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From the Director to the Protagonist: Displacement in the Cinema of Peter Weir

November 10, 2008 | By

It can be argued that the professional and personal displacement experienced by Peter Weir during his Australian career and after his migration to Hollywood is reflected in his movies.

Migrations have happened since well before the dawn of the modern era. Yet the contemporary flux of people, commodities and capital across the globe has reached an unprecedented scale. The points of destination have multiplied, and whereas before capital used to flow only in one direction, towards the West, nowadays western capital flows towards the so-called Third World countries. This global movement of people has enabled diasporic communities to flourish and, as Appadurai points out, in today’s world ‘both points of departure and points of arrival are in cultural flux, and thus the search for steady points of reference […] can be very difficult’.[1]

In the past, the members of diasporic communities were uprooted from their original cultures and this created a profound social and emotional sense of displacement. Today, however, according to Glick Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc, diaspora people maintain strong social, political and economic ties with the homeland, while at the same time becoming an active part of the host country’s society.[2]

These phenomena have been widely discussed by scholars under the umbrella concept of transnationalism. According to Steven Vertovec,

transnationalism describes a condition in which, despite great distances and […] the presence of international borders […] certain kinds of relationships have been globally intensified and now take place […] in a planet-spanning – yet virtual –  arena of activities.[3]

The crossing of national borders has influenced all sorts of human activities, including the field of filmmaking.

Migrations of filmmakers to Hollywood have occurred since the birth of cinema, yet in recent years the phenomenon has greatly intensified. The global dominance of Hollywood has always been a threat to national cinemas, which have reacted in different ways. Australian cinema, for example, as Tom O’Regan points out[4], has developed different strategies. In one way it opposes Hollywood by producing art-house films (such as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975), in another way it tries to imitate the Hollywood product (examples being George Miller’s Mad Max, 1979), and in a third way it is complementary to Hollywood (seeking to represent ‘local specificity’ in domestic events or myths, as in Ken Hannam’s Sunday Too Far Away, 1975).

For their part, Australian filmmakers have reacted to Hollywood’s dominance either by remaining in Australia, trying to balance the tension between art-house and commercial cinema, or joining Hollywood. In the 1980s, an entire generation of Australian filmmakers, including Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford and Fred Schepisi, migrated to Hollywood, initially suffering what might be called ‘professional displacement’ caused by the different working conditions of the Hollywood production context.

In the 1970s, the Australian government’s funding provoked a revival of the Australian cinema, and directors enjoyed relative creative freedom, subject to the requirements of the financing body, the Australian Film Commission. After they moved to Hollywood, however, the pressure intensified, and directors had to comply with the commercial needs of the major studios, often compromising their creative choices. This article explores the personal and professional displacement of director Peter Weir, who migrated to Hollywood in 1985.

The case of Peter Weir is interesting because he has experienced two forms of displacement: a personal displacement, connected with his identity as an Australian, and what I call a ‘professional displacement’, caused, as aforementioned, by the different production context that he encountered in Hollywood. Weir’s personal displacement has long and distant roots.

From the director to the protagonist: displacement in the cinema of Peter Weir

In the film Gallipoli (1982), Peter Weir narrates the titular battle through the eyes of two young and idealistic soldiers.

 

As a postcolonial country, Australia had to renegotiate its national identity after the end of the British dominion in 1901,[5] and was in need of authentic Australian myths with which the population could identify.[6] The defining moment of Australian national history occurred in the First World War, in which for the first time Australian soldiers participated voluntarily and as members of an independent nation. The memorable defeat of the Anzacs at Gallipoli is regarded as the moment when Australians acquired consciousness of their identity. In the film Gallipoli (1982), Peter Weir narrates the titular battle through the eyes of two young and idealistic soldiers. According to Patty O’Brien and Bruce Vaughn, Gallipoli ‘nurtured the growing nationalistic sentiment in Australia from the 1970s that saw the reversal of the dwindling attendances at ANZAC commemorations’.[7]

Yet, despite his desire to celebrate a national myth – ‘I knew there was no question but that I must make the film about Gallipoli, and make it for them, for the men who died there’,[8] said the director – Peter Weir is not at ease with his identity. In an interview released in 1979, the director discusses the implications of being an Australian:

Something I think about a lot is the fact that I, with a basically Scottish-Irish-English background, have lost my past. I have no past. I’m nobody […]. I have no culture. I’m a European who lives in Australia. I’m an Australian in a sense, but I’ve lost something.[9]

In this passage, Weir expresses a sense of emotional displacement. He is not a European, but, at the same time, he feels like one. Interestingly, this feeling reflects the formal use of the term ‘displacement’ as defined by the Collins English dictionary: ‘the removal of something from its usual place or position[10] by something which then occupies that place or position’. Weir feels as though he has been removed from ‘his usual place’, that is, Europe. This forced removal has somehow interrupted what would have been the natural course of events had Weir’s ancestors not moved to Australia: he, and millions of Australians like him, would have been Englishmen, or maybe Irishmen, or maybe Scots, and certainly Europeans. They would have had a set of narrations and myths to which they could anchor their identity and they would have had an established nation-state with which to identify.

Instead, they found themselves with a short – and not too bright – history, born of the deportation of British convicts to a semi-deserted and remote land. In other words, as Weir says, they found themselves with ‘no past’: they had to start afresh, to quote Glick Schiller, Basch and Szanton Blanc, with a ‘nation building project’.[11] Weir’s observation above reflects Tom O’Regan’s reflection on Australian society as a ‘European-derived society. […] Australia’s political, legal, social and cultural institutions are all European-derived’.[12] But Australia is also, according to the author, a ‘diasporic society [where] 42 per cent of the total Australian population was either born overseas or has at least one parent born there’.[13]

Peter Weir, going to Hollywood, has reversed the Australian diaspora, but has done so on a part-time basis. Weir, in fact, goes to Hollywood only to work, and still lives in Australia, where he still works on the post-production of his films. The director balances this with the necessity of maintaining his visitor’s status in the US: he is only present in America during the periods of film production. Interestingly, Weir had already decided that he would not want to settle permanently in the US well before actually going to work in Hollywood. He said in 1979:

If I moved away I think I would lose [the creative] spark. I like living here, it is my country, and I think of myself as a foreigner in other English-speaking countries. And I am also mentally stimulated visiting the United States, so I’d like to keep that visitor status.[14]

This statement, once again, highlights the sense of displacement felt by Peter Weir: he feels like a European in Australia (which, as reinforced above, is his country), but at the same time he feels ‘like a foreigner in another English speaking country’. Is there a place where the director feels at home? Before this question is answered, it is important to investigate briefly the immediate consequences of Weir’s move to America as a professional.

From the director to the protagonist: displacement in the cinema of Peter Weir

While Weir cast the actors of his films in Australia, in the case of Witness it was actually Harrison Ford who chose Weir as a director.

As aforementioned, in Australia directors were used to having government support, and although working on – compared with Hollywood – small budgets, they enjoyed a sort of creative freedom that included the choice of the subject matter of a film. The interviews released at the time by Weir and his producers (chiefly the twin brothers Al and James McElroy) show that there was a good level of collaboration between the two parties, and that all the most important decisions were always taken in agreement.[15] Weir had the original idea for all five feature films that he directed in Australia.[16]

In Hollywood, however, the picture changed. After having acquired the necessary experience and established himself as a prominent director in Australia, Weir felt ready to attempt the big move and make a film in Hollywood. Once Mosquito Coast was put on hold by Warner Brothers after the withdrawal of Jack Nicholson from the leading role, another opportunity presented itself when Weir received three scripts from his agent, among which was the Witness, screenplay. Weir considered his first American experience as a ‘studio assignment’, and declared that he felt like one of those directors that were under contract during the Hollywood ‘golden age’.[17] Before Paramount actually agreed that Weir could direct the film, he had a meeting with the studio executives and with the leading actor Harrison Ford. Ford, who had already shortlisted Weir as a possible candidate, gave final approval.[18]

While Weir cast the actors of his films in Australia, in the case of Witness it was actually Harrison Ford who chose Weir as a director. Weir’s professional world, as he knew it, had turned upside down. This was, arguably, the biggest displacement Weir felt in his career. Moreover, in order to deliver a product that would sell to the American audiences, Weir had to compromise over the ending of the film, introducing more action and violence.[19] In Australia, however, the emphasis was very much on the creation of a high-profile art product that could represent Australia overseas (hence the proliferation of period films in the 1970s): in Hollywood the magic words were ‘box office’ and it regulated the choice of filmmakers.

From the director to the protagonist: displacement in the cinema of Peter Weir

In the first feature-length film that Weir directed, The Cars that Ate Paris (1975), the protagonist finds himself stranded in a bizarre Australian village, whose economy is financed by engineered car accidents and trading of the vehicles’ spare parts.

 

It can be argued that the professional and personal displacement experienced by Peter Weir during his Australian career and after his migration to Hollywood is reflected in his movies. Given the subject matter of the films that Weir directed, there is a common trait: the displacement of the protagonist, always engaged in some sort of personal battle, against society, the elements of nature, or some other force outwith his control. Marek Haltof has identified a series of contrasts in all of Weir’s films, and at the centre of these contrasts there is often the protagonist.[20]

In the first feature-length film that Weir directed, The Cars that Ate Paris (1975), the protagonist finds himself stranded in a bizarre Australian village, whose economy is financed by engineered car accidents and trading of the vehicles’ spare parts. When he discovers the truth, his fear of driving, combined with the action of the village’s mayor prevent him from escaping. The protagonist, in this instance, is a (seemingly) righteous citizen who is displaced in a sinful society.

In Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a group of schoolgirls disappear during a trip to the titular location. Herein the displacement is experienced before the forces of nature: the rock seems to have swallowed the girls within its hidden ravines. A similar type of conflict is experienced by David, the protagonist of The Last Wave, who, on the one hand, has to battle against the mysterious behaviour of the weather (hailstones in the summer and so forth) and, on the other hand, experiences an emotional displacement when nobody supports his defence of a group of aborigines on a charge of manslaughter. In a white-dominated society, David is the sole advocate for the natives.

In the following feature film directed by Weir, The Plumber (1977), a double social displacement occurs. The two protagonists, a young female researcher and a plumber, are estranged from each other (they belong to two different social classes) and yet experience an emotional and social displacement. Jill’s – unmotivated? – fear of the plumber alienates her from her husband, while Max’s illiteracy is no match for Jill’s education. In The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Guy Hamilton is an Australian reporter in a foreign country (Indonesia) and experiences the emotional and social displacement typical of the members of diasporic communities.

Examples of displacement are not limited to Weir’s Australian films. In Witness (1985), the wounded policeman John Book is taken care of by a group of Amish, and falls in love with the young widow Rachel. Book experiences both an emotional and a social displacement. Among the Amish, he is the embodiment of the corrupt society of the modern world – indeed he brings guns, blood and violence to the peaceful community. Rachel’s father uses an interesting expression to indicate the members of the world outside the Amish community: he calls them ‘the English’, as if they belonged to a place other than – and remote from – America.

From the director to the protagonist: displacement in the cinema of Peter Weir

In Dead Poets Society (1989), Professor John Keating experiences a professional displacement when he introduces modern ways of teaching to a 1950s American college

 

The other films that Weir directed in Hollywood all follow similar lines. In Dead Poets Society (1989), Professor John Keating experiences a professional displacement when he introduces modern ways of teaching to a 1950s American college: in The Truman Show (1998), Truman experiences a displacement that has science fiction qualities; he is the sole protagonist in a life-long television show who is unaware that everything and everybody is faked except himself. Truman is the example of the ultimate displacement: an emotional and social displacement that touches the depths of his own identity. More examples could be given, but they would exceed the remit of this paper.

In this article, I have shown the professional and emotional displacement experienced by director Peter Weir during his Australian and American career, a displacement reflected in the subject matter of his films. In conclusion, it is possible to return to the question that I have asked above. Being a European in Australia and a visitor in the United States, ‘Is there a place where the director feels at home?’ The answer resides in the films that director has made. In an interview, Weir once declared

I think creatively there are no countries. Or, as Hitchcock said, ‘Film is its own country.’ It’s a world you enter, but the emotions are fundamentally understandable when translated effectively. A young director in any country has a fresh perspective on his or her own country. But if they go on making films and have a long career, this becomes less relevant, and they become that country.[21]

Making films: this is where Peter Weir does not feel displaced. Ultimately, films are “Weir’s country’.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anonymous, “Weir Tries to Keep that ‘Fragile Spark’ Intact”, in Screen International, April 28, 1979, 30.

Appadurai, Arjun, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”, in Xavier Jonathan Inda and Rosaldo Renato (eds.), The Anthropology of Globalization. A Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, 2002, 597 originally published in Public Culture, vol. 2, n. 2, 1990, 1 – 24.

Brillion, Natalie, Mexicans with Parkas and Mobile Phones: Transnational Cinema at Hollywood’s Edge, in Screening the Past, March 13, 2006, [online] Available from: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/19/mexicans-parkas-mobiles.html. [Accessed April 3, 2008]

Broeske, Pat, “Keeping up with the Indiana Joneses”, Cinema Papers, n. 51, May 1985, 31.

Bygrave, Myke, “Down Under in L.A.”, Still, May 1985 n. 19, 44 – 45.

English Dictionary, London: HarperCollins, 1997, 476.

Glick Schiller, Nina, Basch, Linda and Szanton Blanc, Cristina, “From Immigrant to Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration”, Anthropological Quarterly, January 1995, vol. 68, n. 1, 48.

Gupta, Akhil, The Song of the Nonaligned World: Transnational Identities and the Reinscription of Space in Late Capitalism”, Cultural Anthropology, February 1992, vol. 7, n. 1, 63 – 79.

Haltof, Marek, Peter Weir. When Cultures Collide, New York: Prentice Hall International and London: Twaine, 1996.

Holmes, Allison, “Under the Influence: Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously”, DGA Magazine,[online] Available from: http://www.dga.org/news/v27_1/indie_peterweir.php3. [Accessed April 10, 2008]

Kass, Judith, Peter Weir, January 8, 1979, [online] Available from: www.perterweircave.com/articles/articlei.html (accessed, April 4, 2008).

Mann, Roderick, “Peter Weir pays Witness to the Amish”, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1985, 17.

Murray, Scott, “Hal and James McElroy. Producers”, Cinema Papers, October 1977, n. 14, 148 -150, 183 and.

Murray, Scott, “Hal and Jim McElroy”, Cinema Papers, May 1990, n. 79, 13 – 17, 66 – 70.

Murray, Scott, “Informal discussion with Jim and Hal McElroy and Peter Weir”, Cinema Papers, January 1, 1974, n. 1, 20 – 21.

O’Brien, Patty and Vaughn, Bruch (eds.), Amongst Friends. Australian and New Zealand Voices from America, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2005, 13.

O’Regan, Tom, Australian National Cinema, London and New York: Routledge, 1996 .

Vertovec, Steven, “Conceiving and Researching Transnationalism”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 22, n. 2, 1999, 3 – 4.

Weir, Peter, “Gallipoli. Shooting History”, April 26, 2001, in Patty O’Brien and Bruch Vaughn (eds.), Amongst Friends. Australian and New Zealand Voices from America, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2005, 54.

[1] Appadurai Arjun (2002), 597.

[2] Glick Schiller Nina, Basch Linda, and Szanton Blanc, Cristina (1995), 48.

[3] Vertovec, Steven (1999), 3 – 4.

[4] See O’Regan, Tom (1996) 65 – 75.

[5] For a discussion on the construction of identity of the postcolonial countries after independence, see Gupta, Akhil (1992), 63 – 79.

[6] See O’Regan, Tom (1996) and Brillion Natalie (2006).

[7] O’Brien, Patty and Vaughn, Bruch (eds.), 2005, 13.

[8] Weir, Peter (2005), 54 (emphasis in the original).

[9] Kass, Judith (2008).

[10] English Dictionary (1997), 476.

[11] Glick Schiller Nina, et al., (1995) 59.

[12] O’Regan, Tom, (1996), 305.

[13] Ibid, 310.

[14] Anonymous (1979), 30.

[15] In the two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Australian journal Cinema Papers published a series of interviews – conducted by Scott Murray – with the McElroy producers. The interviews constitute an interesting and detailed insight into the Australian film industry during its revival, in terms of production, finance and agreements between Australia and Hollywood studios on distribution deals. Such interviews analyse the development of the film industry from a ‘cottage industry’, as James McElroy put it, to a more commercial and modern business. See Murray, Scott (1974), 20 – 21, (1977); 148 -150, 183 and (1990), 13 – 17, 66 – 70.

[16] With the exception of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), for which the idea of adapting Joan Lindsay’s novel was producer’s Patricia Lovell.

[17] See Mann, Roderick (1985), 17.

[18] See Broeske, Pat (1985), 31.

[19] See Bygrave, Myke (1985), 44 – 45.

[20] See Haltof, Marek (1996).

[21] Holmes, Allison, (accessed April 10, 2008).

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Serena Formica's doctoral thesis dealt with Australian director Peter Weir as case-study of the migration to Hollywood of a contemporary filmmaker within the context of transnationalism. Serena’s other research interests are Italian Neorealism and Australian National cinema.
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