By Craig Simpson
Now that Martin Scorsese has his long-elusive Oscar (never the final arbiter of talent, though those with talent rarely appear displeased to win one) is Peter Weir now our best living director—or, at least, the most nominated—yet to take home the gold statue? One of the forerunners of modern Australian cinema, now internationally acclaimed, Weir is nevertheless rarely mentioned in the same breath as Malick, De Palma or others among his peers. The reasons for this can be argued (and I have a few ideas that I get into below); but comparatively lacking in enthusiasts does not negate a remarkable body of work, as rich and varied as one could hope for from a filmmaker.
Along with George Miller, Fred Schepsi and Gillian Armstrong, Weir made his mark between the mid-70s and early-80s with a string of films set in his homeland. While altogether representative of Australia's "New Wave," each director focused on individual themes with a distinctive style—in Weir's case, the alienation of man from his environment, the clash between "light" and "dark" cultures, and the struggle between rationality and faith, filtered through a sober though often humorous approach that occasionally resembled Nicolas Roeg without the psychedelia, or John Boorman with a slightly less woozy mysticism. Miller has since crossed over to animation while Armstrong and Schepsi have faded into near obscurity, but Weir has kept making mainstream movies—or movies just along the margins of the mainstream—for four decades, a beguiling blend of conventional product and personal obsessions.
There are three reasons why, I think, Weir is relatively unheralded. First, he has become less prolific, with only two films in the last ten years, three in the last fifteen. (There are a dozen theatrical releases on his resume to date, plus some early TV work.) Second, he employs a classical style of filmmaking—formal, never impersonal, but always somewhat distant; you'll never see a montage, whirling cameras or other cinematic flourishes in a Weir movie. Third, and most tellingly, Weir's greatest achievements occurred during the 1980s, a decade typically derided as being "Not As Good As The 70s." While this is certainly true, I would submit that Peter Weir stood out as an exception in this era, that even his commercial successes had non-commercial elements (poetry, Amish folk), that his riskiest ventures conveyed a grim, decidedly unReagan-esque view of human nature.
Compiling a "5 for the Day" for Peter Weir was as difficult as it was enjoyable. I watched eleven of his movies—all of which I'd seen before, none of which I'd seen in years—within a two-week span (an exercise which, if nothing else, does wonders for your sensory perception). Avoiding a mere list of what I think is his "best" work, I looked instead for thematic staples and visual trademarks, crowd-pleasers and cult oddities, a handful of motion pictures that reflect the arc of his career. Rugged yet metaphysical, academic yet erotic, antiquated yet timeless, Weir's films speak to me like no other.
1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): A psychosexual mystery with a palpable sense of dread, Weir's breakout feature chronicles the disappearance of three students and one instructor from an all-girls boarding school during a Valentine's Day outing in 1900 Australia. Led by Miranda (Anne Lambert), an ethereal blonde with a secretive smile, the adolescent trio slip away from the rest of the group and scale the "Hanging Rock," an ancient volcanic formation jutting out of the vernal hillside, with what resemble Easter Island-like faces on its sides. One of the girls panics and returns to the fold, another is found days later with neither her memory nor her corset (an inspecting physician hastens to add that she is otherwise "intact"), the prudish schoolmarm who follows after them is claimed to have been last seen running in her underwear. Like Fargo, a title placard offers based-on-a-true-story implications (Cliff Green's script is actually based on a novel by Joan Lindsay); and even if the tale isn't factual the filmmakers conjure a mood that feels eerily representative of the Victorian Era. (I agree with Roger Ebert that the movie it most resembles is A Passage to India.) Assured yet intuitive, Weir's direction has longeurs that never feel overly fussed over (he even trimmed seven minutes off the Criterion release) and employs remarkable sound design, impeccable costumes, and Russell Boyd's evocative cinematography to shattering effect. Dressed in flowing white, the lost girls resemble vestal virgins who, in a haunting slow-motion shot, appear almost summoned into a vaginal crevice that swallows them whole. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a masterpiece of ambiguity and suggestion, of unspeakable horrors and unspoken longings.
2. Gallipoli (1981): Less a conventional war movie than a superb cultural expose, Gallipoli follows a pair of young Aussie track stars, Archy Hamilton (Nathan Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), from their initial head-to-head contest to a journey across the continent to Perth, where they enlist in the First World War. From there they move on to training in Cairo, then finally the trenches in Turkey. Gallipoli is the first film where Weir truly begins to demonstrate his mojo with actors: Lee is fine as the young, naive Archy, who wants to fight the enemy "before they end up over here" (an old man he encounters in the desert deadpans, "And they're welcome to it"); but it is Gibson as the more jaded Frank who makes the strongest impression, then revealing another side to his evolving Mad Max persona, today recalling the quicksilver charm he once possessed. (I feel less guilty about excluding the second, equally fine Gibson/Weir collaboration, The Year of Living Dangerously, having recently written about it here.) Elements of Lawrence of Arabia and Paths of Glory are embedded in Weir and Boyd's sprawling canvas, and they fill it with unforgettable images: a giant Trojan Horse at the initial track meet, with members of the cavalry present to recruit impressionable youth; the boisterously comic turbulence of the marketplace in Cairo; Frank and Archy racing on foot to the pyramids; the landing at Gallipoli under the cover of night and mist; nude soldiers swimming underwater while shrapnel rains down from above; and the indelible final shot, a solid punctuation mark every bit as powerful as Picnic at Hanging Rock's ellipses.
3. Witness (1985): Weir's most accessible movie is also my favorite, a crime-thriller genre exercise elevated by the skill and joy of the filmmaking. While the typical premise in a Weir movie features a protagonist in a familiar environment thrust into a foreign locale, Witness delays this by starting with characters from an unfamiliar setting—a young Amish widow (a lovely, mischievous Kelly McGillis) and her son (Lukas Haas, a.k.a. "The Pin" in Brick)—who come to experience our world firsthand. Cinematographer John Seale (who was the camera operator on Gallipoli) filters the journey from rural Pennsylvania to urban Philly through Haas's expressive peepers: statues, drinking fountains and hot-air balloons look beautifully strange; and the murder he witnesses in a train station restroom feels less a rote plot twist than a horrifying violation. Unlike the unfortunate synthesizer music in Gallipoli (the only dated element in that movie), Maurice Jarre's hypnotic Witness score fuses with Seale's tactile imagery, particularly in a memorable scene at a police station where the boy fingers the killer. (Gene Siskel opined that Hitchcock could not have staged it better.)
Witness may be one of the quietest thrillers ever made, with long passages reminiscent of a silent film interrupted by bursts of violence that Weir uses to subtly implicate both the hero and viewer—when one of the villains (Danny Glover) meets the receiving end of a shotgun blast, the camera angle switches to his point-of-view. As John Book, the hardened though principled detective assigned to the case, a beacon of integrity who's also a wise-ass, Harrison Ford gives the finest, loosest performance of his career: not even Lucas or Spielberg have gotten as much out of him as Weir does here (and would again in another film). In his gentle interplay with Haas, playful sparring with his sister (Patti LuPone), and budding sexual attraction with McGillis, Ford makes playing a "normal" character look easy. Earl W. Wallace and William Kelly's well-structured script subverts several cliches: an Amish suitor (a dryly witty Alexander Godunov) who originally appears geared to be the baddie who rats out our hero, is revealed instead as an honorable adversary content to bide his time. Fittingly, it's Book who betrays his own whereabouts by being true to his nature, though Weir refrains from harshly judging either him or the Amish way of life. This didn't stop Pauline Kael from ridiculing the movie—myopically, I believe—as "a Brigadoon of tall golden wheat." Predictably, her disciples fell in line: one of them, responding to an email I'd written a few years ago, quoted John Waters as saying, "Why would you want to go to a movie about people who can't go to movies?" I think Weir's own film offers a pointed rebuttal: If you're inclined to reflexively dismiss elements of the human experience most alien to you, why bother going to movies at all?
4. The Mosquito Coast (1986): Emboldened by their previous success, Weir and Ford teamed again for an ambitious undertaking that failed so resoundingly, those involved don't seem disappointed so much as predisposed to deny its very existence. A white-man-in-the-jungle movie that lacked the on-camera grandeur and off-camera apocrypha of Fitzcarraldo or Apocalypse Now, The Mosquito Coast presents a protagonist, Allie Fox, whose perspective is fueled by more-or-less equal parts idealism and narcissism. A gifted inventor prone to America-is-going-down-the-tubes diatribes, Fox transplants his wife and children from the U.S. to the impoverished Honduran village of Jeronimo, which he buys for a pittance (and soon becomes its de facto philosopher-king). Described early on by an employer as "the worst kind of human being—a know-it-all who's sometimes right," Fox enlists his family and the inhabitants to build Jeronimo under his romanticized notions of a perfect society. From Paul Theroux's novel, Paul Schrader's screenplay susses out the latter's obsessions (megalomania, evangelicalism), and from Schrader's script Weir traces what may be the bleakest of his fish-out-of-water scenarios.
Like nearly everyone else, expecting another Witness, I was initially disappointed with The Mosquito Coast. Aside from unrealistic expectations, Weir's biggest problem may have been his own sanity—his ability to distance himself (and us) from Allie Fox's madness climaxes in an ultimate rejection of the character's vision. Upon a recent second viewing, I was struck by the surprisingly buoyant comic elements within this tragedy. The natives' bewildered reactions to Fox's harangues are priceless (he loves talking to them because they can't talk back), as is his escalating conflict with a proslyetizing minister (André Gregory, turning on the smarm). Moreover, the "Fat Boy," Fox's colossal ice-making machine that looms over the village like the monolith from 2001, is an inspired, nearly anthropomorphic creation. The cast, which includes Helen Mirren as Fox's dangerously compliant wife and River Phoenix as the growingly disillusioned eldest son-cum-narrator, is uniformly fine. While Ford is, on the face of it, wrong for the role (long-winded monologues don't roll easily off his tongue), he finds a way into the character physically, making Fox's inventions facets of an outsized personality. I've often speculated that this was the movie that marked the end of Ford's risk-taking; while a glance at his filmography suggests otherwise (he made Frantic with Polanski and Presumed Innocent with Pakula soon after), it did seem that a certain spark went out of his acting, that he has misguidedly tried to redeem this galvanizing bad-dad turn with one dour "get away from my family" lord-protector after another. Too bad, because in The Mosquito Coast he and Weir nail a peculiar archetype of our culture—the "civilized man" who longs to retreat to the wilderness, but not without the air-conditioning. It's time for a reappraisal of this flawed but vital film.
5. Fearless (1993): The customary Peter Weir journey is rendered entirely psychological—but no less transporting—in Fearless, his account of a well-to-do architect and family-man who survives an airplane crash but loses his sense of self. Starring Jeff Bridges as Max Klein, the aforementioned survivor who gets hailed a hero by the media and his fellow passengers, several of whom he leads out of the wreckage. Yet in so doing Max undergoes a personal transformation—akin to a spiritual experience—that turns this once timid man into an inveterate danger-seeker (stepping onto building ledges, wandering into traffic) and threatens to estrange him from his wife (Isabella Rosellini) and son. Like Allie Fox, Max is another narcissistic protagonist, the difference being the latter's narcissism is a product of a traumatic experience which, despite the best efforts from a well-meaning if rather inept psychiatrist (John Turturro), retains a degree of mystery. Adapted by Rafael Yglesias from his own novel, Fearless uneasily mixes realistic depictions of grief with heavy-handed allegory, namely in a grueling midsection involving Max's efforts to "save" Carla (Rosie Perez), another passenger distraught over the death of her child in the crash. His solutions to alleviate her guilt are unconventional at best and would be inexcusable without a degree of critical distance, fully embodied by Rosellini in what may be her strongest, most unsung performance. (Her challenge to Max's claim that he's not afraid to end their marriage suggests that she's ultimately more fearless than he is.) While Weir's visual sense is as acute as ever (for The House's recent close-up blogathon, Jeff Ignatius focused on the role of hands in the film), he appears to be using this story as a way to challenge his own gifts, to do away with formal plot structure, technical de rigeur and emotional distance and aim for something operatic and ineffable. The rough patches in Fearless ultimately dissolve in the face of Weir and Yglesias' empathy for the other passengers, as well as Bridges' deeply committed performance. In the film's climax—the most powerful and moving sequence Weir has ever filmed—Max once again looks death in the eye, dovetailing with the final flashback of the crash which, scored to Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, tears you apart and puts you back together again.
Craig Simpson writes about movies, television and the occasional book or two at The Man from Porlock.