Monday, April 25, 2016
Reeling Backward: "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982)
You could probably summarize the entire plot of "The Year of Living Dangerously" on a postcard, with space left over. Not a lot really happens, yet what does transpire seems so consequential and filled with dramatic heft.
The film, directed by Peter Weir based on the novel by C.J. Koch, is a testament to the observation by screenwriting legend William Goldman that dialogue is often the least important part of a script. The movie has many long wordless or near-wordless scenes that use imagery and music to pull us into an emotional vortex of longing and dread. Weir and Koch co-wrote the screenplay along with David Williamson.
Take the scene where callow young Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) and British embassy worker Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) first hook up in Indonesia circa 1965. They've been introduced -- set up, really -- by a mutual friend (more on that later) and have sort of skipped around each other nonchalantly a couple of times before. Then they show up at a party for Westerners, each accompanied by different people.
Jill is just ravishing, creamy shoulders and lithe limbs bursting out of a strappy dress; Guy is seething and sweaty, filled with primal urges. They're incredibly beautiful people, and everyone in the room can't take their eyes off them. They bump into each other while dancing with others, try to brush it off, but their attraction is combustible, and palpable.
One gets the sense the other party goers are only there to serve as witnesses to their joining.
Later they escape from a stuffy embassy party and drive off in his car for a tryst, despite the strict military curfew and shocking break with the Brits' starched-shirt decorum. They run a blockade, Guy's Chevy Impala gets filled with bullet holes, but they laugh and smile at their little rebellion, as the electronic thrum of Vangelis' "L'Enfant" buoys them into the night.
Most of the talk Jill and Guy do share is logistics: Where are you going? When are you leaving? Why won't you return my calls? The only real substantive conversation they have onscreen is Jill (who's actually a spy in the book though it's only hinted at in the movie) telling Guy about an incoming shipment of arms to support the Indonesia Communists (PKI), a clear indication a coup is imminent. Guy opts to use the intel for a story -- rather than save his own neck as she intended -- vaulting his career but betraying Jill.
"Year" is masterful at evoking a specific time and place -- one that, frankly, isn't high in the consciousness of most Americans. Indonesia in the mid-1960s was a place of burgeoning rebellion, and a backwater for aspiring foreign corespondents like Guy. He and the other journalists, from the Washington Post or whatnot, pine for promotions to Saigon, where the real action is. They're fighting each other for scraps of information from the government of the dictator-like president, Sukarno, and for newsprint inches and airtime back home before an indifferent public.
Weir spent much of his film stock simply representing the street people of Jakarta, underlining the humbling poverty and rising anger of that period. (The film was actually shot in the Philippines, as the Indonesians were hostile to the story; the movie was banned there until 1999.)
Here was a people who had felt the yoke of the West, shrugged it off, and now felt the push-and-pull of various factions vying for power: the establishment, the Muslim leaders, the Communists, etc. Meanwhile, the people suffered and starved.
The film is likely most remembered today for the casting of Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, the mysterious and oddly affecting photographer/enigma who befriends both Guy and Jill, and nudges them together. It was one of the first major instances of a performer playing a character of the opposite gender. Hunt won the Academy Award for her performance by a Supporting Actress, launching an unlikely career that has remained busy till today.
She's completely believable as a man; Hunt chopped her hair to a severe short style, wore padding under Billy's standard uniform of trousers and a vaguely Hawaiian shirt, with the shirt pocket stuffed to give it a weighted, untidy look. Billy, of course, is not an average-looking person: he's supposed to be half Caucasian and half Chinese, and a dwarf to boot.
Billy also seems to be asexual; everything about him screams Other. Yet he easily slides in and out of the Sukarno corridors of power, or mingles with the street people unnoticed. He is accepted, or at least tolerated, wherever he goes. His exceptionalism somehow grants him a form of invisibility, which he cherishes and utilizes for his purposes.
Billy's motivations are hard to discern, and fickle. He claims to admire Sukarno for his puppet master skill at balancing the forces arrayed against him, but cares deeply about the suffering of the people. He has unofficially adopted a prostitute and her sickly young boy, bringing toys, medicine and cash to their miserable hovel by the polluted river, where they bathe and drink. When the boy dies of starvation and illness, Billy snaps and vents his anger at the regime that fails to feed its people.
Similarly, Billy takes an immediate liking to Guy, seeing him as a white knight, and uses his influence and connections to see that his career is a success, getting Guy interviews with the Muslim leader and other key figures. Billy also sets him up with Jill, whom he adores in a chaste way -- even once asking her to marry him. When Guy betrays Jill for the story, Billy sees it as cheating on his own trust, too.
Capable of great affection and monumental anger, Billy blows like a zephyr in whatever direction his passions take him. He keeps meticulous files on everyone he knows, including Jill and Guy, whose meetings he secretly photographs.
After Guy discovers this, Billy denies being a spy, and this is probably true. He's observing life rather than living it, gathering information and using it to move people around like pawns in a game of chess he's not trying to win or lose, but simply play with a sense of purity he knows is unattainable.
I marvel at how politically incorrect this film would be if it were released today. Hunt playing a man would probably still be celebrated as brave, if for different reasons, but a white actress portraying an Asian character would be unacceptable.
Similarly, Billy calling out another Australian correspondent (Noel Ferrier) for dallying with his boytoy servant -- a virtual death sentence in the Indonesia of six decades ago -- is an act that today would be viewed as irredeemably homophobic. Add in the way the American reporter (Michael Murphy) enjoys using the cheap local female flesh as fodder for his vile self-aggrandizing.
But "The Year of Living Dangerously" is not a film that tries to comfort us. Rather, it shows us the dark underbelly of what humanity is capable. The Americans and British and Aussies do not have a direct hand in perpetuating the misery of the Indonesian people, but they're more than happy to employ it as a lever for their own personal devices. I think of the many scenes in which the Westerners drink and carouse as the natives look on with envy and growing hatred.
Gibson's Guy Hamilton is neither hero, as Billy would have him, or villain, but somewhere in the grey. He wants the scoop and he wants the girl, and he's willing to do questionable things to get them, even if it means parlaying one for the other. But he's genuinely sickened by the poverty and human waste; the other reporters and even Jill criticize him for the "melodramatic" tone of his copy.
"The Year of Living Dangerously" is a grand and grim reminder of our capacities for hope and despair, and that you don't need a lot of words to convey big ideas.