qualities in the young midshipmen born into the British upper class and destined to assume its privileges and responsibilities. The expectation he places on such boys is comparable to those placed by the establishment on the students of Welton College in Dead Poets, and here, as in Weir’s earlier film, such pressures lead one such character, unable to fulfil his duties, to seek the only alternative he considers possible: suicide. In Master and Commander, however, the sympathy of the narratorial voice resides firmly with the forces that lead to such unnecessary sacrifice, rather than with those reeling against it. Midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby), destined by class for leadership, cannot easily fit in with his fellow midshipmen or garner respect from his crew. Eventually he is ostracised and scapegoated when a turn of bad luck brings low winds which render the vessel immobile. Unable to stand the treatment, late one night he ascends to the deck, grasps a lead weight and calmly jumps overboard to certain death. From the ominous darkness of the claustrophobic night scene, the camera follows his white face descending into the pitch black of the water, until, in a dissolve shot, the lifeless face transmutes, as in a resurrection, into an image of a gleaming white sun. The next cut takes us to a high-angle (god’s eye view), slightly over-exposed mid-day shot of the ship’s expansive white sails, now moving, on the vast open ocean, as the bells of the funeral service toll. We are taken from an image of dark, stultified death, to expansive light, space and movement, all sanctified by tolling bells. In these images, Weir is confirming that the one who could not fulfil his class-ordained duty and find his place in the masculine order of things was in fact an evil omen, and that his sacrifice was necessary for the common good. Here, as in Dead Poets, the death sequence is filmed in slow motion, as is the reaction of the witness (here a young midshipman; in Dead Poets, the suicide’s father) but with considerably different signification. Here the implication is that the death of the non-conforming individual was a necessary “evil” (a theme of the film) for the greater mission at hand. In Dead Poets, the premature death represents the opposite: the tragic consequence of an institution unwilling to accommodate individual expression.

The film evinces masterful use of cutting-edge film technology by a director in full control of the film medium. Much of the footage features a 21-sail ship constructed for the project and shot with multiple cameras in the 6-acre tank originally built for the filming of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The scenes on the large vessel in the tank are seamlessly combined with footage of an identical full-size ship in open sea, a meticulous smaller-scale model replica (itself 9 metres high, and 11 metres long) and computer graphics, in order to capture, with remarkable attention to detail and historical accuracy, the seafaring of a bygone era (14). Master and Commander is both a swashbuckling adventure and an intimate portrayal of men of various social classes and sensibilities brought together in a microcosm of the society they have left on land.

Weir’s second film of military conflict is at a markedly different place from Gallipoli. Neither work champions war, but whereas Gallipoli is about needless sacrifice, Master and Commander is about taking seriously, with a sense of vision and resolve, the tasks necessary to bring a collective project to fruition. One could read Weir’s most recent film as an allegory of his own trajectory as an artist – from icon of Australian national cinema to premier Hollywood director – true to his own sense of exploration in changing circumstances over the last five decades.

Peter Weir

Filmography

All films are features unless otherwise indicated

As Director

Count Vim’s Last Exercise (1967) television short

The Life and Flight of the Rev Buck Shotte (1968) television short

Three to Go – Michael (1969) one of three shorts, also writer

Stirring the Pool (1970) Commonwealth Film Unit documentary short

Homesdale (1971) also writer and actor

Australian Colour Diary #43: Three Directions in Australian Pop Music (1972) Commonwealth Film Unit documentary short

The Billiard Room; The Computer Centre; Boat Builders; The Country Couldn’t Do Without You; Field Day (1972) series of adult learning short films

Incredible Floridas (1972) documentary short

Whatever Happened to Green Valley (1973) documentary

The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) also writer

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Three Workshop Films (1975) short, directed with Don Crombie and Peter Maxwell

The Last Wave (1977) also writer

The Plumber (1979) telemovie, also writer

Heart, Head and Hand (1979) documentary short

Gallipoli (1981) also writer

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) also writer

Witness (1985)

The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Green Card (1990) also writer and producer

Fearless (1993)

The Truman Show (1998)

Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World (2003) also writer and producer

Other credits

Tempo: Australia in the ’70s (1971) Commonwealth Film Unit documentary short; writer only (directed by Keith Gow)

The Fifth Façade (1973) documentary, writer only (directed by Donald Crombie)

Fugue (1974) short, writer only

Select Bibliography

Robert Birchard, “Witness – John Seale ASC”, American Cinematographer, vol. LXVII, no. 4, April 1986, pp. 74–78.

Michael Bliss, “Keeping a Sense of Wonder”, Film Quarterly, vol. LIII, no. 1, 1999, pp. 2–11.

Michael Bliss, Dreams Within A Dream: The Films of Peter Weir, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 2000.

Russell Boyd, “Photographing The Last Wave”, American Cinematographer, vol. LIX, no. 4, April 1978, pp. 352–355.

Geoff Brown, “The Cars that Ate Paris”, Sight and Sound, vol. XLIV, no. 3, summer 1975, pp. 192–193.

Michel Ciment, “Peter Weir: L’image et le reel”, Positif, no. 453, November 1998, pp. 16–29.

Stephen Crofts, “Shifting paradigms in the Australian Historical Film”, East–West, vol. 5, no. 1, July 1991, pp. 1–15.

Digby Diehl, “The Iceman Cometh”, American Film, vol. XII, no.3, 1986, pp. 20–25.

Olivier Eyquem, “Biofilmographie de Peter Weir”, Positif, no.314, 1987, pp. 29–31.

Rodney Farnsworth, “An Australian Cultural Synthesis: Wayang, The Hollywood Romance, and The Year of Living Dangerously”, Literature – Film Quarterly, vol. XXIV, no.4, October 1996, pp. 348–359.

Leslie Felperin, “How’s It Going to End?”, Sight and Sound, vol. VIII, no. 10, October 1998, pp. 36–37.

Bob Fisher, “Fearless Explores Emotional Aftermath of Fateful Flight”, American Cinematographer, vol. 74, no. 11, 1993, pp. 40–51.

Bill Gammage, David Williamson and Peter Weir, The Story of Gallipoli, Penguin, Ringwood, 1981.

Alain Garsault, “Bienvenue à Andrew Niccol, ou retour à Gattaca”, Positif, no. 453, 1998, pp. 28–29.

Laurence Giavarini, “Horreurs Australes”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 447, September 1991, p. 8.

Adam Gopnik, “The Big One”, The New Yorker, August 23, 2004, p. 78.

Marek Haltof, Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide, Twayne, New York, 1996.

Gary Hentzi, “Peter Weir and the Cinema of New Age Humanism”, Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, 1990/1991, pp. 2–12..

Ros Jennings, “Peter Weir: Australian Auteur/Hollywood Director” in Yvonne Tasker (ed.), Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Routledge, London, 2002, pp. 378–386.

Philip Kemp, “Fearless”, Sight and Sound, vol. IV, no. 5, 1994, p. 5.

C.J. Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1978.

Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Penguin, Melbourne, 1970 (first published 1967).

Sue Mathews, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors about the Australian Film Revival, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984.

Geoff Mayer, “Green Card”, Cinema Papers, no. 82, 1991, pp. 53–54.

Geoff Mayer, “Problems of Representation: Gallipoli and Australian Identity”, Metro Magazine, no. 89, 1992, pp. 54–60.

Brian McFarlane, “The Films of Peter Weir”, Cinema Papers, no. 26, 1980, Special Supplement, pp. 1–24.

Brian McFarlane, Words and Images: Australian Novels into Film, Heinemann and Cinema Papers, Melbourne, 1983.

Brian McFarlane, “Dead Poets Society”, Cinema Papers, no. 75, 1989, pp. 57–58.

Pat McGilligan, “Under Weir … and Theroux”, Film Comment, vol. 22, no. 6, November–December 1986, pp. 23–32.

Tom McGregor, The Making of Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World, W.W. Norton & Company, London, 2003.

Jonathan Rayner, The Films of Peter Weir, 2nd edition, Continuum, New York, 2003.

Nick Roddick, “Witness: Among the Amish”, Sight and Sound, vol. LIV, no. 3 1985, pp. 221–222.

Don Shiach, The Films of Peter Weir. Visions of Alternative Realities, Letts, London, 1993.

Lori Spring, “The Other Dream: The Year of Living Dangerously”, CineAction, no. 3/4, winter 1986, pp. 58–71.

Silvia Tandeciarz, “Some Notes on Racial Trauma in Peter Weir’s Fearless”, Literature – Film Quarterly, vol. 28, 2000, pp. 60–65.

Paul Theroux, The Mosquito Coast, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1982.

Christian Viviani, “Peter Weir, ou Observations du Comportement de l’ombre des Marionnettes”, Positif, no. 314, April 1987, pp. 18–28.

Peter Weir, “Dialogue on Film”, American Film, vol. XI, no. 5, March 1986, pp. 13–15.

Charles Whitehouse, “Bubble Boy”, Sight and Sound, vol. XIII, no. 8, 1998, pp. 9–10.

Robert Winer, “Witnessing and Bearing Witness: The Ontogeny of Encounter in the Films of Peter Weir” in J. Smith, H. and W. Kerrigan (eds), Images in our Souls: Cavell, Psychoanalysis and Cinema, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1987, pp. 82–96.

Web Resources

Crazy Dave’s Peter Weir Cave
Fan site created by David Nicholson. Contains many links to interviews, info on music in Weir’s films and a ‘Video Phantoms’ section that has a list of suggested films selected by Peter Weir fans.

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to online articles on Weir can be found here. Just scroll down.

Peter Weir Interview
A 1994 interview about his early years in the film industry and his subsequent career as a filmmaker.

Click here to search for Peter Weir DVDs, videos and books at

Endnotes

  1. For a lucid, informative account of Weir’s formative years, refer to Don Shiach’s The Films of Peter Weir, Charles Letts, London, 1993, pp. 15–28.
  2. In interview Weir speaks explicitly about the value he places on the close-up: “The great discovery of the cinema, this new art form, is the close-up. No one has come up with anything more extraordinary. With a great screen 30 feet across, to see a face, every line, every movement of every muscle, and wonder who is it inside that face?” in Virginia Campbell, “Love, Fear and Peter Weir”, p. 4. Quoted from online source: www.peterweircave.com/articles/article.html. Originally published in Movieline Magazine, September, 1993.
  3. Sue Mathews, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors about the Australian Film Revival, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984, p. 87.
  4. Weir has explained in interview that on location he was concerned that the actual rock did not look threatening or powerful enough, until one morning seeing it covered in mist, which imbued it with drama (Sue Mathews, 1984, p. 93).
  5. In fact Alvin Purple, directed by Tim Burstall and released in 1973, had already been commercially successful in both the Australian and British markets.
  6. Pat McGilligan, “Under Weir … and Theroux”, Film Comment, vol. 22, no. 6, Nov–Dec 1986, pp. 23–32. Also available online at: www.peterweircave.com/articles/article.html
  7. Jonathan Rayner, The Films of Peter Weir, 2nd edition, Continuum, New York, 2003, p. 75.
  8. Sue Mathews, 1984, p. 87.
  9. See, for example, Adam Gopnik’s article on the Great War, “The Big One” The New Yorker, August 23, p. 78.
  10. Geoff Mayer, “Problems of Representation: Gallipoli and Australian Identity,Metro Magazine, no. 89, Autumn 1992, pp. 54–60.
  11. Jonathan Rayner, The Films of Peter Weir, second edition, Continuum, New York, 2003.
  12. Virginia Campbell, “Love, Fear and Peter Weir”, p. 4. Available online at www.peterweircave.com/articles/article.html. Originally published in Movieline Magazine, September, 1993.
  13. Don Shiach, The Films of Peter Weir. Visions of Alternative Realities, Letts, London, 1993.
  14. For a detailed, well-written account of Weir’s recreation of O’Brian’s world, see Tom McGregor, The Making of Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World, W.W. Norton & Company.