January 6, 2013

"Picnic at Hanging Rock": Porn +Botticelli + Frankenstein = Relationship Predictor By J. Hope Stein



What’s the porn name for Picnic at Hanging Rock? —  Picnic at Hanging COCK.  This is what my husband said as he handed me the Picnic at Hanging Rock DVD he found in our apartment so I could re-watch it to write this piece.   


For those who haven’t seen Picnic at Hanging Rock – It is a 1975 Australian film directed by Peter Weir who has directed such great and diverse films as Dead Poets Society, Gallipoli, The Truman Show and Master and Commander.  The plot of Picnic at Hanging Rock is most concisely explained by reading the first frame of the film:

 "On Saturday, 14 February 1900, a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon, several members of the party disappeared without a trace...."

We are told in the first few seconds of Picnic at Hanging Rock exactly what we are about to see and Weir practically shows it to us in slow motion over the next hour of the film:  It’s Valentine’s Day and the girls dress for their date with the rock.  On the way to the rock, they discuss its geological and volcanic origins – “Waiting a million years—just for us.”  As the rock comes into view (Picnic at Hanging COCK, indeed!  It DOES look phallic) the seduction begins:  the girls lose a sense of time (their watches stop) and they remove their white gloves.  When they get to the rock they are as if under a spell – Four girls go for a walk as the others fall into a deep slumber at the foot of the rock.  Ants and lizards and birds crawl on their food and around their bodies as they sleep. The girls who climb the rock are visibly in some kind of trance:  as they climb they remove shoes, socks, corsets and the rock itself takes on an animal-like presence— it has a gaze and a breath.  The hold the rock has over the girls intensifies as their pursuit to climb intensifies.  Then the girls disappear and the mystery of what happens to them is never solved.   


I have always felt very close to this film and this unresolved disappearance.  I have felt in myself a struggle and a fear that I could be entranced by electromagnetic activity and disappear.  It’s a strange fear to put into words but I have had to do a lot to navigate around it and keep myself from disappearing on the rock, so to speak.  So I’ve always felt that if I could understand what happened to these girls, I could better understand what will become of me.  So much so that when I was in my early 20’s I used Picnic at Hanging Rock as a relationship indicator. My best friend Dari and I developed a dating code—If one of us was dating someone, the big question was – where does he stand on Picnic at Hanging Rock?  Or big night – I’m showing him Picnic at Hanging Rock.  And if the poor boy didn’t get it he didn’t get us!

So last week I sit down to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock with my husband who had never seen it. The screen comes up with the text that introduces the chilling mystery.  Then there is an image of Hanging Rock—an actual volcanic rock formation in Australia.  The camera stays on this image for longer than you would expect as it takes on the stillness of a painting, while also gradually changing focus from rock to sky to foreground, as we hear the voice of the lead school girl Miranda say:  "What we see and what we seem is but a dream - a dream within a dream. " (a line based on an Edgar Allan Poe poem).    And we enter the most beautiful ethereal cinepoem mystery you can imagine.  A terrific dream of what one would fantasize an all-girls school in the year 1900 to look like:  The girls have a virginal and ethereal quality, they read love poems to each other, they wash faces in a sink filled with water and fresh cut flowers.   There is something almost lusty or pornographic about the way the camera lingers.  You can see where Sofia Coppola gets her most sensuous moves, as seen in The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Somewhere.   Weir says: "We worked very hard at creating an hallucinatory, mesmeric rhythm, so that you lost awareness of facts, you stopped adding things up, and got into this enclosed atmosphere. I did everything in my power to hypnotize the audience away from the possibility of solutions.'' And I am indeed hypnotized by this ethereal atmosphere of longing.   

And then it happens:  My husband abandons the film.  I played it cool. No big deal, I married someone who gets up after 15 minutes of Picnic at Hanging Rock… I probably would have been more upset but I was too engrossed in the film. I, like the girls, was in a trance. 

Frame-for-frame Picnic at Hanging Rock is a stunning piece of art.  In fact, there is a moment right before Miranda turns to go up the rock, never to be seen again, when one of the class supervisors says, “Now I know what you are – a Botticelli angel.”  She does look like she stepped out of a Botticelli painting.  The entire film has an impressionist quality:  a soft focus and muted coloration, as well as a physical choreography in which the scenes operate like Botticelli-in-motion.  The lyrical quality of Picnic at Hanging Rock reminds me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein –The way it lives in the horror genre but resonates in a more sensuous and emotional space.   It is also like Frankenstein in that it suggests the Myth of Prometheus – there is a palpable nature vs. civilization tension throughout the film including jarring juxtaposition of images of animals and insects throughout.  And the name “Miranda” itself suggests a civility and citizenship that challenges our animal roots and attempts to evolve beyond survival of the fittest.  At one point, one of the girls climbing the rock looks down at her classmates who appear to look like ants at the foot of the rock and says, “A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.”  As the girls continue up the rock they are sure-footed and driven—they seemed to have discovered their purpose— although that is the secret of the film.  That is between the girls and the rock. 

The film Picnic at Hanging Rock is full of symbols and questions and suggestions, but very few answers.  The film is based on a novel written by Joan Lindsay, which begins with this note to readers:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems to matter.” 

While there is no evidence of girls gone missing near the rock in real life, there is a strange story about Anne-Louise Lambert, the actress who played Miranda, in which she describes a day on set that wasn’t going well for her, so she went for a walk.  While on her walk she was followed by Joan Lindsay (the novel author) who called her “Miranda” and emotionally hugged her and said “Miranda, it’s been too long.”  Anne-Louise Lambert says she will never go back to the rock.  In an interview Joan Lindsay said that she thinks of time as circular and not linear and that she doesn’t keep a lot of clocks around her home.  She said that it is not uncommon for someone to sit beside her and for his or her watch to stop.  Lindsay eventually did publish the final chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which reveals that the missing schoolgirls transfigured into snakes and crabs and slithered into the crevices between the rocks.  But the mystery of Hanging Rock is still alive.  People who go there say they can feel a certain presence and a bit of a cottage industry has developed, including a book, which speculates on wide-ranging theories of what happened to the girls. 

As far as my dating theory:  I started to think about the relationships in which I was involved with a man who was as taken by Picnic at Hanging Rock as I was and I had an epiphany:  Two people who are prone to time warp and disappearance are just two people missing.    Those relationships were not sustainable.    Therefore I have revised my former theory about Picnic at Hanging Rock:  I still feel that it is a relationship indicator, but you only need one person in the relationship who is easily seduced by rocks.

J. Hope Stein is the author of [Talking Doll] (Dancing Girl Press), [Mary] (Hyacinth Girl Press) and Corner Office (H_ngm_n Bks.)  She is editor of Poetrycrush.com and author of eecattings.com.

2 comments:

Dan Coffey said...

How is it a relationship indicator, then?

Delirious Hem said...

I think that if the guy could sit through the whole thing, he was in like Flynn.