“Everything begins and ends at precisely the right time and place.”

Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), dir. Peter Weir

This film is delicate, lovely, and mysteriously elusive. It is also, without a doubt, one of the eeriest, most frightening films I have ever seen. Its premise is simple – on Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of Australian schoolgirls enjoy a day trip to a local “geological marvel”. Three of the girls and their teacher climb the rock and disappear forever. In the aftermath of the tragedy, those affected search for answers.

On paper, so to speak, the film’s imagery and tone might seem in line with other so-called period pieces. Beautiful, virginal adolescents in frilly white frocks. Gently swelling classical music. Natural light, a soft colour palette.  The cinematography is incredibly skillful – careful compositions and slow pans that are artful without being distracting.

But there are a few moments in which this thick, dreamlike and deceptive calm is ruptured. These moments are extremely jarring, and are the closest the film ever gets to the “horror” classification which has sometimes been given to it. The truth is that this film is impossible to classify or pigeonhole neatly into a certain genre.

Yet the calm can be frightening as well. The rock itself is a presence that looms over the countryside and over the film, silent and massive and unmoving, yet weirdly sentient… the volcanic formations, the crevices, and the crags seem to gaze right back at the girls, at the camera, and at us.

In part what is so fascinating about Hanging Rock is the way the girls, with their delicately civilized loveliness, contrast with the primal, ancient, untamed, sublime beauty of the rock itself. They’re people who are unsuited to their surroundings on an essential level.

In the wake of the disappearance, we spend time with the girls’ peers, their teachers, and others in their lives, as the event weighs down upon the community. Michael, the wealthy young man who becomes obsessed with the vanished girls after a chance encounter on the Rock on the day of the picnic; little Edith, the “dumpy” younger classmate who is so overcome by an incomprehensible terror that she leaves the three and runs screaming down the rock; Mrs. Appleyard, the prim, cruel headmistress who seems to care more about her school’s reputation and the preservation of propriety than for the fate of her students; poor, sad, abused Sara, the orphan girl who serves as a sort of school scapegoat… these are characters every bit as memorable and haunting as doomed Miranda and her two companions.

The mystery is never solved, but that’s as it should be. There is something so much more terrifying about the absolutely unknown – something unexplainable by either science or the supernatural – than in any story of kidnapping, murder, rape or tragic accident. The clues and symbols add up, not into a solved puzzle, but into something more abstract…

Picnic at Hanging Rock leaves you with a feeling that is as difficult to describe as it is impossible to shake. It is profoundly unsettling, but there is also a kind of sweetness to the haunting grief it evokes. What’s really remarkable is that it is impossible to directly trace the source of the feeling of unease experienced from the opening shot to the closing credits. You can’t point to a certain shot or bit of music or cryptic phrase as the reason for the strange feeling. In that way, the film truly transcends the sum of its parts. I look forward to revisiting the film as an adult – I feel that it’s the kind that reveals different things as you grow and change.

It’s tempting to scour the film for clues and to analyze the subtext to find some clear message – certainly, themes of budding sexual desire, fascination, prim society, and the civilized fear of the wild and unknown are hinted at, and often present. But I think such a clinical evaluation would be doing it a disservice. The way the the film deliberately avoids providing clear and easy answers is an essential part of the experience. By telling a mystery story without resolution and creating such a powerful yet inexplicable response in the viewer, Peter Weir elevates his tale into the realm of the allegorical.

Here are images from the film.

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Top Ten Criterions #9: The Red Shoes

THE RED SHOES (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

I first discovered The Red Shoes when I was watching all the films that had been cited as influences on Black Swan, a very satisfying movie marathon that also included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Red Shoes  was made more than sixty years ago, but it remains one of the most visually striking, overwhelmingly beautiful films about art ever created.

Moira Shearer as Victoria Page.

The plot itself is simple, the plot of a fairytale – a parable, even. Vicky is a beautiful, talented young ballerina who stars in a ballet production of the titular story by Hans Christian Anderson. She finds herself faced with a choice – between her dancing career and the charismatic, ambitious director who discovered her talent, or the young composer she has grown to love.

“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Her own life, predictably enough, reflects the story she dances on the stage: Her red ballet shoes betray her only when love threatens to tear them apart. Just like in the fairy tale, once she puts them on (in other words, dedicates her life to art), she cannot take them off. The Red Shoes features a self-reflective narrative and is about the dangerous, obsessive totality of artistic dedication. It shows us how difficult it is for one girl to have two lives, however beautiful both love and art can be.

“…not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

But what makes The Red Shoes such an exultant experience is that it is a celebration of ballet and of cinema far more than it is a cautionary tale. The famous, prolonged dance scene is gorgeous and striking, and it had such an impact on me because it makes such incredibly effective use of it its medium. The sequence features cinematography and editing that offers a far more complete sense of what ballet is than it is possible to receive while sitting in front of a stage. The camera alternates between three perspectives. First, that of the audience – this is view of ballet that we are all familiar with. Then, Vicky’s own perspective – a rhythmically spinning, blurred view of not much at all. But the third view is, to me, the most important. It is too close, and the camera’s movement is too much of a dance itself to be something you could see while watching a ballet in person. And the images are too hallucinatory, too magical – they present our eyes and our hearts with what ballet suggests. It’s way of looking at ballet that is only possible in the movies.

Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

During the ballet of the Red Shoes itself, we are transported into a world which exists only in our heads, the world which the music and the movement and the costumes are supposed to conjure for us, purely and directly visualized in film. It’s seamlessly fantastical, a beautiful whirling vision of color and imagination and tragedy. At the very end of the ballet, the vision fades and we are shown again what the captivated audience in the auditorium sees, and then an angle from backstage. And after the applause and bow, the stark cement world of the dancers’ practice room seems cold and bare compared to the lovely visions that we have been privy to.

This movie does what all cinema should aspire to but only the best films achieve: it gave us a vision of life and art that literally only the camera can provide.

Top Ten Criterions #10: Mystery Train

MYSTERY TRAIN (1989), dir. Jim Jarmusch

Mystery Train is set in Memphis, and features a  scattered cast of people – two young tourists from Japan, an Italian widow,  the African-American hotel employees, a group of criminals. Their lives loosely converge at one run-down hotel. The film is ambient and meandering within a tight and clever structure. It is divided into three sections – each chapter presents the same basic location and a similar lapse of time, but from a different perspective. By the end of the film, it is satisfying to see how these three stories barely touch each other. It’s contrived, but gently so – the disparate stories are interconnected, but for no would-be-grandiose purpose à la Magnolia. Instead, the structure has a pleasant literary quality to it. Jarmusch, maybe even more so than Quentin Tarantino, is very good at being episodic. (See also: Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control.) Mystery Train leaves you with the sense that you’re sadly unaware of all the individual stories unfolding all around you, of all the lives that briefly and barely intersect your own.

Cinqué Lee and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Mystery Train is one of Jarmusch’s most entertaining and genuinely humorous films. It is full of quietly funny moments – the Japanese boy scolding his girlfriend for packing too many shirts and her solution of layering them, four at a time; the introverted Italian widow easily convinced to buy a dozen magazines; the hotel’s young bellhop discussing his uniform with the desk clerk.The recurring tale that locals tell about the ghost of Elvis Presley is just delightful.

Mitsuko and Jun explore Memphis.

The cinematography, by frequent Wim Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, is beautiful and oddly calming – I especially enjoy slow pans down the street that take in the whole environment in all its empty, faded glory, the eye of the camera moving with the traveling characters, but at a distance. It’s incredibly atmospheric. The nearly deserted streets, cracked pavement, and abandoned, decaying buildings have a mournful aesthetic that I particularly enjoy. One of the qualities I most admire in Jarmusch as a director is his ability to make the mundane beautiful; in this film, we first travel through Memphis with a pair of kids who soak in their new environment with infectious wonder.

Steve Buscemi, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles as criminals Charlie, Johnny, and Will.

The music is, of course, fantastic. (Elvis’ “Blue Moon” plays a pivotal role.) It is fitting that a film about the birthplace of a generation of American music would feature several musicians in its cast. Joe Strummer of the Clash plays a man named Johnny whose appearance has earned him a frequent and much-hated comparison to Elvis, and blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins gives a very amusing deadpan performance as the night clerk. Additionally, Tom Waits voices the radio DJ.

The director of photography, Robby Müller, also worked with Jarmusch on Down By Law, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and Coffee & Cigarettes.

This film is about the allure of a place as much as it is about the people within it. It’s no coincidence that most of Jarmusch’s films are about travel. As Dennis Lim wrote in an essay about the film for Criterion, “Jarmusch’s career… has been consecrated to the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange, the satisfactions of “the drift,” the romance of “someplace else.” This film contains a particularly fascinating idea – that America’s equivalent of cultural landmarks or holy places of pilgrimage would be a ghost town that rock and roll legends once called home. The Memphis of Mystery Train is grimy, mournful, and desolate, but it’s also mythic.