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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

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…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

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.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.