Tomboys and Totems

Then they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”
and to the hills, “Cover us!” (Luke 23:30)

What we see
and what we seem
are but a dream…
a dream within a dream.

These lines by Edgar Allan Poe, slightly reshaped, are the first spoken words in the classic Australian film, Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975). Based on a novel by the enigmatic Joan Lindsay, it is an experience that clings to you, not merely because it is so carefully and beautifully made, but also because it is a film with secret blades: it is a mystery without a solution, a horror story without savagery, a nightmare in which all the watches stop at noonday.

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

(Spoilers follow, but feel free to read on…)

The picnic takes place on St Valentine’s Day. Although named for a saint, the date is a license for the expression of natural desire, the heart of paganism. Along with the use of “pipes of pan” in the soundtrack, the culture of the schoolgirls is a scrapbook of Victorian symbols for fertility, awakening sexual desire and passionate obsessions strictly bound by the corset of Victorian religion. (In one scene, recitation of an ode to St Valentine is cut off for the sake of memorization of Casabianca). Victoriana is indeed not one but two women, a bride and a harlot.

The golden icon is a blessed sylph named Miranda, and both her appearance and her disappearance become elements in a sort of sacrificial ascension. Time stops and her potential is suddenly a flower pressed in a vice of tragedy. The end of her childhood is the birth of Venus. Though her purity is gone from the world, the memory of its fragrance fills the imaginations of those left behind, just as the mystery of the missing women corrupts, terrorizes and curses them, one by one.

The other thread is the quiet but unsettling tension in the clash of cultures and landscapes. The differences between the rough Australian stable hand and the young English gentleman are humorous but telling. They do not lock horns but become friends—and possible suspects.

The real discord is the imported English culture, its literature, dress and architecture transplanted, unadapted, into the dangerous and unforgiving Australian landscape. Peter Weir gives the rock a brooding life of its own. [1] In contrast, Appleyard College is a manmade Eden, a Temple and a greenhouse with boundaries clearly defined. Its lush lawns end abruptly and give way to brown fields. Moreover, the building in real life, Martindale Hall, was itself a deliberate reconstruction of the English home of the owner’s wife for the purpose of luring her to Australia. She never came, and he eventually lost it in a gambling debt.

Visually, the picnic is also a hopeful transplant. It is a European painting, an English pastoral, carefully recreated in a foreign land. [2] The brutish, volcanic monolith with its almost-faces, totem-pole profiles, hangs over the idyllic scene, then tears and devours. Have the women been snatched from paradise and swallowed by an ancient purgatory? Or have they instead been rescued, released from the unnatural constraints (and timekeeping) of high culture by the eternal noon of a timeless land? [3]

Marion: Whatever can those people be doing down there, like a lot of ants? A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Though it is probable they are performing some function unknown to themselves.

Miranda: Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.

Joan Lindsay’s novel was published in 1967. She said she wrote the book in only a few weeks after it came to her in dreams. She was repeatedly asked if the story were true and repeatedly hedged the question. It seems much of it was based on her own experiences in a girls’ college. She also refused to reveal the solution to the mystery.

However, the original manuscript did have an ending, left out on advice from her publisher and not released until 1987. The reader discovers what happened to the missing women, and yet it simply presents a further enigma. The Aboriginal dreamtime comes to the fore, with transformations into animal totems, falling rocks and the freezing of time. [4] It is beyond weird. Many lovers of the book reject it as a fake, or at least an ugly and unnecessary appendage to the ethereal beauty of this particularly strange never ending story.

All of this is an excuse not only to recommend, (on St Valentine’s Day!), a stunning Australian film, but also to illustrate a point about the book of Revelation. The attitude of most Christians towards this “final chapter” resembles that of the headmistress of Appleyard College to Hanging Rock.

Good morning, girls.

Good morning, Mrs. Appleyard.

Well, young ladies, we are indeed fortunate in the weather for our picnic to Hanging Rock. I have instructed Mademoiselle that as the day is likely to be warm, you may remove your gloves once the drag has passed through Woodend.

You will partake of luncheon at the picnic grounds near the rock. Once again let me remind you that the rock is extremely dangerous, and you are therefore forbidden any tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration, even on the lower slopes.

I also wish to remind you, the vicinity is renowned for its venomous snakes and poisonous ants of various species. It is, however, a geological marvel on which you will be required to write a brief essay on Monday morning.

That is all. Have a pleasant day, and try to behave yourselves in a manner to bring credit to the college.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ is not a book intended to be observed but experienced, over and over. It is designed to resonate. It is offensive to the cultured sensibilities which shield us because it is supposed to transcend them, to speak not only to us but through us. Many of those who have given themselves to it wholeheartedly are seldom seen again. They are devoured. They become alien. They speak a new language, the “madness” of the prophets whose eyes see the chariots of God (2 Kings 6:17).

Although it appears to be a hostile and foreign landscape, filled with confronting symbols, animal totems, virginal sacrifices clad in pure white, chosen, slain and ascending with a disturbing sexual undercurrent, the Revelation is in fact the authentic end of the story, a denouement of the natural world. The seed, flesh and skin of Genesis is everywhere in the Revelation, employed to express the bestial nature and hidden nakedness of institutions masquerading as gods and goddesses. The primeval world of Adam, a barren landscape of widows and orphans, no matter how ignored and neglected, waits silently until the sixth hour, when time shall be no more. The fruits of culture are ripe, and it bites and devours—and transfigures. Revelation is Genesis at full throttle, a bottle to be consumed and be consumed by, a fruit once forbidden but now freely offered. It is a book which removes inhibitions and exposes the hidden intents of the heart. The gardens of men are theft and nakedness, and their cities are murder and exile. The pungent, dreamtime symbols are the reality, the revelation. What we are and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.

Yet, as with the controversial Chapter 18 of Picnic At Hanging Rock, the Revelation contains nothing that isn’t contained either explicitly or implicitly in the earlier parts of the story. The natural world condemned in Romans 1 and 2 is simply described in a different language, one that will not wear the Victorian construct which is the moth eaten corset of Western Christianity. It is little wonder that the “schoolgirls” of modern colleges are restrained to the lower slopes by the prim, alcoholic widows of Babylonian academia.

With this in mind, I recommend Peter Leithart’s recent introductory lectures on the Revelation (available here) and for the brave, James B. Jordan’s interminable, er timeless, lecture series, available here. And I hope you enjoy the movie.
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[1] See an analysis of the opening shots here, and Roger Ebert’s review here.
[2] See Victoria Bladen, The Rock and the Void: Pastoral and Loss in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Peter Weir’s Film Adaptation. Interestingly, this scene was filmed over successive days instead of in a single afternoon as planned because the precise sunlight in the location desired by the director of photography was limited to an hour per day.
[3] See Rope of Silicon Movie Club: Picnic At Hanging Rock. The article mentions Twin Peaks.
[4] Ironically, this includes the mathematics teacher who explains the geology and history of the rock on their journey to the picnic site.

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4 Responses to “Tomboys and Totems”

  • David Says:

    Mike, you are amazing. A true artist in your own right. Instead of paints and brushes, you use words and thoughts.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks David – I’m pretty good with paints and brushes too. I think these are related skills, daubing and scribbling, like Cezanne and Zola (current reading). But these are tempered by major faults in all other areas. I was always the last to be chosen for a sports team and can be guaranteed to say the wrong thing in polite company. ;)

  • David Says:

    Well I thought you were artistic even by the images you use (no idea where or how you find them) and even though I have not seen your art,if it is anything like your writing is must be very good!

    Thanks for sharing your talents with the rest of us.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    No – thank you for reading!