Picnic at Hanging Rock
Oak Street Cinema, starts Friday
Prim white virgins on a Victorian picnic and American Indian men on a road trip would seem to have little in common, but this week they do. It's a tale of two filmmakers escorting their characters into new territories while providing correctives to old stories: Just as Peter Weir perfected the period drama 23 years ago with his stunning Picnic at Hanging Rock (now rereleased in a new, slightly shorter director's cut), filmmaker Chris Eyre aims to redefine the contemporary American Indian genre with what's being billed as the first all-Native American mainstream movie. The impact of Weir's landmark work, which spawned interest in Australian films and filmmakers stateside, still echoes through such Aussie tales of repressed passion and intense girlhood crushes as The Piano and Heavenly Creatures. In our time, Eyre, who took home the Audience Award at Sundance for Smoke Signals, wants to start an Amerindie--and American Indian--new wave.
Weir's eerie Victorian cliffhanger follows a troupe of Australian schoolgirls on a St. Valentine's Day outing to the ancient and mysterious Hanging Rock. Although their rigid headmistress (Rachel Roberts) has forbidden any "tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration," three of the students (Anne Lambert, Karen Robson, Jane Vallis) venture into the rock's hypnotic peaks and bowels, only to disappear without a trace. Later we learn that the math mistress (Vivean Gray), clad only in drawers, has raced up the volcanic rock in hot pursuit, disappearing herself. Although hysterical classmates and neighbors struggle to explain the girls' disappearance--were they the victims of venomous snakes or local boys, did they flee or were they "spirited" away?--they cannot resolve the mystery, nor does the elliptical movie itself.
Weir so perfectly captures the stilted and extravagant nuances of Victorian emotional expression that it's easy to pretend the film was actually made in 1900. He photographs the idyllic picnic in languid slow motion, lingering on pastries popped into moist mouths, droning reptilian insects, hot wind, and dog-day ennui. The rock itself looms large and phallic, casting ominous shadows over the white-linened adventuresses. Unearthly panpipe music enhances the mystical mood. Much of the dialogue could come from a frothy Valentine's Day card, including such impassioned schoolgirl recitations as "What we see and what we seem are but a dream. A dream within a dream."
Above all, Weir evokes the 19th-century female world of intense romantic friendships, contrasting the schoolgirls' fervent attachments to each other with the cold Victorian proprieties, calisthenics, and tight corsets of their boarding school. In his hands, the school becomes a seething bed of sexual longing, and the excursion a Victorian strip-show where the picnickers gradually shed their gloves, stockings, corsets, and, finally, their inhibitions, all in a haze of danger and desire. Meanwhile, back at the ladies' college, Sara (Margaret Nelson) faces the sexualized wrath of the frustrated headmistress. Not surprisingly for a period in which rape was considered "a fate worse than death," sexual panic surrounds the incident, and when one traumatized survivor is found, a doctor takes chilling pleasure in pronouncing her "quite intact." Considering the claustrophobic constraints of "civilization," the girls' disappearance might be as liberating as it is tragic.
On the flip side of the imperialist equation, Smoke Signals' modern-day American Indian heroes--not to mention its makers--are intriguingly like Weir's schoolgirls in their desire to break the bonds of the white Victorian imagination. Writer Sherman Alexie (who adapted the screenplay from his own short stories) and director Eyre hope to shatter centuries-old images of nasty and/or noble savages and replace them with complicated cinematic representations created by Indians themselves.
Smoke Signals follows stoic Victor (Adam Beach) and his effusive alter ego, Thomas (Evan Adams), as they leave Idaho's Coeur D'Alene Indian Reservation on a quest for the remains of Victor's dead father, Arnold (Gary Farmer), who abandoned Victor and his mother (Tantoo Cardinal) 10 years earlier. In the course of their road trip, Victor must come to terms with the loss and rage his father has spawned. And Thomas, wearing a "Frybread Power" Superman shirt, observes that "the only thing more pathetic than Indians in the movies is Indians watching Indians in the movies."
Except maybe whites watching Indians in the movies? There's something unnerving about audience members so caught up in guilt-relieving laughter that they barely pause for the searing scenes, and reviewers who extol the film's "comic warmth" but ignore its edge. Alexie calls his style "the humor of genocide," meaning that humor has helped Indians survive mass murder and the loss of language and land rights, but unfortunately white spectators find it all too convenient to focus on the humor and forget the genocide. It's worth considering why Alexie--who penned the phrase "Survival = Anger x Imagination"--tempered the righteous rage of his short stories for the screen. Perhaps the lesson is that land can only be retaken one territory at a time.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.