Peter Weir is one of Australia’s best-known and most prolific directors. In The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema, Richard Leonard explores the theme of mysticism that runs through Weir’s work. During the following review of Leonard’s text, I will make reference to Weir’s most recent film, The Way Back (2010). This film was released a year after Leonard’s book was published, but it bears out some of Leonard’s insights.
The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema is based on Leonard’s PhD thesis, which he undertook at the University of Melbourne. According to Leonard:
Mysticism has come to mean an action, separate from the activity of daily routine where an individual or a group experiences an apprehension, illumination or union that the members perceive to be something greater than themselves … It has the power to be personally and socially transformative. (p. 3)
Leonard’s key argument is that Weir “constructs and deploys … a ‘mystical gaze’”:
This gaze constitutes one of the most important but neglected forms of spectatorship in the cinema … The mystical gaze transforms the viewers’ awareness, suggests that there are realities beyond their sight … (p. vii)
Leonard is a Jesuit priest, and contends that “mysticism and religious elements have been constitutive elements in influencing desire and spectatorship …” (p. 45). Leonard argues, too, that “the cinema offers a place or context within which an increasingly secular audience encounters Otherness” (p. viii). Leonard elaborates on this point using Weir’s films as case studies. In doing this, Leonard also explains how this mystical gaze is informed by factors that include gender and race.
Leonard begins by addressing Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977). These are amongst Weir’s earliest and most overtly mystical films, evoking as they do the feeling of “enter(ing) a dreamlike state” (p. 74). By the 1980s, Weir was (in his own words) becoming “uncomfortable with what was perceived as my style – mystical … So I consciously set out to avoid that style and look for subjects as far away from that area” (p. 133). During this period, he released films such as Gallipoli (1981) and Witness (1985). These films are apparently devoid of mysticism, and yet Leonard convincingly argues that they still mobilise a mystical gaze. As Leonard explains, these movies use narrative and filmic techniques, as well as symbolism (some of which appears to be religiously inflected), “to enable the spectator to ask … fundamental questions about meaning, purpose, identity, existence and the relationship of this world to worlds beyond” (p. 195).
The mystical gaze is mobilised again in The Way Back. The film depicts a group of escapees from a Siberian gulag camp circa World War Two who endure a long trek to freedom in India. The escapees trudge through blistering hot deserts and snow-covered forests. They face intense hunger and thirst, and several do not survive the journey. What spurs the escapees on is the promise of freedom and the knowledge that the conditions they experience (while inhumane) pale in comparison to the treatment they received while incarcerated.
I attended a preview screening of The Way Back at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, as well as a question-and-answer session with Weir immediately afterwards. Significantly, I found the trek undergone by Weir’s characters to be “mystical” according to Leonard’s definition of that term. The escapees certainly perceive their trek to constitute “something greater than themselves.” The weather conditions they face are almost supernatural in their ferocity. The location shooting in Bulgaria, the Sahara Desert and the Himalayas gives these conditions a confronting sense of “authenticity” that would be missing had the film been shot in a studio (1). The trek is “personally transformative” for these fictional travellers on many levels. For example, it allows them to discover a kind of personal strength they had previously been unaware of (Ed Harris’ character states on several occasions that he is content to die because he is “old”, but – with the moral and physical support of his fellow travellers – he keeps moving). The film itself had a somewhat “transformative” impact on some viewers at the preview screening. One audience member, a descendant of gulag prisoners, commended The Way Back for providing her with a sense of what her family members must have endured.
Returning to Leonard’s text, the most impressive aspect is his rich and nuanced filmic analysis. Consider this dissection of a scene in Picnic at Hanging Rock:
Weir enhances the mystical quality in this sequence by using threatening bird calls, the sound of water, the crossing of water, names being called out, the urgent synthesiser with an ominous celestial chorus, sharp low-angle shots of the Rock, swirling winds and electronic thunder. (p. 50)
Reading this passage, I felt as though I was actually watching the film. I recalled how Picnic at Hanging Rock’s mise en scène elicited feelings of wonder, fear and mystery. A key feature of excellent filmic analysis is the ability to evoke the affective responses that film-viewing induces in the spectator. Leonard clearly possesses this ability.
Throughout The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema, Leonard demonstrates a confident and broad-ranging grasp of film theory. In Chapter One, for example, he provides a history of “gaze theory” (p. 19), from its origins in vaudeville to its application by contemporary cinema scholars. Leonard also provides an excellent overview of theological responses to film. Yet I felt this chapter ultimately tried to cover too much ground. Leonard introduces a large number of theorists and ideas within a few pages. The effect on the reader is overwhelming.
Leonard makes several catchy and provocative – but highly questionable – statements. These statements detract from the intellectual sophistication of his book. For example, he argues that The Cars That Ate Paris (1973) “demonstrates Weir’s early interest in film noir: voyeurism and fetishism” (p. 94). The suggestion here is that “voyeurism and fetishism” are somehow exclusive to (or defining of) film noir. This suggestion is simplistic. Puzzlingly, Leonard says little else about the influence of noir on Weir’s filmmaking. Elsewhere, Leonard argues that Gallipoli has a “post-colonial and nationalistic agenda” (p. 170). The terms “post-colonial” and “nationalistic” are interchangeable here, when in fact these terms have been used elsewhere in quite separate and distinct ways (2).
At one point, Leonard (partly) concurs with film scholar Annette Blonski’s argument that there is
…little evidence in his narratives or style to confirm that Weir’s work was ideological, that it ‘unsettles the viewer through disruption of middle-class certainties.’ Blonski convincingly demonstrated that Weir’s films do nothing to disrupt Australian perceptions of women, Aboriginal people, class or identity. (p. 109) (3)
Troublingly, Leonard does not expand on Blonski’s argument. For example, in his references to The Last Wave, he does not critique the way that Aborigines are stereotyped in this film as savages who are discussed, watched and feared by the white male protagonist (played by Richard Chamberlain). In his discussion of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Leonard admits that the film can be read as a “commentary on repressed sexuality” – specifically, repressed female sexuality (p. 144). He does not consider how this movie reinforces the old correlation between intimate female friendships and morbidity (4).
Furthermore, Leonard could have looked more at how Weir evokes mysticism within the context of history. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Dead Poet’s Society (1989) and The Way Back are all set in the past. Much of the discussion at The Way Back’s question-and-answer session focused on the ability of film to document history (5). A related, and fascinating, question is: What role does the “mystical gaze” play in the historical film? Leonard concedes that, in Gallipoli, Weir was trying to keep “Anzac mythology” alive by depicting the “heroism” of World War One diggers for a new generation of viewers (pp. 104-106). The recent release of The Way Back makes it more urgent to consider Weir as a historian as well as a mystic.
Overall, The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema is a brilliantly researched and well-argued study of a unique filmmaker and his work. The book has its flaws, as I have pointed out. Nonetheless, Leonard’s text makes an important and engaging contribution to analyses of the gaze, Australian cinema and Peter Weir’s oeuvre.
The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema: The Films of Peter Weir, by Richard Leonard, MUP Academic Monographs, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2009.
- The term “authenticity” was used liberally at the question-and-answer session following the preview screening of The Way Back. I use this term cautiously, because I have no idea what it feels like to be incarcerated by an oppressive regime or forced to survive in barbaric weather conditions with no shelter.
- See Neil Lazarus, Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
- Leonard refers to Annette Blonski, “Propositions on the Films of Peter Weir and his Place in Contemporary Australian Cinema”, unpublished thesis, Monash University, 1983.
- This correlation is explored at length in Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, Morrow, New York, 1981.
- The Way Back is based loosely on Slavomir Rawicz’s book The Long Walk (1956). The historical veracity of Rawicz’s novel has been subject to debate, as Weir himself acknowledged at the film’s preview screening in Melbourne. See also Garry Maddox, “The Way Back from Truman Show director Peter Weir”, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 2011, accessed 15 February 2011.