"It doesn’t take any imagination at all to feel awed” – Peter Weir
Peter Weir was interviewed by Judith Kass in New York City on January 8, 1979, in connection with the U.S. opening of his new film The Last Wave.
The Last Wave concerns a lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, who defends five aborigines accused of killing a sixth in Sydney, Australia. Through them Chamberlain comes in contact with what the aborigines call “dream time” and his own involvement with their myths.
Richard Chamberlain is principally known in this country as the star of the TV series Dr. Kildare. What is not so widely known is that after becoming a star he left the U.S. to learn how to act. Why did you choose him for The Last Wave?
I thought he’d always been photographed in white light. When I think back to Kildare I think of those hot lights and I thought he’d never been photographed at night. I don’t mean that literally, but there was something in his face; there was some alien quality, and in my story my character had that quality. I had one actor in Australia I’d thought of using, but he was unavailable. Also, we couldn’t raise all the money in Australia and we were looking overseas, and Chamberlain’s name occurred to somebody and I remembered that face, those eyes in particular.
Gulpilil, the young aborigine star, is familiar to American audiences as the star of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. How did you come to use him? It’s very difficult to tell you about Gulpilil. I know very little about the man. He’s enigmatic; he’s unique; he’s an actor, a dancer, a musician. He’s a tribal man, initiated in the tribal ways, found by Roeg at a very early age and put into an international movie. Roeg took him on publicity trips to Europe and the States. He has a foot in both cultures. It’s an enormous strain on the man. In movies sometimes you can draw on that. And my film is very much about… In his instance in the story, as one of the men accused of manslaughter, he is torn between two cultures. I didn’t get the performance out of him, the situation did. The man is torn, and he has broken his tribal law by moving to the city, by marrying a black girl who is not tribal. He goes home, they still accept him in his tribal area, but he’s under enormous tension. It’s impossible to know what tension he’s under.
He speaks English well and I talked with him. You can have a conversation about anything, music, and then suddenly he’ll have a moment, as I experienced. It was one of the things that got me on to the movie. He’ll say something in English that makes no sense. This is one of the things that drew me to write a part for him. I’d never written a part for a person. It’s dangerous: you might not be able to get the person. I’d used him in a TV episode in a very straightforward part. He was being persecuted by a white overseer in a historical series, and we were chatting in a bar one night after work, and he said some things about his family and then suddenly he said some English sentence. It was something like “You see my father and I and that’s why because the moon isn’t.” And I said, “What’s that mean ”your father and I and the moon isn’t?” And he repeated it. I said, “David, I don’t understand.” And he said it again. This was ridiculous, we’d been talking. I said, “What are you talking about?” So he rearranged the sentence. It still made no sense. Well, I had to leave it, otherwise we couldn’t continue the conversation. And I thought about it that night and the next morning, and suddenly I realized what it was. That he was talking about another perception. He was talking about an experience for which there are no words. He’d seen something in another way. That was a breakthrough for me, firstly in my writing of the screenplay; and secondly in my future conversations with him, because then I would look out for these moments or
I would provoke them.
What does it mean to be a tribal aborigine in Australia today?
The problems are with the youth. We’ve got the sophisticated technology and so forth, the transistors, music, the draw of the cities. So the problem for tribal people is how to bring their young people back into their culture, how to get them to be interested in initiation ceremonies, how to stop them drifting to the cities. It’s a case of how long they can continue to be tribal people in a sophisticated Western country.
How did you find Nanjiwarra Amagula, who plays Charlie, and who is actually the leader of an aboriginal tribe?
He’s actually a clan leader. He’d never made a film, nor will he make one again. Not because of my experience, but because he saw this as a one-time thing. He would do it for certain reasons. To get to him I had to go to, in Sydney, the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation director, a man called Lance Bennett, who subsequently became a friend. He was highly suspicious of a feature filmmaker delving into tribal cultural matters. It’s all very well to photograph a tribal man with spears against Ayres Rock, but another to delve into the system of perception, which I wanted to. So he screened me, he read my draft screenplay, and finally he passed me and he said, “OK. I’ll help you.” He said, “There’s only one man who can play your Charlie, one man who has enough wisdom, enough breadth, enough understanding, not just to come into the city but to make a feature film. It’s obviously a sophisticated Western process.” He said, “I’ll tell him about this on the radio-telephone on his island in the Gulf of Carpentaria (Groote Island). He may or may not see you.” He did see me and we sat all day at Fanny Bay in Darwin, where he was rehearsing some dancers.
Rehearsing dancers what does he do?
As a tribal elder he’s a magistrate; he sits with a visiting European magistrate to try petty crime, which is what they cope with when there is theft, drunkenness, etc. He speaks the language with the accused and he advises the European magistrate on sentencing. He officiates at tribal ceremonies, which are considerable. For instance, during filming he had
to hurry home at one point to bury a child who couldn’t be buried until he was present.
He’s a member of the Northern Lands Council, which is coping with the uranium question. He’s a very important, busy man. So a film is something that could have appeared frivolous. Our meeting, then. You know, they had no concept of acting. They don’t have acting.
It’s the real thing. I sat with him on this beach and my first instinct was to tell him all about it. And I started to, and stopped because I could sense that it was the wrong thing to do and that he only wanted to do it his way. So we sat all day without saying a word. At the end of the day he said, “Can I bring my wife with me to make this film?” So he’d made the decision through that day in his own way, but it certainly wasn’t this idiotic language that we use.
He sensed that it was right to do and that I was right to do it, I think. We then met that evening with Lance Bennett, who remained the go-between and who could speak the language. We discussed the concepts within the film and he asked me to place certain
points within the film.
Did you have to treat the aboriginal actors differently in any way from the non-aboriginal actors? What did it involve?
Absolutely. It varied. With Gulpilil I had to be very careful of his ability to mimic a direction. He had considerable experience, far more than the others, and I could say to him … For example, the scene where he came to dinner with the old man, Charlie, and he walks up to the door and says, “Hi. This is Charlie.” Something simple. We rehearsed it and it was flat. I said, “David, what’s the matter, you’re not firing. What’s wrong?” He said, “What do you mean? What do you want me to do? I’m saying ‘Hi. This is Charlie.’” We had to act it out as a pantomime and destroy the language. I said, “This is a king you’re bringing, a man of great power. You’re bringing Nanjiwarra to the door. And when you say ‘Hi, this is Charlie,’ you don’t just mean that.” And I walked through it and we acted it out and touched each other. A great amount of touching, pushing, prodding, through other means of communication like that. And he suddenly said, “Oh! I see, I see! ‘Hi. This is Charlie.’ Let’s do a take.” Straightaway. And he just said the same line, the same movements, full of life. Language is secondary as communication. Did they influence the script and did you want them to?
I don’t know if I wanted them to. I guess you could say yes. I didn’t say to them, “Please, I’ve only got an outline. Help me.” I wanted to approach them as equals, which is difficult to do with the white man’s burden and given the sad history of contact with these people. But I had to approach them and I used many ways. That was just one of them.
How did you decide on the subject matter?
It just arose. A series of connecting things, moments, that conversation with Gulpilil that I couldn’t understand. Something that happened before that. I’d had a premonition. I’d never had anything like that in my life. I don’t consider myself psychic. I was on a holiday in Tunisia; I’d come down from London. I’d always loved Roman or Greek ruins, not the way they used to be, I just liked the way they’d fallen down; but I kind of liked classical sculpture. We were driving to Duga, this inland city in Tunisia, Roman city, looks like Pompeii, and we stopped the car to exercise a little and everyone was picking up bits of marble by the roadside in the fields. The driver hit the horn and we were heading back to the car and I had this feeling, which lasted some seconds, that I was going to find something. I was picking up bits of stone and I saw on a stone three parallel lines and I picked that stone up. In fact it was a hand, a fist, and the lines were between fingers. It resisted a little bit, then burst up through this ploughed field and there was this head, the head of a child, broken off at the neck and at the wrist. It had been holding something on its head, or a sword or something. The nose was gone, the lips and so on, but I can’t tell you what that was like. I smuggled it out and took it home and had it dated and put it on my desk. I wondered about the head: why did I know I was going to find it? Subsequently I told people about it, and they’d say, “Oh, that happens to you, it’s you.” And I thought, What if a lawyer had found it, that’s more interesting. And at some stage from that I thought, What if a lawyer dreamt of some evidence, what if he found some evidence through a premonition? Someone trained to think precisely on the one hand; on the other, the facts, dreaming, dream some evidence. I told Gulpilil about this and we discussed things and gradually the forces began to come together. I did a lot of reading during that period, Casteneda and the Old Testament, strangely different influences; Thor Heyerdahl’s theories, Velikovsky, and somehow these clues began to form a pattern. There was a new way to look at tribal people.
Is there really an ancient aboriginal cave under the city? Is that a real location in Sydney?
No, my location was up the coast about 15 miles. But there are rivers under Sydney; there are things buried under Sydney.
Are the aboriginal legends in the film authentic?
Everything passed through the hands of the tribal aborigines we used. The Sydney people are dead, white contact destroyed them. Around the city they’ve left signs and symbols, some paintings, carvings in national parks; they’re now protected. Nobody knows what they mean unless there’s obvious hunting in the picture. We took the Groote Island people to look at them. And Nanji just said, “Poor fellows.” So therefore, we created a fictional situation. The only thing was, Nanji insisted that there are still the Sydney people there, but they’re spirits and their spirits exist at sacred sites and protect sacred sites, so if there’s a sacred site under Sydney he said, “This is true, your script is true. The spirits will be there, therefore I cannot be human.” That was one change because in my story Charlie was human, initially. He pointed out that that was impossible. But he could be a spirit that took on human form; this is quite possible.
In The Last Wave a white man seeks ritual assistance from a black. Was it your intention to show that whites can learn from blacks if they take the trouble?
I don’t think so. You can’t come in contact with them. I paid a million dollars to spend six weeks with them, when it gets down to it. Who could do that? They’re in the North, a long way away. There are a few books, but I haven’t been lucky enough to find anything interesting. They’re either academic on the one hand or quasi-poetic on the other, and I didn’t set out to preach in the film. But something to think about, something I think about a lot, is the fact that I, with a basically Scottish-Irish-English background, have lost my past.
I have no past. I’m nobody. I ask my parents who these people are in the photograph album and they can’t remember. Nobody knows. I have no culture. I’m a European who lives in Australia. I’m an Australian in a sense, but I’ve lost something. And that’s what I made a film about.
Part of the film seems to be about the white man’s guilt over the destruction of the aboriginal culture.
It’s part of the story but by no means the most significant. The loss of dream time on our side is much more interesting.
What do the aborigines mean by dream time?
It’s a system of perception. I first learned about it as if it were some kind of mythology.
Like Grimm’s fairy tales: a collection of aboriginal dream time legends: how the rivers were formed, where the sun came from. In fact, I didn’t like anything I read. They always seemed cute in English, or coy. “The great great bull was in the sky and he hit the wombat on the head and that’s how the sun came.” I just didn’t like it. It was only when I talked to tribal people, not only about that but about other things, that an idea of dream time, as a way of perceiving, as another perception, started to come to me. The dream time wasn’t something in the past, but was a continuing thing. It is, in fact, another time, and people of great power can step into it and step back into our time. Now, how or what that means, I only touched on.
The film is also about natural phenomena gone awry. A rain of frogs or rain coming through a car radio. Why did you do that?
I suppose I’ve been shaving some mornings and I’ve watched that water coming out of the tap and I’ve thought, It seems to be under control. What if I couldn’t turn it off, and no plumber could ? We think we’ve got nature under control. Disasters always happen in Third World countries; in my part of the world we’re OK because we’ve organized things. We wouldn’t permit a cyclone to hit the city…. It seems to me we’ve lost touch with the fear of nature. More than the respect for it, because there are too many poems written about the respect for nature. To be absolutely dead scared. Tonight, when we leave this building and there’s a special kind of wind blowing, if that wind is howling with a voice like the voice of a person, a four-year-old child might say to us, “The wind’s talking to us,” and we’ll say, “No it isn’t. Don’t be silly. It’s just howling around those wires.” Organize his imagination: everything’s under control. It’s just part of something that we’ve lost touch with, another way of seeing the world. It was part of a balance of things, a balance within us, and we’ve eliminated it since the Industrial Revolution and it’s forcing its way back. People make movies about it, write books about it. Often they’re junk. Children are born with it, with this balance. We teach it out, but it’ll find its way back with some of us.
What is the significance of the wave itself?
It’s a common dream amongst all peoples throughout all time. The water rising up, the last high tide. It’s mentioned in the Bible, which is a type of journalism. It’s happened before; people have chosen to forget it. It’s the Velikovsky collective amnesia, which is used to forget certain catastrophes.
It seems that in your film primeval forces are gaining control over a part of the world that was previously considered civilized.
We, 40,000,000 of us, live hard along the coasts. We’re mostly in the cities on the edge of this vast continent. It’s just there to be seen if you live there. It affects you even if you’re not conscious of it, that great emptiness. You can travel and see nature as it was before the history of man, and you can be days driving from a hamburger joint or something. It doesn’t take any imagination at all to feel awed.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “It takes only the littlest thing to reveal the chaos underneath.” What chaos is there under Richard Chamberlain’s suburban life? It seems happy and tranquil.
Things not thought through, things suppressed. The natural forces that have been cemented over and the bloodstains of the corpse are seeping through for some people. It’s there and we just don’t choose to see it.
Richard Chamberlain learns of a previous civilization that was destroyed by a great wave. He was part of that civilization. Are we meant to believe that he was an aborigine in a previous life, or that he is psychically in tune with the aborigines and that’s why he’s chosen to be their lawyer?
Here we have two men: one white, one black; one tribal aboriginal, one highly sophisticated Western civilized man. Both fine men. One of them has material wealth; one has spiritual wealth. I wanted my lawyer, with his material wealth, with his humanitarian principles, to, firstly, glimpse with his mind that there was another lost dream, or spiritual life, and then to touch it. I thought, how can he touch it? I’ll have him go back down, go back down, that’s what I kept saying in my mind. How can he go back down? I thought, Go back down underneath the city, down through the sewer, through the filth, down to the dirt, down to his own lost spiritual life, treated with some logic, some realistic elements. It’s not a fantasy. I wanted to represent it that way. So he goes back down, and there, within the ground below, we’ve mentioned in the film that his background is South American, he came from South America as a child, and there he touches his own lost spiritual life, his own dreaming. In a sense he’s given a gift by the aborigines. There are symbols and signs from some other life, or South American history, who knows what? He can’t cope with it. He can’t handle that kind of knowledge. I don’t think he could.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, your previous film, is about the mysterious, and historically real,disappearance of three girls and a teacher during a school picnic in 1900. While not overtly occult, it is mysterious: two of the girls and the teacher are never found, all the watches stop at noon, and so forth. What is the significance of the red cloud that Edith says she saw?
Something that was always a pattern of geological disturbances. A lot of things were written about, or collected by Charles Ford, who wrote a book about phenomena around the world from the last century and early in this century. Red clouds were consistently represented in reports from Peru and elsewhere, coinciding with other mysterious happenings, showers of stones, etc. For me, this unsolved mystery … Nor is the story necessarily true. This is one of the most intriguing things. The author of the book [Joan Lindsay] from which the film is taken says it may be true. Strange thing to say. She wrote the book in her sixties. She’s no publicist; she’s a very shy, aristocratic, interesting woman. When I met her the agent warned me not to ask about the truth of the matter, which I did immediately. She said, “Never ask me again.” When the film was released and there was massive press contact with her, she asked, “Should I tell them?” I said, ‘Keep your secret. It’s not the point.” People disappear all the time. There are no newspaper records, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. For me it was partly to do with natural phenomena.
In The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock you’re concerned with the occult and the mysterious. Is your first feature, The Cars That Ate Paris, similarly concerned with the occult and the mysterious?
I don’t think those things are occult and mysterious, I think they’re natural. When people ask me why I always make films about the occult, I say … I don’t mean to be clever about it but, maybe it makes me eccentric, I think these things were natural. Maybe they’re not now, but we’ve only chosen to see the world in a certain way; it’s by common agreement these things are so. It’s why we laugh at foreign tribes who paint their noses red, or something. They laugh at us because we wear sunglasses. It’s what we all agree upon. It seems a reasonable thing to say we’ve agreed on the world, but it also therefore seems reasonable to say that it’s not necessarily that way. As for The Cars That Ate Paris, it was retitled The Cars That Ate People in the States, and for anyone in the Carolinas who was unfortunate enough to see this recut version of that first film, well, it was a grotesque monster of a film. It was an allegory using the B picture form, hence the title, which was like The Monster That Ate New York, or whatever. It was about a bunch of kids who had cars. They were living in a town [in Australia, not France] that lived off motorcar accidents: they trapped cars by night. Eventually the young Frankensteins rose up and decorated their cars one night with mouths and sharks’ teeth, and they attacked the town. But the allegorical element was eliminated the way the U.S. distributor cut it, and the picture came out as senseless violence. It was a horrible film.
What would you like audiences to know about your films?
I remember a quote of Bruce Springsteen’s in Rolling Stone. He said, “I like to give audiences something money can’t buy.” So I’d like them to walk out with much more than the $4.00 or whatever it cost.
A Psychic Thriller Famous Hollywood actor Richard Chamberlain is amazed that so many Australians were amazed when he came out here earlier this year to star in “THE LAST WAVE” - the latest film from brilliant young “Picnic at Hanging Rock” director Peter Weir.
“I can’t get over the great inferiority complex you all have here,” Chamberlain said in Australia. “You can’t understand why an (overseas) actor would come here to do a picture unless they couldn’t get any other work.”
Chamberlain works non-stop overseas. In fact, he’s currently starring in “Poseidon Adventure”/”Towering Inferno” maker Irwin Allen’s latest $14 million disaster epic “The Swarm” in Hollywood, with Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, and Henry Fonda.
So people keep asking Chamberlain why he would come to Australia to make a comparatively small-budget picture like the $750,000 production “The Last Wave.” Richard Chamberlain: “I liked the story right away. Then I met Peter (Weir, the director) in New York, and I liked him. Then I saw ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ and loved that. In fact, I saw it again last night - fantastic! So why wouldn’t I come?”
America’s great United Artists company shares Chamberlain’s enthusiasm for “The Last Wave,” which is the first Australian production it has ever invested in. UA put up half the film’s $750,000 cost in return for distribution rights in all English-speaking countries outside the U.S. and Canada. Both UA and Chamberlain’s faith in “The Last Wave” has already been vindicated at the recent Paris Film Festival, where it won the special Best Film jury prize.
“The Last Wave” is a “Don’t Look Now” type psychic thriller based on an original idea by director Peter Weir, which he has turned into a screenplay with the help of Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu. Set in contemporary Sydney, the story concerns David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a successful and happily married Sydney lawyer in his mid-thirties, who is having a series of inexplicable dreams and premonitions.
Caught in a traffic jam during a downpour, David suddenly has a vision of the city underwater, with shopping bags and eerie corpses bloating through the drowned depths of the city streets. Adding to David’s growing unease is the weather, which suddenly seems to have gone mad. Black oily rain falls on the city, while there are violent storms in the outback, with hail falling from cloudless blue skies.
One night, alone at his desk, David is confronted by the apparition of a young Aborigine, holding out a strangely carved stone. Soon afterwards, David is called upon to defend some Aborigines, who are charged with the murder of one of their fellows in a city slum. David recognizes one of the defendants, Chris Lee (David Gulpalil) as the man in his vision.
The Aborigines will not talk about the murder, which seems to be an unheard-of tribal killing in the city. To try to penetrate their fatalistic wall of silence, David invites Chris to dinner at his home. Chris brings with him an old Aborigine named Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula), who speaks no English but whose quiet menace haunts the Burton home long after he has gone.
As blood red clouds contort the skies, David works feverishly on the Aborigines’ defense. He becomes convinced that they are guarding a vital secret, and his attempts to discover the secret result in him narrowly escaping a tribal execution. Frightened by the Aborigine menace and the worsening weather, David’s wife Annie (Olivia Hamnett) takes their two young daughters away to safety in the country.
As more visions follow and the weather deteriorates, David gradually pieces together an amazing cosmic puzzle. The clues lead him into the storm weather drains under the city, where - with the reluctant help of Chris - he finds an Aboriginal cavern preserved from many thousands of years ago. On its walls are paintings depicting an Aboriginal legend telling of a past catastrophe that engulfed Sydney - and prophesising an imminent repetition of the same disaster. David’s discovery leads to a hair-raising climax . . .
It’s easy to see why the role of premonition-plagued Sydney lawyer David Burton attracted 42-years-old Richard Chamberlain to Australia. It’s one of his few recent contemporary parts in a string of costume pictures like “The Music Lovers,” “Lady Caroline Lamb,” the “Musketeers” films, and “The Man In the Iron Mask.” It’s also a far cry from his unsympathetic modern roles in “Petulia” and “The Towering Inferno,” and yet light-years from the “squeaky-clean” Dr. Kildare TV role that first made him famous fifteen years ago.
Chamberlain is surrounded by a distinguished local cast headed by Olivia Hamnet, who plays his screen wife Annie Burton. “The Last Wave” is the first feature film for Olivia, who won a Penguin award for her role as Sarah Lucas in the “Rush” TV series, and also Logie and Penguin nominations for “Sally Go Round the Moon.”
David Gulpalil, who plays Chris Lee, is the full-blooded actor-dancer from Arnhem Land who has appeared in “Walkabout” and “Mad Dog Morgan,” and recently won an Australian Film Award nomination for his performance as Fingerbone Bill in “Storm Boy.”
Portraying Charlie is Nandjiwarra Amagula, leader of the Amagula clan from Groote Eylandt. A Justice of the Peace and a Special Magistrate sitting on the bench to give advice and guidance in cases involving Aboriginal tribal matters, Mr. Amagula was awarded the M.B.E. in 1970 for services to his community. He consented to appear in “The Last Wave” in order to bring wider public understanding and appreciation of his people’s spiritual traditions and way of life. Three members of his clan spear with him in “The Last Wave.”
Director Peter Weir has had many of the team who helped him make “Picnic at Hanging Rock” such a huge success with him again behind the cameras on “The Last Wave.” They include producers Hal and Jim McElroy (who also produced Weir’s first big film hit “The Cars That Ate Paris”), and lighting cameraman Russell Boyd, who won a British Film Academy Award for his cinematography for “Picnic.”
Also financially backed by the Australian Film Commission and the South Australian Film Corporation, “The Last Wave” has been filmed on location in Sydney and at Hammond in South Australia. Interiors were shot in Adelaide studios, as were scenes at the Burton’s Sydney house, which were actually filmed at a doctor’s home in Mitcham, S.A.
“The Last Wave” is the first Australian film that has generated international interest even before it was made. Pre-shooting deals ensured release in Britain and other English-speaking countries via United Artists, also in Germany, France and Sweden. “The film looks good, and I know it will be a big success,” enthuses Hollywood star Richard Chamberlain. The Paris Film Festival award looks like just the start of an even bigger success than “Picnic at Hanging Rock!”
A Multidimensional Film
The Australian invasion has begun - and while several features from Down Under are due in the United States during the next few months, it is doubtful whether any of them will exceed the tremendous imagination power of “The Last Wave” by Peter Weir, which recently opened to enthusiastic American response.
A quick synopsis (not giving away too much) should indicate the complexity and mystery of the off-beat territory Weir has chosen to explore. Richard Chamberlain stars as a contented bourgeois lawyer in Sydney, whose biggest problem is coping with the dismal rain that has suddenly and unrelentingly begun to torment the city. Prompted by a friend, he undertakes the defense of several aborigines accused of murder.
Becoming convinced that their crime is related to tribal sorcery - a contention jeered at by his colleagues, who insist there are no tribal dwellers in urban Australia - he probes more and more deeply into the complicated paradoxes of aborigine culture and tradition With the realization that one of the defendants (played by Gulpilil) has begun haunting his dreams, he begins to uncover an inexplicable connection between his own life and the aborigine conception of “dream time,” a parallel world into which only the supernaturally gifted can peer.
Weir employs several strategies in developing this challenging material. On one level, “The Last Wave” is a straightforward suspense story, complete with a psychological detective and even courtroom scenes. On a deeper level, it is an evocation of the bittersweet contradictions between a “primitive” culture, resplendent with timeless lore and ritual, and a “civilized” culture foundering in its own complacence. And on the most profound level, “The Last Wave’ is an exercise in pure cinema - an excursion into the realm of purely visual storytelling in which forms and correspondences mean far more than words, gestures, and the artifices of performance.
In works that are steeped in mystery, the most difficult aspect to bring off is usually the “payoff” moment when the ineffable is finally revealed. In most films, there is some explanation and resolution at this point. In others, including “The Last Wave,” the mystery is resolved not by explication but by a broadening and deepening of mythic forces that have been building throughout the story.
The Last Wave (produced by Hal McElroy and James McElroy, directed by Peter Weir, World-Northal Corp.) is essentially a film about the intrusion of dream into reality, of reality into dream. This compelling depiction of a modern man forced to face the pull of the past is like no other film I can think of - completely original, completely riveting. Director Peter Weir understands perfectly the uneven pulse of the eerie, and makes the audience strongly believe in the film’s extraordinary premise. Richard Chamberlain is superb as a man teetering on the edge of horror, losing everything he thought dear as he gains a self-knowledge almost too terrible to face. Gulpilil, an aborigine from Northern Australia, turns in a haunting and unforgettable performance. This striking film explores the mystical reaches of man’s mind, the strange stirrings that promise that solutions to the unknown may one day be known, if not completely understood. Its screenplay by Peter Weir, Tony Morphett, and Peter Popescu creates not only excitement and terror but a fascinating spiritual metaphor which is undeniable poetic. Neil Angwin and Monty Fieguth’s special effects and sound are impressive, Charles Wain’s music intensifies the film’s mood, and Russell Boyd’s photography is vastly original. The Last Wave carries the viewer to a new far shore of cinematic imagination.”
A Thriller That Casts Light on Nature’s Mysteries
From the time of Noah’s Ark, and before, there have been myths and prophecies about unpredictable upheavals of nature. Primitive and modern man share a bond of awe and helplessness when a savage toll is exacted by earthquake or flood.
Translating those mysteries of nature and human links to the screen has rarely been accomplished to frighteningly and sensitively as in “The Last Wave,” an Australian film at the Bridge.
It begins with a thunderclap from a clear blue sky and a furious desert hailstorm in November “when it never rains.” In Sydney, a corporation tax lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, has a sleepless night, broken by the vision of an Aboriginal man. To his wonder, his stepfather reminds him that he had terrible dreams as a child.
When he unexpectedly becomes defense attorney for four Aborigines charged with the murder of a fifth, he is shocked to find that one of them, Chris Lee, resembles the man in his dream. As the defendants refuse to help him prepare their case, he learns something about the aboriginal conception of The Dreamtime, the sacred past with its significance to the present and future. Warned by Chris that he himself is in mortal danger because he has lost touch with the meaning of his own dreams, Chamberlain slowly builds up a convincing portrait of a man consumed by growing unease, fear for his wife and daughters and increasing wonder about his own identity.
Director Peter Weir amazingly preserves the spell of magic during a scene in which old Charlie, the Aborigine chief, interrogates Chamberlain and the phrase “who are you?” creates an eerie echo in the spectator.
The forceful presence and performances of the Aborigine actors are a key factor in sustaining the power of the film. Charlie - whether in his tattered street clothes or in full regalia - is indeed a commanding figure, as presented by Nanjiwarra Amagula, a leader of his own tribe and a justice of the peace, advising on cases that touch upon tribal law. Gulpilil (so impressive in “Walkabout”) brings an appealing earnestness to the part of Chris Lee.
Peter Weir, a boyish-looking 34-year-old making his American debut, is in the vanguard of the dynamic new Australian cinema. It’s difficult to imagine that the unassuming Weir directed such ominous films as the just-released Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which several Victorian schoolgirls mysteriously disappear, and The Last Wave, about a murder investigation involving a group of aboriginals and a white lawyer (played by Richard Chamberlain) which culminates in an apocalyptic tidal wave.
“I like to disconcert people,” says Weir with a smile, “to suddenly disturb all of their preconceptions. It’s so easy for a person to lose his identity, to be touched. It has to do with an ancient fear which is not simply the fear of the unknown. I’m interested in the area of dreams - in showing something that you’re close to but can’t quite reach. I just use the quickest shortcut - the genres of horror and fear. I offer the viewer details not connected with the logical pattern I’ve chosen and invite him or her to apply their own unconscious.”
Weir tries to capture the magic of the unknown without resorting to intellectualism. “I dropped out of university in my second year,” he recalls, “because the education system was leaning too heavily toward analysis. Afterwards, I didn’t read anything for years. I think that, instinctively, I was trying to preserve something I’m now using, which is somehow connected to childhood, to a certain openness.