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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Weir’


The mid-19th century novel (1859) reprinted by NYRB, introd Pramoedya Ananta Toer

(published 1964)


Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan and Mel Gibson, Guy Hamilton (Year of Living Dangerously, 1982)

Friends and readers,

A strange coincidence led to this blog. This past winter on TrollopeandHisContemporaries @groups.io we read the stunningly revealing history by Eduard Dekker (often using the protective pseudonym, Multatuli), called Max Havelaar. It’s a novel in the Trolstoy tradition of novelistic examination and dramatization painstakingly studying what are the realities of an era, a place, milieus. Although written in an frequently apparently whimsical and digressive manner, a Dutch captain and then resident mine manager (Max) thoroughly outlines for us the structural, economic and (to some extent, less this way) military underpinnings of systematic stripping away of people’s rights to their land, to grow food for themselves. The reader sees how enslavement evolved from local structures run by numinous bosses. These native leaders collaborated with the people put in charge by capitalist and industrial companies backed by armies. There followed an imperialist extractive exploitation of the land with its people doing the work for starvation wages. A colonialist culture is what Max Havelaar finds himself in when he comes out to Indonesia to be a resident manager. The story of this man is the front part of the novel; an almost equally long series of comments, clarifications, and notes the back half. We learn how a prosperous tribal world was turned into a famine-ridden groundwork for growing, buying and selling what the Dutch wanted and could trade with — the shamelessness of the brutality is even today shocking.

I reluctantly decided not to write about this novel as its art is so complicated: Dekker is imitating Walter Scott in the way he has narrators distance us from the story; and the way the story is continually interrupted is reminiscent of Tristram Shandy; he moves from whimsical to searingly catastrophic matter, going back and forth between Netherlands and Indonesia and other colonialized countries between them, in time as well as space, with several groups of characters, one belonging to the trading company and the other the gov’t officials. Yet I wanted to inform “the world” this novel exists and you can learn so much about what has ruined and is continuing to ruin so many people in what’s called the third world today from it.


There is a film (1967); you can get a DVD reading aloud of the book — it is a classic admired novel

Then in my Foreign Films class (OLLI at AU where I also teach), the teacher assigned Peter Weir’s 1982 The Year of Living Dangerously, part of the startlingly rich flowering of Australian film-making in the 1960s through 80s (supported by the Australian gov’t, Australian new wave cinema). It’s an adaptation of an angry and banned novel by Christ Koch, with the same title, written 18 years earlier. Both dramatize the appalling condition of the same native peoples and corruption of what had become many Europeans and coopted natives 120/140 years after the publication of Max Havelaar. The book was promptly banned in Indonesia, never given a prize (though its author was much honored), so dismissed as far as was possible; Weir attempted to film in Indonesia and found himself under attack, so had to move to the Philippines.

Weir’s film concentrates on the difference between the tumultuous Indonesian world of the time (police-ridden, half-crazed with despair and compensatory escapist religions) and the culture of wealthy administrators and newspaper reporters to which our main characters belong. Their job is to scrutinize, report on and film this world for the delectation and control of the European masters. Among other creative acts of Weir’s was to hire a woman to play the part of the central character, the male dwarf-like deeply compassionate photographer, who we see in the earliest moments of the film in his work-apartment and whose fraught (suicidal) death concludes it. Spirituality tells you the story concisely and well. Roger Egbert emphasizes what helped make the film popular: exotic locale, to which I’ll add a remarkable musical score (includes the use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Jessie Norman, singing while Billy mourns the death of a young child he/she was supporting as well as the child’s mother. And erotic love story between two conventionally (Hollywoodesque) erotically attractive actors:


Signourey Weaver and Mel Gibson — unhappily this is one of those films where the female lead exists mostly to be a sex object

All three should be perused, read, and then watched and re-watched (at least once) by anyone who wants to understand (for example) what happened in Vietnam, then the massacres and slaughters of eastern Europe in the 1990s, Iraq in the early 2000s and Afghanistan for another 20 years:  before the US, there were the Russians, before the Russians, the British — a now ironically famous first line of one of the early short Sherlock Holmes adventures is his when he lays eyes on the wretchedly suffering Mr Watson just back: “I perceive you have been in Afghanistan.”

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What I can tell you in brief that will add to your knowledge of the 1859 novel you won’t find elsewhere?


Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) who risked his life trying to bring to light what was going on in Indonesia and then writing this novel

In Chapter 11 we have Havelaar and a Dutch character, Verbrugge telling 4 stories that are connected by injustice, the bizarre behavior the powerful can inflict on the powerless, then distracting whimsy (as a kind of cover-up). So Havelaar suddenly imagines himself in 1587 and watches in slow-motion the execution (beheading) of Mary Stuart in Fotheringay. This was not an uncommon practice in these countries Havelaar is working for this company in. We switch to present-time Sumatra where he watches a girl stringing beads. This reminds him of Arles where he’s just been, a very beautiful place with a long history. The LRB had a piece by Lydia Davis, of scraps of imagination she has written about Arles while she did a “project” there; she is known as a translator from the French. Then we move to Naal — not far from Indonesia, an African stopover. Horrific deeds keep the natives in subjection and frighten everyone else not super-powerful. Finally, a story of a Japanese stonecutter which resembles the fable of the fisherman and his wife and their three wishes. Probably it is hard to make a novel out of horrific cruelty exercised on people day after day as they labor in the fields and die — the people forcing this are thugs and criminals, extravagantly selfish princelings and their courts. Dekker is presenting the material of the type we see from afar in the Heart of Darkness through the art of fable.

By contrast:

In Chapter 14, an important investigation into brutal uses of lies (to extract money people haven’t got) is both muddled and distorted by the overt way of talking about it by the perpetrators and their assistants and then put a stop to. I followed the ins and outs of hypocrisy and vicious revenge, but the concrete details are useless — because continually Dekker is obfuscating, and not telling the hard core of truth — lest he get in trouble. What this chapter needs – and several others, is a companion book which explicates what actually happened in these places so that we can understand the nature of Havelaar’s irony — I can’t get quite what he is satirizing in the different instances except of course profound lying, inhumanity, vain, idle ridiculous behavior. One quarter in we suddenly switch to Tina, Havelaar’s wife (who is characterized just enough with her baby to lead us worry about her), and the previous resident manager’s widow, Mrs Slothering (her husband was probably murdered and she has nowhere to go) and the present time and the men are playing cards and Duclari (the military man) asks Havelaar if it’s true Havelaar has fought many duels. Oh yes says Havelaar, and the results of these (or maybe the causes) have embittered him. He says how the General at the time appreciated duels. Perhaps we are to infer that again and again other people have tried to murder Havelaar this way, but are we to think Havelaar has murdered quite a number of people also? I suggest that we are not supposed to think this through — that it might be these duels did not come off, and to tell them now is just braggadaccio. So ought Dekker not to tell us this. So we can breathe a sigh of relief that Havelaar is not a murderer.

And now the movie by Peter Weir


What Weir looked like at the time

I studied his masterpiece movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock (scroll down to see a full analysis) a close adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s remarkable novel (of the same name) where Weir mystifies an ordeal coming out of an environment deeply hostile to people’s bodies and social needs. It is crucially maintained that no one knows how the death of the girls came about so a common response is simply to feel awe. The features to the DVD of Picnic at Hanging Rock include Weir’s idea that the girls were murdered by marauding men whom the sexual repression of the girls drew them to. This kind of reductive sexist explanation suggests why Lindsay prefers not to discuss how the girls came to disappear. But in fact people in the story as well as Margaret Atwood’s similar “Death by Landscape” are also responsible for what happened.

In this The Year of Living Dangerously, Weir somewhat misrepresents the story of how the Communists came to be massacred, Sukarno (who had little interest in the West and its capitalism) overthrown (which the US wanted) and the Indonesian military put in charge (with the religionists sidelined). So there is weakness in Weir’s work. We see a wayang puppet show where shadows of souls are supposedly coping with sheerly being — a kind of mysticism. For myself I feel the love story was a distraction and there to create popular appeal; Weir did not compromise this way in Picnic at Hanging Rock or Gallipolli.

The teacher of the class emphasized the film’s threads of morality: how it showed the reporters to be frivolous, corrupt, indifferent to the plight of the desperately impoverished everywhere; one of the reporters, Peter Curtis stands for the ugly American. The British officer Signourey Weaver’s character at first appears to be living with is an old-line Tory type; one of the Australia reporters is a homosexual man who takes advantage of a male servant. Kumar and Tiger Lily who work for Guy Hamilton are genuine devoted PKI people (communists). The focus of the camera is on these starved bodies, hollow eyes, crippled people in rags in contrast to the wealth of the whites. Billy Kwan asks more than once: “What then must we do?” The answer is not try for any large solution but help those who we come into contact with whom we can help. The same answer is found in LeCarre’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In this film an analogous atmosphere of displacement and breakup, desperate lives, corrupt payoffs everywhere, is meaningful in itself — there is no good way of life as long as you belong to these groups.

A valuable subject in the movie is the press: it’s a satiric view where no one but Billy Kwan and our hero are trying to tell the truth.  Anyone who does risks his life.  We can ask the question, what should the press do? what is their role? obviously, try to get the real truth of what’s happening out.  In the last few years (unsurprisingly) any journalists doing this have been imprisoned and murdered and the numbers keep going up.  The most famous case is that of Julian Assange where a 19th century law is being used to try to outlaw publication of hard factual news files.

You must (it seems) opt out to find yourself. Flee. The closing scenes at the airport very like what we recently saw in Afghanistan and before that in Vietnam. Those who profit mightily from all this have no reason (I fear) not to repeat it and it makes them enormous profits. So through their GOP agents they are now trying to destroy the hitherto stable world of the US and (before the 1980s) a generally prosperous and hopeful one.

Ellen

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