Still Living Dangerously After All These Years

As autocratic leaders slowly take over the First World, popular representations of a Third World coup take on renewed significance.

There’s a moment of movie magic early in Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously, set in 1965 on the cusp of the failed coup attempt to oust the populist but fading Indonesian dictator “Bung” Sukarno. The main character, Guy Hamilton, a young Australian journalist, has just arrived in Jakarta for his first overseas posting. He steps off the plane and upon seeing the chaos in the airport, freezes. We get a close-up of the actor’s face which registers shock, surprise, fear, and bewilderment, the cigarette dangling from his lips an immobile wand.

In that instant, the face expresses the moment when a citizen of the First World encounters the Third. It’s a funny expression, both in the comedic sense as well as in the old sense of queer. I’ve shown this scene to folks here in Jakarta and it invariably evokes a chuckle from both expats and locals who recognize in it their different roles. For the local it’s a source of native pride, while for the expat it’s an all too familiar expression: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas — or Sydney — anymore.”

I say a moment of movie magic because this scene doesn’t occur in either the book from which this film is adapted, Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel of the same title, nor is it in the screenplay, which can be downloaded here. It can only occur in the medium of film. The expression on the actor’s face requires a close-up, the audience needs to see the context of the expression in the cutting of the scene, which switches from a first to third person point-of-view, for the emotive response to occur.

Of course, movies are supposed to be magic, based as they are on illusion. The greatest illusion here is that not a moment of The Year of Living Dangerously was shot in Indonesia. Political problems required a different location and it was decided that the Philippines was a close enough analog. While the tropical landscape is an obviously close match, and the location gave the filmmakers plenty of brown faces for use as extras in crowd shots, it’s the architecture that really creates a fine parallel. I’ve shown the film to people who have grown up in Jakarta and they are amazed to learn that what they saw was shot in Manila. More than one person thought they recognized individual buildings and it took some convincing that the filmmakers didn’t do any exterior shooting in Indonesia (some of the film was shot in Australia, as well).

The soundtrack is also a highlight. The film features a single track by Vangelis that rivals for emotional punch anything he did for other films, including 1982’s Blade Runner. However, the Vangelis track was not released on the official soundtrack album, which instead consisted entirely of an amazing simulacrum of Indonesian music, composed and largely performed by Maurice Jarré. Jarré uses pentatonic scales and traditional rhythmic structures played on authentic gongs and drums to emulate the essential elements of gamelan sound. Included is one track of true Indonesian music, a vocal performance in kroncong style. As an instance of audio exoticism and an essential component to establishing the atmosphere of the film, the music is superb.

The film also showcases the work of talented character actors including American Michael Murphy and Australian Noel Ferrier, but the standout of the cast is without doubt actress Linda Hunt. In another instance of movie magic, the Caucasian Hunt was trusted to play a half-Chinese, half-Australian man named Billy Kwan. It’s a testament to her talents (and the make-up department) that she’s so convincing; many first-time viewers are unaware of her true gender.

Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan

Kwan is the heart-and-soul of the both the book and the film. He creates the portal through which the non-Asian audience can enter Indonesian politics and folk culture and his inevitable tragic end marks the low point in the narrative. He’s the objective correlative to the emotional and atmospheric arc of the story, described in the novel as “Jakarta’s familiar spirit”, and if this character were poorly acted, the entire edifice of the film would come crashing down. Hunt’s stunning performance won an Academy Award and it’s richly deserved.

The film was recognized as a cut-above-average when it was released and garnered numerous award nominations, but that’s not to say that The Year of Living Dangerously doesn’t suffer from some typical Hollywood problems, not least the miscasting of celebrities, phony violence, and a white-washing of Third World people and events.

At the time the actor playing the main character was a little known Australian named Mel Gibson, and while it may be difficult, given what we know about him now, to objectively appraise his performance, we’ll try. So close your eyes and teleport yourself back in time, past his current incarnation as a drunken, hate-spewing racist and misogynist, further back through his period of big-screen self-aggrandizement (1990’s Hamlet; 1995’s Braveheart), to a time when Gibson was still an unknown talent, best known for his grunting lead roles in Australian productions (1979’s Mad Max and Peter Weir’s 1981 war epic Gallipoli).

Young, attractive, and fit, in The Year of Living Dangerously Gibson (no relation, though the family joke is to refer to him as “Cousin Mel the Nazi”) demonstrates the on-screen charm that made him a superstar but that abandoned him sometimes in the ’90s and never returned. Unfortunately, charm is the biggest instrument in his acting bag and he here employs the same emotional development he always uses: smoldering intensity building to shouting rage. It doesn’t quite carry him through the personal turmoil and political chaos that his character experiences in this story. He also tones down his native accent for the American audience (MGM produced and distributed the film) and at times sounds like a Yank poorly imitating an Aussie.

The problem with accents is all the worse with the casting of Sigourney Weaver as Jill Bryant, a secretary in the British Embassy, and Guy Hamilton’s love interest. There are one or two lines when Weaver attempts — and fails embarrassingly — an English accent, but mostly she speaks with a sort of mid-Atlantic hoity-toity enunciation that ends in an American twang. Hot off the success of 1979’s Alien, and with a need to appeal to the American audience, it’s understandable why the producers cast her and not, say, an English actress (Charlotte Rampling would have been perfect), but why not change the character, then? Make her American — the romance with the Aussie lead would be the same no matter her nationality — and spare us all the wincing when Weaver speaks.

Sigourney Weaver as Jill Bryant and Mel Gibson as Guy Hamilton

There are scenes that rankle because in them the movie magic gives way to Hollywood inanity. The worst offender: Guy and Jill are racing to get back before the nightly curfew falls (and they’re rushing to get to their first sex scene) when they see an Army roadblock. Instead of stopping, Guy speeds through, at which the soldiers begin firing their automatic weapons at the retreating car. The characters respond to this near-death experience by… laughing hysterically. Machine guns are great fun if you’re Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver in an action sequence paid for by MGM, because then you know you’re bullet-proof. In the real world, normal people would be scared witless at being shot at by trigger-happy boy-soldiers. The whole unbelievable scene could be cut from the film (it’s in the screenplay but not the novel) without damaging the story in the least.

Another poor moment is towards the end of the film (and novel), when Guy is hit in the head with the butt of a rifle. I’ve seen this stunt in plenty of movies and TV shows and invariably the character is knocked cold then wakes up with a cute bruise on their cheek. Nonsense. Such a brutal assault is equivalent to being whacked in the head with a metal crowbar and is potentially lethal (skull fracture, brain swelling). At the very least, the trauma will create lasting damage to the bones of the face. In the novel, Guy loses an eye. In the film, Mel Gibson wears some soiled bandages that he dramatically rips off to reveal… the chiseled features of Mel Gibson!

These scenes of phony Hollywood violence must be set beside the real violence that occurred in the aftermath of the failed 1965 coup, in which an estimated one million people were butchered. The sheer brutality of the mass killings continues to haunt not only Indonesia but the cultural consciousness of the world: Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent controversial films that focus on the lingering effects of that violence, 2012’s The Act of Killing and 2014’s The Look of Silence, are proof of that.

Ultimately, what we get in the film version of The Year of Living Dangerously is the story of two very attractive First World Caucasian people falling in love, with Third World political upheaval serving as a romantic backdrop. This is not, it should be stressed, an Indonesian story. The film does incorporate Indonesian folk culture into the narrative via the character of Billy Kwan, but that folk culture ends up serving as an exotic fetish for the predominately white audience.

The source for this appropriation of Indonesian folk culture is Koch’s novel, but the novel is capable of incorporating folk elements without turning them into fetishes. In the film, Indonesian culture is part of the exotic panorama. In the novel, it becomes part of the story.

The Novel

Koch had a hand in writing the screenplay. He apparently had a love-hate relationship with the film adaption, telling an interviewer for The Guardian newspaper in 2012, a year before he died, “I’ve written other books since that I think might be better. But people always come back to that one and it’s because it was a film. That’s how much film dominates our culture.” Fair point, but he did well financially from the adaptation. Most writers (myself included) would love to work with a talented director to adapt their novel into a feature film starring Hollywood’s youngest and hottest stars, so sympathy for Koch’s First World problem is in short supply.

The book follows a classic three-part dramatic structure of exposition, rising tension, climax and coda that would seem ready-made for a silver-screen adaptation, and for the most part the film is faithful to the book. Some characters are ejected in the interest of compression and this includes the narrator, a journalist named Cookie whose voice allows Koch to move seamlessly from first- to third-person point of view: in the film he’s replaced by the camera. In the novel, Jill becomes pregnant with Guy’s child and abortion is considered; in the movie, it’s just a steamy love affair without issue. In Hollywood romance, babies only come after the final credit sequence.

Certain passages from the book are imported into the screenplay, including one that remains true to this day:

Most of us, I suppose, become children again when we enter the slums of Asia. We re-discover there childhood’s opposite intensities: the gimcrack and the queer mixed with the grim; laughter and misery; carnal nakedness and threadbare nakedness; fear and toys.

Given that Koch himself spent only a brief time in Jakarta and the story is apparently based on his brother’s experiences as a journalist during the run-up to the 1965 coup, his descriptions of Jakarta are remarkably vivid, and many remain accurate even a half-century later. Following from the previous quote, the passage continues:

Young men in white shirts and sarongs walked by hand in hand. Doorless huts gave glimpses of public privacy, frozen in yellow frames: a table with a candle on it; a small, naked girl playing on a straw mat; a middle-aged woman in a sarong and incongruous brassiere, heating water in a discarded can over a little fire. The rooms were so small they were little more than boxes, and could not be stood up in: children’s playhouses. It was hard not to see the place as gay, and the poverty as a game.

This description is given a generalized treatment that also still holds true in parts of Jakarta:

Behind the outward face of Old Jakarta there is a second, secret city. It consists of warrens of earth-floored houses of cane and thatch, and of crazy shanties made from flattened oil-cans and cardboard, spreading like a bacterial growth along the canals. This is the hidden system of the kampongs, where it is possible for a man to walk all day out of sight of the official town.

There are also some pulpy moments that keep the book on an even keel by balancing the descriptions of grim squalor with a dash of chiaroscuro theatrics:

Swift evening spreads across Jakarta. The city lies inert in a hot brown twilight, which smells of petrol, frangipani, and fear. All energy burns low, like the failing street lights; but fear mounts like erotic excitement in these stormy nights of the north-west monsoon. Jakarta waits always for explosions.

Raymond Chandler eat your heart out!

There are also gorgeous descriptions, the sort that people who enjoy reading for the sake of reading can get excited about. Here is the femme fatale:

She had picked a frangipani flower, and twirled its white star in her fingers, holding herself with a military erectness that went oddly with her semi-nudity. Hamilton had gained the impression, perhaps from her thin neck and general compactness, that the severe green dress clothed a generally slight figure; but she proved to have low-set breasts of an almost matronly roundness, contrasting with narrow hips. Against the greenery, the unsunned flesh had the secret whiteness of a peeled fruit.

In additions to the sharp descriptions of slums, the noir treatments, and the purple prose, Koch brings in much Javanese folklore, only some of which will be considered here. He’s especially fond of the stories that are used in the well-known wayang kulit puppet performances. Koch explicitly links these stories, adopted from ancient Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to both the political events engulfing Indonesia as well as the personal stories of his non-Asian characters, what he specifically calls their “European game of romantic love.” Sukarno corresponds to the dalang, or puppet-master, Billy Kwan is Semar, the wise dwarf, while Guy and Jill are prince and princess. This much is portrayed in the film as well (where metaphor, made too literal by the flatness of photography, comes across as two-dimensional).

In the novel, the connections run deeper than assigning of characters from the wayang to those in Koch’s story. The author posits a universalism in folk culture:

The figures of this dream of Java’s childhood tantalized [Guy] with the notion that he ought to know them, ought to recall them, from some other life. And they woke in him now a long-buried memory of his own. […] He had followed Mickey Mouse and Tarzan and the Phantom from frame to frame (as he now followed the darting figures in the lit frame of the wayang) with mysterious pleasure, but without comprehension, whispering like runes the phrases they spoke.

This description of the encounter between West and East raises Koch’s use of Indonesian folk culture beyond an exotic fetish. It allows the Western reader a way inside of what is an otherwise mysterious yet vital expression of folk narrative by providing a context to his or her own cultural experience. It’s not meant to put Mickey Mouse and the ancient Pandava story on equal footing, but rather to draw attention to the shared way we all absorb the grand narratives that inform our cultures. The passage continues:

And it occurred to him now, Hamilton said, that the wayang frame was perhaps erected here for the same reason that he had propped his comic-book-screen on his chest: so that the people of the kampong could forget, for a whole night, the presences of hunger and pain and threat at the edges of their green world.

The frame, the screen, the conventions of storytelling: these are shared elements even if the value system of the stories is not shared. The kampong people may use folk culture as a means of escapism, but they also — and this Koch also explains — hold these wayang performances as part of traditional rites tied to agriculture and local animist deities, such as the Rice Goddess, Dewi Sri, who require worship at specific periods of the growth and harvest cycle. Dewi Sri is, Koch claims, the “paramount spirit of the countryside […] more important out here than Communist or Muslim.”

Mickey and Tarzan and their friends are products of a consumerist society that’s utterly divorced from the values associated with the fundamental agrarian processes that sustain it. Thus, when Guy Hamilton encounters Dewi Sri in her metaphorical form at the wayang performance, his mind is blown. He becomes lost in a “wish-fulfilling dark alive with little lights,” a place concocted from his own imagination and fears. It’s so intense (dare we call it spiritual?) he suspects that he may have been drugged. None of this encounter with Dewi Sri appears in the film and the adaptation is impoverished for it.

The sadness at reading these descriptions now, in the second decade of the 21st century, is that Mickey Mouse has become at least as familiar to young Javanese as the goddess Dewi Sri. Likely, in a generation or two, she will be totally forgotten and Mickey will be fighting for prominence in young Javanese hearts and minds only with fanatical Jihadists. By some accounts, this final contest has already begun and old Java is already forever lost. It exists now only in performances for foreign tourists and Jakarta’s jaded youth.

The End

The best historical account of the immediate aftermath of the coup by a man who truly lived dangerously is John Hughes’s 1967 book The End of Sukarno: A Coup That Misfired: A Purge That Ran Wild. Hughes was a journalist for The Christian Science Monitor and by a twist of fate, was allowed back into Jakarta immediately after the critical events of 1965. He was one of only a handful of Western journalists in Indonesia at the time and his Pulitzer Prize-winning dispatches make for chilling reading. This is what a Third World coup looks and feels like and there’s no romance to the life-or-death drama he experienced. Koch assuredly used Hughes’s book to research his novel.

The most lasting impact of Koch’s novel, and Weir’s adaptation, is the adoption of the phrase “the year of living…” into the shared global lexicon. The title phrase was used by Sukarno in his Independence Day speech of 1964, and is itself an Italian phrase, vivere pericoloso, but it was the book and film that gave the phrase its modern resonance. It’s now a meme, far divorced from either Italian, Indonesia, Sukarno, the 1965 killings, or the narrative from which it sprang.

A Google search reveals the following variants:

The Year of Living Thankfully

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Shirtlessly

The Year of Living Hopelessly

The Year of Living Danishly

The Year of Living Unpredictably

The Year of Living Englishly

The Year of Living with Clarity

The Year of Living Improbably

The Year of Living Hegemonically

The Year of Living Scandalously

The Year of Living Famously

The Year of Living Carlessly

The Year of Living Virtuously

The Year of Living Dissidently

The Year of Living Mindfully

In this nexus of perplexity, the only meaning is vacuity. Even Cousin Mel the Nazi can’t save us from that.