By Jed Mayer | Press Play May 22, 2014 at 2:11PM
Australian cinema came into its own during the 1970s. The same might be said of Hollywood during the same period, as directors like Terrence Malick, John Boorman, and Peter Bogdanovich eschewed constructed sets and artificial lighting to tell stories in which settings were as important as characters. The obvious difference lies in the nature of Australian nature, itself: the vast desert spaces of the Outback, the dense vegetation of the bush, and the shark-infested beaches, foster forms of life that seem alien to outsiders, and many of Australian film’s best stories revolve around forbidding encounters with a nature that seems unnatural. As the country’s great film decade came to a close, a low-budget horror film would appear as a kind of compendium of the era’s visual tropes. It is also a dark meditation on the era itself, one that still has surprising resonance.
At the time, Long Weekend was promoted with an irresistible tag-line: “Their crime was against nature: nature found them guilty.” Directed by Colin Eggleston, the film was released on March 29, 1979, the day after the infamous nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. Just a few months later, on June 3, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico began spilling 30,000 gallons of crude oil a day, a toxic event that was later to be echoed in the unforgettable summer of 2010. Long Weekend’s theme could hardly have been more timely. A dysfunctional couple (Peter and Marcia) decide to get away from it all on a camping weekend: along the way they hit a kangaroo with their car, start a fire with a carelessly thrown cigarette, dowse their campsite with insecticides, and kill sundry birds and aquatic animals while barely restraining themselves from killing each other. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikable pair of characters, and when nature begins to strike back, we are firmly on the side of the nonhuman.
Thematically, the film has much in common with another environmental horror film from the same year, John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy. Waste chemicals dumped from a local paper mill pollute backwoods waters in Maine, causing birth defects and mutations in the local Native American population, and bringing into being a monstrous mutant bear. Lost Weekend takes a less heavy-handed approach to the same environmental theme: indeed, it would be hard not to. What's surprising here is the way it manages to merge social and psychological issues with environmental ones.
Nature’s threat seems to come as much from the human characters as from the bush that surrounds them. The sound design blurs distinctions between noises in the characters’ minds and howls and whines from the environmnt. Since they often refuse to speak to one another, it’s not clear who hears what, as high pitch buzzing gives way to humanoid cries in the film’s disturbing soundscape. Driving into the bush, they enter a space that is as much mental as physical: driving by night, their headlamps light an eerie tunnel through the forest that seems to go on and on; they pass what they believe to be an identical tree several times, despite staying on the same track; at their camp a speargun mysteriously fires on its own, nearly killing Marcia; later a bird drops a woman’s shoe into Peter’s lap.
Yes, there are plenty of scenes where animals attack, but as in Hitchcock's The Birds, what is most compelling about Long Weekend is the lack of any explanation of the cause behind nature’s transformation. Earlier in the film, Marcia overhears a story on the radio about cockatoos attacking people’s homes, baffling wildlife experts. Near the end of the film a bird flies into a livestock truck, blinding the driver. In between these incidents, nature’s threat seems to be directed entirely on the unhappy campers, and while the tag-line seems to draw a direct connection between the characters' disrespect for nature and its revenge, the particular forms taken by that revenge make this less clear.
As we learn more about the couple’s past, the incidents that befall them in the wild seem eerily to mimic the incidents that led to their mutual loathing. Watching Peter swimming in the ocean, Marcia suddenly sees a large, dark shape in the water, and screams out a warning. Peter eventually makes it to shore, unharmed but shaken. Though they suspect it is a shark, neither can identify exactly what they saw. As they return to their camp, Marcia makes a mysterious segue: “What would you have done if I’d have died? Would you sell the house? Would you have remarried?” Later, she asks Peter: “What do you think that noise was last night? Sounded like a baby crying.” Peter doesn’t reply: either he didn’t hear or he doesn’t care about his wife’s concerns. Eventually we discover that Marcia has had an abortion, terminating a pregnancy by another man. As the sordid story is pieced together, it seems that Peter actually pushed the two of them together, so as to leave the man’s wife free for himself.
The story becomes a fitting epitaph for the 1970s, when fantasies of free love and a return to nature turned violent and deadly. In what other era could wife-swapping, abortion, and environmental devastation be so mysteriously, but inevitably, connected? Human nature takes its revenge in the film as much as does that Nature-with-a-capital-n we like to think exists out there, pristinely apart from us. As the couple have it out, Peter arrogantly claims, “You’re so clear to me, it’s all so clear to me now,” and Marcia replies, “Don’t get philosophical with me: you poke your head out of your $2,000 camper and you think that’s reality.” Attempting to escape the confines of monogamy, they hav experimented with extramarital sex, and it's torn their marriage apart. Hoping to heal the marriage, they flee to a nature that is anything but nurturing. There are few films that so cannily invoke the uncanny in exposing the dark side of our so-called natural desires.
Frightened again by the dark shape in the water, Peter fires his gun relentlessly into the surf, as a bloody tide washes in. Eventually the shape washes up on the beach, and turns out to be a dugong, a manatee-like creature that was once populous on Australia’s shores before being hunted nearly to extinction, “for its oil,” as Peter says with regret. Both comment on how ugly the seemingly shapeless creature is, even as Peter notices that it’s a female, and speculates that the sound they’ve been hearing is its pup: “they sound just like a human baby when they cry.” In a fitting irony, they are most disgusted by nature even as they realize how human it is.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.