Sunday, September 19, 2010

Stretch Your Mind: The Last Wave

I hadn't seen The Last Wave (Australia, dir. Peter Weir) since it came out in 1977.

You never know, when you go back to a movie (or anything) that stunned you with its excellence when you were young, if you'll cringe in affectionate embarrassment for your younger
self. (Personal case in point: Women in Love, and anything else connected with D. H. Lawrence.) Or if it'll just be dated and boring.

The Last Wave still astonishes.

The film is wonderfully weird. It gives the mysteries of the subconscious their due; it doesn't seek to tidy them up.
And while it shows that some traditional cultures can find their way in the dark better than high-tech culture can, it doesn't tidy them up either.

The main character, played by Richard Chamberlain, is a tidy-minded white corporate lawyer in Sydney who takes on a legal-aid case defending a group of Aborigines.
His dreams are unsettled, full of disturbing, prophetic images he can't understand.

The weather all over Australia has been strange. Hail falls in the outback.

Sydney is deluged with rain, day after day.The lawyer starts seeing apocalyptic images of the city underwater.

This is a gorgeous film, and it calls on film to do what it can do so well: use images and sound--including the unplaceable sound of the didgeridoo--to tell the story. Words are back up. The movie is narrative--there's a linear plot and everything--but its feels dreamlike.

(This past summer's Inception is the opposite. Ostensibly about dreams, it relies on the characters' words to explain everything. You feel like you're inside a video game--with detailed instructions. In fact, Inception is not a movie about dreams; it's a caper/heist flick. A fun one too! But it has more in common with Ocean's 11 than with
The Last Wave.)

Through one of the
defendants (David Gulpilil, right, of Walkabout fame),
Chamberlain's character realizes he is
tapping into a way of perception that Aborigines call dreamtime.
Its laws have absolutely nothing to do with tax law, and they draw Chamberlain farther and farther down-- into himself, his fears, and his city, until he follows Gulpilil through the sewers under Sydney to an ancient sacred site.

You can see the story as a warning about the power of Nature, which we ignore to our detriment---global warming, for instance, tsunamis, oil volcanos, the floods in Pakistan.

Or it may be (both can be true) that the story is not meant literally; possibly, the weirdness is all happening in Chamberlain's mind.
The movie could be depicting one man's breakdown as his rational self is flooded by his subconscious. His dreams, so long repressed, like the sites under Sydney, come to the surface when he meets the Aboriginal man who is fluent in the irrational.
(The weather is just the weather.)
The whole thing could be a picture about what might happen when someone so deeply wedded to logic is forced to confront the irrational.

This is no Dances with Wolves, where the nice sympathetic hero from the dominant culture fits tidily into a wildly different way of being.
It explores the limits, rather, of how far a person's mind could stretch beyond their safe reality before it snapped.
How much warping of our perceived reality--the illusion that we have everything under control, for instance--can we tolerate?

Do we really want to know what would happen if the plumbing broke?

The director leaves it up to the viewer to determine what's going on. It's a film, not a sermon. But if you want to know more about what he was thinking, read this interview with Peter Weir, by Judith Kass, or watch this special feature, below, included on the Criterion Collection DVD.

Btw, I note that Weir's good with water. He directed Master and Commander too.


femminismo said...

I'll play the video later but will remember this one for Netflix. Never seen "Last Wave." Hope you're doing well. I've gotten so flooded with work and fun I haven't had time to visit my blog pals. Cheers!

momo said...

I LOVED that film when it came out. I need to see it again. It was more intelligible to me than Picnic on Hanging Rock, although on an intuitive rather than rational level. Glad to hear it holds up well.

Fresca said...

MRET: Oh, no! I carelessly deleted your comment! Sorry--I was trying to delete a duplicate of mine.

But yeah, what you said:
I thought of "Solaris" too---the weirdness (though this is far more literal) and the theme of the impossibility of adopting thought patterns alien to us. (Or at least the extreme difficulty.)

It's hard enough to try to understand how someone from the same culture thinks!

And yeah again, M&C's Aubrey and the doc are a lot like Kirk & Spock.

FISMO: Fun trumps!

MOMO: I'd be interested to hear what you think of it if you watch it again. I didn't get into "Picnic" either, but now I want to try again, if only to see the visuals.

Clowncar said...

I love Peter Weir, it's sad he kinda dropped outta sight.

I enjoyed his Witness too. Would you describe that as "nice sympathetic hero from the dominant culture fits tidily into a wildly different way of being." Cuz it kinda fits. But I like what it does with nature imagery. And they way it presents bullets and guns as seen from the POV of the Amish.

I REALLY liked The Year of Living Dangerously. Even if it does have Crazy Mel in it.

Fresca said...

CLOWN: I like "Witness" a lot too.
Actually, I'd say the Harrison Ford character does NOT fit into the Amish society ... He perches very awkwardly there, causing all kinds of tension (it's almost scary, I thought), and in the end, though he loves the Amish woman, he has to go.
The end scene where the Amish man is coming up the path as HF is leaving perfectly illustrates the way the society rejects him--politely.

"Year of Living Dangerously" is on my favorites list. Mel was so beautiful and good in his early years.

Weir has a movie coming out late this year, supposedly: "The Way Back". According to Wikipedia:
"The film is about a group of soldiers who engineered a grueling escape from a Siberian gulag in 1942 and their passage to India."

Clowncar said...

you are right, the dismissive smile he gives harrison ford as he drives away is a nice moment.

my favorite image from that movie is when he shakes the bullets out of the flour tin, and they're sitting in his palm, dusted with flour. eloquent.

and how could I forget - Weir made Gallipoli!!! great movie. again, with Crazy Mel.

Fresca said...

CLOWN: Yeah, that smug little look... Heh.

I haven't seen the film in a while but I remember there was such a sharp contrast between the violence of Ford's life (our lives!) and the Amish----and yet the Amish are not romanticized (as they so often are); you see the severe restrictions of their lives too.

The bullets in the flour... Eloquent indeed. Weir is so good with visuals instead of words. He's truly a filmmaker, not a wannabe novelist or speechwriter.

I didn't put together that he'd made all the movies he's made, because they're so different from one another, and yet now I see the list, I see they share some themes, including the difficulty of connection or being someone who doesn't fit in.

Maybe I should do a Weir Retrospective.
He's not made many films, as you know.
These are all of the feature films:
The Cars That Ate Paris (aka The Cars That Eat People) (1974)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
The Last Wave (1977)
Gallipoli (1981)
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Witness (1985)
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Green Card (1990)
Fearless (1993)
The Truman Show (1998)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
The Way Back (2010) (upcoming)

I have seen all but 3 (Cars, Fearless, & Truman Show). Liked them all, loved some.

Crazy Mel. Poor guy. Was he always crazy or did fame infect him with Situational Narcissism?

Clowncar said...

It's a great list. Back in the late 80s I referred to him as my favorite director, back in my 20s when it was important to me to choose things like a favorite director.

I've seen em all except Cars. A few clunkers (Green Card, The Mosquito Coast). But it's a nice legacy. The Truman Show is very good, and rather prescient.

Mel was lucky to work with some really good Australian directors while he was young. My vote is: always crazy.

Candace said...

This is one of my favourites and it really opened up the then (to me) secret realm of the "REAL" senses, so to speak. But I like all his work, really, the clash of the real titans being two completely (seemingly) disparate cultures.

Love. The. Ending. The music...
thanks for the memories, Fresca!
Candace, Still in Athens.

Fresca said...

CLOWN: Weir is my favorite director Of The Moment. I've put his whole line up on Netflix.

"Green Card" was a clunker, I agree, but I actually liked it anyway. Again, that clash of cultures... I remember laughing out loud at how Depardieu disparages American coffee.

And "Mosquito Coast" was really scary, I thought, so effective in that way at least. I don't think Harrison Ford can really carry off anything complex (his character in "Witness" was not complex).

CANDACE: I love how the movie asks, What are "real" senses anyway?
The music is an important--and wonderful-- part of the movie, for sure.

Emma J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emma J said...


Shivers as I read this post convince me I should take time to see this Last Wave. I too loved Witness - the restraint with which the story was told. I agree: using film to do what film does best.

Though one of my favorite movies (or two of them) are mostly words - My Dinner with Andre and Wings of Desire. In the first nothing happens except in words (and the facial expressions). In the second the film shots (very beautiful though they are) are just the furniture to what is hugely a long poem chanted by the characters.