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No picnic

Picnic Productions
The mysteriously silent Col. Fitzhubert reads a news account of the missing women at Hanging Rock in the Australian bush in "Picnic at Hanging Rock."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In the 1975 Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock (view clip here), the mysterious disappearance of three private school students - while on a day trip to a remote volcanic outcropping known as Hanging Rock in the Australian state of Victoria - will remain unresolved. And that is only a portion of why Peter Weir’s film remains so haunting, beguiling and dream-like.

Based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name (launched 1 Nov 1967), we are quickly introduced to the schoolgirls at the exclusive Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies on Saturday, February 14, 1900, a day after a Friday the 13th.

The young women all seem to have a dreamy quality as they giggle and discuss the Valentine’s Day cards they have received. This, amidst a climate of repressed sexuality and strict discipline, where portraits of a dour Queen Victoria hang in nearly every room.

And yet early in the film there is a sense of foreboding, as the Australian bush seems to beckon these prim and civilized young woman into its wild heart. I think it was most appropriate that Weir (whose 1986 film The Mosquito Coast I examined here) used the eerie Pan flute sounds of musician Zamfir. The god Pan has ties to the pagan festivals that were celebrated in what would be called February. And Pan’s connections to sexuality cannot be overstated. As for the Pan flute, or "syrinx," it was said that when Pan played the flute, it could drive people mad.

Reviews of Lindsay’s novel said the story was “mysterious” and “subtly erotic.” Weir does his best to capture the "atmosphere" of the novel, and in doing so, only improves upon Lindsay's gripping story.

And over the years many critics – and others – have done their best to understand and interpret Picnic at Hanging Rock as a commentary on Empire, humans relationship to Nature, and the expansion of human consciousness. I find Michael J. Bayley's observations, in "Rock of Ages," to be among the best.

We should also note that the 17-chaptered novel has a mysterious “18th chapter” where we learn more about the girls’ seemingly "mystical" disappearance.

“STOPPED DEAD AT TWELVE O’CLOCK”

And so on this lustful holiday with pagan roots, the young women – save for a sad girl named Sara – board the horse and buggy – after being warned about “venomous snakes and poisonous ants” – and make their way to Hanging Rock.

This sad girl, Sara Waybourne (in the film played by Margaret Nelson), is an orphan who seems to pine for the fetching Miranda, (who, along with two companions, is about to venture into the unknown, never to be seen again), shares a room this blonde girl (Anne-Louise Lambert). There is an indication, early on, that Miranda knows she will not be returning from her journey to Hanging Rock, seemingly accepting her fate.

Upon arrival at the Hanging Rock picnic grounds, consuming most of a Valentine’s Day heart cake (which is quickly beset upon by “sugar ants”), the “inmates” of Appleyard College lounge lazily in the afternoon. (Author Lindsay had told friends that Valentine's Day was her 'magic day'.)

Wondering what time it is, Mr. Hussey, the carriage driver, notes his pocketwatch “had stopped dead at twelve o’clock.” Strangely, Ms. Greta McCraw, the mathematics teacher, notes her watch has also stopped at noon as well. “Never stopped before,” McCraw said, as she held a geometry textbook in the other hand.

Eerie music plays as Ms. McCraw looks at her geometry book in Picnic at Hanging Rock. (Picnic Productions)

But the brave Miranda and her friends Irma Leopold and Marion Quade, venture up the rock, towards “the Peaks.” Accompanying them is a plump girl prone to complaining named Edith Horton.

References to strange things observed by the girls are noted. People in the distance, looking like “ants,” are noted. And Irma is noted as hearing a strange sound “like the beating of far-off drums.”

When they reach an area close to the top, after napping a bit, Edith wakes up to see her three companions heading further up, as if in a trance. Edith is shocked and upset and sees "strange things" as this happens.

RED CLOUDS OVER HANGING ROCK

A reddish cloud or "mist" is visible to the left of Hanging Rock. (Picnic Productions)

In the film as in the novel, Edith reportedly screamed and ran down the rock back to the picnic grounds, in absolute hysterics. Her legs are all scratched up from the bush and it takes a while for her to regain her composure, even after they return to the college without Marion, Miranda and Irma – as well as the curious Mrs. McCraw, who we later find out had been seen by Irma running up the hill, only in “pantaloons" or her "drawers." She too, disappeared.

But what really is curious and also a clue are the “red clouds” Edith said she saw hovering over Hanging Rock, as described in Lindsay’s novel.

Talking to a police investigator, Edith says:

Mr. Bumpher! There is one thing I seem to remember.”

Fine. What was it?” Bumpher asks.

A cloud. A funny sort of cloud,” replies Edith.

A cloud? Fine! Except that clouds unfortunately have a way of moving from one place to another in the sky, you know.” Says Bumpher.

I am quite aware of that,” said Edith all at once prim and grown up. “Only this one was a nasty red colour and I remember it because I looked up and saw it through some branches.”

After Edith describes “nasty” red cloud, she adds that she had seen Mrs. McCraw heading uphill, some distance away. Edith could recall nothing else.

What are the red clouds over Hanging Rock? What lured Miranda, Marion, Irma and mathematics instructor Miss McCraw to their unknown fate at Hanging Rock? Was the dense and unintelligent Edith somehow "rejected" by an unseen force?

One almost suspects an abduction of some sort. And the red cloud representing a cloaked UFO. Were the girls abducted and Edith managed to flee in time and Irma was later to return, only to be unable to recall anything that happened?

Paul Meehan, in his 2010 post "The Strange Case of Picnic at Hanging Rock," he takes on the UFO abduction angle, writing: "Many of the anomalies described in the Hanging Rock narrative are consistent with featured reported in cases of UFO close encounters."

First, there is the matter of the strange red cloud observed hovering above the Rock during the disappearance. As if to underscore a viewpoint looking down from above, Weir shoots the scene of Edith running from the Rock in terror from an extremely high angle. UFOs have long been associated with anomalous clouds, as evidenced in the encounter of Rex Heflin, an Orange County, California highway traffic inspector who took a series of Polaroid photos of a metallic craft transforming into a cloud in 1965.

And then, syncing with the current season of the TV show Fargo, where a Minnesota deputy has a UFO encounter in 1979, Meehan notes that real case where time slows down for the deputy.

"In 1979, Minnesota deputy sheriff Val Johnson had a late night close encounter with a glowing UFO that damaged his police cruiser. Johnson's mechanical wristwatch and the car's electric dashboard clock were both found to be inexplicably running exactly 14 minutes slow. Some researchers theorize that UFOs are actually time travel devices that sometimes cause temporal anomalies to occur."

“I’d give my head to know what happened up there on the Rock,” a doctor says after one of the missing girls – Irma Leopold – is found many days after her disappearance, suffering from nothing more than bruises and exposure. In the story, it is noted that she is an heiress worth “half-a-million” upon her 21st birthday and that her mother is a Rothschild (or "red shield"). Some say the Rothschild is part of an elite group that runs the world and that they have a link to aliens. The things you see on the Internet ...

THE SCARLET WOMAN: Irma Leopold (Karen Robson) is the only person in the party to return from her "experience" at Hanging Rock. In this scene the other students are angry and think she is hiding something. (Picnic Productions)

The "red cloud" (not unlike a strange, red "object" I saw in approxiately 1975 - when this film was released) reminds us that strange "vortexes" (like those at Sedona, Arizona), are often linked to UFO or paranormal activity. For instance, did the British explorer Col. Percy Fawcett, along with his son, pass through an interdimensional portal 90 years ago in Brazil? This could be an explanation for the disappearance of the girls and Miss McCraw. The landscape of Hanging Rock, near the ancient volcano of Mount Macedon, is intriguing and reminiscent of the red rocks of mysterious Sedona or the rough landscape at the sinister Skinwalker Ranch in Utah where orbs, strange creatures, portals and shape-shifters are the order of the day.

Regarding "time," it should be noted that the author, Joan Lindsay, is said to have claimed she could "stop clocks." She titled a book about her life and some of the inspiration for Picnic at Hanging Rock in Time Without Clocks. She abhorred clocks, saying she "could not wear a watch without it stopping."

One of the "stopped watches" right before the girls and Miss McCraw disappear at Hanging Rock. (Picnic Productions)

Joan Lindsay's issue with "time" or "missing time" or "stopped clocks" is interesting in that when Irma goes into a building where calisthentics are taking place, the building looks like the "clock tower" building in the time-travel addled Back to the Future

Note the spot on the building where a clock should be. (Picnic Productions)

SWANS

The symbolism throughout Picnic cannot be ignored. There are the lizards and the swans. When a young Englishman, bewitched by the young women - particularly Miranda - tries to find the lost girls and he thinks of Miranda, he seems to synchromystically see a swan nearby. 

I note this because in Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, he writes of a "swan-woman," as noted in a blog post from one Joe Brainard: "Under the black earth flow nine seas; where the seas meet and form one, the sea comes to the surface of the earth. At the mouth of the nine seas rises a rock of copper; it rises to the surface of the ground, it rises up between heaven and earth, this rock of copper. At the foot of the copper rock is a black chest, in the black chest is a golden casket, and in the golden casket is the soul of the Swan-woman."

What is interesting about this, to me, is that both The Golden Bough and Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, make an appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. A deeply-layered film (based on Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness). The context of both films is important, set against the British empire (1900) and American empire in Vietnam (1960's/70's). Both empires were going through "transitions" and somewhat "out of time." 

In fact, the Appleyard School seems "out of time." An anachronism in the bush, as one writer put it. And other than a scene of an aboriginal tracker, the native Australians are hardly mentioned or noted at all in this story. Perhaps the ones who disappeared, particularly Miranda, were "enlightened" beings and slipped into another, higher realm of consciousness? Miranda, Marion and Miss McCraw, particularly, seemed more open to the possibilities of what life beyond the stifling world of what the Victorian Empire could offer. Perhaps that is why we hear so little from the elderly British Col. Fitzhubert, who seems well-traveled and interested in ancient artifacts, as noted in his room when his coachman Albert arrives one night. 

Ancient Egyptian tapestry seen in British Col. Fitzhubert's home. (Picnic Productions)

Picnic also reminded me of Coppola's daughter - Sofia Coppola - and her 1999 directorial debut, helming the atmospheric The Virgin Suicides, a film full of lust, loss and longing. 

Beautiful swans in their youth.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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