Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on May 18, 2014
I can’t let a month featuring a Friday Night Spotlight on Australian Cinema go by without putting in a plug for a small gem coming up later this week; Peter Weir’s The Plumber (1979). Shot on 16mm and made for TV, this quickie project shot in under three weeks was a middle step-child between Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) and Gallipoli (1981), and as such is often overlooked. Interestingly, water plays an important and ominous role in all three films.
If it were up to me, I’d double up The Plumber with The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) as both are gritty, aggressive, and loaded with strong B-pic energy. It’s easy to see why latter pic would catch Roger Corman’s eye and inspire some of the designs for Death Race 2000 (1975). Given how many of Weir’s arthouse titles are ambitious, haunting, enigmatic, and epic, it’s refreshing to see his early and smaller budget efforts cast a spell via stories that are stripped down and raw.
Weir’s early work dons a leather coat and has dirt under the fingernails. It also shows a keen sense for how to inflict subtle psychological discomforts without resorting to blunt trauma. The Plumber is a home invasion story that eschews the stark nihilism and violence of a film like Straw Dogs (1971), while still addressing similar issues of class. Both show academic intellectuals being harangued by the working class, but to very different effect.
Weir came up with the treatment for The Plumber (which was inspired by a true story from a friend) during a creative six-month period in London while he was visiting the Elstree and Pinewood Studios as part of a study grant. During that same time he wrote the outline for The Cars That Ate Paris, the treatment for The Last Wave, and even managed to literally bump into Hitchcock who was there shooting Frenzy (1972).
Having scored critical success with both Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave, Weir was able to secure funds from the South Australian Film Corporation and Australian television’s Channel Nine to make The Plumber. Judy Morris and Robert Coleby were cast as the academic husband and wife team (Jill and Brian Cowper) who live in a university housing unit. Ivor Kants plays Max, a plumber and aspiring folk singer harboring rather bitter feelings for the bourgeousie. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game that plays with feminist anxiety and class tension as Judy and Max clash and a seemingly simple plumbing project takes on a nightmarish quality of Kafkaesque proportions and surreal passive aggressive behavior.
I’m not sure why TCM programmed The Plumber to screen later this week after Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) instead of alongside the previously packaged “Early Peter Weir” selections but, either way it’s worth a circle on the calendar (Friday, May 23rd). Unlike many of Weir’s better-known titles that might predictably get a grand release (like, say, Picnic at Hanging Rock, which gets the Criterion treatment with a June 17th release), The Plumber usually gets relegated to the realm of shoddy transfers, low-rez links, or used VHS tapes. Catch it while you can and know that, even if it ends up not being your cup of tea, it’s barely over an hour long (it clocks in at 76 minutes) – although by its end you might feel like The Plumber has been around a lot longer than that.
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