Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cinema on the Run: Escape from Authority in Peter Weir's Movies

A son is embraced and comforted by his compassionate father
The Return of the Prodigal Son

Escape from authority and father figures are two of the running themes that can be encountered in the majority of Peter Weir's work. Although he is not known as a writer-director per se, his choice of movies usually include characters that are or feel confined in a given setting and then try to escape from those limitations to different effects and outcomes. Spoilers are inevitable as I will go through a number of Peter Weir's movies.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

His first major work was the gorgeously shot Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The main characters are boarding school girls who feel repressed by the institution, which is run and represented adamantly by the strict headmistress Mrs Appleyard.

Yet this place and environment are allowed to exist due to the repressive Victorian attitudes towards a budding sensuality; this creates a space in which any forms of sexuality within these teenage minds and hearts are firmly rejected and denied. Interestingly, poetry is seen as dangerous as it may incite and (God forbid) excite those carnal pleasures.

The escape follows a trip on Valentine's Day (of all days!) to the majestic and mysterious rocky presence of Hanging Rock. It is impressive and firm in its grandeur, but it also entails prehistoric powers and magic. In its rugged wildness, it stands in clear contrast to the ordered world these girls are taught to live in.

Three girls mysteriously disappear in its labyrinthine pathways as if swallowed up by a supernatural entity. Hence, the escape from the limitations of an epoch or society ends up in disaster not only for the afflicted disappearing girls, but more so in its aftermath and effects on those who remain, in particular the headmistress who, in her despair, ends up seeking refuge in alcohol and whose body is eventually found dead at the base of the Hanging Rock.

Dead Poets Society

A similar story is offered in the more accessible but nonetheless remarkable Dead Poets Society (1989). Here we are dealing with teenage boys who are studying in a cold, strict and highly conservative environment, Welton Academy. They also are trying to make amends with their growing sexuality alongside a search for their own identity.

Their opening for escape comes in the form of an unorthodox English professor John Keating, in my view Robin Williams most impressive and restrained performance to date. He challenges not only the fixed institutional guidelines, but inspires and infuses his teenage students with the poetry of life. However, his rejection of academic formulas and the desire to awaken the students' true selves lead to disaster for all involved.

For instance, one of the boys tries to escape from the authoritarian rule of his father (echoes of the strict headmistress come to mind) by defying orders and by following his own dreams of becoming an actor. This action leads to the boy's suicide and Keating's dismissal, so again we are dealing with a tragic outcome.

The Mosquito Coast

Escape also comes in form of moving away from general American values and lifestyle that may feel confining, fake or hypocritical (take your pick). Enter the unpopular and single-minded character Allie Fox of The Mosquito Coast who wants to escape American society by creating an idyllic place somewhere in the jungle of Central America. He is inventive and has dreams, but he does not listen to the voice of reason and becomes perturbed and blinded by his own pride.

As a result, everything leads up to disaster not only for his family, but in fact for himself. His escape from one confinement leads to others as he has to deal with unforeseen difficulties and obstacles in this new world of his. And he comes up empty-handed despite all his wittiness and his MacGyver-like ingenuity.

There is an underpinning but not fully developed story of his teenage son Charlie played by River Phoenix who is at first admiring his father and then slowly and painfully realizes that his hero not only has his own share of limitations but that his father's dreams are selfish and do not include him.


When it comes to Witness (1985) the escape is from corrupt forces and danger into the peaceful bosom of an Amish society. John Book played by Harrison Ford goes into hiding and basically becomes an Amish for a while until things cool down back in town.

The Amish world seems both distant and appealing. It is distant because it so different form the world most of us are used to. Their lack of technology may appear a suitable idea at least ideologically, but in reality it is a tough bullet to swallow. One day, Book decides to fix a radio leading to some music and a little bit of dancing, both of which are generally frowned upon by this seclusive society.

Again the stern father, our running motive in Weir's work, appears on the scene and is firmly against such frivolities. The underlying message may be that a world that lacks music and dance, two common forms of entertainment, is one that falls short on joy. Not to mention passion as there is budding chemistry between the two protagonists, Book and the Amish widow.

The appealing part of this society is their rejection of violence. Both guns and physical violence are a common part of Book's and more specifically of our own urban world. In a key scene, Book does not allow himself to be bullied or humiliated to the horror of his Amish companions who simply tend to offer the other cheek on those occasions.

Interestingly, however, this peaceful idyll, which is not unlike in The Mosquito Coast a double-edged sword and blessing in disguise, becomes “contaminated” by the presence of this man who is evidently at odds with his environment. He unintentionally attracts violence onto this society; yet at the same time, he has left his mark and has brought about some life and movement into what is effectively a closed and static society.

The Truman Show

In The Truman Show (1998), the world seems to be one of perfect order. It is often predictable and apart from certain negative experiences that befall on poor Truman, it is generally one in which he may find safety. But there is something that is nagging him.

Truman notices certain suspicious and repetitive patterns, and he becomes rightfully paranoid. For some time, we may wonder as viewers whether he is suffering from a mental illness or whether he is in fact right that something fishy is going on around him.

The climax is reached when he finds out the truth, that all his world (and basically his life and his experiences, his whole existence) is but a fabricated and controlled lie. Finding himself at odds with his world he attempts to find the truth and escapes this fake and artificial setting; he travels across the dangerous and stormy sea just like strong-willed and proud Captain Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Fair Side of the World (2003) defying the elements to reach his goal.

When Truman does find out the truth, he meets Christof, the director of the reality show. He is the one who is not only running the show, he is in fact running Truman's life. So in a sense, we have the father figure again who this time around is almost as powerful as God. Yet Truman eventually faces his maker and, as a result, he escapes from his grasp becoming a fully realized person of flesh and blood now, one who finally has actual control over his own life.

The Way Back

The final movie I want to discuss here (I am skipping some of my favorite films of his, such as Green Card and The Year of Living Dangerously for matters of space not because of a lack of interest or ideas) is The Way Back (2010). Here we are dealing with a real prison, a Gulag set in the middle of the Siberian wilderness.

The prisoners physically escape but their quest makes exceptional demands on body and spirit. They have to fight hunger, climate and, more importantly, their own failings and demons to reach their ultimate goal: freedom.

This movie has been criticized for its lack of emotion or for its somewhat implausible ending, but I think it works well on most fronts. The movie comes full circle not only in its own narrative stream (all the way back), but also as a culmination of Weir's work itself.

The “father” has been vindicated or has left willingly (can the character of Mr Smith played by Ed Harris – who also played Christof in the Truman Show - be the representation of the father here?) giving his “son” full rein and freedom. Seen from this light, it is a wonderful fitting coda that after years of absence the prodigal son - now perhaps himself a father figure - reunites with his beloved.

That being said, I sincerely hope that Peter Weir will make another movie, but so far he has kept us dangling. In the meantime, I made an interesting discovery about him. Peter Weir's favorite movie (and one of mine as well!) turns out to be The White Ribbon (2009) by Michael Haneke.

This may come as no surprise as the children in that film are dealing with a stern and unrelenting father who punishes them for misbehaving or doing wrong. The children cannot escape in Haneke's film and are both victims and aggressors. However, Peter Weir's message is overall more optimistic. Some of his heroes have broken free and now it is up to them what they will do with their new-found liberty.

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