Sunday, July 05, 2020
10:00 AM |
The Film Meme No. 71
[71st of 100].
When filmmakers go to make a "director's cut" of their films, we're usually in for an extended running-time, with previously cut scenes restored to canonical status. But not Peter Weir for this 1975 masterpiece of atmosphere and enigma. Allowed the chance to make the definitive cut in 2011, he actually excised 8 minutes and 4 seconds more from the theatrical version of the film -- making what was already a mysterious movie even more cryptic. Weir's previous comments for Sight and Sound
magazine would give us some insight why he was inclined to do even more cuts: "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." I think it has worked for the best, because it is that hallucinatory effect that has made this Australian film -- based on 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay -- one of the greatest in world cinema. The leanness, the elliptical narrative, the refusal to give details even less than what is necessary have ironically made it a hit, jumpstarting the Australian New Wave, creating a cottage industry devoted to explaining it, and elevating its director to respectable heights in Hollywood. [Weir would go on to make Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Mosquito Coast, Master and Commander
, and The Truman Show
.] I caught this film in the mid-1990s quite by accident. I never even heard of it before that chance stumbling into. When cable services was new in Dumaguete, there used to be movie channel called Star Movies [does it still exist?], which at the very beginning of its existence used to play so many classic films in its schedule. And one evening, I was surfing the channels and came upon the movie just as it was starting: a hazy shot of craggy rocks in the distance, Pan pipe music, and a girl's voice over dreamily telling us, "What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream." I was hooked from the get-go. Soon the title appeared in elegant script, sounding both ominous and intriguing, and then the film begins with pretty, long-haired girls in white Victorian dresses milling about their day in a strict boarding school somewhere in the Australian outback sometime in the year 1900. Something about their innocence and the primness of their dress struck my fancy, an impression buoyed by the film's mesmeric sound design [distant thunders, bird calls, otherworldly theremin notes, plus the Pan pipes soundtrack] which made the scenes uncanny, as if we're hearing and catching a glimpse, not just of an old world, but also of a lost, vanished one. It is a drowsy Valentines Day, a Saturday, and the girls are ecstatic over the cards they've received. They are also excited for the planned excursion they're about to do -- a picnic in a geological outcropping not far from school called Hanging Rock. We soon focus on the girl Miranda, the most beatific of them all, the most beloved. As her classmates settle down on the camping grounds with some other visitors in the area, Miranda and three other girls are drawn to wandering about the mysterious craggy rocks, observing the wilds of nature up close. And as the sun dazes everything in the drowsy mid-afternoon, Miranda, Irma, and Marion, and their mathematics teacher Miss McCraw, vanish, leaving the fourth girl, Edith, screaming and running from the rocks but can't remember much what exactly happened. The film then settles in the immediate aftermath, with the ensuing fruitless search and the repercussions stemming from the disappearances, some of them tragic. Did they fall into some hole? Were they attacked by wild creatures, or molested and murdered? Were they kidnapped? Did aliens abduct them? Did they vanish into a wormhole, a time warp? Is it an allegory of sexual frustrations amidst strict Victorian mores? Is it also an allegory of the skirmish between the rigidity and order of British rule, and the chaos and naturalness of the aboriginal Australian landscape? But the mystery is never solved, and we are left with an impressionistic memory of the film that refuses to give closure to our questions. Like in Michelangelo's L'Avventura
or David Lean's A Passage to India
, it prizes the puzzle, does not dramatize the singular event at the heart of the mystery, and becomes more interested in the haziness concocted to obscure every single bit of explanation -- something we see carried on in such films as Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides
, which some critics have taken to calling "horror romances." I have a soft spot for films like these, albeit they can enrage many who demand definite answers. According to Weir, "One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he'd wasted two hours of his life—a mystery without a goddamn solution!" I pity that creature, he has no sense of the beauty of things without resolutions. What's the film?
For the introduction to this meme, read here
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
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