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 was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

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…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

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…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York (1981)
(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.