Entry updated 18 February 2021. Tagged: Film.
Film (1977). Released in America as Black Rain. McElroy and McElroy, Derek Power, The South Australian Film Corporation. Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Tony Morphett, Petro Popescu and Weir. Cast includes Nandjiwarra Amagula, Walter Amagula, Richard Chamberlain, Vivean Gray, David Gulpilil, Olivia Hamnett, Richard Henderson and Frederick Parsloe. 106 minutes. Colour.
The Last Wave was made long before the twentieth century ended. This should be kept in mind as its complex narrative unfolds, an Equipoisal balancing of two of the versions of the story of the world readily extractable in 1977 from the cauldron of Fantastika: the story of the fate of the world as told from the beginning in the Dreamtime of the original inhabitants of Australia, a narrative that conflates past, present and future in a manner a 1977 viewer might think archaically precurses J W Dunne's time theories; and the story of the attempts of white Australians to cope in "rational" terms with some anomalous events caused by intrusive encounters with survivors of Aboriginals evicted from their ancient homeland. Precisely because it concerns a world in the grip of what twenty-first century viewers will be very inclined to think of as Climate Change, it is now exceedingly easy to read The Last Wave as being solely focused on the literal fate of the planet; viewers in 1977 may have been more attuned to the white family romance whose unfoldings occupy much of the foreground, with supernaturally bad weather serving as mood music.
The action is contemporary, which is to say circa 1977. Under a sun-silhouetted overhang of rock leading into a cavern abounding in ancient wall drawings, a figure can be seen creating a new image. Only later in the tale, after meeting him again, are we meant to understand that he is the tribal elder of an Aboriginal nation; here, in The Last Wave, his name is given simply as Charlie (Amagula), but it can be assumed that in reality he is far more named than that: that is he is the Secret Master of a Pariah Elite. [The actor here, Nandjiwarra Amagula MBE (1926-1989), was himself a tribal magistrate, an artist, and spokesperson: recent viewers might think of him as less actor than messenger.] Charlie is painting onto a flat medallion-shaped stone a circular talismanic sigil, which might represent the hieratic outlines of an archaic face. Magically, eidolon-like, this image once executed lifts from the stone and expands upwards into the backdrop sky, swelling until it becomes the size of the sky into which it has merged: giving shape to the heavens above: becoming them. The sky, which had been radiant, darkens.
Meanwhile, in the small outback town of Milawee, Aboriginal and white children are playing in the sun, though not together. Thunder rumbles in the background. Rain begins to fall out of a cloudless sky, soon turning violent, cloudbursts batter the town, hailstones, thunderclaps, lightning, savage window-shattering gusts of wind. Milawee is almost instantly whitened. The snow and hail then melt, very suddenly. Viewers of The Last Wave on its 1977 release may have clocked a Fortean element (see Charles Fort) in this arbitrary assault from above, an association strengthened later in the film, when a rain of frogs, a notorious Fortean trademark event, signals that the final act has begun: not perhaps the Biblical comeuppance (Exodus 8.2) after God tells Pharaoh to let his people go, or "I will smite all thy borders with frogs", though a subliminal association of Aboriginals with the Jewish people in Egyptian Slavery is unlikely to have been unintentional: but here the rain of frogs (see Horror in SF) seems more generally to hint that the story of the End of the World is being dictated from above. Twenty-first century viewers are unlikely to need a Fortean gloss to interpret a violent weather event out of the blue as anything but part of the new normal: we should understand that these opening sequences, the giant hailstones and the rains, were originally intended to evoke not so much a sense of recognition of an abiding Novum as a feeling that something new is invading the world.
Meanwhile, which may be the same thing as simultaneously, two sun dogs appear over the suddenly darkened skies of Sydney, and an unprecedentedly heavy rainstorm begins to batter the city. Tax lawyer David Burton (Chamberlain) drives home to his family and soon finds a small flood cascading downwards from a mysteriously overflowing upstairs bathtub. At some point a print of Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" (circa 1830) is visible hanging on a wall of the Burton home. David begins to see water everywhere, perhaps unsurprisingly as the rain has hardly stopped, and will hardly cease again. He is having nightmares of disaster and revelation that feel premonitory. His wife Annie Burton (Hamnett) is increasingly perturbed, both by the apocalyptic weather and by David's estranged dream-enhanced preoccupation with some felt intentionality in the flood; at times his expression is so remote, and the attention he pays to his children so distracted, that his face almost seems carved, as simple as the countenance of an angel or bringer of tidings.
Nothing that happens during the remainder of The Last Wave contradicts a sense that David, though not truly aware of his nature until almost the end of things, is indeed from the beginning a both a man and a dread Hero crafted out of dream, brought to life not simply to announce or witness the End of the World but to bring it about (see also Eschatology). The narrative may seem indirect, but in fact there is nothing extraneous. After the bathtub episode, David and family visit his father, the Reverend Burton (Parsloe), who reminds him now and later that as a child he had Predictive dreams; and speaks of the family's origin in South America. Soon after, David takes up the case of a group of Aboriginals who had seemingly caused the death through something like Telepathy of a companion who had disobeyed tribal law by mishandling the icon Charlie had carved in the outback, and which David retrieves from his effects. Michael Zeadler (Carroll), the barrister David had engaged to present the case, resigns, as "tribal law" – which David insists is relevant – only applies inside Aboriginal territories, and Sydney is governed by white law: as Michael says in his smug whited-sepulchre voice, tribal law cannot apply because we have destroyed "their languages, their ceremonies, their songs, their dances, and their tribal laws."
David then arranges for one of the defendants, Chris Lee (Gulpilil), to meet his family for dinner; but Chris shows up with a second Aboriginal. We see that this bearded figure is Charlie, and learn that the nation of which he is the tribal leader would now be occupying Sydney if the original population had not been reduced to a few exiled survivors. Charlie is a paradigmatic Mysterious Stranger: an untoward figure who irrupts into the Polder or Keep that had been his home, and through the stony authenticity of his presence threatens its current tenants. But Charlie utters no threats, perhaps because he does not speak English, though perhaps he seems more ominous mute than if he began to speak to them in "broken" English. He gazes on his tenants without mercy. He then becomes deeply interested in the photographs David shows him of his South American ancestors.
The case is lost. David learns from Chris – it is though a dream had come true – that the Aboriginals have identified him as a Mulkurul, a messenger from the rising sun (which is to say South America), come to announce the end of one cycle of the world and the beginning of another; more terrifyingly, David begins to suspect that everything he does is Mulkurul: that Mulkurul is not a role but who he is, not a messenger but the message. Later Charlie – who now speaks fluent English – asks him "Are you a man?" David shakes his head. "Are you Mulkurul?" David nods. Charlie has in effect asked him if he is going to end the world. David tells Annie that she and the children must get inland as fast as possible, leaving him behind. They leave.
Black rain continues to inundate Sydney. Chris takes David Underground, beneath overloaded waterworks, into the caverns of the original inhabitants, where David finds several artifacts, clearly South American in origin, and a hieratic mask which he recognizes is a model of his own face, a much closer likeness than the adumbrative geometrical countenance painted onto the original stone disk. Fugal images and visual geometries obscure the scene, though there is a flash encounter with Charlie, possibly enthroned. Chris prepares to enter the Dreamtime, and disappears from this world. David escapes alone to the surface, having dropped the mask on the way, like a discarded garment. In any case, to whom would he show it? He comes into the open through a vast discharge outlet: water pours out, water may also pour in. He is on the beach, facing east into the ocean, where the sun rises from its cave under the Andes. Small waves tussle. He looks up and sees a vast turbulent wave which dwarfs Hokusai. The last shot of The Last Wave shows him staring at the End of the World. For viewers in 1977, this may have been a Slingshot Ending, for the wave may just be a dream, or a metaphor, or smaller than it looks. Several decades later, the semiotic import of the Mulkurul gaze of the eidolon dubbed for its planetary purpose David seems to lack any such solace. [JC]
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