- for Meaghan now too late
Ten years ago - in 1983 - the tutoring staff of our first year Cinema Studies subject asked me to give a lecture about The Last Wave , the film in which the title questions of this piece are asked. They had organised the subject around the idea of Australian identity and certainly The Last Wave is about "the search for identity", so preparing the lecture was not terribly hard.
My notes begin sketchily:
1. How is society/culture represented on film? Mirror vs mediation , an indirect relation, a process of abstraction, making metaphors & analogies, not of saying things directly.
2. The Last Wave an example. However in this lecture I will take matters which are obviously social and cultural, having to do with characters in the film and their relations to each other and to "the forces of nature". So I won't be saying all that could be said about the social/cultural questions the film raises. Also I will be dealing mostly with what is represented in the film rather than how it is represented, the [undecipherable] of the film, rather than the film itself.
This last sentence turned out to be not quite true. But I didn't change it. I tend to lie a lot, particularly to students and readers.
3. We treat the film as though it is our culture/society that speaks through it, not so much as though it is our culture/society that is spoken about by it. We say "it is a cultural product ".
All the italicising is intriguing. Partly it was a guide for me. I like to write out the things I say so that I won't ramble and that I will be as clear as I can about what I think. So I need to emphasise words and phrases: otherwise the words might come out in a monotone or with every third word stressed like a television news presenter. But reading it through here the emphasis tends to impart a strident, dogmatic tone, doesn't it? Maybe that suits the topic. Not many people seem insecure about identity, do they? Are you a fish?
And - what do you mean "we", white man?
5. To say this, we have to start on a pretty ordinary physical, empirical basis - with the conditions of production - and ask questions like, "who made the film?" and "where was it made?". I suppose that if The Last Wave were made by Federico Fellini in Hong Kong, we could still claim it said something about Australia - but I think that what it said would seem very different. A film made by Australians about Australians in Australia looks like a pretty safe bet to tell us something fairly direct about Australia.
Well, doesn't it? Here the wily lecturer is luring his auditors into a trap with two prongs.
Apparently The Last Wave is such a film. Peter Weir, an Australian film maker, wrote and directed the film and even formed a production company, based in New South Wales, to make the film here. The Australian Film Commission helped finance it. It was shot in Australia. It never pretends to be set anywhere else but in Australia. And yet...
Yes, I really did (and do) write out things like 'And yet...' Otherwise I would forget them. By this time we are on page two of the notes and they are less and less like notes. That tends to happen to my notes. I start to think in sentences. This is probably not a Good Thing. Notes allow you to approach a topic abstractly, like a scientist. You can distance yourself from the experience and think only of the general rules you are trying to pull out of that experience. This is what we are supposed to do, isn't it? But I can't do that most of the time. I end up writing sentences and paragraphs - and because of that I become a victim of writing, of moving from one phrase to another. If I were bright I would defend this by saying that it is what I am trying to do, after all - to find ways of understanding, of investigating, experience in its specificity - but I am not that smart.
And yet. The star of the film is Richard Chamberlain, an American actor. There seems to be no very heavy plot reason for Richard Chamberlain's playing the lead. It could be argued that there is a plot reason for the lead's not being a UK-type Australian, but the story specifically says that he comes from South America , not the United States. So there must be some other reason for an American's being in the role.
It doesn't take much to figure out another reason: the market. It is supposed to be easier to sell a film to the United States if there is an American starring in it - even a market zero like Chamberlain. There is a lot of money to be made in the US market.
But what does this motive do to the idea that The Last Wave is an Australian cultural product? If you make something to please someone else, just exactly how much does that something reflect your ideas and how much the other person's?
There I was, talking to Australian first year Cinema Studies students, at the invitation of Cinema Studies tutors. What was I saying? What did it have to do with me? Was I a fish?
Out of water?
Was I a snake?
In the grass?
You know that what they really want to say to you is "Yankee go home". This is all they really want to say to you. So you try to speak nicely and politely. You say what you hope they will like to hear. And, if some of it is what you think, so much the better. But if you don't put at least a little anti-American rhetoric in it, no one will listen. I remember sitting with my back against the wall of somebody's motel unit in my first or second year here. I had not spoken, so no one knew the mark of Kane. They were talking about recent Australian movies. 'You know what I reckon?' a woman said, 'I reckon the ending of Newsfront was saying just one thing: "Piss off Yanks!"' I reckon she was right, too. And surely, surely, that was what she was saying.
Not about me, of course. Never about me. Because I am not like other Americans.
So, shovel it up.
There could be another reason why Richard Chamberlain is starring in the film. It could be that an American production/distribution company, like Paramount Pictures, insisted on the presence of an American star before it would invest in the film. This adds another bit of interference, of noise, between us, the viewers, and the Australian culture we are looking for in this film. What else might that production company have fiddled with besides the star? Did it "approve" the script?
It is not just the star who is contaminated by being a foreigner: it is the backing money, the finance, the blood.
Actually, I just added the last four words (and cut out some others). As I go over this now, some things really need changing, even for then. It was an okay lecture but, as you will see, only okay.
Nobody notices it when you try to make a distinction between capitalism and the United States, and I think it is because the people who claim to be opposed to capitalism are actually opposed to the United States, more nationalists than socialists. In the writing on film which has gone on since May 1968 there has been a great deal of anti-American sentiment masquerading as reasoned politics (even, especially, among American writers). The ideas that "classic narrative" is somehow linked in some fundamental fashion to Hollywood and thus to capitalism and that the bourgeois art cinema of Europe and Japan offers a politically palatable alternative seem specious on the face of it, but they are what everyone knows these days - even first year Cinema Studies students.
The base issue might be a perceived threat to one's personal sense of one's self ("identity"). We do not - any of us, especially me - know if we are fish or snakes. There is, we think, because we see it from outside, a strong and menacing "American identity" which might take us over, make us into something else, something not our selves (snakes or fish). Capitalism does not have such an identity - and the reason for that is because capitalism, as Marx knew, thrives in the thicket of nationalisms, creates the anxiety which makes us fear the Other.
"As Marx knew"...as if I know, or want to know, what Marx knew! As if writing Marx here is not itself a feint, double-jointed, a trap - now for the unwary Marxian reader - genuflecting to PC while, for the cognoscenti, mooning the altar. Who will listen to my prayers without Marx to intercede for me?
If we are going to speak of this film as an Australian cultural product, as though it says something significant about Australia and not about something else, then we will have to be careful or some people will say we are being stupid.
I made a mistake and repeated the same number for the next section. I think I tend to make mistakes with numbers.
5. There is a flaw in this line of thinking, of course. The flaw is in our concept of "identity". We have the idea that a national culture, like a human being, makes itself , 'forges its own identity'. But this simply isn't true. It isn't true of individual human beings, and it is not true of nations. "Identity" does not come from inside; it comes from outside. It is what others perceive - which is to say that it is partly dependent upon the preconceptions of the people looking. My "identity" is precisely what escapes my control: it goes out to you and you deal with it in your own fashion.
And the same thing happens with a nation's "identity": it is the product of a multiplicity of perceptions, not a single thing located at a central point. It is the subject of foreign affairs, not of domestic cultural policy.
This means that you can't do a hell of a lot with it. It also means that you can't help having it, whether you recognise it or not. Surely the point about "national identity", like "national cinema" - to those who think such things important - is never whether any specific one exists or not, but whether a worthy one exists or not. Value is not spoken about directly these days, especially in film studies, but value is what bulks up behind "Australia" and "Australian cinema". No one wants to know more than they can learn in the least possible time about the dull films made here, the bad ones, and no one wants just a country or just an Australian film industry. Everybody wants something "good". They want to make "Australia" and "good" the same thing.
Which is stupid. And lends itself to evil.
If I want to take The Last Wave , with its American star and money, as representing certain matters about Australian culture/society, it is, then, not a mistake to do so. Or, it is no more a mistake than taking The Sentimental Bloke or the Olympic rowing team or Henry Lawson to represent Australian culture. In each case we can find reasons to doubt the "pure Australian content" of what we perceive, and reasons to decide that what we see is "Australian" anyway. In each case we make a tacit agreement to call what we find "Australian culture" instead of enquiring into its roots more deeply (some people call this 'negotiating' meaning) - and by doing this, we help to construct that cultural identity . Meanings are not fixed, in other words, they are always being made - and one of the makers of meanings that you perceive is you.
6. The idea of "identity" I have just outlined to you is apparently not one found in The Last Wave . At one point, Richard Chamberlain - David in the film - is confronted by Charlie, an Aboriginal mystic with extraordinary powers. 'Who are you?' Charlie asks over and over. In the film David does not know who he really is. Inside him his true identity is hiding. There is no question in this film of identity being negotiated with others. It is something that others have very little to do with. David would be what he is no matter where or when he existed.
There is a parenthetical section here in my notes. I think I'll put those remarks into these comments for this version. That will allow me to expand them a bit too.
"Version" is a loaded word for me. I read it and hear a Jamaican voice (inscribed, not spoken). I see it and read Japanese: Version 1.1, 1.2, l.3, 1.4 - a comic book about biology and cybernetics that finds its climactic statements all in Australia, in a land marked by its diffrance and its isolation from the rest of the universe. I write it and understand a different textual edition. Version.
Actually, the idea of identity coming from inside is an impossible position for this film, or indeed any work of fiction, to maintain - because characters in such works are [undecipherable] inescapably constituted by their relations with others (including us, the viewers or readers). They have no insides. In spite of this, Occidental fiction and a lot of criticism too presumes on a fixed inside - a psychology, a self, an identity - for fictional characters. The aim of that kind of writing and thinking about things like films is to find out for certain what is really going on. This is an impossible aim, which may be one reason why there are so many critics and academics and aesthetes around.
7. Who David is is the big question in The Last Wave . On the surface it is an easy question to answer: David is an Australian. (I know that Richard Chamberlain is an American, but David is the character that Richard Chamberlain is playing and David is, for the purposes of the story, an Australian.) He is white, male, upper-middle class, married with two children (both girls), a solicitor specialising in corporate taxation, originally a migrant from South America. His natural parents are both dead, but his stepfather, a minister, is still living. He has a nice house and car.
I really don't know what the numbers signify.
8. David is an Australian who isn't sure who he is.
9. Well, yes.
Not being sure of who you are is practically the dictionary definition of being an Australian. I know this because [I am an Australian and] it is also practically a dictionary definition of being an American. The dictionary was written by a European, probably a Pom.
A lot of this is pretty elementary stuff, but remember, it was for first year students. You can skip it and go on to the next piece if you like. It probably shouldn't be in a sophisticated journal like this one anyway.
What I am getting at is that one of the fundamental dilemmas articulated in The Last Wave can be understood as a restatement or representation of a dilemma many people think is typical of Australian (and American) culture: the search for a national or cultural identity.
While we're on the topic, it is interesting that when David finds his identity, it is a cultural one. Often in stories about identity the protagonist finds some sort of inner strength or psychological wholeness. That is what happens in My Brilliant Career , for example. But in The Last Wave David finds his cultural roots and that is about all.
I remember trying to think of other recent Australian films in which the recovered identity turned out to be cultural rather than "personal". There weren't, aren't, a lot. I don't mean films in which identity is not really an issue (like the Crocs or The Lighthorsemen ), but those where it is (the Snowy Rivers , Mad Maxs and Mullaways ). When I thought about it some more, it seemed to me that cultural identity is just not commonly the result of the Oedipal quest anyway (except, maybe, in nineteenth century boys' books). Australia is not an exception, but an instance of the rule.
Gabba gabba hey!
David isn't the only character in the film with an identity problem, but he is close to it. The only other one I can think of is someone we see for only a short time, someone who is taken out of the narrative in order that David can be put in. This is the murder victim, 'Billy', a young Aboriginal male who steals some sacred things and is killed because of what he did. In the course of the film it comes out that he wanted to be part of the group which had those things, but that he was not allowed to. His desire for cultural identity, then, leads him finally to his own death.
And there I let it hang. I am not proud of that, but there it is. To make matters worse, I am going to do it again. Please stop me.
Six other characters are particularly important in the film: David's wife, his two daughters, two Aboriginal males, and his stepfather. None of them appears to have an identity problem. If we were demanding that The Last Wave reflect our lives, we would insist on seeing the identity problems of these people as well. After all, some of them are women and some are black - two groups we like to think must have such problems because they are oppressed by our white male-dominated culture [that is, let's be clear, by me] . But films do not mirror, they mediate. When all of us stare up at the screen only one stares back.
What was the name of the man who took composite photographs of criminals, trying to find out what the real face of crime looked like? I think of the cultural screen-mirror like that. All our faces blend together. For a moment the eyes of those watching undergo a horrible strain as the images overlap. Then it comes clear. We have an absolutely accurate portrait of our culture. And impeccably scientific too.
David has a cultural identity problem. Who is he?
And no wonder. You would too if you were being played by Richard Chamberlain.
It's easy to leave the matter there, with a quick one-liner. But all that does is show how clever we are and how superior to the stupid people who make movies, when the truth of it is that we are the stupid ones, mainly because we think we are clever.
What better way to illustrate your character's identity problem than by making a confusion of cultural identities one of the first things viewers have to negotiate in the film? The film says "Australian" by saying "American pretending to have been born in South America, pretending to live in Australia". That may not be a statistically accurate cultural description of an Australian, but it is not a bad way of saying, "Here is someone with a cultural identity problem", is it?
10. Let's look at David's identity another way:
He is not female - like his wife.
He is not black/Aboriginal - like Billy or Charlie.
He is not a child - like his daughters.
He is not an "older man" - like his stepfather and Charlie.
He is not born in Australia - like everyone else in the film.
He is not a fish or a snake either.
Charlie asks him whether he is a fish or a snake. In the overt context of the film, these questions might be tantamount to asking him whether he is human, what his ancestors were. They might also tell us that Charlie knows David is not human and is quite literally asking him what non-human thing he is. There is not enough information to know for certain how to interpret what Charlie intends. However, there is enough information to know that the questions function to suggest to us, the spectators, perhaps for the first time, that David may not be human. They appear as anomalies, even in the weird context the film has fashioned. As anomalies, they ask to be understood. If we cannot know the intention of such questions, we can know their effect on us or we can speculate on that effect on others. So much for intention and meaning.
At first, David's identity is apparent to us because of what he is not. He is not a normal, everyday person, for example. At dinner he suddenly looks up and dashes to the stairs, where we know - because we have seen it - there is a spreading puddle of water. But it does not seem as though David could have seen it. Later he has a strange dream - and it is not the first such dream.
The Last Wave is a film in which a lot of what happens is seen from the main character's point of view. Yet, from very early in the film we know that that point of view - David's point of view - is not the same as ours.
Now I am talking about spectatorship, I guess. We identify David, but we don't identify with him. First year Cinema Studies, remember.
For one thing, we know more about what is going on than he does. The title sequence shows us a man painting designs on rocks. The next sequence shows a violent freak storm in the outback. Only after this do we see David for the first time. He virtually ignores the torrential rain through which he drives home, but we are already alert to the tricks of the weather. We learn of the water on the stairs before he does - and when his wife says, 'Taps don't turn themselves on,' we see an outside tap running in the rain.
And, as the film unfolds, we recognise who David is, what his cultural identity is, before he does, even though it is his identity and not ours.
We know about his inside before he does. We know about what hides behind expression, what goes before it. We know his truth, his secret, his being. And it is always that way. We know each other, not ourselves.
Or, at least, this is the way we act, trying to look beneath what is said to what is meant, wondering why they did that, staying up late brooding because of a phrase, a gesture, an intonation. But how badly we do it!
Fiction - or do I mean "classic fiction"? - is the place where the anguished, inevitable practice of imputing meaning actually works. The commonest confusion between fiction and reality is not made by kids who drop anvils on their playmates because Bugs Bunny did it, it is made by adults who think they can figure out what is really going on around them just as they can in movies and books. Kids are too smart to believe in psychology.
But you knew that, didn't you? You aren't a fish. Or a snake.
11. In spite of what The Last Wave says, we know that David's identity is not really revealed in the film, because there was no identity hiding away to be revealed. Instead, his identity is constructed by the film, just as the film itself is constructed, is something which is fabricated, is an object. So now I want to draw your attention to some of the procedures by which that identity is made. They seem to work with two sorts of tools. One has to do with how David acts ; the other with what he sees .
Very often the two are mixed together. And, by and large, for David, as for most of us, what he sees has an effect on how he acts. For example, when he has strange dreams, he sits up in bed. Then he gets out of bed (in his dream he has already got out of bed). Then he stays up and does not come to bed. Then he stays away from his house. Then he stays away from his office. Then he sends his wife and children away. Then he leaves his house entirely and does not come back.
In other words, he moves further and further away from his wife and family throughout the film.
This is a film which intrigued Robin Wood.
But what is he going to ?
That is not hard to find out. He is going toward the Aboriginal people whom he has seen in his dreams and whom he is defending in court.
Translated into a certain kind of social understanding, he is leaving an everyday white world for a dream-like black one. He leaves the inside of the house, where it is light, warm, (usually) dry and secure, for the outside where it is dark, cold, wet and uncertain.
This seems to fit the pattern of a conflict that is not too uncommon in your and my everyday experience: the conflict between "culture" and "nature" - between what we think of as civilised and therefore artificial and what we think of as pre -civilised and therefore natural. This conflict is often expressed in Australian (and other) cultural products, and very often the original inhabitants of the land are constructed in such products as representatives of what is natural and what, therefore, should not be disturbed by the process of history.
For example, The Mummy - a horror film that does not particularly interest Robin Wood.
The Last Wave is no exception to this practice. It seems to be particularly harsh in condemning what white civilisation has done to black nature. Consider the places where Billy, the murder victim, drinks, flees and finally meets his death. Consider how the Aboriginal people live in the film (and you might ask yourself, "how do they live?"). Consider how they are treated by the police. And consider how their cultural identity is denied by the white people in the film, and even by the law.
The last point is something of a feature of the social critique in which the film indulges and, thus, is worth a few more sentences.
In spite of the circumstances of Billy's death, for which apparently there is no discernible cause, white people say that the Aboriginal people in the film are not supposed to have killed him in a traditional cultural way because they live in the city and are therefore 'not tribal' . The white man's city, then, is presumed to have destroyed the tribal identity which is presumed to be the whole cultural identity of Aboriginal people. During the film this destruction is explicitly related to an historical process: our attention is drawn to a book with facing illustrations of Aboriginal men. On the left is one looking noble, dressed traditionally. On the right is one slumped down on a city street, dressed in contemporary white man's clothes. Above the pictures are the words 'THEN...AND NOW'.
I think I probably should have made the point a bit stronger that these are not the attitudes of this film, but the attitudes of the society which this film is attacking - that is, that beneath the ugly surface of what is shown to have happened to Aboriginal people, the film goes to a lot of effort to reveal something which it, at least, would call fine and worthwhile. It says that the destruction of Aboriginal culture is a self-serving lie, that the culture is more powerful than the white man's history and the white man's photographs. This too, is a lie - but it is a noble lie. And it is the same lie we tell ourselves about ourselves.
And so The Last Wave shows apparently opposing ideas of "civilisation" (or "history") and "nature" - and it shows one person, David, moving away from one and towards the other.
But David is, as we have seen, finding his identity. If he is moving away from civilisation and towards nature, it seems inescapable that his identity is to be found in nature. At one point he dreams that a young Aboriginal man is holding a stone out to him upon which a symbol of his, David's, identity is painted. This man has the secret of his identity and is trying to give it to him.
Oh boy, is he ever.
That is a pretty clear statement, I think. David is drawn away from his family and towards the Aboriginal people because his identity is somehow to be found with them or through them.
Now I have said that David is an Australian [like me] . Apparently, according to this film, an Australian finds identity with or through Aboriginal people. That sounds like a fairly radical political stance: to say that we can only get to the real Australia through the experience of Aboriginal people is not the sort of thing Bruce Ruxton would like to hear. It might even give Paul Keating a bit of a twinge.
Right here the notes say GO TO 12.
12. I shouldn't leave the civilisation/nature conflict without saying something about all the weather in the film. There certainly is a lot of it, almost right from the beginning. When that violent freak storm strikes in the outback, its target is the school . The next thing we see is the aurora australis over Sydney. A high, modern office building. David in an office. Interior corridors. A gate that rises. Over and over, signs of machines, of rigidity, of artificiality. Above these signs, grey storm clouds and rain - signs of violent weather that we suspect, from what has gone before, means danger to the city and its people. The conflict couldn't be more clearly shown if it had been laid out in an animated diagram.
The film begins in the outback - in a location and with people we never see again - the outback, where weather is the enemy of (white) humanity: fire and flood, drought and wind. The story is told again and again in Australian books and in the newspapers and on television of people facing the elements, of people being defeated by the elements, losing everything, and starting all over again.
However, the story is told somewhat differently in The Last Wave . For David can, in some ways, foretell the weather. He can do what everyone says the Department of Meteorology cannot. Indeed, his identity is all bound up with his ability to see what will happen. Not, please note, with any desire he might have to control the weather (that lies elsewhere in the film), nor with any particular opposition he has to the weather or the forces it may represent - two attitudes which might reasonably be thought of as "Australian" ones. David's identity has to do only with being able to see what will happen. It is a passive identity, not an active one. He seeks it out in nature, but he does not become one with the active forces of nature when he has found it. He resists some of the powers of nature almost to the end of the film, even after he knows who he is. In the end, he is passive as he kneels before the inevitable, having truly found himself at last.
BACK TO 11.
11. What does David do when he is active? I have said that he leaves things. So, what does David leave in order to "find" himself? I said he was, "symbolically" if you like, leaving "civilisation" - but in the film he leaves his family, and that family is entirely made up of females .
Now, when you think about it, that is nothing surprising either...
I mean, we all know that Australian males are supposed to be pretty uncomfortable with women. They like their mates better - but not Tarzan-and-his-mate either. More like Tarzan Escapes . If David, an Australian man, can only find his cultural identity by leaving Australian women, well, it fits the pattern.
And if David's cultural identity is literally in the hands of another man (the man in the dream) - well, that's mateship for you. The old Australian story.
Every Saturdee on the footy ground. (And, by the way, you'll find the same story in British, American, Russian, Italian, Japanese and many other films too: it's a pretty popular story!)
I'd like to stop this particular line of enquiry here and leave you to pursue it, if you want, in your tutorial groups. Are you satisfied that it is just a simple question of Australian male identity we are seeing in The Last Wave ? Ask yourself, for instance, if these blokes are really mates, or what?
Well, what did you want me to do? It was 1983...give me a break! Was I going to tell 'em it was a pooftah movie? Tell 'em Australia was a pooftah culture (not to mention Britain and the US)? Tell 'em the poofs are trying to take over their minds by filling them full of subtle images? Warn them about Mel Gibson? Paul Hogan? Michael Thornhill? The guy in Sociology with the video camera?
In spite of the shot analyses to come, I remember only one image from this film: Chamberlain and Gulpilil in mid-shot, walking towards the camera, Gulpilil with his jacket slung over his shoulder, naked to the waist. What a hunk! Yum yum! This film exists, I am sure, on one level at least, only for this shot and for the homo-erotic reaction it provokes even in going-on-fifty, straight academics like me.
But you can't be sure about me anymore, can you?
Splish! Splash! Is he a fish?
Of course he isn't, I'm not. It's 1993 after all and if he or I were one we would be proud, wouldn't we? We're just checking in, like with Marx, showing we've got eyes ...like a snake.
13. I have just pointed out some of what David leaves when he goes to find himself. I have also said that David can, in some ways, see better than other people, because he can see what is going to happen. But David has trouble seeing himself ; he does not know who he is. This might mean that he cannot see some things when he looks. Now, if David's cultural identity is partly dependent upon leaving women out of his life, it may also be the case that it is dependent upon what he fails to see when he looks.
To do this I want to examine just two shots out of the hundreds which make up this film - and then another which may tell us what David can see. The first one occurs in a sequence which shows David following the Aboriginal man who first appeared to him in a dream: Chris (played by Gulpilil, who is sometimes known as David Gulpilil).
Chris? I know of some people named Chris. I think of them and they make me cry. The little boy with the bear. The madman and his boat. But not the one who carries you across the river: not the ogre - no, no, not the ogre, he'll pitch me into the river when I can't help myself.
Most of this sequence, like most of the film, is from David's point of view. But this shot is not. It is from Chris's point of view. He turns his head towards the car from which we know David is watching, and as he does so, the focus of the shot changes from Chris's head to the car and back again. What happens is that Chris's head, which has been in sharp focus, gets fuzzy, while the car in the background of the shot gets sharp, and vice-versa. This kind of change of focus is not uncommon in movies.
It is even a kind of trademark of Peter Weir's, mucking about with the focus when you don't want it or expect it. This is something I first learned about not from a fish or a snake, but from a pig.
It directs your attention to whatever element of the shot is in focus. In this case, it makes it pretty clear that Chris has looked at the car - along with us. We might translate the shot into First Reader English: 'Chris sees the car'. I'll bet, however, that you agree that a better translation would be: 'Chris sees David' even though David cannot actually be seen in the shot at all. Putting this shot in the context of the whole sequence, it reads something like: 'David is looking at Chris. Chris sees David looking at him. David does not see Chris looking at him'. (Put in yet another way, Chris knows something which David does not.)
That's the first shot. The second shot I want to describe occurs during the trial of the Aboriginal people whom David is defending. Chris is one of those on trial. At one point David, who is sitting down, turns his head towards Chris, sitting facing us in the background. David is in sharp focus and Chris is fuzzy. But the focus in this shot does not change. We never see Chris clearly in this shot, only David . This could be translated as: 'David does not see Chris clearly' (and this is a problem David has had before in the film) or even: 'David does not see Chris'. In other words, it is saying very much the same sort of thing that the first shot did, by using almost the opposite technique.
The two shots make a transformation. Chris looks in the foreground right of screen to David (car) at background left. David looks in foreground left to Chris at background right. Black and white. Pursuer and pursued. Powerful and powerless. And none of the dichotomies exactly as I have put them.
Yet there is a time when David sees Chris - and it is at a rather unexpected point too, a time when we might suppose that he could not see him at all. David has come back to his house. The trial is over and David has lost the case. But suddenly, without explanation or even any particular sense of surprise, Chris is at David's front door, holding out in his hand the stone with David's identity painted on it.
I first wrote 'David is at the front door'.
If David lost the case, Chris should be in gaol - but here he is. Does David say, 'Yo! How did you get out?' Does Chris say, 'We'd better be quick coz I'm on the run'? In a word - no.
And why don't they say things like that? Why does David see Chris now, when he shouldn't be able to see him at all? I think the answer lies in what Chris does. He takes David to the place where he will finally learn his true identity. David has been drawn to Chris (or Chris to David) from the beginning, because Chris, according to the dream, can tell him fully and completely who he is. In the underground scene which follows, Chris does just that, then turns and goes to "join his people". This happens in a shot which does not make it clear whether David can see what Chris is doing or not.
What I am getting at is that Chris seems to have only one purpose in this story the film tells. It is the same purpose that all the other Aboriginal people have: the same reason Billy has to die; the same reason David's family has to leave him. It all happens so that David can find his true identity. David never sees Chris in the courtroom. He never sees Chris at all. He only sees a stone that has his identity painted on it - in the hand of a dream messenger.
Chris is made to be complicit in this process in an interesting way. At one point he tells David that he, David, said what Chris himself actually said a few moments before in court. He claims that David is saying the words that Chris is speaking. Who is Chris, this man who seems to have no identity problem at all?
Well, is this anything new? Is it new to learn that white men are using women and black people to make identities for themselves - that, as far as white men are concerned, women and black people exist only in order to help them to find themselves? Is it new to learn that colonialism - which we might have thought was something practised on Australia by foreign nations - is being practised on Australians by other Australians? Is it even new to learn that Australian identity is the identity of the colonialist - that is, the stranger from another land with special knowledge to impart to the natives, the exploiter, the seeker-of-identity?
At this point I have a problem. Is this rather obvious reading of the film "deconstructive" or not? That is, am I finding out something about the film which has escaped its intentions? I know that this is not supposed to matter. We have gone beyond that. And, partly for that reason, I don't bother to raise the issue in the lecture, for example. But this is a naive blindness, after all - because almost everyone supposes that we are, in some rather warped sense, "psychoanalysing" films when we do this. That is, we are exposing the dirty secrets they did not wish to tell. And what we find is always to the detriment of the film, of the culture - in this case to the detriment of "Australian identity". G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the detective story would really come into its own when the mission of the detective was to find out who was innocent instead of who was guilty (and I think this is what he tried to do with the Father Brown character). Surely the repellent thing about the simplistic way in which this kind of deconstruction is practised in film analysis is precisely because its intent is the Oedipal one of uncovering guilt.
So yes, ultimately the answer is: I am a snake.
There are two stories in this one film. One begins as the film begins. It takes place in the outback - the land, Australia. It opens with a sudden typhoon. It has to do with unimaginable powers.
This story is interrupted by a new one, a story about a lawyer who defends some Aboriginal people involved in a killing. This story takes place in the city. It has to do with the white man's law and white racist attitudes. The white lawyer - David - apparently feels a keen sense of the value of Aboriginal culture and a keen sense of guilt for being allied with the group which has appropriated tribal land and destroyed the old ways.
This story comes to dominate our attention - in part no doubt because it is a story we recognise. It has a clearcut goal: saving the Aboriginal people on trial (neo-formalist narratologists would approve).
But the first story keeps on intruding on the second one, disturbing it with visions (in the car on the way home, for example) and more subtly in David's growing obsession with the case. Finally, when Chris appears on David's doorstep, the first takes over the second story completely and banishes it from the screen.
The second story, the one about the trial, is more or less a story of everyday Australian society as we know it. The first story destroys that society, just as it destroys the second story, using the fantastic realms of power with which it is concerned to do so.
The second story is told from David's point of view. If on one level its goal is getting the Aboriginal people off a murder charge (who is innocent, perhaps?), on another level its goal is, as the lecture tends to say over and over, the establishment of David's identity. But that identity can only be found in realms which the setting of the second story denies exist. David asks his stepfather, 'Why didn't you tell me there were mysteries?', which is also an invocation of the first story.
The story about nature and power and the end of the world (or at least of Australia, which is all that matters), holds the answer to the questions of the story about the lawyer: 'what will happen to the Aboriginal people?', and 'who is David?'.
If, in the lawyer's story, all has been deployed for the sake of David's identity crisis, in the nature story David exists as the tool of something quite other. In that story, told from a generalised, collective, perhaps even "Aboriginal" point of view, David's identity is already known (and this is one reason that we can know who David is before he does) and his role as a seeker is predetermined. This story has only contempt for David's problems.
When we last see David, he is kneeling on the beach. His back is to the city, to his house, to his family - but his back is also to Chris and to the other Aboriginal people. He is facing away from all of that and facing towards what he has been seeing obsessively through what has gone before. But I do not think he is facing his "identity". That problem has been solved: now he knows who (or what) he is. He is, instead, facing his destiny . For that destiny he has given up all human contact. He has even killed for it. Finally you have to ask if what he has found is worth what he has left, if what he sees is better than what he cannot see. Finally you have to ask what are the consequences of David's search for cultural identity. If, at the end of the film, David has found what it means to be an Australian - which is what I have been insisting is exactly, albeit metaphorically, the case - if he has found that, what does the last image of the film say about the destiny of being an Australian?
New: 24 November, 1995 | Now: 26 March, 2015