Tuesday 13 December 2011

Robert Altman's 3 Women, Peter Weir's The Last Wave, Francis Bacon's Landscape and a conversation in a hotel in 1978

“See the cliffs again, be again between the cliffs and the sea, reeling shrinking with your hands over your ears, headlong, innocent, suspect, noxious” - Beckett

Concierge: Good evening sir, how was tonight’s event?

Screenwriter: …

Concierge: Sir?

Screenwriter: I had the worst conversation with a woman at a party. Just the worst. The kind of conversation where things slip out of your control before you’ve even opened you mouth. You watch the words skip down out of reach like goats on a hillside. Your self so exposed and yet strange. Just the worst.

Concierge: I’m sorry to hear that sir, but I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you’ve described, these things always sound worse to ourselves than to the other party.

Screenwriter: Yes sure, but this is different, this is important, this was at an industry party and things have a tendency to get around. No, things just do get around, you say something or do something at one of those things and it's like piss in the swimming pool, it’s everywhere, and you can’t get it back in the tube. The worst thing is, that wasn’t me last night. I don’t know what happened. I’m a writer, I control language and yet there I was talking to this girl and everything was totally, totally out of my control.

Concierge: I’m sorry to hear that sir, would you like to talk about it?

Screenwriter: Maybe. I said some stupid stuff though, I was trying to impress her, talk about the projects I was doing but then I realised that no one cares about these stupid little gigs, a scene here and a scene there on some useless studio-built production so I tried to bulk it out a bit, bring it somewhere unexpected and told her I was working on a radio play that I’m also directing.

Concierge: Well done sir that sounds like a fascinating project.

Screenwriter: But it isn’t! I mean, I’m not working on one! That’s really just the start of the problem too, I don’t know anything about these sorts of things either but this talking at the party was  just got out of hand. It continued to roll away from me down the hill and the words were coming from god knows where, but I started pitching this whole thing to this girl right then and there.

Concierge: Pitching the radio play which you haven’t written?

Screenwriter: Yes! It was about two characters from films last year, Altman’s 3 Women and The Last Wave directed by some Australian guy. I told her about how both of these films finished with the ending of the world in some manner, and some sort of direct transformation and obliteration of the characters.

Concierge: Obliteration sir?

Screenwriter: Yeah, they go up and out and change completely. There’s a guy in one and a girl in the other and the end of each film is a merging of the world around them into something alien and unearthly and they ascend to a higher plane but that wasn’t really the concern of my radio play, it was more like the run up. In my play these people, Chris and Willie are now in a place together, like everything else has merged together and it’s just them that bob up above it, like they both came up from a sinking ship or country and here they are, in this new space.

Concierge: In the water sir? In the sea?

Screenwriter: No, in a bar, like this one in this hotel and they’re here in a booth drinking whatever, drinking cokes and above them they realise is a painting and they have a conversation about this dumb painting and what it means to them and where they’re from and where they’ve been. That’s my radio play. Sounds utterly amazing and a money in the bank right! This aboriginal rock star and this lady that does sand paintings and hardly talks having a conversation about a painting!I’m probably ruined already!

Concierge: I’m sure its… oh… What was the painting of sir?

Screenwriter: It’s a painting I saw in a magazine the other day by Francis Bacon, it was shown in France. Usually, I don’t like his stuff, it’s so incredibly drab, but this I liked because its was really blue and looked modern, it was just called Landscape which is a really modern title so I put it in the story. I think. I’m not sure, it just wound up in the story, perhaps its the first painting I thought of, I should have put something better in but this was what came out. Like I said, those goats were frolicking and bounding down the hillside, I don’t know what was going on with my mouth. I just kept talking and this stuff kept coming and the girl, well the girl to her credit didn’t look as bored as she had every right to be. I mean, two stolen characters talking about a painting on the radio? That’s what I’m going to be know for, everyone’s going to think this is hilarious, utterly hilarious. The guys are going to get a lot of mileage out of that little story when its gets around, and it will get around soon if it hasn’t already, stories like that always do, with a few extra additions I imagine, everyone’s going to want to put their little flourish on my eulogy.

Concierge: What were they talking about?

Screenwriter: What? They’re talk about how I was trying to impress some girl in a bar with a pitch for an imaginary Swedish coffee advert that’s what they’ll say!

Concierge: No sir, I meant the two in the hotel bar drinking cokes, what did they say about the painting? You said they were talking about the painting, what did they say about it?

Screenwriter: What? Oh. Yes, I can’t remember. Something about space. No I remember now. I started with a discussion about the blue in the painting. The painting is mostly blue like I said, which is one of the reasons I like it, that guy’s paintings a normally a dirty yellow which I hate. Coincidentally, that is actually one of the reasons I didn’t like 3 Women very much either, I remember telling someone that about a month ago. I thought is looked like “a piss in the prairie”. The Last Wave though, I did like the cinematography on that. It was a bit more regular and looked a bit cheap, but there were some nice moments, and I loved the underwater shot at the end, all the rushing water and bubbles like a 60s surf movie. It made me think about how when a camera films under water it is enveloped. The camera doesn’t just look at something, it’s surrounded and it has this stuff all over it, not just the lens. It is effected. Held.

Concierge: Is this what the characters talked about sir?

Screenwriter: Yeah, no, a bit I think. No, really they were talking about the blue of the painting, how the blue is neither a solid depicted space or the empty space of the surface of the canvas, how it was both at once and something else entirely. I say they, but the way I pitched it to the girl, it was the girl in my story, Willie, that was saying all of this. She’s an artist in the Altman picture so it made sense to have her riff on Francis Bacon. Also I think I wanted to make her, the girl in the bar, aware that I’m all for strong intelligent female characters in my stories! Modern women! More modern than Altman’s women anyway! So she talks about this plane being a third space, neither the language of the painting ground nor the language of a pictorial space, another dimension. Then she starts talking about how this is like the film The Last Wave, which as you remember is the film that the other guy is from! I don’t know what happened there, I must have gotten confused or something but that’s where the story starting running so I just ran along side it trying desperately to keep the legs moving as fast as my body! Willie says this is like The Last Wave, that the “tribal space” of the aboriginal people in Sydney, that’s denied by the white population, is “just such a third space”.

Concierge: What does the other gentleman say about this sir?

Screenwriter: Good question! Well this guy agrees with her, he says that the whites can only comprehend there being two spaces, either the space of representation using of language of ideas, and a space of stuff, which he said was also a space of language anyway but that white people ignored that part too. I remember that at this point I nearly had him getting all righteous about the damage done to his people by the whites but I cooled it in time, I’m getting wary enough about that stuff, how it can come off ridiculous trying to write that sort of character. People are getting tired of it you know? So Chris, this aboriginal character, agrees that this third space is hidden, his explanation is that it is too large to be seen and regardless of this the whites have constructed a system for looking at the world that doesn't include it so they don’t see its there. He says they must know its there but they have an expression they use that sort of acknowledges something but then simultaneously negates it, puts it in a box to be dealt with… well the way I had this character say it in really calm tone it was as if this thing was never to be dealt with. The girl, the girl Willie that is, in my story, she pipes up here and starts talking again about the The Last Wave again. She says that this is just like the court room scene in the film. She says that the whites acknowledge the aborigine people, how they feel this guilt about displacing and killing them,but not enough to actually do anything different for them, so they make these verbal concessions that box up the problem, appearing to address it but effectively putting it into a void. She talks about how the whites can’t be seen to refute the aboriginal people’s beliefs publicly so they say that aboriginal law only applies to a certain kind of aboriginal person which they call “Tribal” and how this means an uncivilised exotic sort of person.

Concierge: Are the aborigines in that film not all “tribal” then?

Screenwriter: Not in the film no, and I had the character talk about this a bit more actually. In the film the whites can’t declare out and out that what the aborigines believe in is untrue so they have it only apply to these “Tribals”. What’s really important about the definition of a “Tribal” is that they are not here. The film takes place in Sydney and the story makes it clear that “Tribals” are always “other”, of rather, “doubly other” they are firstly not white and they are also not here. “There are no tribals in the city” is something that’s said a few times in The Last Wave, the tribal people live somewhere else. The aborigines are therefore something else and beholden to the rules that the whites put to them.

Concierge: Why is that important sir?

Screenwriter: Well this is a good bit! I’m pretty impressed with this myself, the girl Willie says something like “this is important because the aboriginal spirituality is not just a belief system but a metaphysics”. She goes on to explain that tribal people believe not just in abstracts but in physical, actual manifestations of things. They believe not just in a different ideology but in a different physical orchestration of the world. Willie talks us through a scene in the film where Chris describes how his family is able to contact him when they need his help by affecting his body. He gets asked by someone how this happens, and in response he pulls at the skin on his forearm and says it is like that.

Concierge: Like a pinch?

Screenwriter: more like a tic in the muscle. I liked that scene in the film so I had Willie talk about it some more, and so she elaborates. She says that this is like the blue space in the painting, its neither the language of representation or the language of the physical thing. Its something else entirely which isn’t language, it is the Real. She goes on a bit about The Last Wave, how it’s a development of Lovecraft’s stories but better, and how the power underneath everything, the power that’s indescribable is always this immense things beyond language of all kinds, how its too big for the words to wrap around it so they just can’t. She says we just walk around what she describes as a “huge sleeping tiger” oblivious because it’s too big for us to acknowledge it, we can’t find it’s edges. It is really quite a monologue that she launches into here, I think with the right actress it could be real award material. At one point she sticks her fingers in her Coke and dribbles the liquid on the table top and it’s a really visceral scene. Willie talks about water surface tension in order to describe the blue plane in Bacon’s painting, how it it pulls tight to the edges of everything else, rather then existing behind or in front of it. Willie says that it is a plane which can’t be broken and that actions at one point directly affect all the other edges. She says this is just like the plane which exists between Chris and his family. She says this is just like the plane that exists between all things past and future and how they all meet now.

Concierge: You don’t have the other chap talk very much in this script do you sir?

Screenwriter: No, you’re right, he doesn’t talk much. I liked the idea of this girl who doesn’t say word one in her own film, having all this stuff to say after the film’s over, I mean after 3 Women is over. It's like she spent that Robert Altman movie in the margins of the story as an object working something out that had nothing much to do with the other characters, and then in my radio play it’s ready to be articulated, with this other guy and with the Francis Bacon painting. One point of the triangle of 3 Women also forms another triangle in a different dimension, like a repeating pattern. That’s quite nice actually, I’ll remember that.

Concierge: So was that the end of your pitch sir?

Screenwriter: Yes. No actually, there’s a sort of coda at the end. They sit slulping their cokes for a bit longer. They play a Jimi Hendrix cover of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say on the jukebox and talk about its importance in the history of Rock and Roll along with some other things I can't remember. Old jokes mainly, they laugh a lot and it’s cozy. Then after a pause the Chris character looks at the painting again and says the pampas grass looking landscape in the centre is a figure, but not a representation of a figure made out of the land, he says it is a figure as a gesture, an “ever changing roster of forces in a state of hyper-chaos”. He says this is a bit like the instability of character in 3 Women, how no one character is able to keep their “self” constant and how they all begin to collapse and grow and merge in a non-linear manner both through misleading stories told about one character by another but also through the film’s direction which fragments the identities of the characters, leaving them uncertain by exploiting the cracks in the medium itself. He says this is what makes that film great. He finishes by saying that the use and merging of the crack in the medium and cracks within the narrative are what make Robert Altman such an important director. He says the same could be said for Bacon, and probably sometimes for the Australian guy that did The Last Wave too.


Screenwriter: …

Concierge: Is there anything I can get you sir?

Screenwriter: No, nothing thanks, I’ll go up to my room now I think. Good night.

Concierge: See you in the morning sir, sleep well.


carl said...

Fuck me, Ralph, you've surpassed not just yourself with this one!

I've been meaning to write something on The Shout, have you ever seen it?

David K Wayne said...

Peter Weir has certainly had his moments - especially his Australian films. He's always had this contradictory theme about the unknowable ie. what goes beyond our capability to discuss or visualise (and 3 Women has been misunderstood on that count too, but a think a lot of Altman films have been misunderstood - he's one of my favourite film-makers).

But great post - more please.

carl said...

we need someone to do something on Australian cinema of the 70s. preferably an actual Australian...

David K Wayne said...

I think we've only got Kiwis on the books, gaffer...

carl said...

I shall put the call out!

Anonymous said...

Hey thanks Carl and David! I'd been thinking this one through for about a week, I'm glad it came out ok, despite the typos.
There are a few of Weir's other early films I haven't seen, including Gallipoli, and I think Mosquito coast could do with being looked at again. Actually Picnic and The Last Wave are the only two that I can remember at all, whatever that might mean, so I can't really comment on his career beyond those.

Altman is one of my favourite directors too. I think I'll be coming back to him soon.

I'll try and get a copy of The Shout, I like look of it. and I'd like to find some more Australian films actually so recommendations would be gratefully appreciated.

Phil Knight said...

Great post Ralph - yourself and Giovanni are moving things to another level.

"Picnic" - is that the film where the couple go sunbathing, and the wife is torn to pieces in her bikini by "the environment"?

I think the subtext to Weir and Australian film in general is pretty simple, really - white people don't belong in Australia, and Australia doesn't belong to them.

Can't see how it can be interpreted in any other way, tbh.

David K Wayne said...

Picnic is the one with the genteel Victorian prep-school girls who (inexplicably) vanish in the Oz outback. A lot of Weir's concerns are similar to Herzog's really - nature is murderous, but guilty of nothing.

There's also the Cars That Ate Paris - kind of like Mad Max meets Godard's Weekend, with small-town melodrama thrown in.

We could do with Bad Boy Bubbie on the 90s blog too. A very dark allegory about neoliberalism's 'eternal child'.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that Bad Boy Bubby is an alternative history of Nick Cave and The Birthday Party.

Phil I think you're right about the subtext of whites in Australia, it is there pretty loudly. However at least with Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave it doesn't end with the post-colonial guilt but attempts to point out the sublime difference of that place. I think this is more than simply romanticising nature. Just like in Walkabout, Australia is depicted (in the two Weir films) as damaging to the whites despite their attempts to construct their own (destructive) life support system over the top of the land. However I think these films try to have a fair stab at the indicating the presence of this completely otherly place/world which produced such a different culture/nature in its indigenous population from the European eye of the settlers and therefore also the film itself.

It's interesting to note as well that Aboriginal culture is pretty wary of the power of language and signs to envelope, obscure and ultimately corrupt things. I'm not very well read on this and the only anthropology book I own is The Golden Bough (I'm not taking Frazier's word alone on anything) but I think Aborigines have a thing about not naming the dead and if I remember rightly one or another the three films mentioned has a preamble that apologises for representing (through film) people who are now dead as this is offensive. This is interesting because I think the two Weir films, (and Herzog's on more than one occasion) are concerned with presenting an indication of the unrepresentatable.

I like the sound of the bikini eating landscape! Reminds me of that (admittedly awful) film The Ruins from a couple of years ago, where once again, gap year students get into trouble for having sex in the terrible land of the foreign poor...

carl said...

that australian movie is the long weekend, innit? I assume that Wayne (or David (or both)) and Phil watched all this stuff on BBC2/CH4's Ausralian film seasons during the late seventies/early eighties...kind of the golden age for Oz cinema I'm guessing//good political stuff like Breaker Morant and Don's Party too....and a lot of pulp like Turkey Shoot and Philip Moras sruff rgeough to the legendary Razorback...

David K Wayne said...

Yeah strange to think that Mel Gibson was once in a film as sensitive as "Gallipoli'. If he made it now, he'd just run up those hills to behead all the Turks single-handedly. Winning the war in one afternoon!

The 70s was a golden period for the emergence of quite a few national cinemas (NOT the UK, where it was in decline) - more than the 60s - so it was handy to catch all this stuff when it was broadcast on TV in the 80s/early 90s.

Anonymous said...

'Wake In Fright' (1971) is worth seeing. I've only watched it once - it got a cinematic re-release here in Australia about two years ago - but it was pretty disturbing! Worth enduring the hammy acting if just for the horrific kangaroo hunting scene.

Anonymous said...

Very good post by the way!

Phil Knight said...

Er....yeah sorry, I didn't realise that "Picnic" was shorthand for "Picnic At Hanging Rock".

Carl's right about the BBC Oz season though - also I think there was an NZ season - I remember two very good films (probably legendary in NZ), one about the Maori Wars, another about a family transporting a dead relative by hand after he died after a rugby game.

I think there's lots to be said concerning the presence of Europeans in Australia (and connecting to a conversation I was having with Wayne about the SW of the USA), in which there's not only a kind of existential sense of displacement, but more importantly a physical one - only the really toughest white people can live in these environments, but even then they are assisted by motor vehicles, air conditioning, the opportunity to stupefy themselves with booze etc.

I think, following Ralph's thinking, that you don't really need to bring colonial guilt into the equation - the white presence is climatologically marginal.

I think this is what Weir, Roeg, Tony Richardson etc. saw in the Australian landscape - a kind of implacable, inscrutable natural hostility; what Herzog saw in the grizzly bears in "Grizzly Man".

Sister Wendy Beckett said...