The Year of Living Dangerously
Can vision be a
model for knowledge?

by Carolyn A. Durham

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 6-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

Critical reviews of Peter Weir's THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY have tended to interpret Weir's film as disturbingly apolitical in its focus on conventional romantic myths: the heroic adventure story or the sentimental plot of the couple in love. Cahiers du cinéma, for example, views YEAR as a dangerously naive version of "the myth of the reporter-adventurer."[1] Similarly, in Ms., Lindsy Van Gelder criticizes Weir's obscuring of the unethical detachment of his heroes by filming what she characterizes as "essentially a love story of two attractive winners tacked onto a backdrop of human suffering."[2] There is no doubt that YEAR includes, particularly in any standard summary form, many characteristics of conventional romantic narrative. Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson), an Australian journalist on assignment in Indonesia in 1965, forms a partnership with the photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) whose connections afford Hamilton both the professional benefit of exclusive interviews and the personal benefit of an affair with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), assistant to the British military attach. After Kwan's death as the result of his attempt to display a banner critical of Sukarno and after Guy's own wounding in his effort to cover the unsuccessful community uprising, Guy and Jill escape from Indonesia together.

I will argue that this mythology of the hero and the couple functions not as a plot in its own right, but as one of a series of motifs used by Weir in an attack on Western ideology. This attack is thorough and relentless to the point of challenging both his own film and certain possibilities of film itself. Indeed, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY is a profoundly self-reflexive film, in which the notion of the visual functions centrally as both image and theme. As an art form, film supports and reinforces the emphasis on the visual that characterizes the Western hierarchy of the senses. But Weir uses this very necessity of the medium to explore and ultimately to critique the implications of using vision as a model for knowledge.

The assistance Billy initially offers to Guy — "I can be your eyes" — appropriately casts Guy (and the spectator) in the role of a blindman. Billy proposes to teach Guy and the West which Guy symbolizes, "how to see." Guy conceives of sight in the traditional Western sense as a means of distancing and objectifying the object of knowledge. This definition of self in opposition to all else leads Guy to a fundamental attitude and comportment of disengagement. From the beginning, he tells Billy that he "can't afford to get involved." Against this theory of vision as dissociative, Billy seeks to recall the parallel, if paradoxical, connective function of the visual. For Billy, seeing is associated with empathy, contact, commitment. Where Guy uses opposition through difference, Billy substitutes communion through likeness, so that verb "to see" becomes synonymous with the verb "to feel." He tells Guy: "I made you see things, feel something about what you write." Billy wants Guy to see the "real" Djakarta: uncounted numbers of people living in extreme poverty, dying from starvation and disease.

In a recent reexamination of the role that vision has played in Western thought, Evelyn Fox Keller and Christine R. Grontowski suggest that historically the growing emphasis on the visual "eye" led to the birth of the personal "I."[3] Certainly Weir associates a visual theory of knowledge with Western individualism. Guy believes that his traditional linkage of scientific objectivity with journalistic practice allows him to see reality as it really is, free from the interference of personal or cultural assumptions. In fact, he projects images of a profound subjectivity in which he reflects and sees only his own self.

Throughout THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, Weir uses his camera technique, and an ideology of the image particular to his political conception of film, to question, to undermine, and ultimately to deny the Western ideal of objectivity so aptly incarnated in journalism. Given the importance of "point of view" in film technique, the stress that recent narrative theory has placed on the dual meaning of the term has special significance in film studies. Point of view is not only perceptual, involving a positioning in space and time, but also ideological, incorporating an attitude toward the object of representation.[4] Weir insists that we acknowledge the political dimension of film narrative by consistently making perspective itself part of the represented image.

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY often repeats a type of shot in which Westerners ostensibly perceive Indonesian reality. Most often, Guy drives or is driven through the city of Djakarta. We look with Guy through the windshield of the car at the masses of the Indonesian poor beyond. But not only is our view of this professed object of representation always distorted by an image that is slightly out of focus and further blurred by the counter movement of the car and the crowds, but the shot in fact foregrounds in perfect focus the huge silhouette of Guy himself. Weir thus demonstrates both the lack of objective distance of the Western journalist and the essential fact that it is our own inevitable presence in our representation that functions to obliterate that which we claim to represent. The viewer blocks out the viewed, the subject displaces the object, the Western cult of the self is superimposed on the Eastern collectivity. Interestingly, in the final still photograph of the film on which the camera focuses, a picture of Billy and Guy clearly of metaphoric importance, Billy has used a self-timer to place himself in his own picture.

In the typical shot of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, the car's claustrophobic self-containment reinforces the importance of framing as a device to insist on the substitution of image for reality. In one of the film's central episodes, we see Billy looking through a camera rather than at reality itself. Moreover, as spectators we find ourselves distanced even further, for Weir's camera films Billy's camera filming the march on the U.S. embassy. This interior duplication functions as a self-enclosing and a self-referential device as all such images do; but in Weir's critique of Western ideology, self-reflexivity serves not to celebrate the autonomy of art but to further illustrate the myopia of Western vision. Weir again uses the functioning of film to call into question the seeming realism of the medium itself.

Although Guy is a television journalist, we never see the film that presumably constitutes the essential part of his broadcasts. Similarly, Weir's own film consistently substitutes Billy's still photographs for the moving pictures of the movie camera. To see in two rather than three dimensions is to lack perspective, to perceive only a reflection of reality, and, most importantly, to see only surfaces, that is, to see superficially. Guy's literal blinding at the end of the film reinforces the metaphoric structure of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, the inextricable connection between the eye of the camera and the I of the Western mind. Guy has a detached retina, the photographic element of the eye on which light forms the visual image. Guy's inability to see is reflected in the failure of the visual medium itself: the walls of Billy's room, initially covered with photographs, have been stripped bare. Moreover, since two eyes are necessary to see relief, Guy, blinded in one eye, is now literally reduced to two-dimensional vision.

Ultimately, and much more radically given Billy's self-identification with the East, it is not only Guy who cannot see but Billy as well. Indeed, as Billy tells Guy early in the film, they "have the same eyes," they look alike, that is, they see in the same way. If Weir illustrates through Guy the inability of the West to see, to perceive a reality that differs from its own cultural assumptions, he reveals through Billy the equal dangers inherent in seeing badly. Billy demonstrates the twin visual abuses of the Western concept of knowledge as it functions in the East: espionage and voyeurism. Whether or not Billy works for anyone else, Guy rightfully accuses him of spying. Although Billy claims to seek visual communion with others, he in fact embodies the very model of the reporter he scorns in Guy. Billy looks at and not with others in an effort to surprise their secrets. That the information Billy gleans both focuses predominantly on Westerners and is apparently destined only for his own private files merely reinforces the blind self-absorption of the West that Weir critiques throughout THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. The union in Billy of the spy and the voyeur — he photographs Guy and Jill without their knowledge and prowls around the house in which they make love — pinpoints the dual perversion of the Western journalist for whom knowledge is both interference (invasion of privacy) and alienated desire (possession without commitment).

Weir uses the erotic associations of the visual to support his broader critique of the abuse of power inherent in the West's politics of vision. THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY is a male-bonding film — all the Western journalists are men — in which women, both Western and Eastern, figure as the sexual objects of male regard. More importantly, the very first photographs we encounter are the pornographic pictures that the journalists pass around in the hotel bar. Thus, the visual image itself is connected to voyeuristic exploitation even as it is introduced. Moreover, the ensuing discussion about the distinction between pornography and art, linked significantly to a picture being in or out of focus, prepares us for Weir's subsequent investigation into the fundamental ambivalence of the goals and values of Western ideology and the primary importance of perspective in determining its merit. Weir later establishes a thematic association between sexual politics and the general politics of exploitation to complement the formal connection. In visually parallel scenes, the car, symbol of Western power and isolation, is surrounded by the communist demonstrators in front of the U.S. Embassy and the Indonesian prostitutes in the cemetery. The camera thus makes the connection between sexual and colonial exploitation, between erotic and ideological voyeurism, which Billy sums up in his final accusation that both Sukarno and the West use the Indonesian people as "objects of pleasure."

For all its emphasis on the visual, film as an art form explores with difficulty all the possibilities of the specular. Weir exploits the degree to which film supports the dissociative visual experience that underlies Western alienation from all that is not its own self. THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY repeatedly denies the possibility of direct eye contact, which in seeming to do away with distance could become the paradigm for the communion between the East and the West in which Billy claims to believe. Although Guy must remove his sunglasses at the palace gates so that the guards may assess his true character, Sukarno keeps his own sunglasses on during the look he exchanges with Guy in the following scene. Not only is Sukarno's self thus hidden from Western eyes, but his glasses reflect back to Guy only his own self image. Sukarno, who will be revealed in the course of the film as the puppet of the West, illustrates one danger of Western interference in Indonesia: the Eastern eye may become a passive lens which receives Western images projected from without. Throughout the film the massive photographs of Sukarno juxtaposed against the Indonesian crowd create the same optical illusion of the dominance of the individual as in the foregrounding of the huge silhouettes of Guy, Jill, and Billy in similarly composed shots. In the end Sukarno will not see Billy's banner: "Sukarno, feed your people." He is as incapable as the Western journalists and diplomats of perceiving the poverty and misery of the real Djakarta.

But, much more radically, Weir forces us as viewers to confront the degree to which this real East remains closed to our Western gaze once it refuses to reflect back to us our own image. Guy's one attempt to discover the unseen that Billy asserts to be all around us results in a story on the Lombok famine in which the central and controlling image is visual:

"It's the faces you can't forget, the dull, listless, hollow eyes."

At first it seems that these authentic images of the East will be conjured away with the reductive Western interpretation of the story as "a bit melodramatic." However, Weir's solution is even more disturbing. He constantly confronts us with Billy's photographs of the Indonesian poor in cuts which always emphasize the eyes and often move in to a close up of the eyes alone. The Indonesians gaze upon us with a look that is indeed "hollow," a stare which remains resolutely closed to our penetration, which looks neither inward nor outward but which functions as an absolute barrier as impenetrable as the bandage which swathes Guy's eyes or the blank screen which serves as our own blindfold at the end of the film.

Vision also suggests the power of the imagination, and a literal reading of Billy's assertion to Guy — "I made you see things" — focuses on his role as creator, as conjuror. Billy's subversion of the traditional Christian message he preaches is clear from the beginning of the film. Billy, who photographs himself dressed as Sukarno, "a god to his people," wishes to be God, not to worship Him. In Weir's rigorously self-referential film, God equals the artist. And Billy, who is "master on the blank page and in the darkroom," represents in particular the documentary filmmaker or the television journalist who controls both the script and the image. In part because he is a journalist, Billy's association of creativity with possession and control has important implications for our understanding of Western ideology. Billy uses the photograph and the written narrative, the raw materials of journalistic reportage, to fix reality, to reduce living human beings to static and non-temporal objects. The film consistently cuts from the shot of a character to Billy's photographic reproduction or typed portrait that allows him to assert, "I shuffle people like cards."

In its suggestion that news is less something one reports or discovers than something one invents, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY further challenges the mimetic pretensions of Western journalism and film as realistic art forms. Bernard Kolb's concern that the film "accurately represent what had happened" in the Indonesia he covered in the sixties for the New York Times inevitably results in disappointment and deception.[5] Far from imitating reality, Billy creates a story whose origins are eminently literary and whose embodiment of the cultural norms of the West works against the recording of the material reality of the East.[6] In what might be read as an interior duplication of the film's own critical reception, Billy rewrites the tragedy and the horror story of Indonesia as a romantic narrative.

The historian Hayden White sees "inherently amoral or immoral implications" in Romanticism's focus of on the individual as against the species.[7] Although Billy seems to pose the dilemma of Indonesia in collective terms ("What then must we do?"), he creates in Guy the paradigm of the isolated, unattached, egocentric hero ("I created you."). Often filmed alone and isolated in his own images, Guy believes in his ability to alter Indonesia's historical process by imposing his own individual will and enacting his own causal agency. Moreover, the danger that Billy foresees for Jill — the bitterness of the failed Romantic — in fact reflects back on him. When Guy fails to fulfill his role as savior, Billy takes upon himself this futile and self-sacrificial mission.[8]

Billy's Christian charity and Western sentimentality privilege interpersonal relationships, the need to love ("Why can't you learn to love?"). Although Billy seems once again to focus on a collective bond, he, in fact, creates ("I gave her to you, and now I'm taking her back") a story of romantic love that definitively blinds Guy and Jill to the realities of Indonesia. Similarly, Billy's own adoption of an Indonesian woman and child allows him to deny Sukarno's responsibility for the conditions of his country. In the midst of the decay and poverty of Djakarta, Guy and Jill live out the stereotypical Western dream. The lovers' rainy luncheon date blocks out the Indonesian crowd around them. The danger of running a roadblock after curfew transforms the political turmoil of Indonesia into the gratuitous risk and violence that feed Western eroticism. The lovers' quarrel itself turns the Indonesian civil war into a matter of purely individual concern. For Guy, it translates into an opportunity for personal glory; for Jill, into an issue of individual safety.

Romantic love, as the West encodes it, purports to be "outside" ideology; thus Jill's flight from the embassy reception to join Guy affirms its status as an irresistible drive that flaunts social conventions. However, as Mary Poovey pertinently interprets it, love is a central part of bourgeois society's cultural ideology.[9] Romantic love supports the separation of public and private spheres on which Western social structure is founded by perpetuating the fundamental myth that private gratification can compensate for economic and political exploitation in the public sphere. In THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, the foregrounding of the couple relationship (in the friendships between Guy and Billy and between Billy and Jill as well as with the lovers) flatters the Western desire for autonomy and power even as it disguises the total inability of personal relationships to wield social influence, to affect the material conditions of society.

Ultimately, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY stands in its very celebration of the medium of film as a profoundly pessimistic statement about the possibilities of film itself. Weir turns certain inherent limitations of the camera — the difficulty that the visual image always encounters when it attempts to enter human consciousness, whether individual or collective — to his advantage; the impossibility of a structural form becomes a sociocultural message. But in the course of his exploration of the conditions of seeing, the necessary foundation of a cinematographic art, Weir seems to conclude that there are times when the artist is not God, when reality resists arrangement. In the confrontation of the West and the East, film cannot be representational; it can only deal with the impossibility of representation. Such films must finally be self-referential of necessity. They must refer the West back to itself to reveal the West to itself in its egocentric self-absorption. The message is clear if painful: We reflect only ourselves. We should reflect on ourselves. Only then can we learn to see beyond and behind our cultural assumptions.


1. Cahiers du Cinéma 348/349, June-July 1983. p. 41.

2. Lindsy Van Gelder, "Gender-Bending for its Own Sake," Ms., April 1983, p. 73. See also David Ansen, Newsweek 24 January 1983, p. 66, and Vincent Canby, The New York Times 21 January 1983, p. C4, for similar interpretations. For a rare analysis of YEAR as an overtly political film, see Leslie Bennett, "East and West Meet Amid Mystery in Peter Weir's New Film," The New York Times 16 January 1983, p. 23.

3. Evelyn Fox Keller and Christine R. Grontkowski, "The Mind's Eye," in Discovering Reality, ed. Sandra Harding and Merill B. Hintikka (Boston: D. Reidel, 1983), pp. 207-224. My discussion of the visual as model of knowledge draws on the insights of Keller and Grontkowski.

4. For recent discussions of the ideological dimension of point of view, see Roger Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (London: Methuen, 1977) and Susan Lanser, The Narrative Act (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981).

5. Bernard Kolb, "Cinematic Art vs. Reality in Indonesia," The New York Times 23 January 1983, P. 17.

6. Hayden White, The Historical Text as Literary Artifact, in Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978) argues convincingly that we use story types to make sense of our own life histories, that is, to endow them with culturally sanctioned meanings.

7. White, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 1973), p. 84.

8. White, Metahistory. p. 8, notes that Western ideology often embodies the romantic drama of the triumph of good over evil in the story of Christ. In THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, Billy is consistently and ironically associated with Christ imagery ("I'll crucify you," Pete tells Billy on several occasions).

9. Mary Poovey, "Persuasion and the Promises of Love," in The Representation of Women in Fiction, ed. Carolyn Heilbrun and Margaret Higonnet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 171-177.