Thursday, July 28, 2016

Picnic at Hanging Rock

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK                               A               
Australia (115 mi)  1975  d:  Peter Weir

All that we see or seem
Is but a world within a dream 
—“A Dream Within a Dream,” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1849

What we see and what we seem
are but a dream, a dream within a dream 
—Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) from Picnic at Hanging Rock

One of the most exquisitely gorgeous ghost stories ever conceived, one that elevates the mystery to the foreground over any explanatory narrative, something along the lines of ELVIRA MADIGAN (1967) or perhaps even BADLANDS (1973), beautifully integrating painter-like compositions which appear like a series of historic still photographs with the eerie use of sound, including perfectly chosen pieces of classical music, especially the repeated theme from the introduction to the 2nd Adagio movement from Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto, Rubinstein plays Beethoven "Emperor" Piano Concerto No ... - YouTube (8:24).  Weir has crafted a magnificently sensuous and stunningly visualized film balancing the beauty of young innocent girls against the beauty of nature, which seems to be so beguiling on the outside, green and yellow flora, pastel colored flowers contrasted against the repression of the Victorian era and the unseen, inexplicable and savage side of nature where terror lurks underneath the surface, and where the two seem worlds apart.  Based on the 1967 historical novel by Joan Lindsey, this is a fictionalized mood piece of a dreamy and threatening world, a hypnotic recreation to a real event that took place on a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900 when three schoolgirls and one teacher disappeared during a field trip to Hanging Rock, a six million year old geological rock formation in Australia. 

The story is set at Appleyard College, an Educational Establishment for Young Ladies, which is introduced to the music of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” Johann Sebastian Bach - Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major, BWV 846 YouTube (4:17), as we see the young girls washing their faces with flowers in the wash bowls, or lining up to help one another strap up their corsets, or pressing flowers, where we discover one student, Sara (Margaret Nelson), has developed a school girl crush on another, the luminous Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert).  But Sara is left behind as the others gather in their white dresses, high collars, yellow hats with ribbons, gloves, and stockings, where because of the heat they are allowed to remove their gloves once they pass beyond a nearby town.  Upon arrival to a forested area that surrounds the rock, we are treated to sublime images of young women in hats laying about in a yellow green field, all smiles among the flowers, most shaded by their umbrellas, many with bows in their hair, like a colorful impressionist painting.  But underneath the beauty, ants are scurrying to munch on their uneaten food while inexplicably people’s watches stop at noon.  Four girls decide to go for a walk, under careful instruction not to wander far as there are poisonous snakes in the vicinity, perhaps an Eden-like metaphoric reference to man, led by Miranda, who one of the teachers scanning an art book perfectly describes as a Botticelli angel.  

Under the unseen gaze of two young men hidden by the foliage, the girls jump across a brook to the music of Zamfir’s pan flute, Picnic At Hanging Rock - Gheorghe Zamfir, Doina Lui Petru Unc ... YouTube (5:19), passing through forest ferns and flowers until they reach the bottom of the giant rocks where they rest for awhile.  Despite the grumblings of one of the girls, Edith (Christine Schuler), an overweight complainer (“I think I must be doomed.  I don't feel at all well,”), they continue to climb higher until the people below appear as mere specks on the earth, causing one girl Marion (Jane Vallis) to conclude “A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves,” while Miranda ponders “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”  After napping in the sun, Miranda, in a moment of liberation, removes her stockings and shoes and goes on ahead barefoot without a word, followed by two others, leaving Edith in a terrible fright as she screams all the way back down the mountain.  We hear upon her return that one of the teachers ran up the rocks in search of the missing girls, but none were heard from again, despite a search with bloodhounds by the townspeople and police the next morning.  What follows is an official inquiry where the police attempt to piece together how these girls could simply disappear.  Edith is examined by a doctor who finds scratches on her lower extremities, but otherwise “is quite intact.”  All she can remember is the presence of a red cloud hovering overhead and an amusing image of her teacher running up the rock wearing only her pantaloons, having removed her skirt. 

But the police search proves fruitless, discovering nothing, reaching an impasse, perfectly illustrated by the inertia of the upper class, shown in an afternoon reverie dressed in tuxedos and top hats strolling arm in arm with their elegant women carrying umbrellas next to a placid lake as a string quartet plays the music of Mozart, Herbert von Karajan - Mozart : Eine kleine Nachtmusik - 2nd Mvt (1949 ... YouTube (5:46).  One of the young men who observed them crossing the brook is haunted by recurring images of a Miranda staring at him from a beautiful impressionist landscape of an Australian flora filled with flowers, or a serene fantasia of a lone swan in the water.  He decides he must search for them, alone if necessary, as “someone has to.”  So he and his friend set out on horseback, where we see images of a spider spinning a web, tropical birds, a koala bear, a chorus of voices, odd squeals, and slowed down sounds of animals in nature, which grow louder and more menacing, until the boy seems lost, paralyzed with fright, eventually needing his own rescue hovering under some rocks, shivering with fright, and clenching his fist, carrying a small fragment of torn lace.  The other boy returns, following a path of white paper left behind as a marker for the other to follow, and under swirling birds and wild animal sounds, he discovers one of the girls Irma (Karen Robson) alone in a small cave and brings her back alive, where she is placed under a white canopy in a recovery room suffering from shock and exposure with bruises on her hands and fingernails, but no bones broken and still “intact.”  But she can’t remember anything at all.  Her recollection is a total blank.  After news of this incident becomes widely known, parents start pulling their girls out of the school, which soon reaches a financial crisis leaving its own future uncertain.  The ghoulish ending only further emphasizes the devastation of the unfathomable event and the impact it continues to have on individuals as well as the community, where today as many as 100,000 people every year come to visit Hanging Rock, which consists of a particularly thick volcanic rock called solvsbergite, found only in Norway and Sweden, and where every Valentine’s Day there is an open-air screening of the film.  

The opening moments of the film disappear in a flash and later become the clues, where the police, the community, and all other instruments of authority attempt to find answers for the missing girls.  Like the police, the film continues to ask questions and attempts to fathom the mystery through flashes of memory, like what was said, what was seen, were the women abused in any way, and why were they allowed to just wander off by themselves?  Doesn’t that invoke our biggest fears, that we have to protect our children incessantly, never letting them go, never allowing them any sense of individual freedom, for once they acquire a taste for it, something horrible may happen.  This finishing school whisks these girls away from harm into a completely closed off world where they are isolated and alone in a remote location, supposedly all for their own protection, where they’re allowed zero contact with the opposite sex, or even with the local townspeople.  In this idealized environment, they are dressed to represent a perfect ideal of beauty and womanhood, where as they pass the local villagers on a horse driven cart, they may as well be mysterious creatures from another planet, as no one ever sees anything all dressed up like that except perhaps porcelain dolls.  In this perfect world, in this repressed, upper crest society, one never expects any harm to come to any of them.  But these girls know nothing of the real world, as they’ve spent their entire lives removed from it, inundated instead by poetry and romance novels as well as music, dance, and art, proper etiquette, posture, and dress, and all the customary insinuations of beauty and femininity.  The opposite sex is later expected to challenge their minds with an allure of danger and unseen possibilities, but the school is obligated first and foremost to protect them until they are ready to marry a lord or a baron who will support them the rest of their lives in the manner in which they’ve become accustomed.  This is the fairy tale.  The reality, however, is quite different, as these girls are not on a leash, and they have their own curiosities and inner desires.  What actually happens to them, in the real world, may not fit the fairy tale, as all manner of beastial behavior and depravity exists alongside what one hopes is the discovery of love.  Perhaps the clue to the disappearance is simply viewing it as innocence left behind, lost, gone forever. 

The beauty of this film is the layer of mystery that all but engulfs what we know about what happens, as soon the entire opening scenes are fleeting memories, replaced by new realities that include panic, fear of the unknown, and the trauma of forgetfulness.  Several characters experience such severe trauma that their customary intelligence and responsibility all but deserts them, leaving them painfully hurt, isolated and all alone, disappointed that they couldn’t be helpful or do more and live up to their idea of themselves.  But people rarely are who they’d like to be.  People’s high ideals suddenly become replaced with shame and disgrace, where their education and training amount to squat when it comes right down to it.  Some of the best trained professionals cower in fear at the first sign of real danger.  This breakdown occurs within the school’s ranks but also the local village, where both at first are waiting for an explanation, an answer to what happened, allowing the authorities to solve the perceived crime, and when no answer comes, signs of desperation set in.  Individual human beings break down differently, some depending on their level of responsibility, but this film does an excellent job unraveling the layers of defense and self-protection, until eventually there is no one to blame but themselves.  This is the ultimate nightmare, sometimes compounding horrors on top of other horrors in a chain reaction.  The beguiling nature of this film is the allure of mystery, all wrapped up in social class, education, beauty, idealization, art, and the unknown where all the built-in societal foundations can disappear instantly, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, that leave us questioning ourselves with an entirely new view of the world, turned suddenly sour or into an obscure abstraction of what it once was.  Things don’t always make sense, yet they happen.  The mysteries of nature, both inner and outer, are seen as massive when seen in this light, where the sum total of what we don’t know overwhelms that tiny sliver of knowledge that we seem capable of comprehending.   

The hypnotic beauty of the film composition, like turning the pages in an art book, or seeing the innocence of young girls on the verge of womanhood, or the lusciously sensual musical score, which includes one of Beethoven’s most sublime works, all add to the surface appreciation of the film, which may be the most beautiful film to ever come out of Australia.  But what’s really special are all of the unanswered questions that circle around in our minds for days afterwords, like the clues left at the beginning of the film.  Why did Miranda suggest to Sara that she needed to look elsewhere for love, as she would be leaving soon?  Why did time stop?  Why did she continue her ascent, when all prevailing reason suggested otherwise?  Was her disappearance actually premeditated?  Did their last words have any special meaning?  Why did no adult accompany the girls?  What was so mesmerizing about the rock that several intelligent and reasonably sane individuals either disappeared altogether or became suddenly traumatized with fear?  Is fate overemphasized?  Why couldn’t they be found?  What does the film have to say about the repressive Victorian era which all but straightjacketed women into *proper* social behavior?  Why have women always been idealized by men and why must they live up to expectations of being perfect?  What was the significance of the two orphan siblings who completely unknown to themselves happened to be living in such close proximity to one another?  To what extent does memory play tricks on us?  Why did the girls turn so quickly on Irma, the surviving girl, their fears unleashed as in Lord of the Flies, lead by Edith, one of the other surviving girls who couldn’t remember anything either?  Why are humans so afraid of the unknown?  Is this really a story, told largely from Sara’s point of view, about the crumbling impact of first love, how nothing in our lives is ever so powerfully in the moment, growing less significant through the years as our views evolve, or about adolescence, a stage in our lives that we eventually leave behind?  How could the headmistress, after seeing what a devastating emotional loss this was for Sara, actually send her back to the orphanage?  Is shame a more powerful human emotion than love?  Is there a more poetic rendering of memory and aging, how earthshakingly significant it can be in one moment, yet after the passage of time, one might actually yearn for forgetfulness?  There is no easy resolution here, but this is one of the most perfect mixes of a fictionalized artistic stylization colliding head on with real events, with all the devastating aftereffects of a great human tragedy.      

Sunday, July 24, 2016


WALKABOUT             A                 
Great Britain  (100 mi)  1971  d:  Nicolas Roeg

From start to finish, this isn’t really like anything else, although Peter Weir’s gorgeously abstract later work Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) comes to mind, as this is one of the best films ever made that blends together two different cultures so well, largely because it makes no attempts to explain either one, but simply allows them to naturally coexist without an ounce of sentimentality or pretense.  Beautifully shot by the director himself, showing a fascinating use of editing, this is a stunning work not only in how well crafted it appears, but by the subtle ways it co-mingles and heightens the differences between cultures, offsetting one against the other as a way of better understanding each one.  Opening in an upper class school in Sydney, where all the students wear the same uniforms, the camera veers around a corner of a building and we’re suddenly jettisoned into the Australian outback, a flat horizon for as far as the eye can see.  A family picnic between a father and his two children goes terribly awry when he inexplicably starts shooting at them.  After dousing his car with gasoline and setting it on fire he shoots himself in the head, leaving both to fend for themselves out in the middle of nowhere.  Jenny Agutter is the prim and proper well behaved 15-year old sister to Luc Roeg, the director's son, who plays her playful and inquisitive 5-year old brother.  Showing little emotion, without explaining what happened, the two of them start walking into the distance, walking for several days under a blazing hot sun.  Just when it looks like they may die lost and alone, they discover a small oasis of a water hole under a single fruit tree, which they make their home for awhile.  During the night, animals eat all the fruit and the water disappears, leaving them startled, but they stay, hoping the water will come back.  What makes these sequences interesting are the Terrence Malick directoral flourishes showing creatures that live naturally in this habitat, how strangely different they appear than these properly dressed city children who obviously live elsewhere.  What makes this especially interesting is that WALKABOUT was made two years before Malick’s first film.  Also interesting is the heightened sound design imagining what animals in mass must sound like to one another, as it’s a cacophony of what sounds to humans like noise, unable to distinguish between the sounds.  This is quite a contrast to the swelling, oversaturated strings by John Barry who wrote much of the music for James Bond films, or the introductory sounds of a didgeridoo playing while swarms of pedestrians make their way through the busy streets of Sydney.   

Out of nowhere, a young Aborigine boy is seen coming over the hill, a 16-year old boy who is out on his walkabout, a tribal custom where he must learn to live off the land for months by himself to prove that he is worthy to enter adulthood and become a man.  This boy (a young David Gulpilil) carrying two spears is quite capable of finding prey every day, starting a fire, finding water, and fending for himself, though he continually speaks in his own native tongue which is never translated, and never understood by the girl, while the young boy learns to use gestures and hand signals to communicate with him.  Mostly, the duration of the film is wordless and what follows plays out through images alone where we lose all track of time, which is rather stunning in its conception, beautifully integrating landscapes with the open ended possibilities of these young lives, where we are lured into this symbiotic coexistence between life and death, even when there are aspects we may not fully comprehend.  This puts the audience in a similar mindset as these kids onscreen.  Naturally, they follow where the Aborigine kid leads them as he feeds them every day, and even without communicating, they become friends.  Agutter continues to maintain her proper distance, though it’s impossible for her not to notice the young man is wearing only a loin cloth, while the young boy takes to the older one like a brother.  But there are moments where we see Agutter swimming alone completely naked in an idyllic natural setting, where it would be hard for the Aborigine boy not to notice how in the heat of the day, she wears less and less clothing as time goes on.  Without ever speaking, their relationship is vividly intense even from afar. 

As he leads them back to white civilization, the balance of nature begins to change.  There’s a strange scene where they pass by an outpost where a white couple on their ranch are mixing with a group of Aborigines making cheap art objects for sale, showing absolutely no interest for one another’s ways, where it’s a completely exploitative relationship, while this “Tarzan and Jane” couple with a young chimp for a kid tagging along has a bold curiosity and a much more sincere form of respecting one another.  In an even stranger scene, like something out of Lina Wertmüller’s SWEPT AWAY (1974, also not yet made), a group of scientists are in the outback with weather balloons, where the men are leering at one of the scientists who is an attractive woman, staring under her skirt when she shifts her legs, or coming close to talk to her in order to get a better close up view of her exposed cleavage, more overt signs of nonverbal sexual signals.  When our travelers discover an abandoned ranch house next to a paved road, civilization takes an interesting turn, as our couple suddenly have time for one another, but she’s overtly nervous, not yet ready to abandon her prudish yet dignified upbringing.  This is intermingled with a stunning sequence of white hunters in a jeep shooting the wild game for sport and leaving their carcasses behind to uselessly rot under the hot sun, actions witnessed by the Aborigine boy who lays down in a dream of animal bones to purify himself from this callousness.  But this is an ominous sign of natural discord, where Agutter is equally clueless about Aborigine customs, including a heartbreaking mating dance ritual that she fails to respond to, with disastrous consequences.  What follows is a beautiful segway of emotional distance and extreme longing, where a mature audience may be tempted to read signs into this relationship more than the young participants themselves, who remain aloof and don’t yet know how their lives will be forever imprinted by this time they spend together.  This is hardly an idyllic or idealized portrait, but instead remains an elusive and mysterious journey where the three characters are endlessly fascinating, unintended spokespersons or ambassadors for their respective cultures, leaving behind an astonishing blend of sumptuous beauty and haunting devastation, a rare glimpse into our own future of innocence and paradise lost.