Peter Weir wrote and directed The Last Wave in the year -9 B.D. That’s “Before Dundee.” Before Paul Hogan revamped Tarzan and had us all watching Foster’s beer commercials with our hockey games. Crocodile Dundee came out in 1986, and had absolutely nothing to do with a series of fascinating Australian films produced during the preceding decade and a half. Since these pre-Dundee films weren’t strong on humour, and since I’m completely out of beer, conditions are just right for a quick look at the Other Australia.
First, there’s something odd about the land itself. The land of the Other Australia seems naturally apocalyptic—a place big and strange enough to offer up virgin corners of Paradise or Hell. A place where it’s easy to believe that Creation is still happening, or that Armageddon is nigh. Like Robert Service’s Yukon, it’s a place of “strange things done.” The vast, dry, dust-blown Outback isn’t just the Old West, it’s the Really Really Old West. After 50,000 years of Aboriginal habitation, the whole continent has become sacred ground. Powers walk at large here and make their presence felt. Those long, empty vistas and peculiar geological outcroppings are just right for High Noon in the Spirit World. In Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), the film Peter Weir made just before The Last Wave, four young girls from a finishing school set out to explore the eerie, 500-foot high, million-year-old volcanic formation named in the title…and are absorbed by it. Gone. Vanished into an enormous psychic vortex masquerading as geography. The Last Wave begins with inexplicable thunderings on the edge of the desert and ends, almost, in a milleniums-old temple/necropolis hidden underneath modern-day Sydney.
As the Australian landscape has a unique power to fascinate, so do the people who inhabit it. In the cinema, larger North American audiences were probably first introduced to Australian aboriginal peoples by way of Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout. A classic film, Walkabout, like The Last Wave, contrasts and compares the spiritual values of aboriginal and white societies. It’s not surprising that both films come to the conclusion that those millennia of aboriginal tradition might afford deeper insights into life than are likely to be found on Wall Street or at the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Later films such as German director Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) and Bruce Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers (1986) continued the theme. All of these directors were clearly impressed by the charismatic qualities of the aboriginal peoples who were featured in their films—charisma springing from both striking physiognomy and a strong sense of spiritual rootedness. Of the three leading actors in The Last Wave, two are Aborigines. Nandjiwarra Amagula portrays a forbidding, lethally powerful shaman named Charlie. He’s the perfect foil for the bespectacled, suited corporate lawyer, David Burton, played by Richard Chamberlain. Charlie helps to draw Burton out of his comfortable, rational, suburban world into the tribal Dream-Time—where sympathetic magic kills, the Old Gods play brutal games with humanity, and the only law that counts is tribal law. The Dream-Time is not a safe place to be; civilization has done its best to make us all forget it even exists. Reminders are not appreciated. Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung poked around in the Dream-Time, and paid a price for doing so. In Weir’s film, Burton confronts his father, a church minister, with the telling question: “Why didn’t you tell me there was a mystery?” Actually, that might make a good epitaph for late 20th century post-industrial society:
THEY FORGOT THERE WAS A MYSTERY.
The other main aboriginal actor in The Last Wave is young David Gulpilil, who had his first leading role in Walkabout, and whose last appearance was (times change) in Crocodile Dundee. Gulpilil plays Chris Vee, one of Charlie’s tribal disciples. If there’s one criticism I would level at the film, it’s that Dream-Time seems to be a man’s world. At one point Chris tells David of an aboriginal woman in the north who was killed just for having overheard something said during a tribal council. When things get tense, David sends his own wife off to the countryside out of harm’s way. Maybe it’s about time the movies gave us some forbidding, powerful medicine women. (Here in North America we’ve fared no better than the Australians. While recently both the Canadian and American movie industries have made some moves to explore Native cultures in a similar manner to the Australian films mentioned above, women still seem to wind up the victims while the men connect with the wisdom. A case in point is Michel Apted’s Thunderheart (1992).
Peter Weir is a master of atmosphere. With consummate skill, he stage-manages the irruption of the irrational into the familiar. He builds fear and unease with tricks of light and faces half-seen at windows, and with the sound of a didgeridoo and rain that’s more than rain. “Funny weather,” someone comments, as the End of Days rolls in. If you’re hydrophobic, you’ll want to avoid this movie like the plague. The Last Wave uses water like a cinematic mantra. Its varying and uncannily persistent sounds become as unnerving as those Fifties musical scores that used to warn you that an ax-murderer was going to jump out of the next frame. Death by water. Like Robert Frost said of death by ice: it will suffice.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
No disappointments here. The Last Wave is as strange and affecting as I remembered it being. There are echoes of Biblical prophecies, Mayan codices, and Lovecraftian netherworlds. The film is based around dreams and recurrent water symbolism (rain, black rain, hail, overflowing bathtubs, underground streams, ocean waves), with reality ceding to the cosmic potential of dream time, shapeshifting, and visioning. “Dream is a shadow of something real.” The uncanny atmosphere is heightened by Charles Wain’s minimalist Philip Glass-like score, an eerie soundscape that mixes silence with disturbing mewlings & chitterings, and superb cinematography by Russell Boyd (an Oscar winner for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).
None of which might matter were it not for Weir’s inspired aboriginal casting. I believe only one of the aboriginal leads had ever acted before. Weir needed to get tribal permission for their participation. The aboriginal cast provide a powerful contrast to Richard Chamberlain’s character’s middle class patronizing and cozy yuppie certitudes. There’s enough character in the faces of David Gulpilil and Nandjiwarra Amagula for a dozen films. When someone says of Amagula’s character that “Charlie is an owl—he got the power” it’s not hard to believe. I was reminded of the equally inspired casting of Countryman in the eponymous Jamaican film reviewed elsewhere on this site. For anyone interested, one IMBD contributor has compiled a list of 40 Australian films under the title Where the Red Ants Dream (Aborigines in films). You’ll find it at http://www.imdb.com/list/ls033209091?ref_=rls_4.
David Burton also reminded me of someone: Richard Dreyfuss’s alien-obsessed character in Close Encounter of the Third Kind. You’ve just gotta empathize with these guys’ wives. They get to play the clueless spouses while their menfolk channel sacred time or extraterrestrial encounters. Sucks to be them. Wives-of-obsessive-guys-with-visions could be another IMDB list.
One theme which could definitely use further exploration is that of urban versus tribal cultures as they relate to indigenous peoples. Offhand, I can’t think of film or book that fully addresses this issue. Does anyone out there have suggestions?
One thing I’d completely forgotten since my first viewing of The Last Wave was how cool a sacred space Weir’s production team (Goran Warff, Neil Angwin, Bill Malcolm) had created for the climactic subterranean sequence. Aside from some of H.R. Geiger’s work, this is far and away the closest that anyone has ever come to capturing that eldritch otherness that was H.P. Lovecraft’s forte. What David Burton finds beneath Sydney is the kind of mythical space any of us might fantasize about finding in some long-lost mountain cavern or hidden valley grotto.
Those final two lines in my original review referencing death by water and ice seem a lot creepier now that Climate Change has reared its ugly head and ice packs are melting. Not an instant apocalypse, granted, more of a frog in slowly boiling water scenario.