Friday, April 7, 2017
Peter Weir | The Plumber
plumbing into different worlds
by Douglas Messerli
Peter Weir (writer and director) The Plumber / 1979, USA 1981
Not a lot happens of serious consequence in Peter Weir’s 1979 film, The Plumber, except that the small bathroom inside the bedroom of the Cowper’s apartment is utterly destroyed by the building plumber. He not only destroys their previously well-working bathroom, but quickly warns the graduate-student anthropologist, Jill Cowper (Judy Morris) of far greater dangers, including a great rush of fetid waters waiting to cascade into their safe haven just over their heads.
Although Jill and her scientific research husband, Brian (Robert Coleby) seem, at first, perfectly attune as an academic-oriented pair, it quickly becomes apparent—particularly when the presumptuous and socially-self-conscious plumber, Max (Ivar Kants)—that something ominous and possibly even evil has just entered their lives. Certainly, Jill perceives it, as the intruder not only demands entry into their house, but casually and sometimes not so casually begins to intrude upon her territory. While her husband is off to his lab in an attempt to woo a trio of WHO (World Health Organization) officials who may, if he can convince them, offer him a job for several years in Geneva, Jill is left at home—trying to finish her Master’s Thesis—to deal with the sleazy, lying and, yet, somewhat charming Max, a figure who, clearly, is not only terribly conscious of class differences, but is resentful for the way he, a self-proclaimed would be rock-star, has been treated throughout his life. We later hear one of his songs, a imitative version of music by Bob Dylan and others of his ilk.
It’s utterly preposterous how truly dense were reviewers such as Janet Maslin of The New York Times when this film first appeared in New York, who simply did not perceive how effectively Weir had set up the entire series of Max’s feelings of cultural abuse. Maslin argues that his major argument is that figures such as Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger refused to sell out, creating “real” political statements in their music. I might suggest she should see the movie again, and deal with the real hurt expressed that Max feels for even his positions of entry, often devoted to signs that suggest the “trade” should enter here, and the thousands of social dismissals—with which Jill equally assaults him—given his inability to speak proper English, as if Australian English or even American English might be recognized as “proper” in what he calls her “posh” world.
Strangely, Weir presents her “world” as anything but posh. Yes, she and her husband are surrounded by New Guinea totems and artifacts, witness to their years of studying the native cultures. In fact, her husband, in response to a sense of guilt for her own terrorization of the intruder—who her husband is too busy to even encounter—is presented a gift of an expensive watch. But generally, this couple seems to be living at the low end of what Max might describe as “posh.” Their lives are just a few levels above the graduate students they have long been. Their treasures are artifacts of love of their past experiences, not monetary trophies.
Yet, their lives are filled with a sense of apartness and superiority. Despite little evidence that the New Guinea tribes have continued in their cannibalistic custom of eating the bodies of their own dead relatives, Brian is convinced that the tradition continues, and accounts for the tribes’ current physical debilitations by the fact that the tradition continues, attempting to convince the WHO committee who visit him of his research, despite everyone else’s convictions.
Jill, in her early encounters with the New Guinea tribes, has her own story to tell. One night, as she sat in her tent alone, a native entered, and proceeded for many hours to scream and shout, forcing her to remain silent, attentive, and passive. When the dawn appeared, she carefully took a bowl of goat milk beside her, raised it over her head, and threw it into the face of her aggressor, who broke down into a nearly endless crying fit.
Max has clearly chosen the wrong woman to aggress against, despite Jill’s own terrorized sense of reality throughout the film. Despite Max’s absurd attempt to destroy her and her husband’s lives by taking over even their basic bathroom privileges, he is no match for the society that dominates his.
At a party that Brian insists his wife host for his WHO “friends,” Jill serves her “too hot” chutney. When one of the guests determines he must use the unavailable bathroom, he is trapped between the temporary constructions holding up the “supposed” reconstruction of the plumbing, and must be saved from death by the others at the party. Brian responds like the perfect host, serving up dose and after dose of good cognac, ultimately making him the hero of the evening, resulting, the next day, by him being awarded his Geneva position.
But Jill is still resolute in her attempt to destroy their would-be intruder. The police arrive—obviously after she has called them—and, after searching his truck, discover several of her possessions, including a scarf and her beloved watch (which previously she has kept out of his way, but finally has laid out for his temptation). Like the New Guinea native who entered her tent, presumably to tell his own sad story, she has transformed the intruder into a crying child, as Max screams out his protests that she is a “bitch.”
The Cowpers can now move comfortably on to their Swiss retreat, where they will presumably do further research into cultures of which they do not completely comprehend.
Los Angeles, March 7, 2017