Sunday, February 14, 2016

Rock of Ages

Theological Reflections on
Picnic at Hanging Rock

Note: I first saw Picnic at Hanging Rock upon its release in 1975. I was 10-years-old, and the haunting quality of the film left a deep and long-lasting impression on me. As I grew into awareness of my sexuality, the film's themes of oppression and liberation became meaningfully apparent to me. I wrote the first version of this paper in 1996 for Vertigo, a journal of thought and reflection on sexuality and spirituality published by the theology department of the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul. The version I share today at The Wild Reed was written in 2002 as part of my studies in film and theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

The aim of this paper is to use Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock as a visual text in an exploration of (i) unfettered power of empire and its connection to oppression and violence, (ii) human resistance to and liberation from such power, and (iii) the theological implications of these important interrelated issues. Accordingly, this exploration provides an opportunity to integrate three topics of great interest to me – film, religion and politics.

Film and Theology: A Rationale

I understand film, and art in general, as having the capacity to generate what theologian John Dixon terms "the fatal questions: How am I related to the other? How ought I to be related to the other?" Such questions have theological and social implications and can serve to propel us into the realm of the sacred, to seek, in other words, the ultimate ground of our being and the ways in which this ground-of-being is incarnated in and through human life.

I thus concur with theologian Margaret Miles who says that "film implicitly, if not explicitly, addresses the question of how human beings should live." Such a fundamental question, Miles insists, must be concerned with "the common good as well as [with] individual flourishing." At the heart of this insistence is Miles' belief that religion is primarily to do with exploration and articulation of a sense of relatedness – within an individual, between individuals, within families, communities and societies, and with the natural environment.

In short, I believe that any film – indeed, any work of art – that attempts to explore the human condition in all its complexity, will contain a spiritual and thus theological dimension worth investigating. I also concur with David Jasper when he states in the anthology Explorations in Theology and Film that for popular art to make a serious contribution to theological reflection and discussion, it has to be "two-edged, difficult and ambiguous" – qualities that are often reflective of authentic relationship and the questions regarding how we should live.

Religion and Politics: Some Clarifying Thoughts

Religion, if it is taken seriously, must inevitably be a public matter [in that] those who believe that a religious tradition or form of spirituality is true and valid cannot help but have their own public behavior shaped by its inspirations and demands . . . All serious traditions develop views of what is right and just.

Whether we like it or not, the connections between religion and public policy choices are profound and unavoidable. Government policy and religious matters are not the same thing but neither do they exist in isolation from each other. The two are distinct but not separate from each other. The two domains intertwine because both of them claim to give authoritative answers to important questions about how people should live.

– Hugh Hecklen

Picnic at Hanging Rock: A Synopsis

On St. Valentine's Day, 1900, a party of schoolgirls, accompanied by two teachers, embark from their exclusive rural Australian boarding school and partake in a picnic at a local geographical site known as Hanging Rock. During the course of the afternoon, three of the girls disappear – as does Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray), the college's mathematics mistress. Although one of the girls is discovered in a state of amnesia seven days later, no trace of the other missing picnickers is ever found.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, however, is not concerned with solving the mystery of what happened on the Rock. Instead, director Peter Weir is more interested in exploring how rigid structures of repressive power and control, personified in the film by the troubled headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) are undermined by the presence of mystery and the ability and willingness of some to transcend repressive systems of power. Such individuals are represented in the film by those who disappear at Hanging Rock – in particular the enigmatic Miranda (Anne Lambert) – and by the rebellious orphan Sara Waybourne (Margaret Nelson).

The plot of Peter Weir's film Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel and revolves upon the interesting though fictitious event described above. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir aims to unnerve and challenge not only the viewer's cinematographic and narrative expectations, but the rigidly ordered and oppressive structures of control that many cling to as opposed to being open to the unknown.

Such structures of control are represented in the film by the rural Victorian college wherein the schoolgirls reside in a climate of strict discipline and repressed sexuality.

Yet the college is only one of the film's two contrasting milieus. The opposing reality is the natural world, or as we term it in Australia, the bush.

Upon its release, Picnic at Hanging Rock was praised for its atmospheric cinematography – one which captures beautifully and hauntingly, the unique colors, sounds and contours of the Australian bush.

The opening scene for instance, depicts a forest of eucalyptus trees shrouded in an impenetrable mantle of mist. Silently the mist settles, obscuring the trees but revealing the jagged escarpments and pinnacles of Hanging Rock, aglow in the early morning light.

It is an image that exudes a sense of paradox and mystery, for the towering bulk of volcanic rock appears to hover in space, to hang miraculously within the firmament as if suspended in a timeless realm. The silence accompanying this image is broken only by occasional bird song and by a faint yet ominous sound – the source of which seems to be the very core of the Rock itself.

It is a deeply primordal sound – one that will be echoed on the afternoon of the picnic when Miss McCraw's attention is inexplicibly drawn from her book of trigonometry to the jutting crags of the Rock, and when the schoolgirls Miranda (Anne Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis) and Irma (Karen Robson) explore in awed fascination the time-encoded patterns and formations of the monolith. They are patterns that speak mesmerizingly of transcendence and timelessness, and formations that increasingly seem to invite passage to such realms.

Themes of oppression and liberation in Picnic at Hanging Rock

The film Picnic at Hanging Rock is set in rural Victoria, Australia, in the year 1900 – one year before Australia became a federated state, i.e. an entity with its own parliament and Prime Minister. Federation was a historic step – the birth of the Australian nation. Australia had taken a step away from the British empire – while still remaining a part of this empire. The film was made in the 1970s at a time when there was a resurgence in Australia of calls for full independence from Britain. Thus independence and liberation are strong themes not only within the film but within the underlying social, political and cultural matrix of both the film's time of setting and time of making.

Mrs. Appleyard: The personification of empire

At the beginning of the film, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) is portrayed as an imposing and regimented Englishwoman of genteel sophistication – a sophistication as foreign to the Australian psychic landscape as the imposing sandstone mansion and manicured lawns of Appleyard College are foreign to the physical landscape.

The presence of clocks in the film is significant. The first time we observe Mrs. Appleyard she is pausing in her writing to check her timepiece. The sound of a ticking grandfather clock dominates the soundtrack of this scene and virtually every scene involving Mrs. Appleyard. Even when she is outside, standing on the steps of the college forbidding the departing schoolgirls any "tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration" at Hanging Rock, a large clock can be viewed through the open front door of the college over Mrs. Appleyard's shoulder. What are these cinematic elements saying? What do clocks and the measurement of time symbolize in the film?

Mrs. Appleyard's world is clearly a structured one of certainty and control within which she confines herself as rigidly as she contains her own body within starched cloth and whalebone. Mrs. Appleyard's very Englishness in a foreign land denotes imperial power – a dominating and repressive power that is by necessity arrogant and controlling. The Union Jack, the flag of the British empire, flutters above the ancient Australian landscape while a portrait of Queen Victoria draped in similar flags, hangs high on the wall behind Mrs. Appleyard's desk.

Throughout the film, the English and/or many older Australians who remain strongly tied to the "mother-land" are portrayed negatively. The sole exception is the visiting young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard) who obsessed with Miranda, rejects his upper-class (and thus very British) obligations by joining with the young Australian stablehand, Albert (John Jarrett), to search for the missing picnickers on the Rock.

Insights on nationalism, capitalism, and imperialism

As previously noted, the character of Mrs. Appleyard personifies a system of repressive power, or in the words of Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy, "the accumulation of vast unfettered power". It is an accumulation that reflects cultural imperialism and comprises, in the words of theologian Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a "domination system." Nelson-Pallmeyer also notes in his book Jesus Against Christianity that the teachings and actions of the historical Jesus must be viewed in the context of such a domination system – as must our own lives as followers of Jesus in modern day America.

Arundhati Roy says that the accumulation of vast unfettered power by a State or a country, a corporation or an institution--or even an individual, a spouse, a friend, a sibling – regardless of ideology, results in excesses." Roy goes on to recount such excesses in our modern world: nuclear bombs, corporate globalization, the rising threat of fascism.

In her recent address entitled "Come September," Roy was especially critical of nationalism, which she sees as both a tool and an "excess" of "vast unfettered power." Roy and others have been labeled "anti-national" for expressing their views. Yet as she notes, "It isn't necessary to be 'anti-national' to be deeply suspicious of all nationalism, to be anti-nationalism. Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead."

According to Joel Kovel in his book The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World, nationalism in the U.S. is intrinsically tied to capitalism and thus to U.S. imperialism.

Imperialism and empire

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow with the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, notes that imperialism and empires comprise an old story – "the story of a strategically unchallenged domination, at the apex of its power and influence, rewriting global rules." She goes on to relate how "Two thousand years ago, Thucydides described the conquering of the island of Mylos by the Greeks in order to ensure stability for the Greek empire's 'democratic' golden age. The [inhabitants of the island] asked, 'What about democracy?' And the Greeks responded, 'For us there is democracy; for you there is the law of empire.' The Roman empire did the same, creating one set of laws for Rome's own citizens, imposing another on its far-flung possessions. The British empire did much the same thing. And then, at the end of the 20th century, having achieved once unimaginable heights of military, economic, and political power, it was Washington's turn. It remains for us, in the United States, to bring an end to empire and a beginning of a search for real democracy in its stead."

The disappearances at Hanging Rock as symbolic of transcendence and liberation

Film critic Neil Rattingan notes that the girls who vanish on the Rock "appear to go to their fate with calm assurance, even eager acceptance." Indeed, those who disappear on the Rock do so precisely because they are able to and want to. The film clearly presents each one as an individual who has reached a certain level of consciousness whereby they can embrace mystery, take risks, and transcend restrictive, external norms and conventions. This transcendence is depicted in the film by their disappearance on the Rock.

"Whatever could those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?" muses Marion as she gazes from the Rock to the picnickers below. In answer to her own question she concludes that "a surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it is probable they are performing some function unknown to themselves," or in other words, without consciousness.

Miranda's comment to Sara that she "won't be here much longer," is on one level an acknowledgement that as a senior her days at the college are numbered. Yet it can also be seen (as Sara later sees it) as perception of her own imminent transcendence. At the picnic, before embarking with Marion, Irma, and Edith to explore the Rock, Miranda is shown looking at a flower through a magnifying glass. The focus of this shot is her eye, symbol of perception and consciousness, magnified (expanded) as she holds the glass to her face.

Later on the Rock, she calmly remarks that "Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place," and then immediately draws her companions' attention to an outcrop of rock dominated by a large egg-shaped monolith. This is the last place Edith (Christine Schuler) observes Miranda, Marion and Irma moving towards before she panics, turns, and runs screaming and stumbling to the plain below. It is during this hysterical descent, Edith later recounts, that she observes a "nasty red" cloud and Miss McCraw – "going up the hill" and looking "funny." Pressed on the matter, Edith confides to Mademoiselle De Poitiers (Helen Morse), the college's French and dancing mistress, that Miss McCraw was not wearing a skirt – just her drawers.

Indeed, of the three who ultimately disappear Greta McCraw is the most intriguing as the events surrounding her disappearance on the Rock are only talked about, not actually depicted in the film. Calm and methodical, Greta McCraw displays the least attachment to the physical and temporal realm – a fact verified by her perspective on time and the geological processes that created the Rock and which she articulates in an almost trace-like state while enroute to the picnic: "Only a million years ago. Quite a recent eruption really. The rocks all round – Mount Macedon itself – must be all of 350 million years old. Silicious lava, forced up from deep down below. Soda trachytes extruded in a highly viscous state, building the steep sided mamelons we see in Hanging Rock. And quite young geologically speaking. Barely a million years."

Like Miranda, Greta McCraw exudes a trusting fatalism. For when Irma frivolously comments that Hanging Rock has been "waiting a million years just for us," a contented look of anticipation settles upon Greta McCraw's face. The camera then cuts to a view of Hanging Rock, dominating the plain from which it rises abruptly and resonating a faint yet ominous sound.

Yet what of those who ascend the Rock but do not disappear? Edith is clearly portrayed as an individual unwilling and/or unable to expand in consciousness and thus transcend restrictive norms and conventions. She keeps her hat and gloves on at all times – even while exploring the Rock. Note too her lack of awareness of the abundance of insect life around her when she states that except for the Fitzhubert party, the picnickers from the college "could be the only living things in the whole wide world." Her "world" and her perspective are clearly narrow. Irma, though more aware and open than Edith, is nevertheless unprepared to completely let go of the world she knows. Until her rescue by Michael Fitzhubert, she is stranded in a nether world on the Rock – unable to go back yet unwilling to follow Miranda, Marion and Miss McCraw whose disappearance can be equated to the overcoming of the ego, or the socialized self, as one grows in consciousness and enters into one's true Self. It is also a disappearance that can be equated to the overcoming of oppressive systems of domination by individuals and grassroots communities.

The film's portrayal of the disintegrating mental state and fear-based actions of Mrs. Appleyard in the wake of the picnic, suggests that the response of empire to this transcendence, this liberation, can often be fear, mistrust, condemnation, and violence. Unwilling to live more consciously and thus more justly, and unable to embrace mystery, those entrenched in empire retreat into a fabricated world of certainty – clinging desperately to realities that are actually transient and fearing the mystery dimension of life and the necessary work of authentic community-building which holds the key to their salvation.

Note Mrs. Appleyards's yearning for a changeless, "utterly dependable" world and her bitter incomprehension of Miss McCraw's disappearance – "How could she allow herself to be spirited away?"

There is a real sense of betrayal in her words as it is inconceivable to Mrs. Appleyard that anyone part of the ruling status quo would seek any other type of existence. Yet for Greta McCraw, Marion and Miranda, the gaining of consciousness has led them to move beyond the "dependable" yet restrictive parameters of empire.

The letting go of restrictive trappings of external authority and control, intrinsic to such moving beyond, is represented in the film by the girls' discarding of shoes, stockings and corsets, and by Miss McCraw's ascending of the Rock with "no skirt, just les pantaloons."

Liberation, human consciousness, and divinity

The concept of consciousness and the attitude of trustfulness are key here. In his book The Kingdom Within, John Sanford suggests that the divinity of Jesus (like our own inner core of divinity) must be understood in terms of consciousness and wholeness as opposed to infallibility and perfection. With this understanding in mind, it can be said that the historical Jesus was divine because of the profound depth of his awareness regarding his understanding and living out of right relationship – with himself, others and God.

Sanford notes that throughout his life and ministry, Jesus called others to likewise cultivate this depth of consciousness – to recognize and claim, in other words, the sacred within themselves – to be "spirited away," one could say. Trust is a key component of this process and the film reflects this in its depiction of the schoolgirls' trusting ascension of the Rock.

Such a trusting attitude is the hallmark of authentic spirituality, a prime characteristic of a truly spiritual person. As John Haught notes in What Is Religion?, "At the heart of religion there is an attitude of confidence and assurance. Religion is not in the same category of understanding as, for example, knowledge of the multiplication tables [the type of empirical knowledge that Mrs. Appleyard demands of her students]. [Religion] hardly possesses that kind of clarity and distinctness. People do not become religious simply by performing automatic operations in logic. Religion instead is closer to interpersonal kinds of experience and knowledge. The latter require that we risk ourselves by going out to people in acts of trust."

Biblical support for the crucial role of human consciousness in the spiritual journey can be found in the more esoteric writings of the New Testament, for instance the so-called "Quaker" text of John's gospel which reads: "There is that of God in every person." The Quaker tradition in particular, understands this inner sacred presence as a Divine Light that moves to illumine and transform. Another support for the place and role of human consciousness in understanding divinity is John 14:12, when Jesus states: "I am in God, and God is in me . . . In truth I tell you, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, and will perform even greater works." Yet how are the followers of Jesus to demonstrate their belief? Sanford notes that the Christian tradition's answer is by following Jesus' example of openness and responsiveness to the life-giving presence of the sacred through prayer, reflection and concern for and action on the behalf of others.

For Sanford and others, the Kingdom or Reign of God is not a place but a way of living, a mode of being--one that demands ever-expanding consciousness and thus compassion and justice-making – qualities that are ultimately threatening to empire. He notes Jesus' questioning of his disciples as to who he is, and Peter's response, "You are the Christ." Jesus' subsequent congratulating of Peter is, says Sanford, one that focuses on Peter's spiritual insight. Peter has become conscious, and on this rests both his faith and his authority. Sanford also notes that in the Greek, Jesus calls Simon "Petros," the masculine for "rock," and then refers to "this petra," the feminine form of the word. Thus Peter's authority – and by extension any follower's authority – is founded on the rock of conscious insight. Sanford maintains that accordingly, "wherever this act of consciousness is made, the Church exists."

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the missing schoolgirls and Miss McCraw ascend the rock of consciousness and thus transcend the oppressive system of domination symbolized by Appleyard College. As we've noted, such liberation is extremely threatening to those in power within a system of domination. As a survivor of U.S.-backed death squads in Latin America recently said when talking about how the death squads know who to target: "[They target] those who think, those who question, those who say 'no'." In other words, it is those who are conscious, those who are aware and willing to identify, confront and challenge dysfunctional, oppressive systems of power that are most likely to be targeted for eradication by these systems.

The response of empire to transcendence and liberation

The mysterious events at Hanging Rock undermine the rigid world of order and control at Appleyard College. In particular, the film charts the downward spiral of Mrs. Appleyard as she fights to uphold the prestige of the College and takes out her frustration and fear on the rebellious orphan Sara.

Fear is clearly driving Mrs. Appleyard's actions – fear of the unknown happenings at Hanging Rock, fear of losing face, of loss of prestige and credibility. Her forbidding of "any idle and morbid gossip about this whole wretched business," for instance, is an ultimately fearful attempt to sure up security for her own sense of self and the prestige of the college – both powerful symbols of order and control, of empire. Her words are reminiscent of the Vatican – the last bastion of imperial power in Europe – and it's forbidding of any within the Roman Catholic Church openly discussing the possibility of female ordination out of fear that such a reality would undermine its authority.

Mrs. Appleyard's words and actions are also reminiscent not only of current attempts in the United States to increase security at the expense of civil liberties, but this same country's long tradition of a mainstream corporate media that, by and large, serves as a propaganda mouthpiece for this nation's empire-building ruling elite – a media that ignores and minimizes dissent.

Yet as Rev. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. notes, "The real threat to the U.S. is fear itself. We seem to be developing a paranoia that ultimately will poison the spirit of the nation, making us all suspicious and overly defensive. The truth is, there is no such thing as absolute security. Life by its very nature puts us in a stance of vulnerability. You cannot protect yourself against everything, and no amount of government surveillance or police security or training people to be on the watch for suspicious people will ultimately protect us . . . "

Rev. Griswold goes on to say that: "With respect to the real sources of threats, I think our deportment in the world creates the greatest exposure to anger and terrorist attack. We need to examine our relationship with other nations, particularly those parts of the world suffering from hunger, poverty, and violence. How do our policies, ordered to our interests, affect other nations? How does the export of our culture, often at its worst, undermine the identity and values of other societies? By addressing these and other questions, and not simply arming ourselves, we can protect ourselves most effectively and most authentically."

Sara Waybourne: The personification of those outside the gates of empire

Sara's defiance of Mrs. Appleyard – at times open and at other times silent – marks her as a target for the principal's anger and frustration. Sara is not afraid to say "no," as when she refuses to rote learn "The Wreak of the Hesperus" – an English poem which to Sara, a budding young Australian poet, "doesn't make sense." Sara is also a target of Mrs. Appleyard's fear and wrath as she represents those outside the system of power over which Mrs. Appleyard presides. Unlike the other students at the college, Sara does not come from a family of wealth and power. She is a ward of the state. Furthermore, her guardian, Mr. Cosgrove, is "impossibly overdue" with Sara's tuition fees.

Sara thus represents those outside the gates of empire – those who potentially pose the greatest threat to empire. Such people must be pushed aside. Hence Mrs. Appleyard's decision to send Sara back to the orphanage, hence the American empire's decision to allow the preventable deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqi children due to years of economic sanctions. It's a price that's "worth it," according to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. These children simply don't matter. They are outside the gates of empire.

Rachel Roberts' Mrs. Appleyard: A complex, nuanced portrayal

One of the most powerful scenes in Picnic at Hanging Rock depicts Mrs. Appleyard alone in her darkened study just after she has informed Sara of her decision to return her to the orphanage. It seems that Mrs. Appleyard's decision has momentarily pierced her armor for we see her weeping uncontrollably in the darkness. Visually, much of this scene is comprised of camera shots of various objects in the room – a portrait of her late husband, Arthur, another of Queen Victoria – faces that stare out impotently from their gilded frames. In the face of ultimate mystery and our vulnerability before it, the film says, such trappings and symbols of domination and power are of no value.

Meanwhile upstairs, something of great value has been discarded by Mrs. Appleyard – Sara's well-being and life. In despair, Sara chooses to take her own life by throwing herself out of an upper floor window of the college. The film makes it clear that this act of self-inflicted violence has been brought about by the unbearable weight of oppressive systematic violence. What does this say about acts of responsive violence in our world today? Do we seek to identify the oppressive systemic violence that fuel such acts? Are we prepared to identify and address the root causes of the responsive, terrorist violence that threatens us here in the so-called First World?

I appreciate Rachel Roberts' attempts to humanize Mrs. Appleyard. In Joan Lindsay's novel upon which the film is based, Mrs. Appleyard is portrayed as a one-dimensional caricature – a larger-than-life villain. I sense a mean-spiritedness on the part of the author in creating this character, and an almost gleeful satisfaction in depicting her fall. Roberts' portrayal is more nuanced, more complex.

In one scene we observe Mrs. Appleyard opening her desk drawer to retrieve a glass into which she pours whiskey. Parents are withdrawing their children from the college and Miss Lumley (Kristy Child), a member of the college staff, has just given notice. What's fascinating about this scene is what we see in the drawer. One would expect papers or objects related to Mrs. Appleyard's role as headmistress at an exclusive school. Yet instead, we catch a glimpse of a drawer filled with romantic and girlish trinkets. What is the film saying by this?

Through this crucial scene we are given a glimpse into a dimension of Mrs. Appleyard's personality that she has repressed and hidden away. She's not as different to her charges as she pretends. These objects would not be out of place on, say, Miranda's dresser. Yet she has repressed such objects and thus a part of herself and awareness of shared connection with those around her. The isolation that results fuels and compounds her feelings of frustration and fear. Empire is isolating. Its fear of vulnerability prevents authentic engagement with others and thus positive transformation. Accordingly, it blinds us to the concerns and needs of others, which for a Christian is intolerable as the key tenet of the Christian faith is love of neighbor and thus God.

I must admit I am drawn to the tragic, troubled figure of Mrs. Appleyard as I see in her a part of myself. I think all of the characters in this film serve as archetypes. We all, for instance, have a part of us that like Mrs. Appleyard, is fearful of losing control, fearful of standing vulnerable before mystery. A part of all of us craves for a safe and "utterly dependable world." Yet we also each contain a Miranda within – a free and trusting spirit, one that seeks ever new frontiers of awareness and experience. As previously noted, it is this trust, not fear, which is the hallmark of authentic spirituality. In contrast to such spirituality, the false-theology of empire is dependent upon and fuels fear.

The Mystical Body of Christ: An alternative to the false-theology of empire

The false-theology of empire is clearly espoused by those in power in the United States. It is, however, life-denying and ultimately self-destructive. A life-giving alternative is one that I was first introduced to through the writings of Dorothy Day. This alternative is the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. For Day, the Mystical Body includes all of us as there is no human being (and I would say no created object) without the presence of the sacred within. Note how this correlates to our previous discussion on human consciousness as an expression of indwelling divinity. Furthermore the doctrine of the Mystical Body stresses that we are all sisters and brothers to one another. When one of us suffers an injury, we all suffer an injury. Accordingly, when a system of vast unfettered power threatens to tear us, and thus the Body of Christ apart, it must be resisted, challenged and transformed.

Relationl Power: An alternative to domination

Instead of empire's dominating power, Paul King and David Woodyard in their book Liberating Nature: Theology and Economics in a New World Order, advocate an alternative expression of power – one marked by reciprocity and solidarity. They note that the essence of reciprocity is mutual interdependence and responsibility. Thus it is not "power over" but "power with" and "power for." Power liberated from domination has been termed "relational power" by many theologians – a power that aims "not to diminish the other, but to empower all."

Ecosocialism: An alternative to capitalism

As for an alternative to what Dorothy Day described as the "filthy rotten system" of capitalism, Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? advocates ecosocialism which is an updated socialism that sees socio-economic questions inextricably intertwined with the fundamental physical realities of life on earth – realities currently threatened by "death dealing capital."

The death of Mrs. Appleyard

Picnic at Hanging Rock similarly reflects an understanding of empire that is life-denying and ultimately self-destructive. At the end of the school term when Mr. Whitehead (Frank Gunnell), the college gardener, discovers Sara's body in the greenhouse beneath the window from which she jumped, he runs in shock to Mrs. Appleyard's study. The headmistress sits silent and erect at her desk, dressed in her traveling cloths and with her luggage stacked neatly before her. She turns to the distraught old man with a cold, unfeeling gaze. The news of Sara's death is not a surprise to Mrs. Appleyard. The camera stays on Mrs. Appleyard's face for what seems an unbearable period of time, with the only accompanying sound being the ticking of the ever-present clock.

There is an almost insane quality to this constant, driving sound, which of course is intentional and appropriate. For when it finally stops we're left simply with the frozen face of Mrs. Appleyard and a voice-over which informs us of her fate: "The body of Mrs. Arthur Appleyard, principal of Appleyard College, was found at the base of Hanging Rock on Friday, 22nd March, 1900. Although the exact circumstances of her death are not known, it is believed she fell while attempting to climb the Rock."

The implication of the film's concluding voice-over is that to the end, Mrs. Appleyard sought to conquer mystery, failing to comprehend and respond to the alternative, life-giving call to enter into mystery, to let go of the false-security of empire and embrace instead others and thus (theologically speaking) the warm, nurturing Body of Christ.

The eternal threshold

In our own current situation I see the elites of the Bush regime insane with empire-building and trampling on the Body of Christ. Death and destruction reign and as the year 2002 ebbs, seem set to increase. Yet the ultimate outcome of such endeavors can only mirror the fate of Mrs. Appleyard. Although I find myself at times filled with rage, this film reminds me that perhaps like Mrs. Appleyard, those in positions of power in this country are in reality deeply troubled and fearful. How do conscious people – people of conscience – respond? We must gently and lovingly comfort and challenge those who exhibit such fearfulness, trusting that we are all called to incarnate the loving and transformative presence and action of the sacred, all called to be the Body of Christ for one another.

Picnic at Hanging Rock says that transcendence is possible and that we all have a choice to embrace mystery and grow in consciousness, to leave behind the trappings of oppressive systems and scale the sunlit peaks of awareness and life-giving action. It is significant that the film does not end with the compassionless, immobile face of Mrs. Appleyard imprisoned in her world of empire, but cuts to the sun-drenched images from the St. Valentine's Day picnic. The slow-motion images of the picnickers momentarily liberated, on this day dedicated to love, from the confines of Appleyard College, and in particular the image of Miranda embarking on her transcendence, speak powerfully of the eternal (and thus timeless) moment of opportunity to cross the threshold into conscious sacred life – a life that has no need for empire, domination or fear.


Postscript: Mrs. Appleyard at Hanging Rock

And now, at last, after a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axmininster carpets, the heavy flat-footed woman trod the springing earth. Born fifty-seven years ago in a suburban wilderness of smoke-grimed bricks, she knew no more of Nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. . . . When the ground started to rise towards the Rock, she knew that she must turn to the right into the waist-high bracken and begin to climb . . . She could feel the perspiration trickling down her neck under the stiff lace at her throat [and looked] up at the sky faintly streaked with pink behind a row of jagged peaks.

– Joan Lindsay
from Picnic at Hanging Rock

At the end of Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mrs. Appleyard's scaling of Hanging Rock is depicted as the actions of a rageful and frustrated woman who, with a shaking fist and an insane glint in her eye, attempts to take on Hanging Rock itself. Cliff Green's screenplay follows Lindsay's lead. Accordingly, Mrs. Appleyard is simply described as "an exhausted, half-mad old woman . . . an old lady in a long blue coat and gloves . . . wearing a brown hat with a feather in it."

Yet this emphasis on "madness" prevents any meaningful or insightful exploration as to why Mrs. Applyard – this bastion of empire – actually travels to Hanging Rock and attempts to climb it. Accordingly, given this paper's theological analysis of the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, I'd like to engage in just such an exploration and, in doing so, offer a deeper, more hopeful reason than insanity for Mrs. Appleyard's journey to Hanging Rock.

First, however, it needs to be noted that the images on this page will not be found in any currently available version of Peter Weir's film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Although Rachel Roberts was filmed as Mrs. Appleyard at Hanging Rock, this particular scene was never included in the final film. Thankfully, the footage shot was not lost forever – hence these haunting images of Mrs. Appleyard at Hanging Rock.

The story of the rediscovery of these images is centered on an Australian named David Critchley who in 1997 set about compiling a "special edition" of Joan Lindsay's novel – the proceeds of which would benefit the Hanging Rock Reserve. Published in 2002, the end-result of Critchley's labour-of-love is, according to Michelle Griffen of the Melbourne newspaper The Age, "a gorgeous coffee-table book of the original Picnic at Hanging Rock novel, interlaced with excerpts from Cliff Green's screenplay and illustrated with hundreds of never-before-seen images."

Griffen also notes that in search for the missing scene of Mrs. Appleyard on the Rock, Critchley "discovered the mother lode – the original rushes from the film production, full of unseen footage, kept in three sea chests under a stairwell in a Sydney house. Normally, a film's rushes are destroyed, but in this case they'd been saved from being dumped by a crew member."

Given this paper's contention that Hanging Rock represents consciousness and that those who disappear on the afternoon of the picnic ascend the Rock seeking and gaining liberation from oppressive societal structures, I propose that Mrs. Appleyard, for reasons that perhaps she herself could not fully comprehend or articulate, was drawn to the Rock – drawn to a higher level of awareness. It was the overwhelmingly negative consequences resulting from her previous way of dealing with the mysterious events at the Rock, that faciltated this seeking of greater awareness. Chief among these negative consequences was the suicide of Sara Waybourne – a tragedy brought about by Mrs. Appleyard's uncompassionate treatment of the young woman.

Yet no one is beyond salvation; all can be awakened at some deep, sacred level to the call of liberation. Physically, Mrs. Appleyard perished on the Rock. Spiritually, she was finally freed from that oppressive system of empire which it seems she had spent a lifetime trying to embody – yet at a terrible price. She couldn't even use her own name. She was Mrs. Arthur Appleyard. Thus in a fundamental way, Mrs. Appleyard was oppressed and robbed by the very system she had dedicated her life to serving.

Yet now, at last, among the towering crags and pinnacles of Hanging Rock, this nameless woman who had sacrificed her very identity at the altar of empire, begins to let go, begins to go beyond. Like the missing picnickers before her, Mrs. Appleyard abandons the outward symbols of empire, of her exalted position which had prevented her from experiencing – from feeling – life. Such trappings as her umbrella, her overcoat, her handbag are abandoned. Even her hair, usually tightly arranged into an armored pompadour, is loosened and hangs free. Yet doubt and fear remain – as evidenced in her eyes. It is the fear of a newly aware being in an infinite and mysterious universe. Hence the need for a guide – a bodhisattva in Buddhist thought; one who has achieved liberation yet who lingers so as to assist others in their journey.

In Joan Lindsay's book, Sara Waybourne's appearance to Mrs. Appleyard on the Rock is depicted as that of an avenging specter – one clothed "in a nightdress, with one eye fixed and staring from a mask of rotting flesh."

It is this sight, the book implies, that drives the crazed Mrs. Appleyard to leap from the Rock to her death.

Interestingly, Weir does not attempt to depict Sara in such a gruesome and repellent way. Instead, I perceive the expression on Sara's face as she looks upon the frightened and unraveling Mrs. Appleyard as one of compassion and forgiveness. It's also worth noting that the sight of Sara on Weir's film does not make Mrs Appleyard recoil, let alone leap to her death.

Instead, like the missing schoolgirls before her, Mrs Appleyard approaches the monolith, seemingly disappearing within it. Perhaps then, in the film's interpretation of the book's ending, it is Mrs. Appleyard's attempt to trustingly climb to the level of the compassionate Sara that results in her physical death – that most ultimate letting go to which we will all one day be called.

Thus rather than taking the easy way out and simply destroying her, I like to believe that the lost ending of Picnic at Hanging Rock shows director Peter Weir undertaking the infinitely more difficult task of depicting Mrs. Appleyard's ultimate transformation.

– Michael Bayly
October 2002

Recommended Off-site Links:
In Search of Picnic's Past – Michelle Griffin (The Age, November 20, 2002).
Picnic at Hanging Rock – The Unseen Voices – John Godl (Bright Light Cafe).
Picnic Being the Operative Word: Mrs. Appleyard and Sara in Picnic at Hanging Rock – Kate Bellmore (Reel Club, August 7, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
John Pilger on Resisting Empire
John le Carré's "Dark Suspicions"
Tariq Ali Discusses Rudyard Kipling
Thoughts on Transformation (Part 1)
Thoughts on Transformation (Part 2
Thoughts on Transformation (Part 3)
Threshold Musings
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible

1 comment:

Bianca said...

I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock for the second time today. Your assessment of the film excites me! Thank you. Truly wonderful read.