PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

By Peg Aloi

Released in 1975, this film put Australia on the world cinematic map. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) intrigued audiences plenty, but it was an English production. With Picnic at Hanging Rock, director Peter Weir, cinematographer Russell Boyd and producers Patricia Lovell and Jim and Hal McElroy created a production that demonstrated what is possible when a nation decides to fund filmmaking as an art form: schools, production companies and theatres aspired to a high level of achievement and professionalism in this golden era. Sadly many Australian filmmakers and stars have strayed to the golden California coast, including Weir, as well as Phil Noyce, Bruce Beresford, Rachel Griffiths, Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe and others. But it was this subtle, eerily beautiful arthouse period piece that built a rich proving ground for them to get their start.

When asked what my favorite film of all time is, I invariably say it’s this one. I first saw a glimpse of it on the snowy screen of a portable black and white TV in the basement kitchen (yes) of a communal house I lived in during my college years. In a house full of students, one “older” guy (quiet, bookish, kind) was watching it one night while I fixed myself some mac and cheese late one night. The reception was bad and the sound was crackly but his eyes were riveted to the screen. I halfheartedly listened as I prepared my meal, finally asking what he was watching. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” he replied, saying it was something he had always wanted to see. I watched for a few minutes with him, but finally had to leave for whatever homework or social event I had going on that night. But the fragmented sounds, the music, the quiet female murmuring and screams and potent silences stayed with me.

Several years later, I arrived in Amherst, MA with a duffle bag of clothes, a sleeping bag and a guitar to start graduate school. I did not have anywhere to live yet and figured I could find a cheap motel room somewhere. But it was homecoming weekend and there were no rooms anywhere in a ten-mile radius. I had stashed my gear at the bus station but figured I could maybe sleep out on Amherst Common in my sleeping bag if I hid it behind the big oak tree. I discovered the Amherst Cinema and saw they had a double feature that night: Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli (Weir’s 1981 WWI epic starring Mel Gibson). Later, gobsmacked and shaken, I sat outside at Bonducci’s café and struck up conversation with some Hampshire students who had also seen the films. We agreed they were profound meditations on the finality of death and the randomness of life. Later learning of my predicament they invited me to crash on their dormroom floor and drove me to their bucolic campus at around midnight.

I awoke early the next morning in a dark room. I rolled up my sleeping bag and ventured outside, expecting to see other dormitories and hoping for a campus coffee shop and maybe a bus stop nearby that would get me back to town. But as I stepped blinking into the early sunlight I saw: nothing. A mountain range awash in red and gold. Green fields. A distant orchard. And a road. The building behind me seemed like the shell of a fallen space ship; there was nothing for me there. I had had strange dreams the night before, prompted by the double feature: animals running through forests and oceans on fire. I started walking. I came to a crossroads and soon waved down a kindly farmer in an ancient pickup who kindly gave me a ride into town, three miles away.

One day a few months later I ran into a woman I knew, a poet who was studying in my department. She had a faraway, almost beatific look on her face. I asked her what was up. She said she had just seen the most incredible film and could not get it out of her mind. “It was called Picnic at Hanging Rock, have you ever seen it?” I said I had and I thought it was amazing. She said it made her think about how people get lost; how we lose people in our lives and sometimes we may never see people again and have no idea it’s the last time. She said she knew she’d be haunted by this film forever and was planning to write a poem about it. Another friend, who worked at the Pleasant Street Theatre and knew I liked the film, managed to save me an old theatre poster for it and set of three black and white publicity stills. He found the film slow moving and silly, but appreciated that I was obsessed with something so obscure. The poster text encapsulates the plot with brevity: “On Valentine’s Day, 1900, a party of schoolgirls went on a picnic to Hanging Rock in western Australia. Three of them never returned. What happens to them remains one of the most spellbinding mysteries of our time.” My friend liked to read this slogan in a Bela Lugosi voice and then loudly bleat, “Nothing happens! Nothing happens in this movie!”

But of course things happen. The girls who disappear, especially the beautiful Miranda, become an object of obsession for Michael, a young Englishman who was one of the last people to see them alive at Hanging Rock (an enormous Paleolithic geological formation), and decides to risk his own life to find them. He is accompanied by Bertie, the horseman who was also there that day, and their unlikely friendship transcends class boundaries to make this a film about, among other things, that most Aus tralian way of describing male bonds, “mateship.” They manage to find one of the missing girls alive, Irma, who is first welcomed and then shunned by her classmates. The school falls apart, with parents declaring their daughters will not be allowed to return, and teachers leaving in droves. The community becomes an attraction for tourists and the morbidly curious. And among it all, the schoolgirls, in their blinding white lace and black high-button shoes, perfect models of Victorian innocence and grace, who showed such excitement and vigor on the day of their picnic outing, slowly lose their bloom, grow listless and become lost themselves.

After grad school I moved to Boston, where the Harvard Film Archive showed the film occasionally as part of a course being taught there. I tried to see it as often as possible, since the film was utterly unavailable on video and rarely shown in theatres or on television. Some time later, in 1998, a “director’s cut” was released. Unlike other film versions bearing this description which are invariably longer than the original release, this one actually was “cut” by about eight minutes. I saw it at the Brattle, and was perplexed and rather troubled by the missing footage which I was immediately able to identify, since, for me, it comprised a fairly important portion of the film’s plot. Without these scenes, one important relationship does not develop, and one powerful scene of grief is left out.

On the one hand I was thrilled that, finally, this film could be seen by many more people and I’d have more chances to discuss it and hear what people thought. But on the other hand, how could they really appreciate the film when the removal of those important eight minutes of footage made the film, in my estimation, a far less enjoyable story? How could Weir suddenly decide to erase these moments, after the film had been seen for twenty-three years in its entirety? Wasn’t the film’s critical and commercial success reason enough to leave it as it was? What of the film’s long-time fans who had patiently waited years for the film to become available for home viewing, would now only be able to purchase a DVD of the “cut” and not of the original? And why excise scenes which add narrative complexity to a screenplay already, perhaps, a bit too plot-deprived? And the scenes contain unforgettable imagery: Bertie meeting Irma for the first time since her rescue, sweating from labor, carrying a cage of squawking gamebirds. A distraught Irma stumbling from the shore of a lake with muddied skirts, leaving Michael with a toppled canoe. Imagine Gone With the Wind without the scene in which Scarlet makes a dress out of the velvet curtains to impress Rhett Butler. Or Taxi Driver, minus the scene where Travis takes Betsy to a porn theatre on their first date. These scenes are certainly not necessary, but they add a great deal to our understanding of these characters and their relationships, and the films are arguably not the same without them.

This is not to say Picnic at Hanging Rock is not worth seeing in the director’s cut version. It may well be the only way to view this film at this point in time. But for those who have seen both versions, those missing eight minutes add up to a great deal. I can forgive Weir’s not wanting to include scenes which suggest a romantic relationship begins between Michael and Irma, a doomed liaison which implodes when Irma refuses to tell Michael what happened. But how can he have left out a scene of the remaining schoolgirls in church a few weeks after that horrible day, holding their hymnals limply while the congregants sing “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee,” while one girl stands singing, smiling strangely, her bright face coming closer until we see she is not smiling, but weeping with abandon? Is it possible Weir’s decision is based in part on wanting to re-affirm what the film has to say about what has been lost? About what it is to think we clearly remember someone who is gone, but knowing somehow that, since we will never see or touch or hear them again, we have only our memories and dreams to rely upon? And that, deep down, we fear losing hold of those, too? It is why people make films, after all. To keep alive what might otherwise be lost.

Australia, 1975. 107 min. Australian Film Commission/ McElroy & McElroy/ Picnic Productions Ltd.

Caitlin Written by: