“Don’t know much…”: Witness

Assignment number two about the movie Witness. This time I had to draw parallels between another movie we had watched in class.  That’s really neither here nor there.

This paper focuses mainly on Peter Weir, the director, and his vision when making it.

This video is the super sexy scene where Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis dance to Sam Cooke. 

Peter Weir and Witness

Peter Weir considers Witness to be a Western, and its counterpart is the film Shane.  At the end of the film, many comparisons can be made between it and the film High Noon. He does not dwell on the genres too much, though, because most of his films cross into many different areas, including Witness.  Weir says this film contains a bit of sci-fi in it because there really are two worlds in two time frames going on at once.  One genre that appears in all of his films is suspense and mystery.  In Witness the entire Amish community is a mystery to John Book, as is the initial murder.  The film also brings in the romance genre with the relationship between Book and Rachel Lapp.  Weir credits Alfred Hitchcock with inspiring him to shoot the love scenes as he did.  Harrison Ford, on the other hand, said it was very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, and he picked the Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World” for the scene in the barn when they dance.  However, Weir relied so little on dialogue, there is only one line in the whole movie that addresses their relationship:   Book says, “If we had made love last night, I would have had to stay or you would have had to leave.”  In addressing the issue of emotion on film, Weir said, “It’s often said of male filmmakers that we don’t deal effectively with women.  I think what’s more to the point is that we don’t deal effectively with emotion, with feminine aspects of the personality….  In a stridently heterosexual, macho society, these are doubly dangerous things to deal with, because they can be easily misconstrued.”

While shooting the film, Weir often had music playing to accompany the scenes on location.  As a viewer having watched the film on silent, then with sound, the one with sound came alive and was much more emotional, not because I could hear the dialogue, but because I could hear the music.  He said, “Music is my fountainhead, the source of all my inspiration.”  This comes through very much with the type of music he chose for this movie, as well as with the lack of dialogue.

I found very interesting the fact that the title can be interpreted in more than one way.  Initially, Witness seems to be an obvious reference to the boy seeing the murder, but Book is also a witness to a new way of life, and the audience is a witness to all of this.  It is this introduction to a new culture that is represented in so many of Weir’s films.  A main theme throughout Weir’s filmography is the idea of a “clash of cultures.”  In the beginning the story is told through the eyes of the boy, especially when Samuel and Rachel Lapp are in the train station.  A lot of the camera shots are from his eye-level looking up, and the cuts are quick and frantic, which is how the setting seems to him.  During the murder scene, there really is no exit for Samuel, and he is stuck in a very hostile environment.  When John Book comes into the film, though, he takes over, and the shots reflect that.  Also, the audience becomes aware of his sense of alienation while in the Amish community.  The scenes in the country are very ethereal, and Weir said he was highly influence by Flemish paintings.  He said, “I find I gather a folio of prints and photographs before each picture, and the walls are covered with them prior to going off to shoot. There can be all sorts of odd things.”  During the filming, he and his camera crew went to an art exhibition to see the Dutch masters, which was the inspiration for a lot of the scenes.

When casting the film, Weir made a lot of decisions based on things other than the person’s acting ability.  The role of Rachel Lapp went to Kelly McGillis because she had an innocent look.  Rachel’s Amish love interest, Daniel, had been a ballerina, but he had the charm Weir was looking for.  The part of the older Amish man, Eli Lapp, went to an Opera singer from Ontario who had the worn face Weir wanted.  Also, this was Viggo Mortensen’s first film.  He played Moses, and he was hired because he had the look of a young Amish man.

It has been pointed out that his films often have some sort of spiritual parallels.  In Witness, Book has to immerse himself in the Amish way of life to realize his life in Philadelphia is somewhat meaningless.  Weir says, however, it is never intentional, “I detest dogma,” but, “I do think that you begin to see something of yourself in your work and it can make you uncomfortable and self-conscious.”

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