Peter Weir is an iconic Australian director who is celebrated for his comprehensive body of cinematic work both locally and abroad. His infamous adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, in 1975, earned him a reputation for changing the way Australian filmmaking and screen culture was viewed by the rest of the world. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Australia’s most highly respected and renowned Hollywood directors. It is no surprise then that Serena Formica chose Weir as the subject for her latest book on transnationalism, ‘production migrations’ and auteur theory.Formica’s approach is direct but contemplative. She outlines her argument with clarity and poise. She begins her book with an examination of transnationalism, more specifically the development of transnationalism as a theoretical framework for film analysis. She then goes on to deconstruct Weir’s directorial style and whether or not he can be described as an auteur. In chapter 3, she provides a brief break down of the economic climate and production context of the Australian film industry during the late 1970s and 80s. In her final chapters, Formica outlines Weir’s career trajectory and migration to Hollywood in depth and through thoughtful analyses of his films Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Witness (1985) and The Truman Show(1998). Throughout, Formica draws on her own interviews and other theorist’s findings to substantiate her conclusions. Ultimately, she argues that Weir’s directorial style is adaptive and transnational because he can negotiate cultural borders and different production contexts with grace and easeFormica’s analysis of transnationalism is rigorous and she raises pertinent concerns. Transnationalism is a relatively new theoretical framework and even newer to the discipline of film studies. In an increasingly globalised world where we engage, through multimedia channels, with cross-cultural exchange on a daily basis, transnationalism offers us the opportunity to understand the flexibility and multiplicity of our cultural identity. As Steven Vertovec, a social anthropologist at Oxford University, suggests transnationalism can be used to describe the ‘multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation states’ (1).
Formica takes this broader concept of transnationalism and applies it more directly to film theory by referencing scholars such as Ezra and Rowden, Elmer and Gasher, Goldsmith and O’Regan among others. In so doing, she reveals how difficult it is to discern a clear definition of transnationalism and its characteristics. Instead, she draws attention to the term’s ambiguity and fluidity. Formica’s final deduction is that transnational cinema does ‘not only exist at the level of representation (films that depict the lives of transnational and diaspora people), but also, importantly, it concerns filmmakers and actors who move within different cinematic contexts’ (p. 23). Formica then reveals a gaping whole in the scholarly study of transnational cinema. The free movement of contemporary transnational directors from their country of origin to Hollywood has not previously been studied in any depth. It is here that she places her analysis of Weir and begins to construct her own argument for his transnationalism. This is a particularly clever tactic and one that is refreshing and timely.
Formica’s deconstruction of Weir’s assumed autership is fascinating. She identifies key problematic features with this supposition. She argues that most attempts to justify Weir as an auteur – a director ‘whose ideas and cinematic styles make them the authors of their films’ (p. 32, in reference to Frank Beaver) – overlook the creative contribution of other craftspeople and fail to take into account the broader cultural context of Weir’s work that exists outside of Australia. My one reservation with her argument is that despite the creative contribution of other craftspeople and Weir’s distinct ability to negotiate different production contexts, he still manages to create a unique look for each of his films, which is identifiably his own. His name has become, like other auteurs before him, synonymous with an aesthetic style. He is not completely free of stylistic association. He has been labelled extensively as one of the founding fathers of the Australian film culture revolution and this reputation has surely changed the way he is received by both his audience and prospective employers. Formica herself recognises this when she claims that Weir’s success in Hollywood is due to the fact that his Australian and Hollywood films ‘share more similarities than differences’ (p. 145). She even acknowledges that this affirmation practically adopts the auteur theory (p. 155). Her justification against this is tenuous to say the least. She argues that he has not been the sole originator or that others have chosen the subjects of his films for him and therefore is not technically the ‘author’ of all of his films. I find this particularly unsubstantiated as arguably a director can make a film their own by choosing who they work with, what changes they make to a script and how much say they have in the final cut. Furthermore, Weir’s adaptability could also be seen as evidence of his unique ability to manoeuvre and manipulate a production context to get the best possible creative or stylistic outcome for his film.
Despite being a little unconvinced by Formica’s anti-auteur argument, I found her portrait of Weir to be captivating. He is an intriguing subject and one who is often referenced in Australian film circles. It was energizing to read about him outside of a singular, national context and to properly envisage him as a transnational director. Formica’s analysis of each of his films is also thorough and revelatory. I was genuinely excited to learn about each film’s specific production context, its cast and crew politics and how all of this contributed to the final product. My one irritation is with how poorly edited or proofed this book is, it is scattered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. There are whole words and letters missing from paragraphs. This is easily avoided and disappointing as it breaks the flow and makes reading a bit of a chore. Overall, however, this book is an engaging and worthwhile read. Its cosmopolitan approach to film analysis adds positively to the somewhat insular literature on Australian filmmaking.
Serena Formica, Peter Weir: A Creative Journey from Australia to Hollywood, Chicago: Intellect Books, 2012.