Skip to main content

What then must we do?


The Year of Living Dangerously
(1982)

Peter Weir’s second (and most likely final) collaboration with Mel Gibson is also the last to bear his Australian heritage on its sleeve. It is a typically rich Weir film, resonating through performance and thematic content. But it could not really be charged as attempting to present a historical account of events in Jakarta during 1965; its preoccupations are less to do with specifics and more with the human condition (be it themes of western responsibility, personal morality, career versus ambition or fantasy versus reality).

While Weir has continued to find inspiration in history, this story  - ostensibly of a love affair between an Australian journalist (Gibson) and a British Embassy official (Sigourney Weaver) - is very much a character piece where the events of the Indonesian coup of 1965 form the backdrop. While Weir is concerned with such issues as western interference and voyeuristic distance, he does not appear interested in providing a history lesson outlining Indonesia’s past and (within its setting) present.

To some extent, this could be any (Third World or Developing) country undergoing political upheaval. Year does not have the specificity of, say, Oliver Stone’s Salvador. It is possible that Weir had this in mind when he bought the rights to Christopher Koch’s novel (Koch was involved with the screenplay at an early stage); the confusion over who is on whose side, and just what exactly is going on (journalists scrabbling about for any quote, or left with a story containing little of consequence), is part and parcel of the murky territory of that period. The official story is the one endorsed by President Suharto, the Major General who took power from Sukano following the coup attempt (and who ruled until 1998); that it was led by the PKI (the communist party).

The heart of the film lies with the diminutive Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a photographer who “adopts’ Gibson’s Guy Hamilton (no, not the Bond director) and invests in him all his hopes and aspirations for making a difference. Billy has high moral standards, particularly in contrast to the cynicism, indifference or career tourism of his fellow journalists. But his is a deeply flawed conscience. Weir invites us directly to identify with Billy; it is his voiceover that engages us at the outset and introduces us to Hamilton.

And it is he who introduces the viewer to the puppet master concept as a means of understanding the system of rule in Indonesia. Yet our appreciation of this idea comes through Billy’s attempts to control and manipulate the players (Guy, Weaver’s Jill Bryant). Increasingly we see that, for all his huge heart (adopting a local mother and child) and poetic soul, Billy is a fantasist with a fastidiously developed interior world; one that follows from his much-mocked physical aspect (which also denies him the world of love and pleasure). He keeps files on his friends (not, as Guy suggests, because he is a spy, but because of his would-be controlling personality) and engineers the love affair between Guy and Jill (who once spurned him). It is when reality refuses to comply with his intent (Guy putting his career first, the fate of his adopted child) that his careful, reserved persona spirals out of control (“I created you!” he implores Guy).

Gibson’s ambitious journo is straightforward in comparison; he learns his values the hard way (it’s a physical beating that guides him back toward Billy’s plans) and lacks the insight that comes through experience (“Think of me Guy, when you are sitting in some nice café in Europe”, Kumar tells him, his own fate in great doubt). Nevertheless, he is much more fully fleshed-out than Weaver’s character. Despite struggling with an English accent, she gives Jill far more substance than there is on the page. You could never accuse Weaver of taking “pretty girlfriend” parts, but she is at her most striking here. I’m not sure I completely buy into Jill’s romance with Guy, but that’s more an afterthought; Weir creates such an immersive environment that you are fully engaged by their relationship while simultaneously conscious that it is a heightened, subjective experience (the scene where they are caught in a downpour and escape to the shelter of Guy’s car, or the tense sequence where they break through a roadblock, their nervous relief enforced by the triumphant synths of Vangelis’ L’Enfant).

Indeed, it is this worldbuilding that is Weir’s greatest signature; throughout his career, and no matter how apparently contrasting the setting, you believe fully in the environment he explores. And so, here, you feel that palpable danger and unease; the heightened world of the foreign correspondent, where the big scoop takes precedence over self-preservation. Which makes it no less threatening. Michael Murphy’s cocky, crude journo is overjoyed to learn that he is being posted to Saigon (against any usual standard of commonsense); but celebrations in a local bar are curtailed when a soldier levels a pistol at him and guy; Noel Ferrier’s character is outed, meaning that he will be departing the country post-haste.

The performances all have the necessary conviction; Gibson doesn’t have long left for everyman roles at this point. It’s strange enough to see him in a suit here. Like Sean Connery, he can’t disguise his star wattage no matter the role. He was only 26 when Year came out, but has the presence of an actor 10 years older (another aspect he shares with Connery; he aged significantly during his thirties, making him a very young Vietnam vet in Lethal Weapon). His energy is always that of Mad Mel; restless, darting eyes and that open mouth, always on the verge of exasperation over the slings and arrows he faces. Gibson astutely remarked that he shared his character’s immaturity and “rough edges” (whether either ever lost them is open to debate).

Linda Hunt’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar was well-deserved. Far from being a stunt-plaudit (or, even if that was the attitude of voters, giving it to her because she played a man), Hunt is outstanding in the part. She exerts a magnetic pull on the viewer, both in her screen presence and in her precise, inviting diction. Who knows how the film would have worked if the originally cast David Atkins had remained (Weir decided the chemistry wasn’t right; he considered Bob Balaban and Wallace Shawn as possible replacements before finding Hunt).

The production wasn’t the smoothest; filming took place in the Philippines as Indonesia point blank refused permission. It then transferred to Australia after death threats against Weir and Gibson (who brushed them off; perhaps playing a tolerant character rubbed off on Mel); some thought the film would be anti-Islamic. 

The film is beautifully shot by Weir regular Russell Boyd, capturing the claustrophobic humidity of the Jakarta. It would be their last collaboration until Master and Commander 21 years later (perhaps coincidentally, also Weir’s first historical setting since Year). While the main score is the work of Maurice Jarre, it is the aforementioned Vangelis who makes the most memorable contribution (in a piece that was not specifically composed for the film).

The Year of Living Dangerously represents a turning point for both Weir and Gibson. Hollywood beckoned them, albeit the former proving more discerning in his choices (even though he attached himself to another bona fide star for his first two projects there). A harbinger of this was perhaps the funding of the film, which came from MGM after the Australian financing fell out. Year may not be Weir’s most fully-rounded, wholly-satisfying film but it is certainly one of his most ambitious thematically. In that sense it departs from other ‘80s pictures depicting war reportage, such as Salvador and The Killing Fields

If those films capture a very specific outrage, Weir is more interested in exploring the idea of the westerner as the vicarious voyeur; one who doesn’t really understand, or want to understand, the environment he encounters (and plunders). In those terms, the romantic subplot between Guy and Jill could be seen as every so slightly clumsy, as if wrested from a broader, less nuanced work. But it could also be regarded as emphasising exactly that point; ultimately the troubles of this country amount to very little, only so much as they interfere with these westerners’ privileged personal lives. 

**** 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.