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Elemente der Filmanalyse
AUSTRALIAN CINEMA SINCE PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

A 'MID-ATLANTIC' CINEMA?

A continuing debate within the Australian film industry, particularly since the critical acclaim accorded Picnic at Hanging Rock, has focused on the type of films the industry should be producing and how to compete with foreign, notably Hollywood, films. Often the terms of the debate have been constrained within an artificial dichotomy: an 'indigenous' low-budget, 'neo-realist' cinema versus a 'mid-Atlantic', international cinema. Marcus Breen, in his review celebrating the Australian film Return Home (1990), provided a representative example of the limited context invoked by this 'debate':

There's an historical fact that seems to be have been grossly overlooked in the current Australian preoccupation with making films for the international market. These often formularized films made for the lucrative but unpredictable American public fail because they do not connect with living beings. . . . Ray Argall's first feature is a treasure because it lacks any semblance of what might be termed money-motivation. It is so Australian in subject matter, style and content end it connects with the Australian experience with such nerve tingling confidence that it is destined for a place in our film history.

While Return Home is a fine film, and represents a continuing strain of 'realist' films in the Australian industry, it cannot be seen as a prototype for the entire industry. More importantly, the pejorative concepts invoked by Breen, the notion of 'formula', 'international', 'money-motivation' are juxtaposed with 'Australian', 'subject matter, style and content'. What exactly is an 'Australian subject matter, style and content' ? Implied within this 'debate' is the assumption that melodrama, and its ability to generate strong emotions in the audience together with the strong narrative drive and tight causality of the classical system is somehow alien to the Australian cinema.
It is this confusion between 'Australian content/themes' and formal structure that has confined the debate to the emotional level of the international and formulaic ('bad') cinema versus an overtly 'Australian content' ('good'.) cinema. The content can be 'Australian' no matter what formal system is chosen. Yet the pejorative parameters of pseudo American 'B grade' stories versus 'adventurous' Australian stories are constantly repeated.
Implicit in these polarized positions is a vague conception of a 'pure' Australian cinema that is not tainted by formal presentation of the classical system and the melodramatic tradition. In 1979 Phillip Adams vigorously condemned Mad Max in the Bulletin, calling it the 'dangerous pornography of death'. What Adams was reacting against was not just the overt violence of Mad Max but also the narrative structure and its strident use of melodrama. At a time when Picnic at Hanging Rock seemed to have indicated the 'true path' for an industry desiring aesthetic prestige coupled with viable financial returns, the commercial success of Mad Max threatened this orthodoxy.
The classical narrative paradigm and the melodramatic tradition are normally associated with Hollywood, as the American film industry has been the most effective industry to develop its wide audience appeal; yet, it is by no means unique to Hollywood. Both the American and Australian film industries evolved from the aesthetic norms that dominated the popular theatre and literature in the late nineteenth century, and Uncle Tom's Cabin was as popular in the Australian theatre in the last century as Phantom of the Opera is today. This tradition was evident in pre-World War II Australian cinema (see the discussion of The Silence of Dean Maitland in chapter 2) and Australia's most expensive silent film, For the Term of His Natural Life (1927), and the Cinesound features of the 1930s together with the work of, arguably, Australia's most important pre-1970 film-maker, the director Charles Chauvel.
Since its re-emergence in the early 1970s, particularly after the critical success of Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975, the Australian cinema has maintained an ambivalent attitude to this narrative system, rarely fully embracing it or alternative systems. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a rarity in that it was the only Australian film to clearly reject the narrative conventions of the classical system in favour of the European art-film and at the same time gross more than $A5 million in domestic rentals. Without pushing a cause and effect argument too far, the formal legacy of this film was apparent for, at least, the next few years following its release.

PETER WEIR AND THE CLASSICAL NARRATIVE CINEMA

An alternative narrative model

This chapter begins by looking at same of Peter Weir's films, first with a brief analysis of Picnic at Hanging Rock in order to highlight the differences between its narrative structure and the patterns outlined in chapter 2, and then continuing with a comparison between Weir`s Australian film and his first American film, Witness. The rest of this chapter is concerned with an examination of a range of Australian films that, in terms of story material and/or formal approach, are normally associated with melodrama and the way in which the Australian cinema has often subverted or failed to develop the full melodramatic potential of this material, frequently closing on moments of pain and alienation.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

Picnic at Hanging Rock signals its formal strategy in the opening moments with a title that basically destroys one of the key techniques used by the classical system to involve its audience - the technique of continually forcing it to form a small number of hypotheses as narrative cues are established and modified. Suspense (. .. and then, and then .. .}, based on an overall desire to speculate on whether the girls who disappeared on Hanging Rock were ever found again or what their fate was, is removed by this opening:

On Saturday, 14 February, 1900, a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock in the State of Victoria. During the afternoon. several members of the party disappeared without a trace...

Instead of establishing clear goals, developing motivation and coherence, and resolving the tensions that are touched upon in the early part of the film, director Peter Weir, as he subsequently explained, took another approach: 'what interested me were... sounds, smells, the way hair fell on the shoulder, images-just pictures'. Weir also felt that the original cut of the film 'didn't have any money in it, mainly because of the ending', so he cleverly forced the audience to reshape their expectations, away from the conventions of a mystery-thriller, by substituting a new ending. The ending that was originally shot for the film, with Mrs Appleyard climbing the Rock and dying at its base, was replaced by a reprise of the picnic sequence from the early part of the film that foregrounds the overt sense of ambiguity and deliberate nondisclosure that is characteristic of the art-film.
Critical appreciation (newspapers), and local box-office support, vindicated this narrative strategy in successfully 'mesmerising' (Weir's description) audiences away from the traditional desire for an 'answer' to the basic questions or problems raised within the film. There were also a number of other factors that contributed to the success of the film, including Russell Boyd's cinematography and the memorable use of Gheorghe Zamfir's pan-pipe music. A clever advertising campaign ('a recollection of evil'), endorsement by appropriate authority figures (the South Australian premier, Don Dunstan, introduced the film at its Australian premiere in Adelaide), its literary basis and the timing of its release as a break in the line of (relatively) commercially successful 'ocker' comedies (such as Stork, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and Alvin Purple) - all helped, too. Basically it was perceived as the first film with any 'real aesthetic' credibility since the revival of the industry, although it could be argued that Sunday Too Far Away should share this title, considering its success in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes in 1975.
An essential difference between Picnic at Hanging Rock and the Hollywood classical cinema relates to the classical cinema's desire to involve the audience through the initial exposition and the steady supply of narrative cues and the Australian film's refusal to provide a sufficient base for this hypothesis-forming activity. For example, Picnic at Hanging Rock implies a link between the behaviour of the girls on the Rock and a general notion of sexual repression within the school. Evidence for this extends to the obvious enquiries suggesting 'molestation' on the Rock, to the implications arising out of particular incidents, such as Edith's report of the teacher, Miss McCraw, going up the Rock without her skirt ('You mean she was just wearing drawers'). Similarly, the girls' preparation for the picnic emphasizes their dressing (including the shot of four girls lacing each other's corsets) whilst their behavior as they climb higher up the Rock, as Cliff Green's script indicates, becomes more uninhibited:

Irma has taken off her shoes and stockings, and clutching shoes in one hand and stockings in the other, she shakes out her ringlets, springs up on a flat-topped rock and begins to dance, like a ballerina, with curls and ribbons flying and bright, unseeing eyes. She blows kisses to her admirers in the wings, tossing a flower from her bouquet into the stalls.
As Irma has been dancing, Marion and Miranda have pulled off their shoes and stripped off their stockings and are moving off uphill, away from the ledge ...
EDITH: Irma! look at them! Where in the world are they going? Without their shoes…?

The implied sexuality of their journey into Nature introduces a recurring convention of the horror film. This is briefly and, in terms of narrative structure, significantly emphasized by Edith's reaction to the three girls slowly disappearing between narrow slits in the rock ('Don't go up there! Come back!' - the script notes that Edith 'sees something. Her eyes dilate with horror'), followed by an ominous close-up of the bare (phallic?) pinnacle of Hanging Rock. Weir then indicates the significance of this reaction through an emphatic camera movement, an overhead traveling shot capturing Edith's panicky run through the gum trees. A deep, threatening noise (described in Green's script in terms of the 'cicadas and Edith's screaming blend into an inextricable nightmare of sound, "peaking" the audio') reinforces the sense that this is a most significant event.
Yet, this build-up of expectations is, deliberately, never consummated by the subsequent narrative developments. Similarly, the carefully worked out system of oppositions (nature/culture, sexual repression) liberation, 'innocent' childhood/'guilty' adults, masculine/feminine, Australia/Europe, working class/upper class) are never resolved or even addressed in the latter part of the film.
The same point could be made about the 'mysteries' that point to a deeper explanation, such as the watch belonging to the Woodend livery stable proprietor, Ben Hussey (Martin Vaughan), stopping 'dead on twelve o'clock', as does Miss McCraw's, and the vague connection to Miranda's cryptic comment as the girls climb the Rock ('Everything begins - and ends - at exactly the right time and place'), a comment that is repeated for no readily apparent reason by Irma after her rescue from the Rock. The film, consistent with the narrative strategy of the European art-film (such as L 'Avventura), refuses to establish the causal connections in order to establish an ambiguity in the text.
There is a sense of an 'other' constantly lurking beneath the film's calm exterior, as in the overtly contrasting visuals (the girls in their white dresses sliding between the grey rocks, the ants swarming over, and carrying away, pieces of cake left behind by the girls). This sense is also perpetuated in the sudden eruptions in the normally low-key emotional tone, as, for example, the girls break from their mechanical physical routine in the gym (accompanied by 'Men of Harlech') and scream hysterically at Irma to tell them what happened on the Rock (with Edith wailing, 'They're dead! All dead as doornails in a filthy dirty cave fully of bats on Hanging Rock. Dead - and going rotten.'). The elegiac music is also used to perpetuate the binary structure (nature versus culture) by counterpointing the distinctive imagery of the Australian bush. But for what purpose? There are plenty of opportunities to speculate but the film refuses to verify any conclusions formed.
Although Picnic at Hanging Rock distances itself from the melodramatic tradition, the characters and situations emanate from nineteenth century melodrama and only the form of the film dilutes the realisation of this tradition. Suspense, indignation and retribution (particularly the humiliations inflicted on the orphan, Sarah Waybourne) are played down and replaced by a detached view of a world populated only by victims and overt symbols (exemplified by Michael's obsession with Miranda, the 'white swan'). A world that was repeated, without great commercial success, many times throughout the next fifteen years,
Nevertheless, Picnic at Hanging Rock did extremely well in domestic rentals and was sold to thirty-seven countries, with notable success in Britain. Its direct influence in Australia, coupled with the relative success of Sunday Too Far Away, was evident in the production of a succession of loosely structured 'period' films over the next four years, including Break of Day (1976), The Getting of Wisdom (1977), The Mango Tree (1977), The Picture Show Man (1977), The lrishman (1978), and My Brilliant Career (1979).

THE LAST WAVE

Whereas Picnic at Hanging Rock deliberately refused to pull all of its dramatic tensions and oppositions into a coherent narrative form, Peter Weir's next film The Last Wave (1977) was unable to bring the elements together into a satisfactory closure. Weir's approach to film-making at this point is evident in his admission that his interest was in those 'unknown areas' and not so much in finding 'neat endings'.

There is no ending and I was painted info a corner, . . You can't end it. You can try to be clever, and I tried a couple of other endings that did stop short of any wave, hut they were just too neat.

The Last Wave opens with an unprecedented hailstorm in an Australian outback township and the first section of the film, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock, effectively establishes a number of narrative threads involving various permutations of watery imagery, Aboriginal mythology, and a murder trial, which brings together urban Aborigines and the dreams of a middle-class Sydney lawyer (Richard Chamberlain): However, the film fails to bring these elements together in a rational explanation and Weir confesses that the effect of having the Aboriginal actors, Nanjiwarra and Gulpilil, in the city interacting with the story material 'produced tensions that were quite extraordinary.

CLASSICAL CINEMA & MELODRAMATIC TRADITION, 54 - 56


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