Thursday 7 September 2017

We Don't Go Back #61: The Last Wave (1977)

So the official plan now is to write five posts a week until the book essays are done, and at least one of those every week is going to be a We Don't Go Back post, cleaning up the stragglers, as it were. I have a stack of movies to watch, old and new, and I'm resisting the urge to add new ones to the book list, if only because it'll never be done. Perceptive backers will have noticed that Under the Shadow moved from the We Don't Go Back list to the On a Thousand Walls list, but frankly, now I've seen it that's the only place to put it. .

For now, here's a look at The Last Wave.

In a lot of ways, Peter Weir's 1977 Australian chiller serves as a companion to Picnic at Hanging Rock – it has the same languid visual style, the same sort of fluting score (although this time by Howard Shore). I'm not sure I enjoyed it all that much; its languorous pace seemed to belie the urgency of the subject material. It has fine performances and much to say, and it looks lovely, but, oh my, did I feel every one of this film's 106 minutes.

The Last Wave posits (correctly, I think, to some extent) that while white Australians believed they had eradicated indigenous culture in the urban areas of Australia, in fact this was na├»ve, and that you can't erase people quite so easily. Genocide is quite hard work, and that's an emotive word, but the practices of the 20th century Australian government with respect to the forced relocation of Aboriginal children do in fact correspond exactly to the UNHRC definition of genocide – that is, conforming to one or more of five specific crimes, to wit the fifth, "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group", a practice that had only finished a few years before The Last Wave was made.1
Notionally The Last Wave concerns the effort of a Sydney lawyer, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), to defend five Aboriginal men for the suspicious death of a sixth, and the only explanation for this man's demise that anyone can come up with is that, knocked unconscious in a fight, he fell face down and drowned in a puddle. But there's no mystery here: we see a shaman kill the man with a pointing bone. Burton gathers early on that this is what happened, but can't understand why the five accused men won't tell the court why the man died.

But something bigger is going on. The film doesn't start with Burton, or the murder; it begins with a rain of hailstones as big as fists falling on an outback town, and we will see equally strange rain over the film's course: black slime, living frogs.

David has prophetic dreams, and has done all his life, it turns out. He dreams about meeting one of the accused men, Chris Lee (iconic indigenous actor David Gulpilil, here just credited as Gulpilil) for some time before they actually meet. He tells the young man straight away, and Chris shows no surprise. From Chris and tribal elder Charlie (Nanjiwarra Amagula) – who we first see holding the fatal bone – David discovers that his dreams signify that he is in some way identified with one of the spirits of the Australian Dreamtime, Mulkurul, a seer and harbinger of an apocalypse.
David's dreams of water, of flood, of floating corpses in the middle of the city, presage disaster. His father tells him this was always the way. As a child he had a premonition of his mother's death.

But of course David doesn't know what to do with them. He's missing the point. Of course he is. He thinks that the supernatural status Chris has attached to him implies a kinship, that he has a connection to them, a misapprehension deepened by a visit to an expert on Aboriginal myth (Picnic at Hanging Rock's Vivean Gray).

In a lot of ways David is unremarkable, almost a stereotype. He's in fact a contract lawyer, doing a bit of pro bono work because he can. Michael Zeadler (Peter Carroll), their barrister, rails at him: David can't just swan in here on a break from his cushy practice, thinking he knows better. And he's right.
David: Then I suggest you drop out.
Michael: Good. I don't want to make a fool of myself. Or of them. (He moves to stand by the door.) You know something? That middle class, patronising attitude of yours towards the blacks revolts me. For the best part of ten years I've worked with these people, while you've sat making a fortune on tax dodgers for corporations, and you come in here with this idiotic, romantic crap about tribal people?
David insists that he can get the men off, that all he has to do is let the court know the truth about the tribal people who, in spite of everything the white people of Sydney think to the contrary, continue their traditions, and uphold their laws, laws which are solid, unbreakable. And laws which David can't just run roughshod over. This is their space, and their way of doing things. And the white people around them don't have the right to them, and five men would rather go to prison than give that up. The whole point of their tradition is that it has secrets.
David: You'll go to jail. You're in desperate trouble.
Chris: No! You in trouble! You!
David: Why do you say that?
Chris: You don't know what dreams are anymore. 
What David fails to get, right up to the end, is that he's not their friend. He's identified with a creature of the Dreamtime that is both explicitly called out as alien and foreign, and which is also the harbinger of the apocalypse. It's not his job to stop the impending catastrophe, or to try to stop it, it's his job to usher it in, whether he wants to or not. He sees it coming. He is powerless to do anything other than to see it. And why wouldn't it be a white man heralding the apocalypse?
Here again is the inevitability of doom; but in a colonial setting, the only logical harbinger of doom is the white man. For the Aboriginal people, the apocalypse has happened already, and the white man has already ushered it in. You don't make friends with the Four Horsemen, you don't give them your secrets. No matter how the bringers of pestilence, war and death might want to be on your side, they will always be part of the problem, not the solution, and they're destined to. And that's another twist on the folk horror narrative: that the rational outsider is in fact the bringer of destruction, regardless of how much he might wish not to be, regardless of how much he means well.

1And here, it is probably relevant to mention that David Gulpilil, a lead actor in The Last Wave and Walkabout, also has a major role in Rabbit Proof Fence (Philip Noyce, 2002), on precisely this subject. (back)