Variations on a Theme

On Peter Weir

Director Peter Weir gained international attention with the cryptic Picnic at Hanging Rock in the mid-1970s and has spent the past 20-odd years stumbling around, looking for something nearly so compelling and enigmatic. He nearly found it with The Truman Show, but his genre-hopping oeuvre and inconsistent output (both in quality and his sporadic working habits) had already doomed him to second-class-director status.

That’s not to say the man doesn’t have his fans — I’m one of them. But the slump that began with the borderline obviousness of Witness and reached its pit with The Mosquito Coast and Green Card kept Weir from being somebody film lovers were forced to pay attention to.

If Weir’s movies fundamentally operate on basic levels and within simple formulas, they also resonate more deeply than those of virtually any other working director. Weir creates well-rounded and complicated characters, puts them in a premise, and watches them go.

He is, in short, making character-driven movies, generally without pretense or intrusive style, which might be one reason he’s not held in terribly high esteem. Peter Weir will never be hip. The films of Quentin Tarantino, to make an extreme contrast, are designed to obscure their meanings (Jules’ redemption in Pulp Fiction, a middle-aged love affair between a flight attendant and a bail bondsman in Jackie Brown); Peter Weir’s movies are about what they’re about, nothing more and nothing less. On close inspection, Fearless looks a lot like It’s a Wonderful Life: George Bailey/Max Klein chooses death, sees his importance, and returns to life. Such straightforwardness and honesty are brisk refreshment in this postmodern age of self-reference, style, and bloat.

Another factor that might contribute to Weir’s underappreciated status is that he’s covered a lot of territory. The foreboding horror of Picnic at Hanging Rock and the apocalyptic nightmare of The Last Wave gave way to a realistic humanist portrait of war in Gallipoli and political intrigue in The Year of Living Dangerously, the latter two featuring Mel Gibson on the cusp on stardom.

From there, Weir became essentially an American filmmaker, doing two dramas with Harrison Ford, inspirational prep-school slop with Robin Williams, and perhaps the most unfortunate pairing in romantic-comedy history with Andie MacDowell and Gerard Depardieu. (This steady slide into American mediocrity is probably one of the best examples of the poisonous influence of Hollywood on interesting filmmakers.)

Fearless marked a return to the richer, more ambiguous, and more spiritual material that distinguished Weir’s earlier films, and The Truman Show was a mainstream triumph — if not a great movie, one of the most well-made of recent memory.

More striking than this variety, though, is Weir’s dogged use of a single theme through nearly all his movies: the fish out of water. Weir’s basic premise is to stick a man into a place or circumstances where he clearly doesn’t belong and watch him squirm.

This theme often manifests itself obviously, physically: pale lawyer Richard Chamberlain among the dark, spiritual Aboringals in The Last Wave; cop Harrison Ford among the Amish (and plain Lukas Haas in the violent, damned city) in Witness; Truman Burbank in a world literally constructed for him, but strangely the odd man out, the only one not in on the game.

Even when the theme of displacement is not so easily apparent, it’s never far from the surface; in many of Weir’s movies, characters comment how they don’t belong. In Fearless, Max Klein suggests to fellow plane-crash survivor Carla that they shouldn’t fear death because they died once. Later, in a shopping mall, Carla hovers near a baby, unnoticed by its mother. “Maybe I am a ghost,” she says.

And Weir’s not afraid to hammer home this constant use of contrast: Both Witness and Gallipoli feature intrusive and anachronistic electronic music.

Of course, saying that an artist is consumed by one theme comes off at best as a criticism. To ascribe a single interest to any filmmaker’s work suggests the creator is simple-minded or obsessive. Adding injury to insult, the film motif of the man who doesn’t belong is so hackneyed that it hardly seems a worthy subject to which a good director would return time after time.

But Weir’s best work takes his simple theme and turns it into a complex, delicate study. Weir’s movies succeed so well because in putting his main character where he doesn’t belong, families and communities are also disrupted and forced into quandaries and decisions. What Weir understands (in writing, revising, or choosing material to direct) and offers is that all human beings are outsiders in their own surroundings. He takes that truth and makes it literal.

Hence, he doesn’t just dump worldly John Book among the Amish in Witness and let him try to get by alone. The transplant requires not only the intruder but also the rest of the community to struggle to adapt.

Surface simplicity serves Weir well in Witness, a movie that works largely because of its enormous earnestness. If even a hint of pretension seeped onto the screen, the film would be ruined. But somehow, honest performances from Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis and quiet, distant direction from Weir salvage what could have easily been a disaster.

It helps a great deal, especially in Witness, that Weir tends to reject pat Hollywood endings. His movies end not in triumph or tragedy, but somewhere true and heartbreaking in between.

I could imagine a dozen alternate endings to Witness, but none could even come close to working. Weir chose to have his protagonists part ways, taking the easy way out. The cop returns to his cop life, and the Amish woman returns to her old-world ways, and both are merely comfortable. The choice surely won’t make them happy in the long run.

Other endings, though, seem better examples of Weir’s special touch. Both Fearless and The Truman Show seem to end on happy notes — Max Klein has a renewed love of life and a commitment to his family, and Truman has bowed out of his fake world into the real one, to cheers and tears from the movie’s television audience. But these highs crumble under scrutiny.

The trick here is that Weir gives the audience only half the story. If the audience accepts “The End” as the end, they’ll leave happy. But if they continue the stories in their heads, they’ll start to come down. Max Klein has distanced himself so far from his family and friends that it seems unlikely he’ll ever be able to repair those relationships.

And Truman Burbank, courageous as he is, has at best a hard road in the world he steps into. For his entire life, the world did revolve around him, and he was protected from the real consequences of his actions or chance. Truman’s prospects for survival in the real world, it seems to me, are pretty slim, and his first step toward independence and self-sufficiency was just one of millions.

Many critics, praise it though they did, misread The Truman Show badly, I fear. They called it primarily a satire of our media-saturated world, or the feel-good story of a man who made it against the odds. But it’s hard to satirize a culture that’s already saturated with ironic instant commentary. And if strength of character does triumph, it’s surely only temporary.

I keep returning to the movie for other reasons.

For one, it’s a fascinating, complex commentary on the process of entertaining — pulling strings, manipulating emotions, creating melodrama. And just as Christof grips viewers by resurrecting Truman’s father, giving Truman a new love interest, and trying to kill him, Weir is doing the exact same thing. The movie puts its audience in the role of watching the film and the eponymous television show.

I especially like that, in typical fashion, Weir is completely up-front and honest about this. If you’re sucked into this false drama, it’s your own damned fault, he seems to be saying.

The Truman Show is also the first time that Weir seems to recognize artifice and masks as key components to and issues in human interaction. Characteristically, the theme is made literal: Truman is living among people whose actions, reactions, and dialogue are scripted and fake.

And yet, they cannot always maintain their facades. The hilarious moment when Meryl sobs, “How can anybody expect me to work under these conditions?! It’s unprofessional!” shows how deeply her work can scar her.

Even more fascinating, though, is the tantalizing realization that once again Weir only gives the audience half the story. The implications of Truman’s world are staggering. The person who plays Meryl is little more than a whore — taking money for having sex with her fake husband. She crosses her fingers at the wedding, but she still sleeps with guy? And the other actors on the show either genuinely care for him and are oblivious to the damage they can potentially cause or simply think nothing of being in complete control of another human being.

Consequently, they are as disconnected from humanity (and its inherent kindness, conscience, and consideration) as Truman is removed from reality. The movie here becomes a disquieting metaphor for the state of our species, full of greed and hedonism.

These characters can also be seen as suffering from the same obsession with job and wealth as the rest of our culture. They work on a 24-hour-a-day show for which they must be constantly on-call and ready for action. They realistically cannot have any real relationships with people outside the show. What the movie is ultimately about, it seems to me, is disconnect and displacement on a very grand scale, hardly limited to the star of the show.

Although The Truman Show represents Weir’s most sophisticated and thematically complex work, I don’t think it’s his best. The World War I drama Gallipoli takes that honor. (War, of course, is perfectly suited to Weir’s primary thematic interest, because nobody belongs in combat.)

Gallipoli, in my mind, is the movie that Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Mallick’s The Thin Red Line wanted to be before pretension, bad writing, and set pieces got in the way. The problems I had with both of 1998’s World War II films — un- and under-developed characters, endless running times, and heavy-handed, repetitive, and obvious symbolism — were ones Weir avoided by using the most basic of story structures: getting to know two young men as they make their ways to military service and, eventually, the horrors and politics of combat. Gallipoli strangely ends up a war movie that almost doesn’t get around to the war, and that’s why its final frames are so devastating: The movie is patient in establishing its characters and developing the relationships among them.

The movie has a simple elegance and beauty, both of which have been abundant in Weir’s career.

I’m a few years late commenting on this, but my dissapointment with “The Truman Show,” is that it never addressed is how do you respond to the crushing realization that “family” and “friends” are fakes. Once he found out his world was an illusion, it just became an escape movie of how to get out of this fictional arena. I guess the whole fear of water thing was supposed to be his internal conflict, but he never acknowledged that if everything is a lie, then his fear of water must be a lie.

That’s an excellent point. I’ve long argued that The Truman Show doesn’t have a happy ending, but I’ve never even considered the issue that you raise. It’s not just that Truman will have difficulty living in the world; it’s that nothing he knows is real, and in the movie at least he never deals with that.

One could argue that he’s not equipped to deal with it, and that it hasn’t even hit him yet, and I think there’s something to that.

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