"What we see, and what we seem, are but a dream, a dream within a dream." Michael Bliss views Miranda's voice-over at the beginning of Picnic at Hanging Rock as so pivotal in explaining the films of Peter Weir that he borrows her words to create the title of his own study of the Australian filmmaker's work.
Bliss views Weir as an artist whose values are rooted in the realm of the dream, of the unconscious. Surrealistic in technique, Weir avoids the pedestrian assurances of a material realm in favor of an irresolution that, while potentially frustrating, is nonetheless for him a more truthful representation of what he considers reality. For Weir, as for Plato, Bliss demonstrates, "empirical reality is nothing more than a shadow of what is real."
Bliss also considers Weir's heritage. Australian cinema, Bliss explains, is characterized by melodramatic narratives born of a desire to see good and evil portrayed in striking opposition. Weir, for example, dramatizes the contradictory forces of light versus darkness, reason versus mystery, and rationality versus magic in such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. This melodramatic emphasis is evident as well in the polarized characterizations in such films as Witness, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show.
Bliss also discusses Weir's use of another staple of Australian cinema— "mateship," the celebration of the bond between male companions. But by making self-knowledge dependent on action involving one's friends, Weir gives mateship a new meaning. Moreover, like other Australian filmmakers, Weir emphasizes the starkness of the Australian landscape, which functions either as a hazard or a deadly challenge, at least until American mythology caused him to see nature in a more positive light. Also prominent in Weir's films is an Australian spirit of rebellion coupled with the Aussie ambivalence toward all aspects of British culture.
To help explain Weir's films, Bliss looks to Freud and Jung, whom Weir has studied, and also to two other prominent purveyors of myth and archetype, Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell. Virtually all Weir characters struggle toward a new mode of awareness, a psychological awareness based on archetypal truths. Many of his films involve archetypal journeys heading through conflict to spiritual unity. Weir's quest is to find out what we really know and how we know what we know.