Sunday, December 31, 2006

Critical Consensus: The Films Of 2006 (MCN)

1 United 93 917.5
2 Queen, The 887
3 Departed, The 867
4 Letters From Iwo Jima 571
5 Pan's Labyrinth 569.5
6 Borat 495.5
7 Little Miss Sunshine 460
8 Babel 381.5
9 Little Children 365
10 Children Of Men 343.5

11 Dreamgirls 327.5
12 Half Nelson 327
13 Volver 291
14 Flags of our Fathers 284.5
15 Army Of Shadows 278
16 Death of Mr Lazarescu 266
17 L'Enfant 212
18 A Prairie Home Companion 202
19 Casino Royale 182.5
20 Proposition 157

21 Inland Empire 149
22 Old Joy 148.5
23 Notes on a Scandal 142
24 Three Times 141
25 An Inconvenient Truth 140
26 Deliver Us From Evil 133.5
27 Thank You For Smoking 118.5
28 A Scanner Darkly 109
29 Brick 107
30 Last King Of Scotland 97.5

31 Science of Sleep 95
31 Fountain 95
33 Marie Antoinette 90
34 Happy Feet 88.5
35 Tristram Shandy 88
36 Stranger Than Fiction 84
37 Apocalypto 83.5
38 Descent 78
39 Climates 77
40 Good Shepherd 75.5

41 Inside Man 74.5
42 Lives Of Others 72
42 Battle In Heaven 72
44 Dave Chapelle's Block Party 70.5
45 Neil Young: Heart Of Gold 67
46 Prestige 63.5
47 V For Vendetta 60
48 Painted Veil 57
49 Blood Diamond 53.5
50 Lady Vengeance 52

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Best Films of 2006: Critic Lists

Updated Dec 31

I think of it as the YIFF - the Year-End International Film Festival. Opens in November sometime, closes around Oscar time, when there's an avalanche of good new films at the cinemas (in time for Oscar contention) and an influx of good newish films at the video stores (in time for Christmas holidays). Everybody starts posting their year-end Top Ten (or Twenty, or Whatever) lists, awards are announced, and cinephilic listomaniacs such as myself can ring out the old year with glee.

Movie City News is a veritable cinematic Santa Claus, making a list and checking it often, compiling all the critic year-end lists into one big meta-list. ("I never meta-list I didn't like..."). Here's their latest update, including my notes on where you can see the various films. Indiewire provides a compilation of the lists of the best independent critics: their rankings are listed in brackets at the end of each line.

See you at the movies!

1 United 93 - Videomatica, Rogers ( 8 )
2 Queen, The - Fifth Avenue, etc ( 11 )
3 Departed, The - Feb 13 DVD ( 3 )
4 Pan's Labyrinth - "Coming Soon," Fifth Avenue ( 14 )
5 Letters From Iwo Jima - "Coming Soon," Fifth Avenue ( 19 )
6 Borat - Riverport, Paramount, etc ( 15 )
7 Little Miss Sunshine - Videomatica, Rogers (
8 Babel - Fifth Avenue, Paramount, etc (
9 Half Nelson - Feb 13 DVD Videomatica ( 10 )
10 The Death of Mr Lazarescu - Videomatica, Rogers ( 1 )

11 Children Of Men - Dec 29 wide release ( 9 )
12 Army Of Shadows - ( 5 )
13 Volver - Tinseltown, Fifth Avenue ( 17 )
14 Little Children - Granville 7 (
15 Dreamgirls - Riverport, Paramount (
16 Flags of our Fathers - Denman (
17 L'Enfant - Videomatica, Rogers PV ( 2 )
18 Inland Empire - Dec 29 wide release ( 4 )
19 Old Joy - ( 7 )
20 Three Times - Videomatica ( 6 )

21 A Prairie Home Companion - Videomatica, Rogers ( 16 )
22 Notes on a Scandal - "Coming Soon," Fifth Avenue
23 Casino Royale - Richmond Centre, Paramount, Riverport, etc
24 A Scanner Darkly - Videomatica, Rogers ( 13 )
25 The Proposition - Videomatica
26 Deliver Us From Evil - Oct 13 release
27 Battle In Heaven - Videomatica ( 18 )
28 Climates - Oct 27 limited release ( 12 )
28 Brick - Videomatica, Rogers
30 Marie Antoinette - Hollywood

31 Inconvenient Truth - Videomatica, Rogers
32 Last King Of Scotland - Tinseltown
33 Tristram Shandy - Videomatica, Rogers
34 The Science of Sleep - Videomatica
34 The Fountain - Granville 7
36 The Lives Of Others - Feb 9 07 limited release
37 The Descent - Videomatica
38 Happy Feet - Various
38 Stranger Than Fiction - Tinseltown, etc
40 Dave Chapelle's Block Party - Videomatica, Rogers

41 Good Shepherd - Rio, Dunbar, Paramount, etc
42 Inside Man - Videomatica, Rogers
43 Neil Young: Heart Of Gold - Videomatica, Rogers PV
44 Feb 20 07 Prestige - Denman, Granville 7 Feb 20 DVD
45 Shortbus - Mar 13 DVD
46 Thank You For Smoking - Videomatica
47 World Trade Center - Videomatica, Rogers
48 Iraq in Fragments -
49 History Boys - Fifth Avenue
50 Miami Vice - Videomatica, Rogers

51 Blood Diamond - Park, Paramount, Riverport, etc
52 Lady Vengeance - Videomatica, Rogers
53 Superman Returns - Videomatica
55 Days Of Glory - Dec 8 limited release
57 The Road to Guantanamo - Videomatica, Rogers
58 Devil Wears Prada - Videomatica, Rogers
59 Duck Season - Videomatica
60 Mutual Appreciation - Feb 13 Videomatica ( 20 )

61 49 Up - Videomatica
62 Illusionist - Eagle Ridge Jan 9 DVD
63 V For Vendetta - Videomatica, Rogers
64 War Tapes - Videomatica
65 Apocalypto - Tinseltown, Riverport, etc
66 Venus -
66 Painted Veil - Fifth Avenue
67 Our Daily Bread -
68 Perfume - Jan 5 wide release
69 Woman is the Future of man -
70 Pursuit of Happyness - Tinseltown, Richmond Centre, Riverport, etc

71 Fateless - Videomatica
75 When The Levees Broke - Videomatica
76 Jesus Camp - Jan 23 DVD
85 Devil & Daniel Johnston - Videomatica
94 Sophie Scholl - Videomatica
96 Akeelah and the Bee - Videomatica, Rogers PV
100 Tsotsi - Videomatica, Rogers PV

P.S. Movie City News also posts a tally of major film awards. Here are the leading award-winners in each category so far;

Picture: The Departed (6 awards), United 93 (5 awards)
Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (12 awards)
Foreign Language: Pan's Labyrinth (9 awards)
Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed (11 awards)
Screenplay: The Departed (6 awards)
Actress: The Queen (16 awards)
Actor: The Last King Of Scotland (13.5awards)
Supporting Actress: Dreamgirls (5.5 awards), Notes On A Scandal (5 awards)
Supporting Actor: Little Children (6 awards)
Animation: Happy Feet (6)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I saw this one last week, and I'm still figuring out what I think of it. The utterly linear, even primal storyline doesn't provide lots of subtlety or food for thought, but it's certainly a powerful, immersive experience. I figured critics would write it off as the violent indulgence of a bigoted action-movie actor with more money and ambition than taste or judgement. Not my opinion (of Mel or the movie), but that's what I expected.

Found myself quite excited to hear Joe Morgenstern's review (which I listen to on the KCRW podcast) - guess at heart I'm still pulling for Mel. Morgenstern is a formidable film writer, Pulitzer Prize and everything. He's got some pretty bold things to say about Mel as a film-maker. He's also pretty funny.

Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is a Yucatec-language action adventure set in the waning days of the Maya civilization. After the first few impalements, amputations, rapes, eviscerations and beheadings, I thought Apocalypto might be the most obsessively, graphically violent film I'd ever seen. By the end I felt sure it was the most obsessively, graphically violent film I'd ever seen, but equally sure that Apocalypto is a visionary work with its own wild integrity. And absolutely, positively convinced that seeing it once is enough for one lifetime.

However Mel Gibson may present himself in public these days, he's a singular presence in contemporary American films; no one else is making movies like Apocalypto or "The Passion Of the Christ," let alone paying for them out of personal bank accounts. Yet he's also rooted in the Hollywood tradition of flamboyant obsessive-compulsives—such filmmakers as Griffith, Von Stroheim and De Mille who combined the power of primitivist themes with all the razzle-dazzle technique at their command.

The technique deployed in Apocalypto is elegant, though that shouldn't be surprising, given the superb craftsmanship of The Passion of the Christ. Dean Semler's cinematography, Tom Sanders' production design and James Horner's music illuminate the story of one man and his family trying to survive in the ghastly chaos of a pre-Columbian society that's grown rotten to the core. (The screenplay was written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia. If it suggests that any other civilizations are rotting, that's as the writers intended.) In the department of razzling and dazzling, Apocalypto embraces an assortment of reliable action clichés dating back to the silent cinema--brilliant chases, spectacular leaps and falls, a creepy seeress, women and children in constant jeopardy, waters rising, quicksand gurgling, lives saved by a solar eclipse, cliff-hangers on the edge of sandy cliffs. Due to the absence of ice floes off the Yucatán, there's no Mayan equivalent of Lillian Gish.

The hero, Jaguar Paw, is played by Rudy Youngblood, a Native American artist and musician making his acting debut. In a production that boasts a cast "made up entirely of indigenous peoples from the Americas," Youngblood builds on his indigenousness with a bag of shrewd actor's tricks that date back to early Marlon Brando. The result is impressive -- a protagonist who keeps our disbelief more or less suspended, and that's no easy feat.

At the outset Jaguar Paw, his pregnant wife and their young son are among the peaceful, jovial and poetic residents of a village whose worst plague is a mother-in-law reminiscent of the one played last year by Jane Fonda. When the village is invaded by stone-age body-builders with bad teeth but great costumes, Jaguar Paw is taken prisoner, made a slave and put through all sorts of hell while he tries to make good on a promise to his wife that he will return.

The film takes that promise solemnly. It's a moral fable about the primacy of the family, and other things as well: strong fathers; overcoming fear; standing up to corrupt authority; the need for new beginnings, the sanctity of the land and, again not surprisingly, given the radical fundamentalism of Mel Gibson's religious beliefs, a tacit rejection of the Christianity that arrives by Spanish galleon on the Yucatán shore. Since my Yucatec-language skills are wanting, I can't pass judgment on the quality of the dialogue, or the accuracy of the subtitles, which include the memorable phrase "We must not let this man make feet from us." I can tell you, though, that by the time Jaguar Paw's journey was over, I could not wait to make feet from the theater.


Almost makes me want to see it again. Even if Joe doesn't.


BIG NIGHT (1996, USA, Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott, wr Tucci & Joseph Tropiano)
To eat good food is to be close to God. To have the knowledge of God is the bread of angels. I'm not sure what it means, but...

Maybe it's because I live in a city that's got more restaurants than patrons, maybe it's because I love to eat, I don't know why, but whenever things get too tough and I think it's time to shut down the theatre company I started a couple decades ago, I think about bakeries. I imagine Pacific Theatre is this bakery that makes these kinds of bread and pastries and cakes you can't get anywhere else, and we've got these customers that come through the door regular like clockwork to pick up their knishes and strudel and cranberry bread (especially good for turkey sandwiches, you oughta try some). It's where people get their soul food. There are other outlets, you can get some pretty good stuff at churches and libraries and other theatres around town, but nobody bakes what we do. And when I think about closing up shop, I think of all those customers, all those friends, who won't be able to get the kind of nourishment they want. Who'll have to settle. I mean, they're not going to starve, but something will be gone from their lives, and they'll be the poorer for it.

And I also think, what about me, what am I gonna do? 

I bake bread. That's what I do. I like the work, I know just how I like it to come out, I like the people who work at the store with me, and hey – if I stop baking, what kinda bread am I going to have to eat? No disrespect, but...

We could switch over to other products, put preservatives in, mass produce, there are things you can do to attract customers. But I'm just not interested: I only want to bake the stuff I want to eat. It takes time, most people don't appreciate, but hey – they don't have to buy. Wonder Bread you can get at the Safeways.

So, for better or worse, I stick it out. It's not always a living, but it's a life. 
I think you can see why BIG NIGHT strikes a particular chord with me. It's the story of two Italian brothers who start a restaurant – the only business as unlikely to succeed as live theatre – where they're going to cook real Italian food. It isn't fast and it isn't the most popular, but it's done right. Problem is, people want spicy tomato sauce and meatballs, people are in a hurry, and besides there's no extra money for fancy advertising. So the brothers hit on a plan: they talk Louis Prima into coming to the place, and it's obvious, in one big night their reputation and success will be secured. They fill the place with friends and neighbours – you don't want Louis Prima eating in an empty restaurant, for God's sake! – and then they wait.

And I'm thinking what it's like when you spend a year writing a play and a hundred and twenty hours and forty thousand bucks rehearsing it, and you open the darn thing and nobody comes except the comps. And I'm thinking of Luke 14:21, I'm thinking FIELD OF DREAMS, I'm thinking about divine calling, I'm thinking of Lizzie Curry who puts the fancy dress on and the beau don't come, I'm thinking of Jesus who sits down to a meal with His friends just before it all comes to a terrible end, who fulfills His calling and their worst fears all at once. But first they eat together.

There's something about food that's close to soul, that has to do with art and with spirit and with sacrament. Think of all the movies where food and creation and the Creator and people in communion are all connected up.

BIG NIGHT is about brotherhood and conflict, about compromise and idealism, about vision and calling, about the heart of an artist and the hands of a craftsman, it's even – the subtlest soupcon – about God. But mostly it's about food.

Bon appetit!


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Verhoeven: Jesus book, not movie

Verhoeven Talks Jesus
Exclusive: On his religious project
01 December 2006
Empire Movie News
In this month’s Empire magazine Paul Verhoeven opened up about his upcoming project based, perhaps surprisingly, on the life of Jesus.

“Well, first of all it is a book,” says Verhoeven. “It may be a film after. Essentially it is about Jesus the human being. That's a big step isn’t it? To see him only as a human being, and it’s as historical as possible. It really goes into the politics of the time and tries to show a lot of things that have been buried and eliminated by Christianity. My scriptwriter told me not to do the movie in the United States because they might shoot me. So I took his advice and decided to write a book about it first.”

So are we talking more Passion of the Christ or Last Temptation? “My [portrayal of Jesus’] life will be much more realistic and much more historical. I just want to go for what is historically, sociologically and politically real, and is defendable. I mean we couldn’t have the scene of Jesus praying at Golgotha when everyone else is sleeping. How could we have a report of that when everyone’s sleeping? That’s a contradiction in the text already. So all those will be eliminated.

And Gibson’s film? “It seemed to be saying the more blood is shed the more we are purified. I mean, honestly, such a thing is not possible. Nobody is purifying anybody else. The Church, not knowing how to handle the death of Jesus, this idea had to be presented. It is the ultra-fabrication. This is a corrective to 2,000 years of Christianity. I don’t know what the title will be but the tagline should be something like ‘Getting Jesus Back!”

Well, it’s something of a break from the norm for the director of Showgirls and Starship Troopers, but it will be interesting. “I was interested in Black Magic and the Occult and then started to be interested in miracles [laughs]. My view was always, “Well this is impossible, in fact it’s self-contradictory”. So I became interested in the historical facts: what time did he get up and so on. I feel like Hercule Poirot investigating Jesus!”

For more from Paul Verhoeven on this and other projects, as well as much more, pick up this month’s issue of Empire.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Verhoeven Jesus Movie notes: Spring '94

In my files I have a photocopy of material from the Spring '94 Jesus Seminar, apparently notes by filmmaker Paul Verhoeven on a Jesus screenplay he was developing at the time. Recently the director has begun mentioning the project again (probably because Mel Gibson's PASSION made messiah movies bankable), so I figure these notes might be of interest.


Paul Verhoeven - Cinema Seminar


Around the year 27 CE, John appears on the stage of history. According to one of the Gospel writers (Luke) he is a priestly family and may have had a Qumran or similar background (“Historical introduction to the N.T., R.M. Grant).
Hollenbach (“Social aspects of John the Baptiser’s preaching mission in the context of Palestinian Judaism") supposes that John was an alienated priest who, through some bitter experience (Kraeling “John the Baptist”) transformed himself into an "alienated profit of the apocalyptic cursing and blessing of God".

John starts to preach and baptize in Perea on the east bank of the Jordan. The choice of this location (Jordan, Desert) suggests prophetic intentions. When people would come to John they had to travel through the wilderness and across the Jordan (or vice versa) - symbolizing the journey from Egypt to the promised land (Webb: "John the baptist and prophet" page 364).
The baptismal act was probably accompanied by a confession of sins - sins that were forgiven by God, but de facto: by John - who apparently had a very healthy ego! The effect of John's message was that the people of Israel were divided into two groups. One, the true Israel, the holy remnant, would escape the quickly approaching judgment of God (and experience some restoration? John is never too clear about this, see Schillebeeckx "Jesus", page 106 Dutch edition). All the others, the "wicked", would be destroyed - clearly indicating the temple aristocracy, Antipas and even the Romans (Webb page 189-202).

John's baptism provided an alternative to the temple's sacrificial system as a means of forgiveness (Webb page 204-205). John in fact denied the temple aristocracy their claim to power and suggested their imminent removal from their position of authority. Because the temple rite was replaced, bypassed by John's baptism, we must view his preaching as a frontal attack on the temple (see also Schillebeeckx page 109). It was to this man that Jesus went (on his own? In the Gospel of the Nazoreans his mother and brothers intend to go too). He was struck by John's message and believed that God revealed truths through John (Hollenbach "the conversion of Jesus - From Jesus the baptizer to Jesus the healer"). Jesus’ baptism by John means that he identified with John's preaching and that he confessed his sins there and then. It also means that he saw in John an alternative to - and condemnation of - the temple. And that he was now waiting for the imminent arrival of the "expected figure" who would burn off the chaff (temple aristocracy etc.) and bring the wheat (the true remnant, now including Jesus) to the granary (Webb 288-303).

After the baptism most people would go back to their homes, reenacting the crossing of the purified through the desert and river into the promised land. Crossan (“Jesus, a revolutionary biography") points out that John was forming “a giant system of sanctified individuals, a huge web of apocalyptic expectations, a network of ticking time bombs all over the Jewish homeland" - a network that Jesus would use himself later when he started to preach his kingdom here and now.

At this moment however, Jesus becomes a disciple of the Baptist and makes friends with other disciples: Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathaniel (Gospel of John 1:37-45. There were more: the "other" disciple, perhaps to be identified with the "rich youngster" of the secret Gospel of Mark; the “beloved” disciple: and of course women). His association with John, which included participating in his discipline of dieting, fasting and prayer, must have been quite substantial - later he had to justify his relationship with John (Hollenbach "Conversion of Jesus"). Also, the length of time that he stayed there should not be underestimated (Murphy O'Connor "John the Baptist and Jesus").

From John's Gospel it becomes apparent that Jesus somehow becomes a coworker or assistant to John (Hollenbach, Murphy O'Connor): in other words, his first lieutenant. Some passages in the same Gospel could suggest that Jesus began his own baptizing ministry, then separated from John, and even competed with him (John 3:26 "he is now baptizing and everybody is flocking to him", 4:1 "Jesus is recruiting and baptizing more disciples than John"). But it seems incredible that Jesus, who later held John in such high esteem, would have tried to set up a competing ministry. At this point in his life he believed that John was the mediator for God and what ever Jesus did was under the authority of John (the above-mentioned passages can be seen as the result of competition between the early Jesus movement and the still existing John-group, after the death of both their leaders).

Jesus, as John's lieutenant (and a relative of John's? Is that why John trusted him more than his other disciples?) is a very effective promoter - "publicist" – of John's case. He speaks to the people that come to see John: "why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? To see a person dressed in soft clothes, like your rulers and powerful ones?" (Gospel of Thomas 78). Q reads here "what did you go out to see" which seems to put it more in the past, as if the conversation took place after John's death, when Jesus had already switched to the preaching of his "kingdom".

But the lines might have been spoken when Jesus was promoting the still living Baptist, contrasting the prophet with Antipas (Theissen argues that the reed points to Antipas because of first coins he was minting around 20 CE: on them was the image of a reed, "Gospels in context" page 30-39).
Jesus’ prominent position might also be deduced from Acts 18:25, where Luke talks about Apollos in Ephesus, who "was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus" and yet only "knew the baptism of John". Murphy O'Connor argues that this baptism was administered by Jesus when he was preaching John's baptism.

As time is running short John decides that more people need to hear his message. As he himself goes to Samaria (Aenon near Salim, "Shechem" in the heart of Samaria) he sends Jesus with some other disciples as his assistants to Judea (John 3:22, see Murphy O'Connor). In his immature enthusiasm Jesus also decides to go to Jerusalem (or perhaps John had asked him to do so, in order to prepare the way for his own arrival there?). In any case, when Jesus starts to present John's ideas in the temple he gets himself in serious trouble.

The temple was the largest employer in Jerusalem, and almost all the inhabitants of the city were indirectly dependent on it (especially when the temple was rebuilt from 20 BCE to 62 CE). Upper and lower classes profited from the status quo and would protect it (Theissen "Sociology of early Palestinian Christianity" page 52-54). John's preaching bypassed the temple however, and the imminent destruction by the "expected figure" seemed to include the destruction of the Temple.
Jesus, promoting John's case in the temple courtyard, announced the destruction of the building and to make his point he reversed some of the tables of the moneychangers. This was a (naïve) prophetic gesture, where Jesus tried to copy his master (desert, river crossing). As he had to defend himself in the following argument he pointed to (hid behind) the Baptist: "who gave you authority to do these things?". Answer: John the Baptist! (This is a "rabbinic" dispute: they will find the answer to their question by answering the counter question, see Boers "who was Jesus", page 42 - omitting Mark 11:31-33 as non-authentic. Also realize that 11:28 seems to follow seamlessly 11:18a, linking this dispute directly to the "cleansing", Schillebeecks page 110. In addition: in John's Gospel the "destruction" of the temple follows the "cleansing" immediately through a similar question "What miracle can you show us doing all this").

This polemic was probably highly disturbing to the audience, who were all dependent on the temple. It might've led to violent reactions and even to an attempt to stone Jesus (several passages in John's Gospel talk about stoning, i.e. 8:59 and 10:31). But Jesus and his "assistants" escape. They have to leave the city immediately. On their way back to the Baptist (John 10:39-40 reads "they tried to arrest him - he went away to the place across the Jordan where John first baptized") the news reaches them that John has been arrested by Antipas and was led to Machaerus.

The John group is confused, disillusioned. They start to scatter: Peter and Andrew go back to Galilee, some go back to Bethany. Jesus realizes that he might be the next target: he is the most prominent member of John's circle and his action in the temple got him notoriety. He hides in the Judean desert.

When we meet him again in Galilee, where he joins his former associates in Capernaum, he is changed radically.

Putting the "cleansing" and the arrest of John chronologically close together gives us the possibility of a powerful buildup to this change. There are now successive "disasters": first the failure in Jerusalem and on top of that the arrest of John. Both elements together push Jesus towards a non-apocalyptic vision, represented in the Kingdom of God "already there in action".

There might be an even stronger build up if, after the temple scene, Jesus had heard that John was executed instead of arrested. But in Matthew this is not the case: "when Jesus heard that John had been locked up he headed for Galilee" (4:12, immediately after the retreat in the desert). And later Matthew 14:13 "when Jesus got word of John's death he sailed away to an isolated place". This scene then leads immediately to the "feeding of the multitude". If we see the story of the feeding (Dodd "Founder of Christianity", page 131-134) as a cover story for an event that in reality was a political uprising we could argue that the anger and sorrow over John's death led to the rebellious sentiments.
We might then ask if the unique formation given in the Gospel of John that "they wanted to make Jesus King" was based on Jesus’ own personal performance for (at least partially) on the fact he'd been the most prominent of John's disciples.

Of course the chronology of Matthew could be false and Jesus might have gotten the news of John's death shortly after the temple scene. There might have been just a very short (and for John's disciples very confusing) period between the arrest and the arrival of this news. Or the arrest took place before Jesus went to Jerusalem (see my spring ‘93 paper "Proposal for sequence of events"). The rest might even have activated Jesus to go to Jerusalem. Was there a feeling that this was the beginning of the apocalyptic period foreseen by John? But the disaster in the temple and the death of John brought Jesus to the realization that there would not be any apocalyptic intervention by God.

If the temple scene is eliminated from the beginning of the passion it also eliminates the very convenient cause for Jesus arrest. Why then WAS Jesus arrested?

Crossan has suggested (personal conversation November ‘92) that the repeated presence of Bethany in all the Gospels (including Secret Mark) meant more than meets the eye. In my spring ‘93 paper I then focused on Lazarus, speculating that Lazarus was originally a disciple of John (if there is only one Bethany instead of two - see note at the end of this paper - John would've been working in the same place as letters live). Jesus befriends Lazarus and his sister(s). After the death of John, Lazarus falls into a post-Baptist depression (Crossan). Later, when Jesus has started his own ministry he renews the friendship and Lazarus becomes his disciple.

In that case I argued that the "resurrection of Lazarus" would be no more than a metaphor for psychological revival induced by Jesus and his new ideas. But this strikes me now as a too innocent explanation.

If the "miracle" of the feeding of the multitude is a cover story for a political uprising I would speculate here that the "miracle" of Lazarus is another cover for some (dangerous) political event.

In the Gospel of John (11:44-47) the "rising" of Lazarus results in a council meeting where the authorities plot to kill Jesus. In John 12:9 the same group "plans to put Lazarus to death, because of him many of the Judeans were defecting and believing in Jesus". Jesus seems to hesitate to go and visit Lazarus (he lingers two days at the Jordan, John 11:5). Later, when he is in Jericho after the miracle, he refuses to see Lazarus's sister (Secret Mark, between 10:48a 10:46b). And although John does not acknowledge any problem between Jesus and the Lazarus family (Jesus has a nice dinner with them sometime after the "miracle"). In mark that same scene is situated at the house of Simon the leper. (It's possible that "Secret Mark" originally read there "the house of the young man that Jesus raised" and was changed when the 46a/b passage was eliminated. My guess is however that John made the change to cover any problem between Jesus and the Lazarus family).

Free speculating now as a scriptwriter (and incited by a conversation with Crossan, January ‘94) I propose that Lazarus represented the militant wing among Jesus followers. Lazarus, like so many socio-religious revolutionaries through history, might have thought that the arrival of the kingdom had to be provoked by violent action. If Lazarus started out as a disciple of John, whose apocalyptic ideas already contained a period of destruction ("chaff in the fire") it's easy to see how this "abstract" punishment by God could be changed into active human participation in the punishment.

Lazarus could've been, in Jesus eyes, one of these men that "tried to enter/take the kingdom with violence", provoking the authorities into repressive action, first against Lazarus and ultimately against the leader of the group, Jesus himself. This would explain Jesus’s hesitancy to go to Bethany and also (as Sarah Winter pointed out to me, conversation January ‘94) the pretty extreme statement of the disciple Thomas when Jesus finally goes finally decides to go to Bethany: "let's go along too, so we can die with him" (if "him" is meant to be Lazarus here, that could certainly suggest that Thomas expected militant action - John 11:14 and 15).

Does the "raising" of Lazarus cover up for some specific event? Crossan suggested that Jesus might have gone to Bethany to restrain Lazarus, "cool him off". Did Jesus succeed in this confrontation ("fuming inwardly") with Lazarus? If not, that would explain why he avoided Lazarus's sister later on, why the authorities plot against Jesus (and Lazarus both), and why Jesus "withdraws to a region bordering the wilderness" - where he could hide in the many caves.

Another possibility is that the news that Lazarus's sister brings Jesus is that Lazarus is arrested ("he is sick"). Jesus hesitates to go to Bethany, but finally decides to find out what happened to his friend. Now compare the similarity between Secret Mark and Mark, describing Jesus’ death: "a great cry (apparently coming from the young man/Lazarus - in John changed to a cry coming from Jesus) - a tomb in the Garden - rolling the stone away" (see Crossan "Four Other Gospels" page 10 4-106: also conversation with Winter). Perhaps this indicates that Jesus, upon arrival in Bethany, heard that Lazarus was executed.

Jesus withdraws into the wilderness. Several months later, when things might've cooled off, he returns. Perhaps he was informed that the Sanhedrin has not been able to reach a verdict on him and that there is enough support in Jerusalem that he would be safe (Nicodemus's faction?). Or was the situation in Jerusalem still so dangerous that he could not enter the city openly? It does not seem too realistic to assume that the authorities feared to arrest him because of the crowds. His preaching in Jerusalem during daytime and going back to Bethany every evening could be a compression in the synoptics of the years before into one week. (John, who portrays Jesus is visiting Jerusalem several times before the passion, does not describe the going back and forward between Bethany and Jerusalem every day).

But during one night at least Jesus attends a secret meeting in Jerusalem (Mark 14:13-17 seems to point to preparations done in secrecy. John does not say that the supper is in Jerusalem. In fact in the chapter before Jesus is described as being "in hiding", 12:36). During the supper he is informed (probably by the "acquaintance of the high priest" of John 18:15) that the Romans and Temple police are preparing his arrest: Anna has decided to bypass the Sanhedrin and arrest Jesus in an undercover operation. At that point it must've become clear to Jesus that the secret gathering was betrayed. But it was not clear by whom. Perhaps they found out only months later that Judas was a traitor. The account where Judas is part of the arrest team seems strange. By making himself known as a traitor Judas would have set himself up for retaliation by the other disciples (who apparently were used to carrying swords). It is even possible that the disciples only found out that Judas was the traitor AFTER they had formed their circle of twelve. (That would in fact eliminate the argument that only Jesus can be the creator of the "twelve", as the early church would not have invented the embarrassing presence of Judas among them).

As Jesus tries to escape to Bethany he is arrested in an olivegrove called Gethsemane. (I don't think that he intended to go to Gethsemane, he wanted to go to Bethany, but the road to Bethany starts at Gethsemane).
There was a short fight. If Lazarus was still alive he could've been one of the men who resisted the arrest (and perhaps he got away, naked, as we read in Mark - also compare "naked" in Secret Mark). Or he and some others were arrested together with Jesus.

Within the next 12 hours all were crucified.

Note: the well known Bethany (1) is situated 2 miles east of Jerusalem. Another (2) is supposed to have existed about 20 miles east of Jerusalem, close to the Jordan: “All this took place in Bethany on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing". This village has not been found, and is not described anywhere else.
In John 10:40 Jesus comes back to this place ("he went away once more, to the place across the Jordan where John had first baptized"-but here John "forgets" to mention the name of the place). In John 11:17 this leads to the amazing coincidence that Jesus, in order to visit Lazarus, now has to travel from Bethany (2) to Bethany (1).
Perhaps there was only one Bethany and Parker ("Bethany beyond Jordan" JBL 74, page 257-261" is right in translating the passage in John 1:28 as "all this happened in Bethany, across from the point on the Jordan where John had been baptizing".

Friday, December 01, 2006

Dec 4: Babette's Feast at VIFC's "Film Salon"

Indisputable masterpiece of "spiritual cinema" (or whatever inadequate phrase we want to try on for size today). Takes time getting where it's going, but it's all essential, recalibrating us to the world of the film, preparing us for what's to come. A very important film for many Christians.

Monday, December 4, 7:30pm
Vancouver International Film Centre

PRESENTER: John Bishop, Restauranteur
John Bishop, internationally acclaimed chef, restauranteur and promoter of West Coast cuisine, is best known for his elegant Bishop’s restaurant, considered one of the city’s best.

How perfect that one of Vancouver’s finest restaurateurs is presenting Babette’s Feast, which won the Oscar in 1988 for Best Foreign Language Film. Babette’s Feast is based on a story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), whose novel Out of Africa was also produced as a feature film. In the mid-19th century, two pious sisters give up their lives to serve their father’s strict Lutheran sect in a seaside village in Jutland, living a life of denial and unrequited love. Babette, a refugee from Paris whose husband and child were killed during the French civil war, comes to work as their servant. When the sisters commemorate the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth, Babette surprises them with an act of kindness and sensuality that neither the sisters nor the village could have imagined. (Hint: the recipes used in the film are on the Internet!)


Guarantee yourself a seat at Vancouver's finest evening of cinema and conversation!

The Cinema Salon Pass guarantees you access to all 11 events in 2007. At $95, you're also saving 10% off the individual ticket price. We're starting the 2007 season with one of Canada's favourite stage stars, Nicola Cavendish, as she presents Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot. Buy your Cinema Salon pass online or at the door.

Note: Cinema Salon will move to Tuesdays in 2007.

Cinema Salon is a one-of-a-kind event for film fans, unique to Vancover. Once a month, Melanie Friesen invites a distinguished guest to present his/her favourite film. After the screening, audiences and guests will have the opportunity to discuss the film over drinks and snacks in our spacious lounge.

Toward a Soul Food Film Course?

One of my favourite places on earth is Schloss Mittersill in Austria. A couple summers ago I led their annual arts conference. Holy smokes. Can you imagine: two weeks in a castle that's half a millenium old, talking and making art with Christians gathered from more than a dozen European nations? Musicians, painters, filmmakers, actors, writers, architects, poets... Sheesh.

Anyhow, I'll do anything to worm my way back onto their schedule again. Why shouldn't a once-in-a-lifetime experience happen twice, that's what I'm thinking. So there's been talk of something to do with film. We thought of a mini film festival, we thought of a film-making workshop course, and now we're talking about a film appreciation course. To give you a glimpse of the possibilities, here's the email I sent them this morning: all completely speculative at this point, but hey, I'm excited! And if something doesn't come of it all over there in Europe, maybe a venue or occasion will take shape on this side of the pond? Could be fun though, don't you think?

There are a lot of directions such a course could take. Indeed, it's easy to imagine a series of courses that would inter-relate and build on one another.

My greatest strength in this area is in encouraging and equipping others to look at films well, and in modeling and offering a variety of ways to integrate our faith with our experience of film (and, by extension, the other arts). I'm an amateur theologian (I have a Diploma of Christian Studies from Regent College) but a professional theatre artist (an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and 22 years experience as actor, playwright and director, as well as being founder and artistic director of Pacific Theatre, a professional stage company in Vancouver Canada). So my approach will always be to start by looking closely at the film itself, then moving in the direction of placing the work in dialogue with our experience of Christian faith, with scripture, with Christian thought.

One possible shape for such a course would be to survey film-makers who have a particular interest in Christian faith or Christian themes; Dreyer, Rossellini, Bergman, Bresson, Jacques Tourneur, Tarkovsky, Scorsese / Schrader, Peter Weir, Agnieszka Holland, possibly the Dardenne brothers, Kieslowski, Ermanno Olmi, even Lars von Trier?

For the most part that is a pretty daunting list of auteur directors: maybe that would be best as a more advanced course, preceded with a survey of more accessible films that might culminate in a Bresson or Kieslowski? Something like "Landmarks of Spiritual Film: Looking Closely at Faith at the Movies"? Maybe a progression from CHARIOTS OF FIRE (England), SOPHIE SCHOLL (Germany), THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (Finland) and NOT OF THIS WORLD (Italy) through TENDER MERCIES (USA) and JESUS OF MONTREAL (Canada) or RUN LOLA RUN (Germany) or BABETTE'S FEAST (Denmark), culminating in something from DEKALOG (Poland), maybe L'ENFANT (Belgium) or SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (Sweden). We could compare and contrast two recent films created from the same historical incidencts, REQUIEM (Germany) and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (USA). Or look closely at the original CAT PEOPLE by Paul Tourneur, a fifties B movie which is immensely admired by cinephiles the world over, and compare it to Calvin-haunted Paul Schrader's remake in the eighties, which aimed to be a tribute but turned out to be an embarrassment.

I think two weeks would be far preferable to one. Three weeks would actually be ideal, but I don't know if you offer courses that run that long. Each "working day" we would want three to five hours of class / seminar time to interact about the films, plus an evening or late afternoon screening of the next day's film. Actually, in this day of notebook computers, we could make a number of copies available for people to view on their own as well, which could be helpful for people who would rather view selected films with different subtitles in their own language? If that were available.

Those are just a couple of ideas. Can you give me some ideas of the parameters on your end? More specifics about length, format, content. Any response to the ideas I've started expressing above? Which may spark more ideas on my end, or help me refine those?

Exciting even to be considering these possibilities!

Ron Reed

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure (Sight & Sound)

From Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure .
by Ian Christie, Sight & Sound, November 2006.

The director talks to Ian Christie about his twin obsessions with the underworld and the Catholic church, and his hope of continuing his exploration of faith and temptation in an adaptation of Japanese novel Silence

I had gone to New York to talk to Scorsese not about THE DEPARTED, which was still under wraps nearing the end of its long post-production, but about his plans to make a very different film. SILENCE is a novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), which Scorsese has had an option on for over 15 years. Set in the 17th century, it uses the story of the Jesuit missionaries who came to Japan and suffered torture and martyrdom for their faith as a basis for exploring the apparent conflict between traditional Japanese and Western Christian values. Endo was a Japanese Catholic, and Scorsese believes that he has an important message for the modern world: a message that Scorsese, the son of Sicilian Catholics and raised in New York, has been struggling to define for himself ever since he first ventured outside Little Italy.

The novel was proposed to him by one of the churchmen who gathered in 1988 to give their views on the controversial THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Paul Moore, then Episcopal archbishop of New York, found Scorsese's film, to his surprise, “Christologically correct". Scorsese laughs as he recalls the phrase, not because he didn't value such unexpected praise, but because he knows that he was working on a more naïve level. Still under the influence of Pasolini’s gritty 1964 GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW, and burning with a desire to re-create the drama and iconography of the passion that he had loved since his days as an altar boy, his THE LAST TEMPTATION aimed to involve a contemporary audience in the challenge posed to Christ's incarnation, because Kazantzakis' novel provided a framework by telling the gospel story from Jesus point of view, as a carpenter who recognizes his destiny and fights against it. In fact, this meant taking the idea of the incarnation - of Christ as truly human - seriously, rather than as a theological given.

But what really made THE LAST TEMPTATION a matter for debate was Kazantzakis' big question: what if Christ was tempted to abandon his mission at the last moment, to step down from the cross and settle for a normal life? This is the "last temptation", and as we're led to believe that Jesus has fallen for it, it's as if we too are being tested.

Scorsese agrees that the saddest irony is that while THE LAST TEMPTATION probably makes most sense to committed Christians, the majority have never seen it, having been warned to stay away by their priests and ministers. He is well aware that the whole congregations who were bused to Mel Gibson's 2004 PASSION OF THE CHRIST were the same people told not to watch his picture. He respects Gibson’s convictions, but regards his PASSION as "more like going to pray" than posing questions about what Christ and Christianity mean today. And he's still hopeful that THE LAST TEMPTATION will reach a new, less prejudiced audience when it eventually appears on DVD.

After the archbishop gave SILENCE to Scorsese it took a year for him to read it, which he finally did while he was in Japan to appear as van Gogh in Kurosawa’s elegaic fantasy DREAMS. Deeply moved by Endo's portrayal of Christian faith being tested, he arranged a deal to film the novel through the Italian company Cecci Gori and started writing the script with his longtime collaborator Jay Cocks while working on CAPE FEAR (1991). In retrospect, the timing is significant, since this was one of the films Scorsese had agreed to make it return for Universal backing LAST TEMPTATION. He still looks back on the period of CAPE FEAR and CASINO (1995) with a shudder, even if some, like me, regard the latter as a malign masterpiece that explores the lure of evil with an almost Miltonic grandeur.

Scorsese's eventual salvation appeared in the form of KUNDUN (1997), a film that came as a script by Melissa Mathieson and was acceptable to his new studio Disney. The challenge of telling the Dalai Lama's early life story absorbed some of the frustration he felt while unable to pursue Silence. Apart from its specifically Buddhist dimensions, it offered the theme of a young man trying to lead a good life amid obstacles and temptations - which seems to be the underlying template of almost all Scorsese's work. And from the Dalai Lama Scorsese learned a distinction that gave him a new insight into Endo: "having faith is very different from being spiritually evolved."

Spiritual quests

By now Scorsese felt he was beginning to grasp the profound challenge Endo posed to conventional Western Christianity. "SILENCE was the answer to the void I felt after THE LAST TEMPTATION. What I found there was this great compassion for Judas and for Mary Magdalene, and the idea of Jesus not as someone who glows in the dark, but as someone who's afraid to die - remember how he reacts when Lazarus reaches out from the grave." But he was still no closer to being able to make the film, even though his next project to tackle another spiritual quest, in a less exotic form of Nicolas Cage scouring the streets of what had once been known as Hell's Kitchen for human wreckage to save. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) appealed to Scorsese not only as a New Yorker but also as a contemporary take on the theme of his hero Roberto Rossellini had explored in EUROPA 51. There Ingrid Bergman is driven to give up a pampered life and devote herself to helping others in the desolation of postwar Europe. In the more skeptical and hallucinatory BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, based on the story of a real paramedic, Cage's character Frank is torn between an almost messianic belief he must save people in the acceptance that he's “only a witness”.

Probably the most remarkable aspect of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is the visions Frank experiences, especially the recurrent one of the street waif Rose, whom he failed to save. Scorsese now thinks the realization of these visions may have been too concrete, but insists that he could never go about making a film like this in a "Protestant" way - despite his respect for Bergman - where the visions would remain wholly subjective. "That's not me: I have to show them, even if they're clumsy. I think you really do see these things."

The following year Scorsese was offered the unexpected opportunity to realize his dream of creating a fresco of his city's earliest period as a battleground between competing factions in GANGS OF NEW YORK. But even in this sprawling epic there is something of his continuing spiritual quest, as the new Irish-Catholic immigrants are shown assuming the religious identity they would still have a century later, when young Martin was educated by their descendents, the Irish nuns of St. Patrick's School, and especially by the charismatic Father Principe. It was this young priest, arriving in Little Italy in 1953, who opened a youthful Scorsese's eyes to a wider world, and also encouraged him to see that apparently contemporary films could have a religious meaning: he described the battered Brando leading the dockers back to work in ON THE WATERFRONT as "a kind of Calvary".

This sense of the world permeated with the drama of Catholicism - in which "the actual transubstantiation is real, better than any movie: it actually becomes the body of Christ" - is palpable in Scorsese's earliest filmmaking. In WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1968) a church statute literally bleeds before Harvey Keitel's guilt-torn J.R. The same Keitel famously speaks of atoning for sins on the street rather than in church in the opening words of MEAN STREETS (1973). Scorsese still recalls vividly the naïve "faith of youth, which came from my own inward nature, protecting myself as I was growing up. That's when I read Graham Greene's The Heart Of The Matter." But he has since lived through four turbulent decades in the history of the Catholic Church that has seen its authority and integrity challenged on all sides. After the promise of reform launched by the council known as Vatican II in the early 1960s, the church has increasingly set its face against modernization. This has left many Catholics of Scorsese's generation disappointed and angry, especially as financial and sexual scandals have revealed an organization seemingly more concerned with self protective secrecy than with Christian candor.

Compassion and authenticity

Such revelations haven't driven Scorsese to abandon the church but rather to become clearer about separating the earthly institution from its role as - well, what exactly? He has been greatly impressed by Garry Wills’ 2002 bestseller “Why I Am A Catholic” and supports Wells’ wish to insist on a core set of beliefs quite distinct from the "man-made church" of the Vatican. Scorsese says he's neither a radical Catholic nor even a "good" one by normal standards. Yet he is clearly preoccupied by the question of faith: "how can anyone have faith in the modern world? We saw the explosion of interest in spirituality in the 1960s. Maybe it was driven by drugs to some extent, but at least it was exploring, questioning-and now that's been completely shut down. Still, we have to do everything possible to keep asking questions."

Indeed, it's a question of how to live one's life with compassion and, as the existentialists would say, authenticity, that has kept SILENCE on his agenda for over 15 years. It wasn't until the editing of THE DEPARTED that Scorsese and Cocks finally wrote a script he considers workable. The crux of Endo's novel appears to be the drama of torture and doubt that leads the captive father Rodrigues towards committing apostasy - publicly renouncing his faith. What Scorsese has come to realize, after living with the book and studying Endo's other work, is that "Rodrigues thinks he's Jesus, but in the end he discovers he's Judas." The starring role he has envisaged in his own story in fact belongs to the cowardly Japanese convert Kichijiro, "truly disgusting human being" who keeps falling short of his ideals and asking for forgiveness. Rodrigues is forced to recognize that Christianity true to Christ's example demands he grant Kichijiro forgiveness - and, as Endo writes, only when he overcomes his repulsion does "the face of Christ look straight into his" and fill him with shame as he realizes his failure.

This devastating work, hailed by Graham Greene as "one of the finest novels of our time", allows Scorsese to pursue his concern with "what Jesus meant" (the title of another influential Garry Wills book) in a dramatic form as challenging as Kazantzakis’s THE LAST TEMPTATION. He also thinks the issues the novel raises are more relevant than ever today. “If you have real faith, then of course you want to make other people as convinced as you are - go out and save their souls! But you can't impose your beliefs on another culture unless you understand that culture properly, which takes time and compassion. Once the Catholic Church was pretty certain of its rightness, as was Islam, and perhaps the Pentecostal Christians today. I can understand that feeling ‘it's for their own good’, but I resist it. Endo thought the Christianity that would have the most chance in Japan was the feminine side - not the God of judgment but of forgiveness. And I'm interested in how the traditional cultures of Japan, Korea and China accept the evanescence of life in the inevitability of destruction."

But the task of persuading financiers, a studio and actorsto embark on such a spiritual quest remains formidable. Might Daniel Day-Lewis be tempted to return to Scorsese's fold to contribute his unique brand of intensity to the older priest, already accused of apostasy? Might this also be a chance for Scorsese to work with younger European actors, if the new Hollywood spurns his unfashionable choice of subject? Could he find a way of stepping off the superhighway of big-budget productions to work once again on the scale of AFTER HOURS (1985) and THE LAST TEMPTATION (or indeed the ultra-low-budget TAXI DRIVER, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year)? Such decisions aren't easy for a director who has fought so long to establish his authority and keep control of his career, in a world where budgets proclaim clout.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


MOSQUITO COAST (1986, Peter Weir, wr Paul Schrader, fr Paul Theroux)
God had left the world incomplete, he said, and it was man's job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it, and to finish it. I think that was why he hated missionaries so much - because they taught people to put up with their earthly burdens. For father, there were no burdens that couldn't be fitted with a set of wheels, or rudders, or a system of pulleys.

I was so put off by what I took to be the film's virulent missionary bashing – it came out in a time when the culture's hatred of evangelists, particularly cross-cultural ones, was epidemic – I couldn't see whatever strengths it may have had. That may be the movie, or it may only be the movie's central character, whose triumphalist scientism is in any case most definitely weighed in the balance and found wanting. I think the axe being ground is meant to fell western imperialism, including the whole missionary endeavour. But that's a complex issue with truths on both sides, and this film isn't interested in such subtleties: more diatribe than dialectic, MOSQUITO COAST gives us an uncharacteristically shrill Peter Weir.


DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989, USA, Peter Weir)
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.

John Keating is one of those life-changing idealistic teachers who challenge us to break free of commonplace thinking so we can live extraordinary lives. If you see this film when you're private school age, it may become a lifetime favourite, a thrilling call to intellectual and artistic arms – unless, that is, you revisit it a decade or so later, and happen to notice that Keating's classes are more style than content. Clearly distraught when his own adolescent love affair with the film came to a heart-breaking end, Gareth Higgins points out that while Keating may inspire Neil Parry to seize the day, "quite what he is supposed to do with the day once he has seized it, we are not sure." Roger Ebert despises it on similar grounds, but I'm still not sure why some folks get quite so cranky about it. Why should it need to be more intellectually rigorous or practically minded than "A Midsummer Night's Dream", which the Dead Poets perform and which plays out the same archetypal conflict between age and youth, law and liberty, ancestral tradition and poetic impulse, head and heart, conformity and independence? Anyway, it feels good that Bob Jewett's got my back: he finds resonance with II Timothy, "To link faith so completely with ancestral tradition, whether Jewish or Christian, whether maternal or paternal, diminishes the revolutionary power of faith." Rodge wants intellectual content, Gareth wants an action plan, but me, I'm content to take it as a fairly adolescent-minded story about (and perhaps for) adolescents, a "be not conformed to this world" coming-of-age tale about the power of poetry and theatre to knock rich kids off their ontological treadmills. At least it beats PORKY'S.



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."



FEARLESS (1993, USA, Peter Wier, screenplay Rafael Yglesias)
We used to live in tribes, and when a tribe suffered a disaster – an exploding mountain, the shaking of the earth, a great flood – they would sit around fires and retell the event. Stories of death, desturction, escape, and rescue. That's why we're here today. Would someone tell us their story?

FEARLESS is a film about rebirth, about a man untimely ripp'd from imminent death who finds himself fully alive for the first time. "Behold, all things are become new" – the look and feel of water flowing through his hands, the texture of spittle mixed with dust, the taste of a strawberry. In the midst of a horrific airplane crash Max Klein has discovered an uncanny peace, and now he can't return to his old life, won't take up his responsibilities as a successful architect, as a husband and father. He flees the jangle of media questions that cast him as a fearless hero who saved fellow passengers – "Follow me to the light!" – but he flees them not because they're probably making him out to be something he's not, but because they've maybe got it right. His former fears are gone, his old vulnerabilities are gone, the only fear that remains is the fear of losing his grip on this dazzling new life. (Notice the sudden and significant moments of panic in Max's sea of calm, the flashes of light, the testing of fears.) "Old things are passed away" – even, it seems, his love for his wife and son. And because he discovers in this reborn life a terrible aversion to speaking anything but raw, unprocessed truth, Max refuses to hide his alienation, and their marriage begins to die an untimely death.

Rafael Yglesias, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, never allows this bemusing, conflicting story to stop puzzling us. Neither is Weir interested in explaining things away, in solving Mysteries, so we are kept in a state of suspension from beginning to end. We can't help but respond to this glorious experience of new life, yet we can't let go of the sense that there's something wrong here. We are never allowed to easily settle for this new life, to agree that it must replace the old. Isabella Rossellini plays Max's virtually widowed wife, a marvel of casting and performance: she is gorgeous, tough, vulnerable, a truth-speaker in her own right and the wisest person in the film, who will fight to get her husband back, but only so far. We cannot understand how he could be so disinterested in her, how he can go on damaging her with his prodigal (misplaced?) love and his thoughtless truths?

Rossellini is magnificent. Watch what she goes through in the course of a single scene when Carla – a fellow crash survivor who's become the centre of Max's new life – appears at her door. "I thought we should talk." Rosie Perez earned an Oscar nom for the reckless abandon of a raging grief that's sometimes surprised by joy, but it's Roberto and Ingrid's little girl who astonishes with an understated virtuosity that eluded the trophy mongers. (Ain't it the way....) Jeff Bridges has never been better than in this portrayal of a cipher of a man both alive and dead, balancing an eerily detached calm with a curious sense of wonder and engagement. From moment to moment, we're unsure whether Max is lost or saved, narcissist or saviour, deluded or divine.

Our perceptions constantly shift between the glory of Max's liberty, a vital engagement with life ready to pour himself out for the almost-lost Carla – heck, I want some of what he's got! – and the horror of his agonizing indifference to this glorious woman and confused son who love him. (Actually, I feel like I do have some of what he's got, for better and for worse: the film bears uncanny similarities to the early days of my own conversion, when the glories of new life in Christ distracted me from the old, when truth-telling and self-sacrifice became obsessions, and friends and family struggled to accept these sudden other-worldly changes, and I struggled to understand their reservations. Even now, decades later, I see in Max my own tensions between living in the world and living in the Kingdom of God. Must I really hate father and mother, abandon home and family?)

Klein's actions, indeed his state of being – are as inscrutable to us as they apparently are to himself. Is he some sort of messiah, a healer, a saviour? He's got the wounds, the followers, and he drinks the deadly thing and it does not hurt him. Or is he in some liberating, destructive sort of denial, a post-traumatic shock that deadens him to his old life while opening up a new? Has he been touched by God, or is he playing god? Winsomely selfless, or alarmingly selfish? Is he invulnerable to life's hurts, or does he only think he is? Can he – should he – save Carla, if it means he may lose his marriage, his home, his family? And what about those of us who taste new life? What sort of sacrifices might we be called on to make, what risks to take? When is it that voice the voice of Yahweh on Moriah, and when is it someother mountaintop voice, out in the wilderness, saying "Cast yourself down..."? When an angel comes from God, the first words out of his mouth are likely to be something along the lines of "Fear not" – but sometimes devils come as angels of light, don't they.

In the first and most interesting phase of his career, director Peter Weir was obsessed with ordinary westerners suddently confronted with spiritual realities beyond their well-ordered worldviews – pragmatic, career-oriented, pretty-much-materialist Horatios contronted with undeniable evidence that there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophies; the survivors of that fateful PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, David Burton in THE LAST WAVE, Guy Hamilton in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. Once Weir moved to America that preoccupation faded into the background as budgets got bigger and Hollywood did what Hollywood does, though we still see colliding realities with spiritual fallout in later pieces like WITNESS and THE TRUMAN SHOW. FEARLESS is the one American Weir that returns undeniably to his native land – not Australia, but rather that liminal place between earth and heaven where ordinary people are torn between old and new, immanent and transcendent, between what is human and what is Other. If all of Weir is about strangers in strange lands, then this is the one where a man visits the undiscovered country, "from whose bourne no traveller returns."

There are so many things to love, or at least appreciate, in this dense and complex movie – only its story-line is straightforward and uncluttered, to allow room for nuance and resonance of theme and image, choice and consequence. The glories of the common, everyday, sensual, physical world that coinhere with a strange spiritual transcendence. That masterful opening, mystical and disorienting – what is it about cornfields! Mothers who get their babies back, mothers who don't: women who want to be wives, boys who want to be sons. The juxtapositions of noise and silence – notice how selective Weir is with sound effects, what we hear and what we do not. Shadows on screens that remind us of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, suggesting spiritual realities that hover just the other side of a paper-thin wall, lit from Somewhere Else. Moments of slow motion, flashes of light, flame, tunnels leading to light or darkness, life or death. The transcendent earthiness of Hieronymous Bosch and Rene Magritte and Andy Goldsworthy, all staring at the brink of the Unknown, the apt as can be music of the Gypsey Kings and Henrik Gorecki and U2.

For all its artistic strengths, whether the film ultimately succeeds or fails with individual viewers may have everything to do with how much they see themselves in its central character. Is Max's experience strange or familiar? Is he invigorated and invigorating, engaged and engaging, or is he alienated and alienating? He curses God, he acknowledges God, he plays God. This is a man who will do whatever desperate thing he must do to hold on to this ecstatic new life: if he loses it, he loses everything. Is that supremely selfish, or sublimely self-transcending? Is he gaining his life or losing it, or both? Is the kingdom of heaven really like that? Do you have to seize it by force? What must we sacrifice to find it, to keep it? Is Max a dead man, a ghost? Or newborn, truly alive for the first time? Or is he just not dead? Is Rosie's God dead, or listening, or incapable of answering her prayers? Or does He come through in the end? Who's her best friend, Jesus or Max or neither or both of the above?

This many ambiguities and ambivalences mark a film that's great to talk about (argue about), and the richness of its artistry provides plenty of detail to stimulate conversation. To some, Max will seem a monster, to others a mortally wounded man in a particularly virulent strain of denial – for them, FEARLESS runs the risk of being a story without a likeable character at its centre. We may admire such films, but we do not love them: instead of entering into the movie's world in the vicarious shoes of a protagonist who is at least a bit like us, we stand outside and observe. But to others, Max is a man caught between two worlds, a man faced with the terrible quandary of holding on to one Good so tightly that he risks losing another. Those who see themselves torn in that kind of spiritual "Sophie's Choice" of the spirit may find this one of those movies of a lifetime, that tells a rarely-told tale they're hungry to hear.



THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982, Australia, Peter Weir)
What then must we do?

1965. A time of violent political turmoil in Southeast Asia. Indonesian President Sukarno has declared this "the year of living dangerously," and as Australian journalist Guy Hamilton steps off the plane to face his first overseas assignment, a tall white man confronted with Jakarta in all its threat and strangeness. Watchful soldiers with automatic weapons. Uniforms everywhere, Asian faces, unintelligible language. Hand-scrawled posters; Go to hell. U.S. Out. CRUSH British and U.S. Imperialism. And a strangely-inflected, almost croaking narrator comments, "You're an enemy here Hamilton, like all Westerners. President Sukarno tells the West to go to hell. And today, Sukarno is the voice of the Third World."

Soon we will meet the owner of that voice, a half-Chinese, half-Australian photographer named Billy Kwan who takes the new journalist under his wing and offers a partnership: "That's what I've always wanted, a real partnership... We'll make a great team old man. You for the words, me for the pictures. I can be your eyes."

But who is this Billy Kwan? And what is the real nature of their relationship, which forms the heart of the film? Kwan is the first character we meet, even before Hamilton touches down, a curiously small man who must reach up from his chair to methodically type information about the new man into some sort of file. He secures a partnership with the Australian journalist by instantly procuring an exclusive interview with the head of the Communist Party. A dwarf, neither Western nor Asian, he seems outside the inner circle of foreign journalists who gather at the Wayang bar, as he seems an outsider in every context we see him in. Yet he apparently has access everywhere, information about everyone, and can move through the dangerous streets of Jakarta unharmed and unnoticed.

If there is mystery about Billy's political intentions, there is also something about the personal aspect of this friendship which makes us increasingly uneasy. He seems too eager to win Hamilton's friendship, and when he wonders whether Hamilton might be "the unmet friend," we have the sense that this isolated little man is trying to fit the newcomer into some personal mythology he has created – an intuition which is substantiated when Billy describes the characters of the sacred Wayang shadow plays;
KWAN: Look at Prince Arjuna. He's a hero. But he can also be fickle and selfish.... This is the Princess Srikandi, noble and proud. But headstrong Arjuna will fall in love with her."
GUY: And who's this one?
KWAN: Ah, he's very special. The dwarf Semar.
GUY: What does he do?
KWAN: He serves the prince.

The correspondence with the two men – at least in Billy's mind – is unmistakable, and in the next line of dialogue he introduces "my Jilly," the third character in this strange little triangle. Through the ensuing scenes he pulls strings to bring Hamilton and the beautiful young woman together, as we become increasingly aware not only of the little man's attraction to Jill Bryant – "I asked her to marry me once: she turned me down" – but also of his almost absurd identification with Guy Hamilton; " We're friends, aren't we? Make a good team. Even look alike. It's true, it's been noticed. Got the same colored eyes."

But there are further complexities here. As much as Billy plays out the role of the servant to his friend Guy, he also sees himself as mentor. When he first leads the newcomer through the dangerous, impoverished streets of Jakarta, he is clearly functioning as something more than a tour guide;
BILLY: And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
GUY: What's that?
BILLY: It's from Luke, chapter three, verse ten. What then must we do? Tolstoy asked the same question. He wrote a book with that title. He got so upset about the poverty in Moscow that he went one night into the poorest section and just gave away all his money. You could do that now. Five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.
GUY: Wouldn't do any good, just be a drop in the ocean.
BILLY: Ahh, that's the same conclusion Tolstoy came to, I disagree.
GUY: Oh, what's your solution?
BILLY: Well, I support the view that you just don't think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that's in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light. You think that's naive, don't you?
GUY: Yep.
BILLY: It's alright, most journalists do.
GUY: We can't afford to get involved.
BILLY: Typical journo's answer. (Voice Over) You're ambitious, self-contained, moderate to conservative in politics, and despite your naivete, I sense a potential, something immediately apparent, a possibility - could you be the un-met friend?
And when we come to learn that Billy goes regularly – and it seems, secretly - to visit a destitute widow and her ailing little boy, it is clear that his compassion and faith have real substance.

Essentially, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY is about one man's passion to see another man come alive, politically and spiritually. When he says he will be Hamilton's eyes, he means to do much more than simply supply photos to accompany the reporter's newspaper articles (notice that it is the reporter's eye that is damaged when he tries to gain entry to the palace after Billy's death, that his ultimate change of heart occurs while lying blindfolded, that he begins removing the blindfold as soon as he decides on his final course of action, and that he risks his eye by so doing.) Not only will Billy reveal open the eyes of the career-oriented Western journalist to the harsh realities of Third World life, he seeks to quicken his friend's perception of the spiritual world all around them. As they approach Billy Kwan's house for the first time, Guy is spooked by the eerie creaking around them: Billy tells him it's the bamboo, but goes on to say
BILLY: There is a spirit here. I hear him outside at night. Came inside one night and spilled some bottles of developer.
GUY: Do you really believe that stuff?
BILLY: Absolutely, old man. The unseen is all around us. Particularly here in Java.
A number of times during the following events, when Billy Kwan or the spiritual world are mentioned, we hear similar creaking sounds: when he comes to Hamilton's office unannounced, it is a bamboo-like creaking of the door which startles Hamilton and announces Billy's presence.

This is, of course, prime Peter Weir territory – a western materialist is pulled out of the world he takes for granted and confronted with spiritual mysteries in a world he doesn't understand. Particularly in the director's earlier films we see this theme again and again; the school girls in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, David Burton in THE LAST WAVE, John Booker in WITNESS, the Max Klein in FEARLESS. At a special showing of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY for the Director's Guild of America presented in his honour, Weir said he wasn't very interested in the politics of the Sukarno coup:
I loved the line in the book, 'You become like a child again when you first go to Asia.' It's that sense of wonder that everything is new, everything is unknown — there's a kind of mystery in everything.

In the film, we hear this expressed in Billy's voice-over (taken directly from the novel) as he first leads Guy through the streets of Jakarta;
Most of us become children again when we enter the slums of Asia. And last night I watched you walk back into childhood, with all its opposite intensities...
Indeed, this theme of "becoming as a little child" reverberates through C.J. Koch's novel more explicitly than in the film, where they must be rendered visually. In significant ways the film is not the book, but there is clearly a congruence between Billy's often childlike physicality – sitting cross-legged on the desk, or being lifted to Hamilton's shoulders to take photographs of the PKI demonstration – which are visual equivalents to lines such as this description of their initial meeting;
"The cameraman extended his hand, tilting his head back and offering his broad Chinese grin.... The spiky head only just reached his elbow; it was as though the new man walked with a strange child." (pg 7)
Indeed, the sense that Hamilton and Billy are alike in being new men / children is a frequent theme in the novel, right from the opening paragraph; "It brings out the curious child in us to encounter one of these little people."

The central metaphor for the inter-relation of supernatural and material realities is brilliantly cinematic: the Wayang shadow-puppet play. Immediately we are thrust into this strange, indecipherably foreign, supernatural world as sacred gamelan music plays and the opening titles are projected over a performance of one of these ancient spiritual stories.
BILLY: Their shadows are souls. The screen is heaven. You must watch their shadows, not the puppets.
We hear children laughing at the shadowy events being projected onto the screen in front of them – a remarkable metaphor not only for the way everyday flesh and blood events carry spiritual significance, but also for the art of film itself, where flickering projections of darkness and light evoke stories that can be filled with spiritual truth.

This motif recurs often throughout the film. The walls of the Wayang bar, where the journalists meet to socialize and swap leads, are decorated with light-box scenes from the sacred shadow plays, evoking a complex set of metaphors and questions about the insubstantiality of the stories the journalists report, the spiritual implications of their activities and relationships, and a sense that even in their place of retreat from the heat and chaos of Jakarta they are being observed not only by something distinctly Asian, but by supernatural presences they never recognize. When Guy Hamilton first goes into the ABS broadcast office, gamelan music plays as we remain outside and see his silhouette projected onto an opaque window pane in precise parallel with the shadow plays, and when Jill comes to bring him news of the impending revolution, the camera is framed exactly the same as they kiss, silhouetted against that same pane of glass. When Hamilton radios his news stories, we see the images of the Asian characters reflected indistinctly in the glass window of the sound-proof broadcast booth.

Much of the Wayang imagery has to do with Billy, who is himself a puppet-master – as is Sukarno, the other hero with whom Billy so closely identifies;
The puppet master is a priest. That's why they call Sukarno the great puppet master. Balancing the left with the right... The right in constant struggle with the left. The forces of light and darkness in endless balance....
All of this imagery comes together in the sequence where the question of Billy's trustworthiness is brought to the surface by Guy, then (in a certain sense) resolved as we see Billy go in secret to help a widow and her dying son. As Billy bandages the cut his friend received during the PKI demonstration, Guy discovers the files, and confronts Billy;
Who you working for, Billy?
For you.
The Communists? The CIA?
Stop it.
Who are you working for? Why the hell do you keep a file on me?
I keep files on just about everybody.
What for? Why?
That's my business.
Look, if you're an operative for someone else—
I'm not.
Well how am I supposed to know that?
You're just going to have to trust me, aren't you?
We cut directly to Billy working on his files, the voice-over causing us to further question how trustworthy Billy might be – not so much for his possible political secrets as for his psychological ones. Again, what's been implied is now brought to the surface. Just as the three Wayang puppets are among his most prized possessions, he seeks to orchestrate the lives of his friends, invisible like the priest behind the screen. As Semar the dwarf, Billy may exist primarily to serve his master Arjuna, but unseen, he is also the puppet-master, shaping the stories of his friends' lives. He works for Hamilton, but he is also working Hamilton. As Kwan manipulates his files, he comments,
Here on the quiet page I'm master, just as I'm master in the darkroom, stirring my prints in the magic developing bath. I shuffle like cards the lives I deal with. Their faces stare out at me. People who will become other people. People who will become old, betray their dreams, become ghosts.
This cuts directly to Billy making his way through the slums of Jakarta: the gamelan plays, and he is silhouetted against fires, or his shadow projected onto walls. Once again we are moved to trust him – note how our perceptions of his character are also an incessant interplay of darkness and light – as we see his evident compassion, unselfish and practical, for this widow and her dying boy. And as he tries to cheer this child lying at the doorway between life and death, Billy manipulates a mechanical toy, its gestures strangely evocative of the shadow puppets seen during the opening title sequence. And then we see him again making an entry in his file;
Her tragedy is repeated a million times in this city. What then must we do? We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path.
And our trust in this strange man is deepened as we see his awareness that there is a transcendent puppet-master who shaping the stories even of earthly priests and puppet-masters, intentionally placing others in the path of his compassion.

In their final conflict, when Billy accuses Guy of betrayal in filing the PKI arms shipment story that Jill gave him, Guy confronts Billy with the arrogance and delusional nature of the puppet-master role he has chosen for himself;
BILLY: I would have given up the world for her. You won't even give up one story.... I gave her to you, and now I'm taking her back.
GUY: You gave her to me? For Christ's sake, you mad little bastard. You think you can control people's lives just cause you've got them in your bloody files?
BILLY: I believed in you. I thought you were a man of light, that's why I gave you those stories you think are so important. I made you see things. I'll be your eyes. I made you feel something about what you write. I gave you my trust. So did Jill. I created you.
Perhaps in seeking to be God's agent, Billy has made himself a god – it is interesting to note that Semar, the dwarf character in the Wayang, "is also a god in disguise. My patron. The patron of all dwarfs." (pg 83)

In any case, Guy's accusations precipitate an agonizing crisis. Billy agonizes through his own Golgotha alone in his room, playing his opera records, staring at the photos of the mother and her now-dead son, at the eyes of Asian people he has photographed, sobbing "Oh my God, my God, my God" as he types, over and over, "What then must we do?"

This culminates in Billy's final desperate act. In something of a violation of his politic of compassion, simply to act charitably toward whomever God brings in his path and leave aside overt political actions, he resorts to an explicitly political act by trying to confront his other fallen hero by scrawling a large white banner – "Sukarno, feed your people!" – which he will hang out the window of the Hotel Indonesia just as the President arrives. Inevitably, Billy is killed in the act: ironically, the banner is removed before Sukarno even sees it. But Billy dies with a smile, looking up into the face of Guy Hamilton. Has he finally found, in this self-sacrificial death, the answer to his haunting question, "What then must we do?" Or does he simply see love in the face of his grief-stricken friend?

This final act of sacrificial love, which may be the doorway to his friend's redemption, raises the question whether Billy may be something of a Christ figure. Lloyd Baugh thinks so: "Billy Kwan in Peter Weir's 1982 film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY acts as master and guide for Guy Hamilton, in the end paying for Hamilton's salvation with his life." Certainly this notion is introduced early in the film, when he quietly challenges Pete's use of the cemetery prostitutes;
BILLY: Starvation's a great aphrodisiac.
PETE: Keep it up, Billy, keep it up. We'll just nail you to the old cross, huh? Besides, he can afford to be virtuous, you know. He's holding hands with the best looking chick in town.
BILLY: She's a friend Curtis.
PETE: Sure she is Billy.
BILLY: You'd find that kind of relationship hard to understand, wouldn't you Curtis?
PETE: Oh get me the nails, I'm going to hang the little bastard up right now.
There are other hints and suggestions: when another journalist is astonished that Billy correctly identifies the stranger in the bar as "the new ABS man," another character remarks "The guy knows everything."

Clearly, though, we don't want to take this too far. It could be said that, more than actually being a messiah figure, Billy had a messiah complex. But that is too negative a judgment on this complex character. To some degree, anyone who tries to follow Christ will aspire to be like their master, to do things that Christ did: and certainly, self-sacrifice is central to the way that Jesus taught and modeled.

But this in turn raises the question, was Billy a follower of Jesus? He quotes from the gospels, and is deeply affected by one of the most explicitly religious books by the Christian writer, Leo Tolstoy. For all the aspects of Eastern religious thought he also seems to have incorporated into his belief system, I couldn't help seeing Billy as a fellow Christian when I first saw the film – an impression that was substantiated when I subsequently read the novel. When talking with Guy about his personal response to poverty and suffering, Billy prefaces his thoughts with the phrase "Of course there's always the Christian point of view, to which I usually subscribe." He reads Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic mystic, and next to the Wayang puppets on Billy's wall hung a plain crucifix. Asked about his concern for the poor, he responds "As a Christian, I have to be concerned about them – they're my brothers" (pg 96). But as unabashed as he is about identifying himself as a Christian, he goes on to say;
I'm a convert. But I don't think the Faith is much good unless it's passionate. Lately I have a feeling the Church has spent its passion. If it has, it's no place for me. There's something rather fine about Islam, don't you think? The passion's still there. I'm attracted to it.... Religion's no good without passion. That's why I left the Methodists. Yeah, I even tried them at one stage.... When I see these people living like stray dogs I get angry. I think a Christian should get angry. I'm a Christian radical, if you like." (pp 96, 98)
These details are external to the world of the film, and don't bear directly on it. Still, for all it necessarily trims out of the novel, the movie script plays straight with to the material it can keep – the novelist is one of the three credited screenwriters, along with David Williamson and Peter Weir himself. Suffice it to say that the suggestions of Billy's Christianity are born out by the source novel, as are the ambiguities and contradictions we also see.

There is a fundamental tension in Billy that has to do with his dwarfism, and the way that has excluded him from many things. He is Chinese and Australian, both eastern and western, and yet neither. He says in a voice-over as he works on Hamilton's file, cutting out his friend's figure, puppet-like, from a photograph, "I find we have something else in common. We are divided men.... We're not quite at home in the world."

Is Billy a Christ-figure? Sort of. Is he a Christian? Mostly. But where does the film itself come down, in the final analysis. The answer is as evasive as the answers to the previous questions.

Perhaps the film is itself profoundly eastern, and to attempt to "Christianize" would be to falsify it, to miss its point. The controlling image of the film is that of the Wayang shadow play: describing it for Guy, Billy says " In the west we want answers for everything. Everything is right or wrong, or good or bad. But in the Wayang, no such final conclusions exist." Guy's journey toward spiritual awakening culminates in his own long dark night of the soul, blindfolded, lying on his back in Billy's apartment, his future – even his survival – uncertain in the midst of the political chaos the country has descended to. The bamboo creaks, he mutters to himself, he hears Billy's voice quoting from the Wayang: "All is clouded by desire." Then his ABS assistant arrives, tells Guy of the failure of the Communist coup. Guy listens to Kumar's words, so reminiscent of Billy's;
KUMAR: Am I a stupid man? Then why should I live like a poor man all my life, when stupid people in your country live well?
GUY: Good question.
KUMAR: Mr Billy Kwan was right. Westerners do not have answers anymore. Water from the moon.
GUY: What does that mean, Kumar?
KUMAR: It's an old Javanese saying. It means something one cannot ever have.
And after a moment's silence, Hamilton knows what he must do. Unwrapping the bandage from his eyes, he pursuades Kumar to drive him to the airport to fulfill his promise to Jill. Kumar doesn't understand this sudden resolve;
KUMAR: Why do you have to leave now? You can stay and write all the stories you want.
And Hamilton offers no response, except to put on his shirt and pick up his shoulder bag. In the background, we see Billy Kwan's Bible on an empty shelf.
KUMAR: I hope to catch a plane is worth losing your eye.
And they are off.

So what's the resolution of it all? That final answers – political, moral, relational, spiritual – are water from the moon, "something one cannot ever have"? Are the forces of darkness and light, of left and right, in endless balance? Is the western idea wrong, that "everything is right or wrong, good or bad"? Is nothing ultimately good or bad? Or is it only that not everything can be summed up easily?

I don't know. Like many works of art, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY raises complex, important questions but refuses to provide us the answers. I don't know "what the film is saying," or if it is saying anything. Maybe it's only asking.

But I do know that I am left with the indelible picture of Billy Kwan. A passionate, flawed man, hungry to find spiritual reality and to extend human mercy. He sought to serve God, to awaken others to God and to spiritual realities. In the process, he was tempted to play God, began to think of himself as a god, and yielding to that unacknowledged temptation cost him what he most craved; trust, partnership, friendship. Confronted with that fact, grieved by the impossibility of making things work as he wished them to be, he gave himself up to death, and in so doing found that the things he sought were accomplished.


One writer comments that THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY loses its way toward the end. This isn't every viewer's experience, and I wonder if this has to do with how much weight different audience members give to different aspects of the story. Neither the love story nor the final proving of Guy Hamilton's character are ultimately resolved until the final image of the film: even once Guy has made his choice to leave "the stories" behind and keep his promise to meet Jill on the plane, the six minutes remaining until that final moment are filled with danger and momentum, as the journalist and his driver make their way through a city in the grips of violence, past columns of military vehicles and road-side executions, through check points and ultimately the chaos of a third world, military-controlled airport as hundreds struggle to catch the last planes out of Jakarta.

Still, as high as the stakes are, as skilful as the story-telling and editing may be, as much as we yearn for Hamilton to succeed once he's made his choice to put human relationship and a promise above his career and his "addiction to risk," there's a sense in which he is simply living out what Billy Kwan had hoped for him. And Billy is gone from the story. And with him, for some viewers, the real heart of the film.

The fundamental question every script writer must ask – and is constantly asked during the process of writing – is, Who is the main character? Whose story is this? Because once that character's journey is resolved, the movie is over. You'd better tie up all the other story lines first, because once we know if the "throughline character" succeeds at getting what they need, every person in the theatre senses the show is over and it's time to head for the parkade.

Two questions help decide whose story THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY might be: Who do we care most about? And who drives the action forward? The answer to first question can be very subjective, a judgement call – some audience members may find the story of Guy Hamilton's gradual awakening gets their sympathies most, while others are most drawn to the powerful love story - but for my money, it's Billy Kwan who grabs hold, in all his mystery, yearning, and idealism. The answer to the second question is usually much clearer – and in this movie, for all Guy Hamilton's initiative and relentless drive, it's Billy Kwan who moves the events of the story forward. In John Hanrahan's biography of Mel Gibson, the actor notes that, while " my face had to be in it, from the first to the last frame." Indeed, his picture is on every poster – alone, or with his romantic opposite, Sigourney Weaver. Their names are above the title. The tagline – "A love caught in the fire of revolution" – tells us whose story the marketers think we'll want to see. And truly, the film charts the journey of Gibson's character from his arrival at the Jakarta airport, his first overseas posting, to his desperate departure from that same airport, a changed man, tape recorder abandoned like a shed skin.

But Gibson goes on to comment that portraying the character presented him with a challenge "because Hamilton never initiated anything.... He really is a reactor: he reacts to all these things done to him." For all his star appeal, and for all the character's essential energy and drive, it isn't "his movie."

But Peter Weir points to the story's real centre in an interview he gave to the Directors Guild of America when he said "the Billy Kwan character was the great creation of the novelist. Being half-Asian, half-Caucasian, he had a kind of understanding of both worlds yet belonged to neither...." It is Billy's hopes for the characters that we come to share: it is Billy who manipulates circumstances to challenge Hamilton's careerism and western materialism, who engineers the romance between Guy and Jill, and whose final act ultimately leads to Guy's change of heart.

Structurally, on the page, Billy Kwan is the film's central character. It is at least as important to consider, though, how it plays out on the screen. How do the performances of the actors shape our perception? Who draws our focus?

One of the film's great successes was the casting of its two romantic leads. Gibson's biggest role to date had been in Weir's GALLIPOLI, a powerful performance in a powerful, beautifully crafted film – but that film was not a mainstream, commercial film, and Gibson wasn't yet the star he was to become, in part because of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. Sigourney Weaver had played Ripley in ALIEN, so she was well known, but that looks bigger in hindsight than it was: the franchise hadn't been established yet, and in that initial film – the first in what ended up being a series with Weaver as the star – the emergent heroism of her character was almost a gag: "quote from Weaver interview." Weir's new movie was blessed by the potent screen presence and smouldering chemistry of two soon-to-be-stars stepping together into the spotlight.

Nevertheless, it is Linda Hunt – unnamed even now on the front of the DVD package, her picture not included on the cover of the edition of the novel released to coincide with the film – who won critical accolades and an Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan. Partly, of course, in recognition of the extraordinary accomplishment, a woman playing a man's role. But anyone who might wonder if the kudos were due to the novelty of the stunt rather than real artistic accomplishment will forget that qualm once the movie has been viewed. This is a magnificent performance of an unforgettable and utterly original character, filled with passion, restraint, feeling and intelligence. She incarnates all the "opposite intensities" of this wise child: strength and vulnerability, insight and delusion, experience and naivete, self-deification and self-sacrifice.

Peter Weir's films are films about Mystery, about spiritual and human questions without simple definitive answers. In the Wayang shadow play, its eternal balance of light and darkness and its testimony to things unseen, he finds a central metaphor for these supernatural probings. And in Billy Kwan he finds a remarkable embodiment of these contradictions, and of this spiritual yearning, an unforgettable centre for one of his finest films.