By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston
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“What then must we do?” This is Linda Hunt’s big line in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Hunt, you’ll remember, plays a diminutive cameraman named Billy Kwan, a role for which she won the Oscar. She, or he I should say, quotes the line, and its source — from Luke, chapter 3, verse 10 — near the beginning of the film while taking journalist Guy Hamilton, just off the plane from Australia, on a tour of Jakarta’s slums. Billy has plans for Guy, played by Mel Gibson. Here is the pre-Passion, pre-Lethal Weapon, pre-Braveheart, pre-blockbuster-addicted and drunkenly arrested anti-Semite raving Gibson as a young darkly handsome leading man in an intimate romance, directed by Peter Weir and put through his paces by co-actor “Billy,” a spiritually and socially enlightened “dwarf” as he is sometimes identified. His very first lines are his own voice-over while sitting at his typewriter creating a file for our hero, through whom Billy will live: “June 25, 1965, Dossier #10, Hamilton, Guy, born 1936 under the sign of Capricorn, occupation journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Service — Jakarta, first assignment as a foreign correspondent.” A revival of “Dangerously” in movie theaters country-wide would be appropriate right now. The political undertow, a steady pull powering the film beneath its fictional romance is the US/UK intervention in Indonesia to drive out the people-driven Communist movement, or PKI, depose President Sukarno who had been aligned with his people and install the dictator Suharto, making way of course for all manner of Western capitalist ventures.
As Guy/Mel gets off his plane and presents his papers you see on the wall behind him a huge sign: CRUSH U.S. AND BRITISH IMPERALISM. As the film ends, you see Jakarta in chaos, its military coup underway, and the beginnings of the great bloodbath, the famous massacre of many thousands of PKI or Communist party members, and the escape by air of our hero and other Westerners. When I saw the movie in 1983, I thought it was terrific. But I saw only Billy the narrator and prime mover, and the romance between Guy and Jill (Sigourney Weaver), and was mindlessly, incuriously aware of the political situation. It’s surely one of the few really convincing romantic relationships in movie annals. Looking at “Dangerously” now, I contemplate something new: of the couple, who am I? I started thinking about this while playing the video of Volume V of “Brideshead Revisited” over and over — the episode where Charles Ryder/Jeremy Irons and Julia/Diana Quick fall in love on a stormy Atlantic crossing, New York to Southampton. The political background in “Brideshead” is class and Roman Catholicism. As women, we may find Julia’s position in life ideal. The daughter of a Lord, beautiful and elegant, she commands Charles’s deference in seeking her love. This is England on the high seas, and Charles, merely from the upper middle class, and an artist, knows his place. But do we want to be Julia? As a Roman Catholic, she must marry one, or else a non-Catholic willing to prostrate himself before the Church, by pretense and/or conversion, for her to feel saved from perdition. She doesn’t so much fall for Charles, as allow him to love her. And if we read her conflict well, we know the affair can’t last.
Americans will be much more captivated by the romance of Guy and Jill in “Dangerously,” especially after 9/11, when many people in the population, once politically stupid or oblivious, like myself, woke up to our government as a rogue nation. Like Julia in “Brideshead,” Jill has the power — she is established in Jakarta before Guy gets there, she too is beautiful, is English, and she has a mysterious job at the British Embassy. Billy the puppet-master, a role attributed to Sukarno, and one Billy proudly claims himself, is already a devoted friend of Jill’s or Jilly as he may call her affectionately; and “Jilly” adores him too. By suggestion, sorcery and manipulation, he unites Guy and Jill. He wants us to see them against the poverty and corruption in Jakarta, thus Indonesia at large. Their attraction, and the huge energy it generates, exposes the Western luxury of romance in the midst of the ruins of Western indifference and exploitation. It also capitalizes LOVE as a transcendent force overcoming the misery created by state policies, local and international. A build-up under Weir’s expert direction and attention to detail sucks us into the romantic vortex. The ground is laid first by giving Guy some status to make him a viable suitor. He arrives from Australia without any contacts in his new post. You see him on his first day rushing around vainly in the presidential palace microphone in hand ready to interview someone, anyone — the other journalists already so employed. Later that day our omnipotent all-seeing “dwarf” who knows everybody finds Guy disheartened in his office, and makes him a spectacular offer. He will set Guy up for an interview the very next day with the second most important man after Sukarno in Jakarta, the leader of the PKI or Communist party. In return, Guy enlists Billy as his exclusive cameraman. But without the love of the most beautiful available woman in this politically explosive and tropically sweltering claustrophobic town, Guy’s profile is not complete. “Every man,” Billy tells Guy tantalizingly after he has introduced him to Jill, “wants to get into bed with her in the first five minutes.” Her history in Jakarta includes an affair with a French journalist, now reassigned to Saigon. Jill herself is soon to leave and return to England, and so after a glittering afternoon spent with Guy wandering through tropical groves, connecting in hilarity under a drenching downpour, and spending time in Billy’s quarters of wall-covered photos where they realize he is their medium; and a long moment locked in an open-mouthed gaze signifying romantic recognition, she disappears into the Embassy, waving Guy off as he presses her to get together again, laughingly turning him down, saying she’s leaving soon and doesn’t want to complicate things. It is her power now, to bestow her love or not, that makes the film suspenseful and exciting. She doesn’t return his calls, and he has no access otherwise.
Guy in the meantime has been influenced by Billy, the film’s androgynous wonder, to write his stories with more feeling and compassion. We have to keep in mind their first moments walking together through Jakarta’s slums, when Billy quoted from Luke, “What then must we do?” She, or rather he, had told Guy, still in tie and shirt, with jacket in hand slung over shoulder, the underprivileged swarming all around them in a dark evening light, that Tolstoy asked this same question, and even wrote a book with that title. Tolstoy got so upset about the poverty he saw in Moscow that he went one night to the poorest section of the city and just gave away all his money. Billy tells Guy, “You could do that now; five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.” Guy predictably says it wouldn’t do any good, that it would just be a drop in the ashes. “Ah,” says Billy, “that was the same conclusion Tolstoy came to — but I disagree.” “Oh?” asks Guy, “What’s your solution?” And Billy says, “I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues, you do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.” Supplying Guy’s answer, he adds, “You think that’s naive, don’t you?” And Guy verifies, “Yup, we [journalists] can’t afford to get involved.” Then as we see, Billy makes sure he does, with reports to his newspaper that become increasingly sympathetic to the people.
In a middle-class piece of the U.S. known as my neighborhood, you are aware without asking that we all feel the same way: remote from government, powerless to affect its murderous policies, living in an archaic political system called democracy, waiting for the other terrorists, the ones we call evil, to get their nuclear arsenal together in some semblance of a “state” in order to blast us to kingdom come.
In Billy’s impotent world of “Dangerously,” he finds strength in immediacy. While Guy and Jill are hanging out in his quarters waiting for him, on that glittering afternoon when they form a romantic understanding, they are both leaning forward staring at one of Billy’s photographs: a poor woman from the “inner city” and her woebegone little son whom Jill says Billy has adopted. Guy imagines for a second, with a smile, that Billy “has a woman” until Jill puts him straight, explaining that he gives them food and money, “that’s all.” At the end of that day, Guy, now smitten, exists in a hung time-frame until Billy makes a final move to get the two together.
Waving a British Embassy party invitation addressed to Guy in front of his face, he asks him if he doesn’t plan to go. Guy says he has no jacket and the British are hard to understand. Billy says the British are just more subtle, you have to listen harder, and — “Jill will be there.” A fast cut shows Guy in his hotel room scrambling in a suitcase, clothes flying, looking for a forgotten formal jacket. The next cut has him at the Embassy party staring into the crowd, spotting Jill chatting in a small group, heading toward her with grim purpose, a bull, a Zeus, the god who marched or galloped toward Europa to abduct her. He segregates her by grasping one of her arms and pulling her just outside the party environs, on some alcove or balcony, and Jill succumbs to his kisses but says she can’t possibly leave with him… that “All of Jakarta will know….” He stalks away and outside to his car, which won’t start, giving Jill time to change her mind and follow him. Now Zeus has Europa in his car, and he bears her off in a propulsive burst of his engine and of Maurice Jarre’s fabulous synethesizer score — a basso ostinato drumming underneath, like an insistent rapid heartbeat; brass or horn simulations in the middle register, and on top, an insanely driving exciting soprano melodic line. The denouement we all waited for is underway.
As they hurtle toward consummation, borne on the urgency of the score, with Jill all over Guy kissing him as he tries to handle his chariot, crashing through a military barrier marked by a leaping bonfire and armed soldiers who shoot to kill, madly laughing as they escape, operatic crescendos by Jill, baritone versions by Guy, now integrated with the pulsing orgasmic score, they are heading for Billy’s bungalow, vacated by him for just such an outcome. Then all is silence as you see Billy outside his place, his hand on Guy’s car, lingering a moment, savoring his triumph with a slight smile, knowing he has made love manifest in the besieged town of Jakarta. Love amidst crisis, the most believable kind of love in films, perhaps in life. I always fell in love when I needed saving. I know, by the way, who I am in these movie couples and it is not who I am supposed to be. I was plainly never Jill, or the “Brideshead” Julia, or let’s say Faye in “Chinatown” or Ingrid in “Casablanca” or whatshername who plays the Amish widow in “Witness,” another brilliant Weir film with a romance built on a crisis. A film featuring me has never been made. After seeing the two cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the most recent beautifully structured and shot film with a convincing romance played out against a calamitous background, I tried to imagine a couple of women equally credible in love and in unlikely roles. That’s as far as I got. What on earth would such “unlikely roles” be? But let’s face it; we need a “Brokeback” for women. This thought may seem altogether vain and offensively privileged in light of the worldwide assaults on women and girls, America hardly excluded — murder, sexual slavery, genital mutilations, domestic violence and much more, currently well documented with stunning statistics by the United Nations. In the Jakarta of “Dangerously,” 1965, women are not singled out or identified as a specially oppressed group; they never are where cinematic slumming occurs. But Billy’s death is specifically linked to the impoverished uneducated woman and her little boy whom he has been helping with food, money, and love. He tells us about her plight: “In another country, she might be a decent woman. Here, she begs and perhaps sells herself. Her tragedy is repeated a million times in this city.”
The death of the boy, who had become fatally ill, drives Billy to madness and suicide. “What then must we do?” he clamors over his typewriter, punching violently at the keys, detonating them, no longer able to find strength in immediacy, but compelled to think about the “major issues.” After leaving the dead boy and his grieving mother, he glares upward at a looming poster-portrait of Sukarno, once his hero, a leader of the people, now co-opted by the right in the military coup. Billy fashions a demonstration, hanging a banner outside a hotel window six or seven floors high, saying SUKARNO FEED YOUR PEOPLE, forcing him to hurl himself out the window to his death when two security guards of the new regime break into the room, aim their guns at him and start shooting. It was not just Sukarno, but Guy, by whom Billy felt undone. His handiwork matchmaking Guy and Jill looked destroyed after Guy betrayed Jill for his career, becoming just a guy you could say, no longer Billy’s creation: a man inspired by love.
Love and politics had intermingled suddenly when Jill at the British Embassy received a coded message from Singapore saying a shipment of arms is on its way from Shanghai for the PKI or Communist forces. If successfully in PKI hands, civil war would ensue, and all the Westerners in Jakarta would be slaughtered. Jill walks slowly, twisting uncertainly in a steady rain, accompanied by a somewhat muted version of Jarre’s electronic score, toward Guy’s office, evidently trying to make up her mind whether to tell him or not. But she will tell him — after they end up in bed, because she wants to save him (she says she can get him on a plane “tomorrow”). But Guy has other ideas. His eyes get big as pinwheels over the news, and he jumps at the fantastic scoop, ready instantly to risk their relationship by broadcasting the message, and to risk death by staying in Jakarta reporting a bloody civil war. Instead of course, the shipment never made it, or if it did, the military picked it up, and the fortunes of the British and other Westerners there changed. Now they didn’t have to leave but my impression is that most of them did — unwilling to witness the huge massacre of people that they divined or knew directly their governments were behind. It eliminated the mass-based political party of the poor and opened the doors wide to Western investors. Chomsky says the massacre “was greeted with unrestrained euphoria” in the West. Isn’t this how most Americans felt about our invasions and countless slayings of innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11?
The end of Billy in “Dangerously” effectively ends the movie. Both Guy and Jill are devastated by his fatal plunge to his death, and the film’s last scenes are vague codas making you wonder if Jill will take Guy back after his betrayal, and if Guy will help his case by giving up his designs to stay and report the horrors at hand, or escape Jakarta on the same plane as Jill, hoping she will have him. As Billy had said at some point, invoking Jesus or Tolstoy, who became a Christian anarchist, believing only things Jesus reportedly said, not what the Church made of him, “We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path.” In our movie-looking path, we sigh with relief seeing Guy walk across an expanse of airport tarmac, his left eye heavily bandaged after an encounter with the security police, no baggage on him except his passport, his khaki jumpsuit stained dark with sweat, reunited with Jill as she embraces him in the door of a Royal Netherlands airplane.
For us film-infatuated Westerners, Billy’s vision and legacy of romantic love remains intact.