N.B. | Picnic at Hanging Rock by Keith Ekiss18/04/2011
I’ve never been to Australia. But, I imagine if I ever visit, the landscape will seem familiar. I was raised in the Sonoran desert of Arizona and have fond childhood memories of barrenness, long horizons, and hiking in 100 degree heat among volcanic outcrops like the one three girls disappear into, never to return, early in Peter Weir’s 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. As a writer, I’m drawn to moments of estrangement, disconnection, and absence, to the genuine mystery of the real, and this begins, in part, from growing up in that forbidding landscape.
It’s February 14th, 1900 and the schoolgirls of Appleyard College in Victoria State have been granted an afternoon’s respite by their stern headmistress. It would be easy to classify the movie as a frocks and bodices period piece, but these girls are spooky from the get go: they smile as if they know they will disappear; wash their faces like a ritual cleansing before a sacrifice; read love poetry and press the flowers they will be remembered by in books. I won’t be here much longer, one says. They dance in circles holding hands; they scatter petals.
A horse-drawn carriage ride past eucalyptus, the land is flat, brown, hot, and dusty.
A picnic in petticoats, a butcher’s knife slices through a heart-shaped cake. Drawn away from the adults, further and further into the maze of the mountains, the girls seem lead on by absence itself (and the cheesy pan flute soundtrack by Zamfir). We may be the only living creatures in the whole world. They slip between rocks like mountain spirits returning to their rightful home. The sun is glaring, unrelenting, dizzying. The landscape is the enemy. Be careful, there could be snakes, the very phrase I heard in my childhood. Their disappearance seems at once inevitable and without reason. As a boy, I wandered through the desert to the point where I could barely see my house in the distance. The girls were lost forever, carried by some force beyond their comprehension. It could just as well have been me.