Sunday, March 23, 2008

Words and Pictures

Despite poster art that suggests a florid Harlequin romance, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) is actually one of a trio of films released a year apart in the early-1980s that depicted Western journalists growing a conscience while covering the plight of Third World nations. The Killing Fields took place in Cambodia; Under Fire, Nicaragua. The locale of The Year of Living Dangerously, 1960s Indonesia, is the most atmospheric of the three -- no surprise coming from Peter Weir, who has always had a knack for creating fish-out-of-water scenarios that regard the local habitat as more than window dressing.

Mel Gibson (who looks as astonishingly boyish here as Al Pacino does in The Godfather) is Guy Hamilton, an ambitious Australian correspondent sent to Indonesia during the dictatorship of Sukharno. His established colleagues, a mix of Brits and Americans, have resigned themselves to a sense of bored entitlement involving the purchase of bungalows and the courting of starving prostitutes, but Hamilton is hot for a story. His hastily developed partnership with Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a photographer with mysterious contacts among Sukharno's communist rivals, enables him to score hard-to-get interviews; and his romance with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), an attache at the British embassy, acquires him with secret information about an upcoming coup.

Most of the attention for this movie was paid to Linda Hunt's portrayal of a male character, but her turn isn't a case of stunt casting. (Weir has stated that she simply auditioned and won the part.) Billy is the audience surrogate in the early and best passages of the movie, as we follow him from expatriate taverns to an impoverished neighborhood where he tends to a young woman and her gravely ill child. Half-Chinese, diminutive in stature, Billy is treated as a kind of mascot by the Anglo-Americans, and the slyness of Hunt's performance is in how cunningly Billy uses their condescension to his advantage. Yet right away, Billy's relationship with Guy is on a more complicated level, mutual admiration evolving at the same time each one is using the other. "We'll make a great team," he tells Hamilton. "You for the words, me for the pictures."

Structurally, Weir and his co-screenwriters attempt something very tricky: as the love affair between Guy and Jill comes to the forefront of the movie, Billy recedes into the background while still registering as the prime mover of events. Billy, who once proposed to Jill, orchestrates their relationship, surreptitiously photographs their rendezvous together, and hammers out files about them on his typewriter. Never fully trusting Billy's intentions, Guy suspects him of being a CIA operative. Both are actually closet idealists, differing only in the means by which each strives to achieve his objectives: Guy impulsively throwing himself into hostile situations, Billy like a chess-player surveying the board.

More than most Western filmmakers, Weir takes pains to present the inhabitants of foreign countries as human beings with lives of their own. But The Year of Living Dangerously gets muddled in its final act, with Guy racing to the airport while negotiating his way through squads of soldiers with angry, leering faces. Underused is Michael Murphy in a one-note role as a boorish American journalist, the only surprise being that he isn't killed by film's end. Hunt's great performance is undercut only by one of her last scenes -- when Billy tells Guy that he "created" him -- which requires her to get self-consciously actorly.

25 years later, The Year of Living Dangerously is still worth another look. (I have no idea if a special edition is planned.) It's a reminder that Gibson was once a charming actor, and Weaver an uninhibited one. Their relationship, however cliched, is one of the movie's most convincing, funny and touching elements. While they mesh well together, they are far from a perfect fit. In one pointed scene, Jill tells Guy that she found one of his on-the-air news stories melodramatic, mentioning the faces of starving children repeatedly when, she opines, "perhaps once would be better." That's a good description of Weir's own style, which is socially conscious without sacrificing the economy of the story. Moreover, Weir's deeply felt romanticism -- which would reach a creative peak in his next film, Witness -- is burnished in a wonderful sequence where Jill, having just translated a coded message with dire portents, walks dazedly through a monsoon to Guy's studio to the sound of Vangelis's "Opera Sauvage" (actually from another movie; Maurice Jarre, Weir's frequent collaborator, composed the overall score), and in a long unbroken take the camera lingers on the image of Weaver holding Gibson close, soaking him with rain.


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Great piece about a movie I adored when I first saw it at a young, impressionable age. My only quibble: I used to agree with you that "Hunt's great performance is undercut only by one of her last scenes -- when Billy tells Guy that he "created" him -- which requires her to get self-consciously actorly." The scene makes subtext text, which is always a dicey proposition, and yes, all things considered, it's probably too much within the context of an otherwise subtle movie. But compared to "I drink your milkshake!" it's pretty low-key. And as much as I quibbled with Billy's declaration even as an adolescent moviegoer, I can still hear Hunt saying that line quite clearly, and I can still picture the spooky certainty in her (his?) eyes; that I've forgotten the entire contents of other movies I saw that year but can still picture Hunt's Oscar moment makes me think there are times when too much is just right.

Craig said...

Glad you stopped by, Matt. Like you suggested, context is everything: for me, "I drink your milkshake" is a crazy line from a crazy actor in a crazy movie, and therefore stands out less. But I think we're ultimately arguing the same thing. The scenes some people nitpick about -- including the one I cited here -- are often the ones that make a movie memorable. Criticism becomes irrelevant in the face of it.

Tina said...

Thanks for this, and for your essay at THND. As for the scene in question, it didn't bother me. Yes, it's big, perhaps too big for the context, but through the movie we see Billy go from in control of his world to losing it, to his final grand-but-meaningless gesture. To me it's desperation that Billy can't hide, and Hunt as usual makes it work.

Anyway, nice to think about this movie again. Whatever Mel Gibson does these days, he gets a little pass for this one. I can still remember, when I was just recognizing what chemistry between actors was, seeing Gibson and Weaver demonstrate it in such an unmistakable way.

Peter Ramsey said...

An underrated gem of a film, and one that is a bit of a touchstone for me. The lyrical and yet somehow absolutely straightforward tone that Weir achieves never ceases to enthrall me, no matter how many times I've seen it. Weaver and Gibson's embrace in the rain, Gibson's reverie while listening the the Strauss lieder in Billy's office...simply beautiful.

Weir makes real cinema.

Craig said...

Peter and Tina -- thank you both for your comments. Gibson and Weaver do have potent chemistry in this one, in a way strangely: he's short and she's tall, he's blue collar and she's aristocratic, yet they mesh in all the right ways.

I'm willing to bet that Gibson learned a great deal from Weir on how to tell a story visually. Too bad he didn't pick up on his humanism too.

J.D. said...

Great article. Weir is such an underrated filmmaker as your profile on him so rightly points out. I was just thinking about this particular film and how it had been years since I'd seen it. It is definitely time for another look.

It's amazing how far both Gibson and Weaver have come but there is a real kind of energy and electricity to their chemistry in this film that is fascinating to watch unfold. I also love the atmosphere of this film.

Hans said...

Came over from the House Next Door... great to read posts on my all-time favorite director. YOLD was a touchstone for me as well in my romantic college days. Russell Boyd's glowing images, and Jarre's score: I think the Jarre/Weir collaboration thru several films ranks among the best.

And in many of his films, Weir's use of 19th/20th Romantic classics has always been on-the-mark. YOLD introduced me to Strauss' Four Last Songs, my favorite music of any genre to this day.

A correction though:

"Jill, having just translated a coded message with dire portents, walks dazedly through a monsoon to Guy's studio to the sound of Maurice Jarre's playful score"

That specific cue came from Vangelis' work "Opera Sauvage" (a score from another film I believe).

None-the-less, Jarre's scores for YOLD, Witness, DPS -- the list goes on -- were great inspiration in my work as a composer.

Craig said...

Hans, thanks for the correction. As you've indicated, Weir fuses original and previously composed music so seamlessly that sometimes it's hard (for me at least) to keep them straight. Thank you and J.D. both for your comments.

Craig said...

I've revised this post with Hans's correction and am keeping it on the homepage for a little while longer.