Tuesday, February 5, 2008

picnic at hanging rock, by peter weir

Film Club reconvened this week after a brief hiatus, and we watched Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) to continue with our theme of "colonists in supernatural peril."

The film takes place in the year 1900, and focuses on the inhabitants of Appleyard College, a Victorian girls' boarding school. The very phrase "Victorian girls' boarding school" will burn the mind of certain readers with an erotic force that borders on the radioactive, evoking, as it does, a particularly intense mix of succulence and repression. If that's your thing, the opening scenes of this film will function as a kind of fetish material for you, because Weir has gone to the trouble to stock the college with a score of willowy beauties (and a hot French governness), and he presents them in a variety of scenarios that seem like they are, at any given moment, half a step away from tumbling into porn:

But the film ultimately has other things on its mind, and it swiftly transplants the group of girls out on a field trip to Hanging Rock, a weird mass of volcanic stone. Four of the girls wander off to explore:

...and, inexplicably, only one comes back. A governness goes in search of them, and she vanishes, too.

Like our last Film Club pick, I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Picnic is built around a system of clashing opposites: logic and reason, associated (at least initially) in both films by white colonists, versus mystery and irrationality, associated with the natural world that the colonists seek to colonize. The bulk of the film is spent watching various authorities, searching for the girls, interrogate Hanging Rock in various "rational" ways:

The film invites us, the viewers, to perform our own "interrogations"—it provides a goodly number of details that could be said to be "clues." But all these investigations and theorizing end up inconclusive: all throughout the film Hanging Rock deflects attempts to interpret it.

Part of the reason for this might be because the film presents the Rock as resistant to conventional dualites of classification: early in the film, two characters squabble about whether the Rock could be said to be old or young (it's "old" in our time-frame, but "young" when viewed from a geologic perspective). Additionally, even though the landscape also gives off strong psychosexual evocations, it can't easily be gendered. There are plenty of shots that emphasize the phallic presence of the mountain:

—but an equal number of shots which evoke the vaginal:

(My Film Club compatriot Skunkcabbage memorably described this polymorphous mix as a "Freudscape.")

So Hanging Rock remains, at film's end, a "text" that can't really be "read." If this film has set up a clash between rationality and irrationality, irrationality carries the day simply by virtue of its persistence. It basically wins the game by making a single move—spiriting away a selected number of characters—and then simply passing time until rationality burns itself out with fruitless activity. It's not the most dramatic way to play the game (and this creates some dead space in the narrative, which gets filled in with subplots that are more-or-less boring), but it's effective.n


Chet Mellema said...

Very interesting...never would have guessed that film out of Peter Weir. I'm curious, jpb, how do you guys select which films you're going to watch.

jpb said...

Thanks for asking, Chet. The "rules" of selecting films for Film Club are very simple:

1) We take turns
2) Each film we choose must bear some demonstrable connection to the one immediately before it.

This connection can be thematic similarity (probably the one we rely on most often), but it can also be along the axis of director, year, actors, production designer... you name it.

Just tonight Skunkcabbage picked our follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock along a "country of origin" line: he picked 1979's Mad Max!