“It’s really a trauma that the country’s still going through, this dislocation from Europe, with a complete severing of roots. There’s no real consciousness of where you came from.”
“Music is the fountainhead: everything comes from that.”
Born: 21 August, 1944, Sydney, Australia.
Directing Career: 1974 –
Movement: The Australian New Wave.
Traits: Known as the leading figure of the Australian film revival of the 1970s, before becoming a Hollywood director in the 1980s. A stylish master of mood and atmosphere, often creating a sense of covert menace through use of music and editing, with a thematic interest in culture clashes, and individuals in psychological crises trying to make sense of strange new worlds.
Collaborators: Russell Boyd (cinematographer), John Seale (cinematographer), William Anderson (editor), Harrison Ford (actor), Mel Gibson (actor), Maurice Jarre (composer), Hal & Jim MacElroy (producers).
Picnic at Hanging Rock
“What we see and what we seem,
are but a dream. A dream within a dream.”
Just because you have in your hands a story laden with pre-existing mystique, one whose origins were already shrouded in curiosity-arousing mystery, does not automatically mean you’ll make a great film out of it. So it is a considerable feat that when Peter Weir was given the chance to direct an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s classic Australian-Gothic novel (her life-defining work which had already captured the imagination of the Australian public), he retained and distilled that mystique to create the most iconic work of the Australian New Wave.
It’s February 14, 1900, at Appleyard College, a girls’ boarding school in rural Victoria, a few hours’ ride outside Melbourne. The boarders prepare for a special picnic outing under a nearby extinct volcano known as Hanging Rock — an occasion stirring gleeful excitement in the morning. But by evening things will have changed irreparably for all concerned. Three of the girls, along with their mathematics teacher Miss McCraw, have vanished somewhere on the Rock, seemingly into thin air, and the coming days will bring only unsuccessful search parties, frustrated local police and a sensationalist media circus.
Mood and atmosphere, dreaminess and the uncanny, permeate this film. The scenes of the picnic around the Rock encapsulate the film’s power. Before the girls even get there, their mysterious premonitions should ring as ominous signs. Once there, the soft, diffuse light and that hauntingly atmospheric pan flute music sets up some of the most bewitching sequences of 1970s cinema: slow-motion and superimpositions, dissolves and 360-degree pans, all weave an indelibly hypnotic flow of images. Ants and lizards come in and out of frame, pieces of foliage peer out-of-focus in the foreground. The picnickers stand still, seemingly fossilised by time, in an uncanny tableau which cinematographer Russell Boyd’s zoom lens surveys with baited breath.
Miranda, leader of the girls due to her beauty and kindness, cuts a virginal Botticelli figure, against the brutal harshness of the mount, her white dress and flowing blonde hair carving one of the film’s stand-out images. The other girls simply follow her when she falls into a trance-like state, inexplicably urged closer to the Rock itself, as if it were calling to them with the magnetism of a Kubrickian monolith. On the soundtrack, a deep tectonic rumble resonates as if the Rock itself is making the Earth shudder. Eerie geological faces (or something more if you want to go all Freudian) can be perceived amid the giant boulder’s crevices. Parrots fluttering away suggests even the animals are in some way affected by the cosmic energy of this geological formation. A reminder that Hanging Rock was and is a spiritually sacred site for the local Aboriginal tribes, which must be noted to capture the implicit meanings of the film.
The counterpoint of the Rock is Appleyard College, a stuffy Victorian finishing school of cold discipline and indoctrination. It’s described in Lindsay’s novel as an “architectural anachronism in the Australian bush, a hopeless misfit in both time and place”, and the film is faithful to that vision. It is everything the timeless Rock is not: an opulent mansion of exacting interior geometry, its clocks constantly ticking, its walls adorned with the portrait of Queen Victoria, and finally nothing more than a simulacrum of Old World civility. In this colonial haven of Victorian values marooned among the wilderness of the Australian Victoria, everything possible is done to mask the landscapes and climes signalling they are no longer in safe old Britain, but on a foreign and alien land.
These efforts notwithstanding, something symbolised by that Rock simply resists all attempts at suppression. It’s as if this pantheistic force emanates from the Rock, creeping into the places that seek to repress it. The result is a deep fissure, an otherworldly chasm threatening the fragile idyll of white Australia, perhaps metaphysically speaking the one that the girls have fallen into. Look at Mrs Appleyard, now a desperate alcoholic wreck consumed by nostalgic daydreams of bygone summers with her late husband in “dependable” Bournemouth where “nothing ever changed”. Or Miss McCraw: seemingly the epitome of Euclidean reason (earlier that day the girls had given her a Valentine’s card on graph paper) and yet she too spirited away by the irrational force-field of the Rock. Euclid’s laws can only get you so far in the Bush. Repression is all around, repression of adolescent longings, of unspoken love (that of the orphan Sara for Miranda for instance), of the presence of a more ancient and intuitive local culture forcefully dispossessed.
Clearly this film has much to say about the conflict in the identity of white Australia. Amid this constant reminder that they are not at home in their nominal homeland, that all around them is some unknown they have to shut out, there are hard questions to face up to: what exactly do Australians want to be? They constitute a divided self, so how then to merge the two sides, the Victorian colonial and the cosmic Rock, the European and the Bush, to create their own identity? The friendship between the aristocrat’s son Michael and the unpretentious coachman Albert offers a half-hearted possibility, although their ‘mateship’ (a concept central in Australian self-mythology) across class divisions is more fully fleshed-out in the novel.
The film, like the novel too in fact, for all its otherworldliness and lack of resolution, feels satisfyingly grounded as a narratively credible portrait of a community in crisis, a note struck by the framing of pseudo-historical titles announcing this as based on real events, as if taken from a newspaper article of the era. This historical ‘realism’ is the lucid foil to the dream-like quality of the film, while also heightening the mystery orbiting around Lindsay’s novel which she always refused to talk about: Was the disappearance of the girls based on a real event she remembered from her youth, when she had stayed in a girls’ boarding school much like Appleyard College? Was there really a Miranda and a Sara, and was Lindsay herself based on one of them?
Lindsay’s story likely seems to have been based on an episode from her life that stayed with her for decades and which imbues its aura of unspoken secrets into the film, refracted by Weir through his own aesthetic sensibilities. Picnic at Hanging Rock broke international box office records for Australian film, a surprising fact considering its unconventional (and brave) decision to divest itself of narrative closure, going nowhere near the book’s excised, explanatory final chapter. A correct decision too, the mystery of the film retaining its primal power forever, unsolved and unsolvable, an enigma always there to be returned to in entranced awe. Like the Rock itself and like the unanswered questions Joan Lindsay took with her to the grave. (April 2018)
The Last Wave
“It is to be borne in mind that white Australian culture never, at the bottom line, truly believes it actually belongs in Australia”. If this claim by Australian film scholar Neil Rattigan could be said to describe the subtext of Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, it becomes a central tenet for his follow-up, the supernatural, apocalyptic dream-thriller The Last Wave. This time, Aboriginal cultures, merely hinted at obliquely in Picnic, form the narrative fulcrum.
David Burton (a performance of bourgeois restraint by the American Richard Chamberlain) is a corporate tax lawyer with a wife and two daughters, whose house on the outskirts of Sydney is this film’s equivalent of Appleyard College: a middle-class cocoon of complacency, sheltering its inhabitants from unwanted outside forces. Across Australia, freak weather is pouring down like a plague: hailstones in the Outback, downpours of black rain in the city, a shower of frogs.
Water, having the fluid oneness that divided Australia lacks, is a running motif of this film: men drown; others constantly run their hands through it; a bath overflows; Burton stuck in traffic has a waking dream of all around him being submerged underwater; and there’s even a print of Hokusai’s Great Wave. The deluge seems to be coming, hailing a rebirth, but only after a destruction. Soon those outside forces will trickle into the Burtons’ home — once again white Australia is not quite at home even in its own ‘home’.
Is the end of the world coming? Unsurprisingly, things get mystical. When five Aboriginals are accused of murdering another Aboriginal man, Burton is drawn to a case outside of his expertise out of a mix of exotic appeal and middle-class condescension. The men involved refuse to talk. Burton sees one of them in his dreams — a mysterious event which only propels his obsession with the case. He comes to believe they are tribal Aborigines, but everyone around him insist there aren’t any tribes left in the cities. This speaks to the stubborn seclusion of urban Australia, a land of people living almost entirely in coastal settlements, ignoring the interior of the country and what it represents, or at least trying to. Tellingly, neither Burton nor his wife know any Aboriginals — “I’m a 4th generation Australian and I’ve never met an Aboriginal before”.
Weir stages the culture clash (a theme he’d visit again in quite a different context with Witness) between Burton and the most charismatic of the five men, Chris (played by David Gulpilil who’d already starred in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout). Burton being a lawyer is significant as this is also a clash of values, of modern Western-tradition law versus the ancient law of Aboriginal rites and traditions, tribal law. The man was killed for wanting to steal Aboriginal artefacts in order to sell them, a taboo act of cultural betrayal. But Burton, by now well and truly on an obsessive quest, wants to dig up their secrets himself — not for the case anymore, rather to understand his own identity and why he possesses the ability to enter the Aboriginal Dreamtime.
It turns out, and here is where the film’s cultural dynamics get very muddled, that Burton is a mulcrul, a seer with special gifts and perhaps the only one with the power to prevent the natural cataclysm announced by the menacing weather. He ends up in a subterranean cave, symbolic of the Australian city’s collective unconscious, face to face with the prophecies of a pre-Aboriginal tribe, of which we’re to assume he is a descendant. It’s a confusing conclusion to what in many aspects is a convincingly uncanny examination of Australia’s bipolarity, its uneasy co-existence, with all the ambiguity that had worked so well in Picnic, some often memorable imagery, dream sequences and quasi-abstract shots of the gleaming cityscape, and a brilliantly brooding score of atonal synth that still sounds modern today.
The look is a polar opposite to Picnic, with hard-edged lighting adding a touch of the noir-ish quest narrative to a genre palette that already includes supernatural thriller and courtroom drama. A flawed film that nonetheless has just enough to remain interesting, it has some loose similarities with Michael Mann’s The Keep, both instinctive films trying to represent the irrational, both with a supernatural atmosphere and both to some extent now disowned as clumsy sophomore attempts by their respective directors. The Last Wave clearly has cult status potential, it’s an oddity, a fish out of water, but not quite a great film. (April 2018)