Academic journal article Antipodes

Fear in Peter Weir's Australian Films: A Matter of Control

Academic journal article Antipodes

Fear in Peter Weir's Australian Films: A Matter of Control

Article excerpt

MANY HAVE NOTED THE PREVALENCE OF THE EMOTION of fear in Peter Weir's Australian films. In dealing with this fear, commentators have directed their focus at the world external to that which Weir's characters inhabit. The commentators have asked what is it "out there" that these characters are so afraid of. As is the wont of all good scholars, they have attempted to discern an answer that unites Weir's oeuvre. Certainly, an argument can be made that Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Plumber (1979) can be connected based on a fear of sexuality; furthermore, an argument could be made that Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) can be connected based on a fear of the harsh realities of war, be it world war or civil war. However, little connects the other two Australian films, The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) and The Lost Wave (1977) with each other, and little connects those two earlier films with any of the other films Weir directed in Australia.

Jonathan Rayner identifies unity in Weir's Australian work in its "constant theme of the individual confronting an authoritative establishment or an enigmatic or illusory world" (21). Michael Bliss posits that the unifying idea is "the psychological dislocation that results from a confrontation with upsetting forces or the unknown" (24). Although sufficiently general to provide some unity, both answers prove inadequate. Rayner's answer is split between two outside forces, authority and enigma, and, then, rather than explore either of these senses of what's "out there" and threatening in Weir, Rayner's discussion of the films per se shifts to, first, their stylistic unity - noting such elements as lack of closure and a mystical mood - and, second, their bridging of American and European approaches to cinema. Bliss's answer is also split, this time between the upsetting and the unknown. When analyzing the films, he takes a pronounced Freudian turn that is too simply intellectual for a director who rebels against, as Bliss grants, the academic (13) in favor of depicting feelings that cannot be systematized in any single way. Weir is undoubtedly a director who "reads around," but he is also undoubtedly a director who prefers creating a puzzling mood to presenting any system - Freudian, Jungian, or otherwise. He might well borrow an idea or two but not a system.

However, if the focus were shifted away from what is "out there" to the characters' own worlds, a coherent answer emerges. The characters have all structured their own worlds in such a way that they maintain control. They have done so because, only in such controlled environments, do they have a clear identity. What they then fear is losing control- and, then, identity - when these structured worlds collapse. All six of Weir's Australian films feature this particular dynamic. Fear in Weir then has little to do with what's "out there"; rather, it has to do with the characters' tenacious hold on what, from their point of view, is "in here" - in themselves - out of fear that its collapse will send them tumbling into an abyss. That abyss, although it may be mirrored by the external events in the films, is more an intrapersonal phenomenon: without control and without the identity control provides, Weir's characters feel as if all is collapsing. Weir wants his viewers to share their feeling, not pinpoint a definitive external threat.

Recognizing this dynamic provides a unity to Weir's six Australian feature-length films, as the following film-by-film discussion will show.


Cars, the earliest of the six films, is in some ways the most bizarre example of this dynamic. The viewer is taken to the fictitious town of Paris, a place highway drivers stumble into only by "accident." As it turns out, the accidents are not actually accidents; rather, they are orchestrated by the town's residents, who feed on the parts they extract from the wrecks. This mining of automobile parts has become the town's industry. …

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