kythera family kythera family


Academic Research > History > The Cinematic Mystical Gaze: The Films of Peter Weir. By, Richard James Leonard.

Academic Research > History

submitted by Kytherian Cinema Review on 13.08.2006

The Cinematic Mystical Gaze: The Films of Peter Weir. By, Richard James Leonard.

Submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements
of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

August 2003

Cinema Studies Program
School of Fine Arts, Classical Studies and Archaeology
The University of Melbourne.

View/Download a copy of the Ph.D here:

Mysticism in the films of Peter Weir.pdf


Peter Weir is one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful directors. Ever since Weir’s feature film debut with The Cars that Ate Paris in 1974, his work has been explored for unifying themes. Scholars have analysed his films from many perspectives: the establishment of identification and identity especially through binary oppositions in the diegesis; [1] the creation of an oneiric atmosphere as a way of exploiting the spectator’s dream experience; [2] a clash of value systems; [3] the ambiguous nature of narrative structure and character motivations leading to the creation of a sense of wonder; [4] the experience of the protagonist placed in a foreign culture wherein conflict arises from social clashes and personal misunderstandings; [5] and at the particular ways his films adapt generic codes in service of a discernible ideological agenda. [6] To the best of my knowledge there has been no study of the mystical element of Weir’s work in relation to the construction of a cinematic mystical gaze or act of spectatorship.

Within a culture defined by its secularity and a national cinema marked by quirky comedies and social realism, almost all of Weir’s films have been described as mystical, arcane or interested in metaphysics. Such an observation could warrant no further investigation if it is held that this critical commentary is but hyperbole in its attempt to grasp what constitutes a Peter Weir film. If, however, language constructs meaning, then the recurrence of references to Weir’s mysticism needs to be taken seriously to see what effect this might have exerted on the nature and structure of the Weir text. I will argue that the major consequence of Weir’s fascination with the mystical has been the construction of a mystical mode of spectatorship. Furthermore, because other directors and films have been described in similar ways this study opens up a discussion about whether these observations about the mystical qualities in the viewing experience hold importance for other filmmakers, and theories of the gaze in the cinema.

[1] Blonski A, Propositions on the Films of Peter Weir and his Place in Contemporary Australian Cinema, Unpublished minor thesis, Master of Arts (Preliminary), Melbourne, Australia: Monash University, February 1983, pp. 75-77.

[2] Haltof J M, Film and Dream: the Films of Peter Weir, Major thesis, Master of Arts, Adelaide, Australia: Flinders University, 1988, pp. 122ff.

[3] McMullen W, A Rhetorical Analysis of Peter Weir’s Witness, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 1989, pp. 3ff.

[4] Corum E, Tantalizing Ambiguity: the Cinema of Peter Weir, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Kansas City, Missouri: University of Kansas, 1990, p. 170.

[5] Haltof J M, Film and Dream: the Films of Peter Weir, 1988, pp. 4ff.

[6] Rayner J, The Films of Peter Weir, London: Cassell, 1998, pp. 2-18.

Current (2006) status of Richard James Leonard

Rev Dr Richard Leonard
Director, Australian Catholic Film Office
Director, Catholic Church Television Australia

mob: 0409 120 928

Newman College
University of Melbourne

887 Swanston St
Parkville, Melbourne,
VIC 3052
Tel: +61 3 9342 1834
Fax: +61 3 9349 2592

Why make a Ph.D of this type available on a Kytherian web-site?

The mask of God

The connection is the work of another great Australian Film Producer, Director, and writer, Kytherian, George Miller.

George Miller's Biography

It is clear that Miller's psychological orientation is also mystical. He owes allegiance to both Carl Jung and George Campbell.

This is George Miller speaking to the audience during the Sydney Institute's Larry Adler Lecture for 1996, held at The Regent Hotel, Sydney, on Wednesday 11 September, 1996.

Full text of the 1996 speech

"My first movie, Mad Max, was purely and simply a piece of visual rock and roll. What I didn't know at the time was that there were larger impulses at work.

As the Mad Max films made their way around the planet, they seemed to resonate somehow, culture to culture. To the French, these were post-modern, post-apocalyptic westerns and Max was a gunslinger. In Japan he was an outlaw Samuari. In Scandinavia, a lone viking warrior. The movies had tapped into the universal hero myth and I was given a taste of what Carl Jung was on about when he described the collective unconscious.

Here it was, first hand. And I, despite my creative vanities, was its unwitting servant. I was reminded that films, like all storytelling, have deeper dimensions. And I learned to look beyond the obvious, to feel out subtext where one is likely to find some elemental truths. Films are like dreams. When we congregate with strangers in the darkness of the cinema, it's a kind of public dreaming, where we process, mostly unconsciously, the more insistent concerns of our lives.
Jung might have described the terrain, but Joseph Campbell is the consumate guide. Until Campbell, I often wondered why I was mucking about in the film industry, indeed why any of us have this urge to communicate through narrative.

I learned from his dazzling scholarship, for instance, that the same stories arise spontaneously across time and space and are used as a way of connecting ourselves to all that had gone before and all that will come after."

Joseph Campbell is one of the 20th centuries consumate investigators and explicators of the "mystical".

"Myths are the 'masks of God'," Campbell wrote, "through which men everywhere have sought to relate themselves to the wonders of existence."

See the Joseph Campbell Foundation website at:


for another 40+ Campbell web-links.

Leonard's Mystical Gaze.

In Chapter 2: The Mystical Gaze, pp. 73-123, Leonard conducts a review of the literature on mysticism, including negative, dismissive and "pathological" commentaries.

His working definition of mysticism and the mystical gaze becomes:

"Mysticism has come to mean an action, separate from the activity of daily routine where an individual or a group experiences an apprehension, illumination or union which the members perceive to be something greater than themselves. [349] The process and content of the experience can be mysterious for the participant, as repulsive as it can be alluring, but retains a compelling attraction. [350] It has the power to be personally or socially transformative. [351] Religious collectives, doctrinal beliefs, ethical systems or a particular culture, while related to long-standing definitions of a mystical phenomenon in other disciplines, do not define mysticism. It is my argument that the apparatus of the cinema, the act of spectatorship and the content of films are coded to enable the spectator’s experience to what I have termed the mystical gaze."

[349] Mysticism is found in every major religious group where there is a tradition of apprehending a presence greater than that of the adherents through union or illumination. Krishna, Divine Mother, Heavenly Father, Lover, Allah, Wakan, the wholly other, Buddha, the Lord, Amida’s widow, the Dreamtime Spirits or Satan: there is already a long history and a wealth of literature about the process of entering into a greater presence. For an overview of the vast literature in this area see: M Eliade, The Sacred and Profane, New York: Harper, 1961; N Smart, The Phenomenon of Religion; N Smart, Worldviews: Cross Cultural Explorations of Human Beliefs; J Allen, C Lloyd, J Streng, Ways of Being Religious, Englewoods Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973; H Smith, Forgotten Truth: the Primordial Religion, New York: Harper and Row, 1976; W King, Introduction to Religion, New York: Harper & Row, 1968; N Soederbolm, The Living God: Basic Forms of Personal Religion, Boston: Beacon Press, 1962;

[350] Based on Rudolph Otto’s famous definition of religious experience, “the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans”, see The Idea of the Holy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958, first published in 1923.

[351] While collectives have different ways of apprehension of the presence they seek, all of them share a personal and social expression. This is not confined to religious collectives. Scholars have observed how civic devotion, patriotism and nationalism as forms of a secular, civil religion operate within a similar dynamic. See P Hammond, “Religious pluralism and Durkheim’s integration thesis”, Changing Perspectives in the Scientific Study of Religion, A Eister (ed.), New York: Wiley 1974; P Hammond, “The sociology of American civil religion: A bibliographical essay”, Sociological Analysis, 37, 2, 1976, pp. 169-182; R Bellah, “Civil religion in America”, Daedalus, 96, 1967, pp. 1-21; L Pope, Millhands and Preachers, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1942; E Hermassi, “Politics and culture in the Middle East”, Social Compass, 25, 3-4, 1978, pp. 445-464; N.Ayubi, “The politics of militant Islamic movements in the Middle East”, Journal of International Affairs, 36, 1983, pp. 271-283; I Lustick, The Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1988.

Leonard then goes on to provide a very good explanatory infrastructure for the nature of mystical experience.

This same infrastucture could also be used as an instrument to examine the works of filmaker George Miller.

Leonard has never examined Millers works in print.

However when asked "Do you think he too has a "mystical gaze"?, Leonard replied, "Yes, and I would love to find the time to write up something on his work, proving the same.

Films like the Mad Max Trilogy Lorenzo's Oil and Babe would lend themselves to such an analysis."

Leave a comment