Saturday, November 25, 2006


THE LAST WAVE (1977, Australia, Peter Wier)
Why didn't you tell me there were mysteries?
David, my whole life has been about a mystery.
No! You stood in that church and explained them away! Dad, I've been taken with some sort of otherness, and I don't know what to do. We've lost our dreams. And they come back, and we don't know what they mean.

David Burton is a wealthy corporate tax lawyer called on to provide legal aid to five aboriginal men charged with murder. As he tries to penetrate the mystery surrounding the man's death, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the Mysteries in his own dreams, in global weather changes, in the spiritual beliefs of this ancient people.

When I saw the film in its day, I was (to use a phrase of the time) blown away. Instead of heading straight home after the credits, I wandered the neighbourhood for a long time, not so much trying to figure this one out as to live for a while in its "unfigurables," to let its potent atmostphere and evocation of spiritual questions resonate. I felt I had been brought into fleeting contact with elusive realities I couldn't explain, which the film thankfully didn't try to explain, and that I would lapse back into something smaller if I let them slip away forgotten.

Watching it again a quarter century later, the film's power was diminished. Partly because that happens with second viewings of movies built around suspense and mystery. Partly because some production elements have not aged well. Maybe mostly because I was seeing the film in my own home on a muddy videotape, not projected on the glorious big screen of my beloved local repertory cinema. (The Ridge, in case you're ever in Vancouver to visit.) I strongly encourage you to seek out the reputedly superb Criterion DVD release if you want to give this one a chance to work its magic: Weir makes much use of darkness in the film (and sudden silences), and you'll want a good clean transfer to really let this one come alive.

Nevertheless, the next morning I am again haunted by this film: it grows again in recollection, its power is in the shape of its story, scraps of dialogue, sudden arresting images, and the things it rearranges inside you. While I'd forgotten most of the details, I marvel especially at the way it has shaped my perceptions of the world over the ensuing years: I was startled to see that key images and ideas had found their way into one of my own plays a decade and a half later, completely unrecognized and quite transformed, but unmistakeable. (People ask artists who thier "influences" are, and artists usually brush the question asied, or reduce it instead to the more answerable question, "what other artists to you like?" We brush it aside because we usually don't know, and it's usually best that way. Let unconscious things stay unconscious, that's what I say.)

This is quintessential Peter Weir, the partner piece to the even more ethereal PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. His signature films are liminal films, standing on the threshold between two worlds. Weir makes movies about what happens when worlds collide, and in his most deeply felt and personal works (mostly the early, Aussie ones) those collisions shatter worldviews and provide the opportunity to glimpse yet another world, beyond. THE LAST WAVE is full of shadows – "a dream is a shadow of something real" – and we're reminded of the Wayang shadow-plays in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. It begins to dawn on David that his well-ordered and comfortable life may be an illusion, he bings to recollect moments when he's suspected there may be something beyond what he can see and touch, and we think of Truman Burbank. A city man, a man of the law, finds himself among another kind of people, a people who order their lives around other less malleable laws, eternal spiritual truths that seem irrelevant to modern life, until he finds those assumptions radically shaken by what he witnesses.

THE LAST WAVE has been criticized for being unclear or "hard to understand," but that misses the film's whole point – and its strategy. A western man is threatened by spiritual realities his materialist, rationalist culture has not equipped him to understand, and it is essential that we share his confusion and dread as events and images from the aboriginal "dreamtime" wash over his well-ordered world. We want explanations, but isn't the core of the film the insistence that some things are inexplicable?

Biblical prophets associate the end of an age with a stirring of supernatural, prophetic gifts: "'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.... I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below."

While we comfort ourselves with the partial truth that those words have already been fulfilled, all prophecy – like art, like Truth – is "a subtle and evasive commodity." One reads Joel's words and is struck with a sense that their fulfillment is both now and not yet. Whatever studious rationalism we may bring to these things, ours ultimately is a supernatural religion, and an apocalyptic one. In some undisclosed season the day will come – whether to us individually, or to our culture, or to all Creation – when we will have to hold hard to Joel's final words, the words that THE LAST WAVE doesn't provide us: terrible times of chaos will surely come, "And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."


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