May 3, 2013

The Last Wave

Gay actor Richard Chamberlain was well known in the 1960s for playing Dr. Kildare on tv, but the first time I saw him was in college, in  the Australian paranormal thriller The Last Wave (1977), which the Film Club showed us on the same evening as Picnic at Hanging Rock.

He stars as David Burton, a Sidney lawyer who conforms to every aspect of staid heteronormativity: wife, job, house.

The "queer" moment comes when he is assigned to the case of Chris Lee (David Gulpilil), one of five Aboriginals accused of murder.

David becomes obsessed with the case, and with Chris.  The Aboriginal may or may not be a friend, but David is drawn to his energy, his hard firm muscles, his raw sensuality.  He desires Chris as a Sabu or a Hadji, someone dark and mysterious and passionate and frightening.  As someone from beyond civilization, who could provide either salvation or damnation.

David Gulpilil is no stranger to roles as a dark, mysterious, passionate object of desire. In Walkabout (1971), the guide to two white kids lost in the bush, the 15-year old appeared fully nude.  Later he would buddy-bond with John Jarratt (of Picnic at Hanging Rock) in Dark Age (1987) and with Nigel Havers in Naked Under Capricorn (1989).  He became a famous spokesperson for Aboriginal culture.

Back to The Last Wave: as weird weather phenomena begin to threaten the modern technological world, David dreams of Chris appearing to him in the night.  He delves deeply into Chris's aboriginal world, into the Dreamtime.  His old life doesn't make sense anymore.  His marriage falls apart, and he loses his job.  But what does Chris offer in their place?  Love?  Freedom?  Belonging?

David finds himself unable to fully embrace the Dreamtime.  He seeks answers elsewhere, in the church, in his wife's arms, in the logic of the legal system.  By the time he allows Chris to reveal to him the truth about himself, it is too late:a tidal wave is about to wipe out the entire continent.  His world is ending.