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Further Phoenix
at Rio's Attic:

The Mosquito Coast

Harrison Ford

Peter Weir

Charlie Fox

Helen Mirren

Reverend Spellgood

Allie Fox

Witness

The Year of Living Dangerously

Mel Gibson

Jeronimo

Linda Hunt

Sigourney Weaver

The Films of Peter Weir

Jonathan Rayner

Michael

Fearless

Dead Poets Society

Robin Williams

Hatfield, Massachusetts

Brewer's Lagoon
Rio's Attic: Celebrating the Life and Times of a Dearly Missed River Phoenix
American EnglishEn Français

The Films of Peter Weir

by Jonathan Rayner.
First published in 1998.


ISBN 0-304-70123-8 (Paperback, 250 Pages)

In what could easily have been part of the lessons he gave as a University lecturer in English and Media Studies, Jonathan Rayner, a specialist in Film History and Film Studies, has produced a thorough examination of Peter Weir's movies from his first short film Michael in 1971 through to Fearless in 1994, discussing along the way well-known works like The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness and Dead Poets Society.

Not always an easy read, this book is nevertheless a study that shows flashes of insight into the career of Peter Weir. It successfully presents the main characteristics of the Australian director who tried to make a synthesis between the European "author" cinema and the more commercial American "genre" filmmaking. At a first level, the author explains how Weir's films are a sort of subversion of the American filmmaking and sometimes of his own style.

The evidence that Weir continues to eschew convention is discernible in his other American films. Mosquito Coast's subversion of the Ford heroic persona, within a pseudo-Western narrative of failure and acrimony rather than success and unity, doomed that film to critical and commercial disaster. Conversely the parabolic structure of The Mosquito Coast (Allie, the Promethean man, rising before being humbled) and the near absence of Weir's style result in a morally pessimistic film, frustrating audience expectations through mismatched generic signals when the father/star and family do not win through. As an example of formal escapism by its director (from genre ties and the conventions of his own established style), like the imbalanced combination of old and new egalitarianism and authoritarianism, in the story of the Fox family's 'experiments' in literal escapism, Mosquito Coast ends as an eccentric failure in term of the American way and saleable cinema.

The reader will not learn anything about real actors as individuals. What appears to interest the author the most are the characters and not the human beings behind them. In 230 pages, only 15 names of actors can be found - Robin Williams is mentioned three times, Mel Gibson twice, Sigourney Weaver once and only Harrison Ford, the hero of two movies, receives eight mentions. Other great actors or actresses however, are not to be found in this book: No Linda Hunt, no Helen Mirren and no River either. But if the reader wants to understand the psychology of the different characters and the relationships between them, then this is the book to read, a book that tells what can be found behind the story and the images on the screen. Here Harrison Ford is only Allie and River only Charlie and, little by little, we know more about the boy. Later, the author explains how Charlie frees himself from his father and becomes the main character as if there was a progressive disappearance of Allie to the benefit of Charlie.

Throughout the journey from Hatfield to Jeronimo, Jeronimo to Brewer's Lagoon, and back to the sea, Allie's mastery of the action has been complemented and eventually eroded by Charlie's narration. Now his voice is even greater than his father's because in retrospect it has benefited from the experience of his journey and transcended it in comprehension. This is encapsulated in the long-shot of the ocean at the opposite end of the river that closes the film. Where Charlie is left as an unfettered voice in this space, the last we see of Allie is his head, the only part of him still 'alive' after he is shot and paralysed by Spellgood. The son outgrows the father, seeking his own independence and beliefs in opposition to and emulation of the Father's creed, and gains his own voice as narrator and creator of his own history.

It is already quite satisfying to get such a bright interpretation of the father and son relationship. But the author goes further and, for once, Allie has to give place to the real actor, and, as a result, Charlie to the real young boy.

The casting of a well-known star who is then displaced from the center of the narrative (and divorced from audience sympathy and identification) by a younger, lesser character provokes a reassessment of this defamiliarizing use of the star persona and prompts a closer examination of the narrative methods that herald this displacement, and the disappointment of audience expectation.

Visual and verbal channels of information in Mosquito Coast are shared between the characters of the hero and the child. Charlie and the other children, both natural and spiritual, face a bitter conflict with the Father's authority before they can achieve independence; and the symbolic opposition of one Father to another (Allie against God, or against Spellgood) forces a moral choice upon viewer and child alike. Charlie's voice-over narration places him both outside the narrative with the viewer and within it on the screen. From without we observe (and judge) Allie dispassionately, the viewer with the benefit of distance and Charlie with that of hindsight.

Sometimes, such a psychological and almost scientific analysis can be found lacking in what is the main appeal of cinema for many, that is, emotion. Because of this, we looked forward to reading what the author had to say about Charlie's immortal closing lines and we were not disappointed by the author's perceptiveness.

The final lines of Charlie's narration undergo a subtle change in adaptation from novel to film:

Once I had believed in Father, and the world has seemed very small and old. He was gone, and now I hardly believed in myself and the world was limitless.

Now he was gone, and I wasn't afraid to love him any more, and the world seemed limitless. [film dialogue]

Charlie's ability to love his father has had to prevail over his propensity to fear and believe in him. Having been brought up with the belief that all he said was true and that the world belonged to him, his realization that the father is fallible and can lie opens up possibilities for a threatening but new world beyond the confines of family. Faith in his father's better intentions, charity for his failings and love for him as an individual outside of familial obligation create Charlie's love for and faith in his father on terms which Allie himself has laid down: "Faith is believing something you know ain't true". Charlie starts to travel downstream when the journey has been completed. He has challenged the patriarch's authority and divine rule, and the experience has adapted him to the world he will face as an adult. In contrast, Allie is a 'dead thing travelling downstream', since he cannot adapt to the realities of the world and the world cannot endure the imposition of his plans. The landscape of Jeronimo and Brewer's Lagoon that Charlie and the family have inhabited has been a projection of the inside of the father's mind and realization of his plan (true, asexual creation and total, amoral war.) In return Acre has been as much a recognition of eventual adult responsibility as a symbol of Charlie's and the children evasion of patriarchal authority. [Allie's] sons maturation and his own mortality are beyond Allie's control, yet his death will propel the boys into a new world which claims not to embody heaven or hell but simply the potential for both. Allie the child dies on the way downstream allowing Charlie (whose name seems to be an enlargement of that of the patriarch) to live on in a maturity, ready to narrate. Recounting and narrating events from the 'foreign country' of the childhood past is proof that Charlie has reached the new world of adulthood.

"He cannot adapt to the realities of the world and the world cannot endure the imposition of his plans." We know that Jonathan Rayner meant Allie Fox when he wrote that line. But we also know those words could also describe, in a certain way, the young actor who played his son Charlie.


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