T. Battaglia *

Il cinema di Peter Weir

ISBN 88-7916-190-3
On line da Agosto 2002 – Disponibile anche in versione a stampa dal mese di ottobre 2002

English summary

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Il testo affronta l'analisi dei dodici lungometraggi finora diretti da Peter Weir nell'intento di dimostrare come il suo lavoro sia unito non solo da uno stile unico e accattivante, ma anche da una continuità di temi e figure che attraversano, come una sottile linea rossa, tutte le sue opere. Weir è un regista eclettico che ama attingere a diverse fonti, cambiare i generi di riferimento da film a film e spesso anche nel medesimo film, attuando quella che oggi viene da tutti chiamata la contaminazione di generi: attraverso di essa prima reinventa il cinema australiano, che negli Anni Settanta tenta di rinascere dalle ceneri di un passato glorioso, poi apporta una ventata di freschezza al cinema hollywoodiano, sempre più in cerca di storie da raccontare ma sempre meno capace di trovarle. Ne esce il ritratto di un uomo, come i suoi personaggi, diviso tra diverse culture e diverse realtà: l'Australia, sua terra d'origine, e l'Europa, la patria dei suoi antenati; l'Australia, suo abituale luogo di residenza, e gli Stati Uniti d'America, dove ormai lavora da anni; infine, sul piano più strettamente professionale, la dimensione di una ricerca autorale di storie da raccontare e la realtà del box office.

Tiziana Battaglia si è laureata in Lingue e letterature straniere moderne presso l’Università IULM di Milano con una tesi di Storia del cinema su Peter Weir.

Il testo è di 153 pagine ed è suddiviso in cinque files PDF
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Frontespizio e Introduzione
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1. IL CINEMA AUSTRALIANO DALLE ORIGINI ALLA NEW WAVE E OLTRE: 1.1. Società e miti (p. 11) – 1.2. Il cinema australiano dalle sue origini agli anni Quaranta (p. 15) – 1.3. Gli anni Cinquanta e Sessanta (p. 18) – 1.4. Gli anni Settanta (p. 19) – 1.5. Gli anni Ottanta (p. 23) – 1.6. Gli anni Novanta (p. 25) – 1.7. Peter Weir: la vita e lo stile (p. 27)
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2. PERCORSI TEMATICI: 2.1. La soglia e il viaggio (p. 35) – 2.2. Il ruolo della donna (p. 50) – 2.3. L'acqua (p. 63) – 2.4. Il tempo e l'immagine dell'orologio (p. 73) – 2.5. La natura (p. 81)
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3. ASPETTI TECNICI: 3.1. Primo piano e "ferite visive" (p. 91) – 3.2. Per un'estetica degli inizi (p. 105)
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Conclusione (p. 123) – Ringraziamenti (p. 125) – Appendice 1. 30/11/1999 – Conferenza stampa presso il Cinema Anteo di Milano (p. 127) – Appendice 2. 02/12/1999 – Incontro con gli studenti presso il Cinema Lumière di Bologna (p. 135) – Filmografia (p. 143) – Bibliografia (p. 147)
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Peter Weir is one of the most important directors of the Australian New Wave, which developed in the Seventies. He was born in Sydney on 21 August 1944. He recounts that he had an aversion to formal education and his cultural formation consisted in comic books and commercial films. In 1967, back from Europe where, like many young Australians, he had spent over a year, he decided to pursue a television career and joined Channel Seven in Sydney. Here he produced two satirical shorts until in 1970 he had the opportunity to direct the film novella Michael for the three-part film Three to Go. Then he went back to Europe to perfection his craft, working on feature films set in England. On returning to Australia, he made two of the best documentaries of the period and in 1974 he directed his first feature film, The Cars that Ate Paris. Since then he has directed up to date another ten, which include Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977), Gallipoli (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989), Green Card (1990), Fearless (1994) and The Truman Show (1998), as well as a TV movie entitled The Plumber (1978).

As to style, Weir is able to combine good stories with a classic and sound technique which often produces remarkable box office results. Consequently, his films have almost all been successful and Weir is one of the few directors who has managed to move on to Hollywood, which he did after 1983, and has made an enviable career there, too.

His works are made up of strikingly beautiful and well constructed images, so much so that one usually remembers his films for a series of images rather than for a memorable dialogue. Also, the power of an image is increased by the use of slow motion sequences, soft-focus photography and superimpositions. The frequent use of zoom shots flattens the space and focuses attention on the characters' intimate moments. In addition, in each film photos play an important role because they create a duplication of meaning, a second reality which goes beyond that of the film. And Weir's stories are always about the clash of realities, they have a dichotomous structure which is reinforced by music. In fact, the two contrasting realities are usually accompanied by two opposing strands of music, one belonging to a classical repertoire, the other to modern music.

As regards themes, Gianni Canova observes that the main characters in Weir's films always make a journey, which can be either real or metaphorical and which usually takes the characters from one reality to another. In addition, it is possible to note that, in order to begin their journey, the characters have to go through a door, which can again be real or metaphorical. It seems that the result of the journey depends on how the characters have passed through the door: if it was their decision, then they will never come back. On the contrary, if they were pushed through it by an external force, then they will return to their own reality.

What has just been said is well exemplified in Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Year of Living Dangerously. The former is the story of a group of girls who disappear on Hanging Rock during a picnic. Their asking for permission to climb the Rock can be interpreted as a willingness to go through the "door" which stands between two realities and this may be the reason why they will not come back. Therefore, this metaphorical door seems the gateway to a different dimension, unknown to the other character as well as to the audience. The latter is the story of the Australian journalist Guy, who is sent to Indonesia by his paper: he is there to do his job and is interested only in his career. It could be said that while in Djakarta, Guy makes a metaphorical journey to discover the hidden side of the characters he encounters. However, his disassociation with what is happening around him seems to be symbolised by the gate at the airport which opens automatically before him. Consequently, at the end of the film, he is able to go back to the social role he had previously occupied.

According to Seymour Chatman, narrative events can be classified either as "kernels" or as "satellites". As he maintains in his book Story and Discourse, published for the first time in 1978, kernels are "narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events. [...] Kernels cannot be deleted without destroying the narrative logic" (p. 53), while satellites "can be deleted without disturbing the logic of the plot [...]. Satellites entail no choice, but are solely the workings-out of the choices made at the kernels" (p. 54). It seems that this theory applies to the narrative function of women in Weir's film.

In fact, as regards feminine characters, they tend to occupy three different functions. In the first case, they can be absolutely necessary to the plot because their actions represent nodes or hinges in the film structure. In this way, their actions work as "kernels" and cannot be eliminated without altering the logic of the story. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, for instance, the girls give the main kernel to the plot in the sense that their disappearance makes the film, for the story would not exist without this event.

Secondly, certain other women in Weir's films seem to have a less important role in the story and, in this case, it could be said that their actions function as "satellites", that is they are consequences of the choices made at the kernel. In addition, it is men's actions here which usually give the kernel to the plot. In The Mosquito Coast Mother's actions depend directly on those of her husband. In fact, during the whole story of the family's pioneer activities in South America she follows Allie without ever discussing his decisions. Had the director deleted her character and her actions the plot would not have lost its logic.

Finally, it is possible to note that some of Weir's films treat women as part of the "furniture" which creates the mood of the story. They can be housewives or mothers (The Cars that Ate Paris and Dead Poets Society) just as they can be young, desirable girls (Dead Poets Society again). This is well exemplified in Gallipoli where, on the one hand, mothers, wives and would-be fiancée are seen waiting for their men to come home from the war. On the other hand, in the war zone there are only nurses of the Red Cross and prostitutes. None of these women have an important role in the film; indeed, they are there only to create the right mood for a war story.

Another important theme in Weir's films is water. Though it can have many symbolic meanings, in the director's work it tends to assume three major ones. In the first place, water can be a symbol of death and rebirth. It may be said that Weir's treatment of this symbol is similar to that employed by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. A good example here is The Last Wave. David, an Australian lawyer, has to defend a group of Aborigines from murder charges. They allegedly have drowned Billy, a fellow tribesman. It seems that Billy is similar to Phlebas in The Waste Land. In fact, his death by water enables David to discover the mysteries of Billy's tribe, which tells the story of the Australian civilisation from the beginning to its end. Also, after discovering the secrets of the Sydney aboriginal tribe, David kneels on the beach and washes his face in sea water. With this baptism he seems to acquire a new consciousness which is symbolised by the vision of the last tidal wave which will end a cycle destroying everything before starting a new one.

Secondly, it seems that Weir's characters always have to cross water to meet their destiny, following the example of Israelites travelling to the Promised Land or Ulysses returning home. In Picnic at Hanging Rock for example, the girls first have to cross a stream before starting to climb the Rock where they disappear to meet their doom. The same happens to Archy in Gallipoli. In 1915 he sails first from Australia to Egypt and then from there to the battlefield in Gallipoli, Turkey, only to discover that his destiny is to die in the First World War and to be part of the ANZAC legend (as critic Marek Haltof explains the slaughter of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli is taken as the birth of the Australian nation).

Lastly, in his interpretation of dreams Freud maintained that water tends to symbolise men's conscience whereas the fish living in it symbolise fecundity and vital energies. This theory can be applied to some of Weir's films. In Green Card Bronte cares more for her plants than for people; she is unable to feel passion and all the things she does seem sterile. For instance, she marries Georges not because she loves him but because she wants an exclusive flat with a greenhouse. On the other hand, Georges marries her because he wants the green card even though he is passionate and everything about him is vital. Bronte's greenhouse has an empty pond in it until Georges moves to her flat and brings her a goldfish. So, it seems that Freud's interpretation fits the film, just as it can fit The Cars that Ate Paris, The Plumber or The Mosquito Coast.

As Gianni Canova has said, Weir's films are structured around two flows of time as seen in The Year of Living Dangerously, where the two flows are the time of History and the time of feelings which is represented by the romance between Jill and Guy. The History flow becomes more important and tends to eliminate the romantic one until at the end of the film the latter regains its importance. Weir's films are also full of clocks and it can be seen that they belong to the Establishment while in the other flow of time, that of the new dimension the characters enter, they either stop or do not exist at all. In Picnic at Hanging Rock for example the Establishment is symbolised by Appleyard College which is characterised by the presence of clocks and their ticking. The Rock can be seen as the other dimension; in fact during the picnic all the watches stop. In Green Card Bronte may symbolise the Establishment because she belongs to well-off society and has a successful social life. That is why all the clocks seen in the film belong to her while Georges, being a Frenchman in America, seems to belong to a different reality and has no watch.

Lastly, time in The Last Wave and Fearless has a circular aspect and follows the workings of the characters' brain. Fearless is the reconstruction of the plane crash through Max's memories. Thus, the film opens with Max leading the other survivors to safety and ends with him recalling the last moments before the plane crashed. The story has come full circle.

Weir always says that Australia has very little art in the European sense of the word. Therefore, for an Australian, nature which on the continent is very rich, special and overwhelming is Art; that is why the natural setting is so important in many of his films.

In his book Story and Discourse, Seymour Chatman discusses the way in which setting may be related to plot and characters. In particular, he talks about Robert Liddell's categorisation of the natural setting. In Liddell's opinion setting can be like the action. This seems to be true also for some of Weir's films where nature is not only like the action but is an actor itself. An example is Picnic at Hanging Rock, where the mysterious disappearance of the girls on the Rock is matched to a natural setting, the Rock itself, as old as Earth and very mysterious because unknown and maze-like in its structure. Furthermore, it is possible to note that nature is one of the main characters of the film. It is seldom included in shots of human characters and when they are included in the same shot, the immensity of nature overwhelms the human beings portrayed. Besides, the Rock seems to draw, to call, the girls and then keeps the secret of their disappearance.

In addition, Seymour Chatman asserts that "a normal and perhaps principal function of setting is to contribute to the mood of the narrative" (p. 141). Again, it may be seen that also the natural setting in Weir's works helps to create the mood of the story. In Witness the Amish lead a peaceful life surrounded by the Pennsylvania countryside. The way in which the director portrays it suggests feelings of harmony, communion and solidarity, which are absent in the scenes set in Philadelphia. Here the lack of a natural setting sets the stage for chaos and violence. For instance, in Philadelphia Samuel, the Amish child going to Baltimore with his mother, will be witness to a murder.

While it is true that in Weir's last films nature has undergone a process of urbanisation, this also serves a symbolic end: in fact the characters tend to be self-centred and unable to live in harmony with others. In Green Card Bronte seems unable to communicate her feelings to the people about her. She discusses her marriage of convenience with her lawyer (never with her best friend or with her parents) but only after the Immigration Officers have doubts about it. Finally, she and Georges become closer and start to feel love for each other while strolling in Central Park. Therefore, it seems true that feelings can only develop in a natural setting.

Gianni Canova says that the linearity of Weir's films is often interrupted by what he calls "visual tears", which can be flashbacks, dreams, visions, premonitions. These images pierce the plot, creating a new level of meaning and perception. Moreover, it seems that tears can also be verbal. In this case again they can be flashbacks or flashes forward, dreams, visions or premonitions. When a character recounts them the progression of the story stops and the plot assumes new connotations. In any case it is possible to note that the tears are usually introduced or followed by the close-up of a character.

The Last Wave and Fearless have six "visual tears" each. In the former they are dreams or visions and usually have a complex structure. The most interesting here is the third. Starting from a close-up of Charlie, the chief of Sydney Aboriginal tribe, the camera moves inside David's house. It seems that what the camera shows is what Charlie is seeing even though this is not possible because at that moment Charlie is sitting by the fireplace with some of his fellow tribesmen. Finally, the camera reaches David's bed and he wakes up in a state of fear and confusion. Since this "visual tear" mixes up two different levels of perception it can be said that it pierces the linearity of the plot. Therefore, it is not clear who is doing what and what is happening. In the latter the "visual tears" are all flashbacks which can either be very simple (the fourth is made of only two shots) or quite complex like the first which is about the beginning of the plane crash and opens with a close-up of Max and ends when the camera shifts to a close-up of Carla, but it is not clear that it is a presentation of two minds until the end of the sequence. Consequently, mixing two or more different levels of perception Weir tends to undermine the linearity of the plot and purposely confuse the audience.

A final example of a "verbal tear" comes in Picnic at Hanging Rock when Albert tells Michael about a dream he had. He dreamt that his sister Sarah, who he has never seen again after he left the orphan asylum and is incidentally one of the students of Appleyard College, had to leave him because she was "called" but it is not said who calls her and why. Sarah in the story has already committed suicide, that is she has already left Albert, but the audience discovers it only in the closing scenes of the films. So this "verbal tear" seems to break the linearity of the plot adding new nuances to the general meaning.

It is said that from the beginning of a film the audience can understand what kind of story it is going to see, as well as when and where it takes place and who the protagonists will be. Furthermore, it is also possible to gather information about the director's style. Picnic at Hanging Rock opens with shots of the Rock and of Appleyard College which indicates that the story will take place in these two places. A subtitle locates the film in time – it is St. Valentine's Day 1900 – and then Weir introduces the main characters. As to style it seems to be classical and the predominant colour will be white. Lastly, the story is anticipated by a written explanation: some of the girls from Appleyard College will disappear on Hanging Rock during the picnic. Thus the audience will probably expect to see the story of the vanishing together with some kind of explanation. Weir, as he does in other films, will disappoint these expectations because Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery tale with no solution.

Another example are the opening sequences of The Truman Show. It starts with what could be the opening credits of the show itself. Christof, the producer-director, Meryl, Truman's wife, and Marlon, Truman's best friend, talk about the show. The story becomes immediately clear: in the show Truman does not know that everything about him is not real; of course the actors have a screenplay to follow because in some way the show has to be under Christof's control. Yet, in the first sequences Truman says things which can help the audience to guess what the plot will be like. Talking to his mirror, thus looking into the camera which is placed behind it, he says he has not got the strength to go on so his fictitious friend will have to continue alone. It seems that Truman is telling the audience that the show is soon going to end and the audience aspects that the film will explain how this is going to happen.

In conclusion, the analysis of Weir's films through their recurrent themes and features should underline the complexity and, at the same time, the unity of his work as well as his vast and eclectic knowledge.