Posted: July 8, 2014
What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.
hese are the musings of Miranda-not Shakespeare's Miranda, though like her. This is novelist Joan Lindsay's Miranda, brought to the screen by Australian director Peter Weir. Miranda, who is the centerpiece of Picnic at Hanging Rock,possesses a perfect, smooth face and the graces of a dancer. Weir and his photographer Russel Boyd present her to us in a kind of soft haze, with her golden skin, white dresses, and blond hair blending into fore- and backgrounds of yellow flowers and long grasses. Rightly is her tutor reminded of "a Botticelli angel." She is ethereal, and when she disappears-forever-from the top of the mountainous Hanging Rock, we realize that she had been with us only vaguely from the beginning. The story is a dreamlike one; it demands, and gets from Mr. Weir, a dreamlike and leisurely presentation.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was the first of a group of three recent films which are as unconventional as they are superb. Finished in 1975, Picnic was followed by Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1976) and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven(1978). Although each is different they share an uncommon slowness of paring, a smooth kind of deliberateness, which draws and rewards our attention gracefully. When to this quality the directors have added splendid photography and soundtracks which are especially subdued, they may have taken a quiet step into a new, slower manner of making film.
Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock is so understated that, had it failed, it might have been soporific. The action unfolds evenly, and in the most memorable scenes there is very little movement, or none at all. The director's touch with a montage is unusually refined. The plot centers less around an event than the absence of one: breaking away from the college picnic at the base of Hanging Rock, Miranda and two friends ascend the Rock. They do not come back, and cannot be found; no one knows why. Stateliness and beauty are the hallmarks of Weir's photography, whether indoors or out. His cameras, like his characters, are wont to linger on a scene. The actors, many of whom are young, show impressive reserve, and important minutes pass without a spoken word. We can feel the heat of the Australian afternoon, and the stiffness of the Victorian era.
Consider what Mr. Weir does, very near the film's beginning, with an otherwise conventional scene like the crossing of a creek at the approach to the Hanging Rock. Miranda lingers behind her two friends for a moment, to drop a flower into a little pool. She watches it at length, until it is swirled away downstream. Michael (Dominic Guard) is at a distance, admiring her. When she does jump across the creek, Weir photographs her in slow motion to show how Michael's memory will later review the scene. Then Michael crosses and, glancing up, is perplexed to see all three girls gone from the path, which is straight enough to be seen for some distance.
Thus, in one sequence of shots, Weir three times intimates that the girls may ultimately disappear from the top of the Rock. He does so with barely a sound, and there are no words in the shooting script. His photographs have done everything, slowly. The film's mood, which is both eerie and, in a subtle way, sexy, is now well established.
In a second situation, Weir provides a textbook lesson in directing a scene which is at once emotional and almost without motion. It is evening and Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), director of the private women's college, is alone in her study awaiting the return of her female charges. She has no knowledge of the disappearances but, as the evening shadows lengthen, her suspicions turn dark. Weir shows her in rigid profile, eyes ahead. She is dressed in black, and seated at a great desk. As Weir holds the view, gradually we notice a clock ticking softly. Weir continues to hold the shot. He lets Mrs. Appleyard's stoicism make her suffering explicit. At last, when the scene's stillness has crept beneath our skin, he allows movement: the black-sleeved arm of a maid reluctantly enters the frame from the right, very deliberately sets down a cup of tea, and withdraws. Mrs. Appleyard does not make a move toward the tea. At last Weir cuts to the next scene.
Several days later, Miranda's disappearance still carries no finality for Michael, who broods upon the matter at his parents' home. Director Weir begins his sequence as follows: the first picture frames Michael, impeccably dressed, formally but comfortably seated in a garden chair on an expanse of green lawn. Beside him on a table rests a little china swan, by now well established as a visual leitmotif for Miranda. Michael's face is impassive. Without moving the camera deepens focus, blurring Michael and bringing into view what he sees, if only in his mind's eye: Miranda, in a break among the trees, white and blond against shadows. Her body is turned toward the wood, but her gaze is turned back upon Michael. The second shot is a close-up of Michael's face, front-view. He glances away from the opening in the woods, half-blinks his eyes, and looks back. Next we see the empty, almond-shaped opening in the trees. We do not notice immediately the large decorative half seashell in the garden, below the point where Miranda had seemed to stand (a memory of the Botticelli allusion). The camera pans slowly right, over rich wet greenery in a rock wall, to a white swan in a pool. The bird swims slowly left, in Michael's direction. The fourth shot is of Michael, again from the front. He appears to be watching the moving swan. The camera holds upon him as a beating of wings draws his gaze up and away; after a moment, his eyes go back to the pond. The final picture is of the black circle of water which the swan's form has left amid the bright green of the paramecia growing everywhere else on the surface.
Perhaps eighty or ninety seconds elapse during this five-shot sequence. It is silent, excepting the lyrical music of the soundtrack and the flight of the swan. Yet the question of whether Miranda will be seen again has been fully answered.
The care which Weir expended on these sequences met its match, and more, when Barry Lyndon was re-leased in the next year. Stanley Kubrick's photographs are almost more suited to the eye of the painter than to that of the movie camera, so thoughtfully were they set. Indeed, he is known to have turned regularly to volumes of 18th century prints for inspiration in rendering Thackeray's novel. When the indolent Barry naps in a cardroom chair, or lounges in an elegant brothel parlour, the set-piece images could have emerged directly from Hogarth. Kubrick exploited a new, specially sensitive lens, making it possible to photograph entire scenes at dinners or in ballrooms in nothing but candlelight. His work out-of-doors is self-consciously gorgeous, and favors long, static shots which recall the painting of Gainsborough, Constable, and Watteau.
The cameras usually keep their distance from the characters, which gives a dignity to the proceedings, as well as a coolness. There are none of the indulgent or even morbid close-ups which make (or break) Ingmar Bergman's intensely psychological films. Kubrick never lets us so close to any character-his films are detached and far less sympathetic. The effect is increased, in Barry Lyndon, by Michael Hordern's voice which provides a sparse, low-key, ironic narration of Barry's woes. In this as in no other modern movie, Kubrick makes regular use of the long, reverse-zoom, a shot which removes us slowly from a completed scene-drawing back, back, back, sometimes until the actors have disappeared altogether. He then holds at length upon the broad panorama, whether of the Irish or English hills or the German plains. Novelists have always dwelled like this on their characters' setting in nature, taking time to bring all the details to our attention. Kubrick's lengthy shots may be his answer to the novelists' lengthy descriptions. He enjoys nothing so much as to seek out a great field, with a chateau behind, and set his cameras running to watch the breeze move the tall grasses.
This last technique is also a favorite of Terrence Malick, whose photographer Nester Almendros won an Oscar for cinematography for Days of Heaven. Malick substituted a farmhouse in America for the European chateaux; he still loved the wind in the wheat fields. Interior shots in Days of Heaven are masterful compositions in chiaroscuro. Whether indoors or out, there is about the characters the look that Pauline Kael found in The Story of Adele H., which Almendros photographed for Truffaut: ". . . deepened color, with the faces always dear and the bodies swathed in clothing, dark, yet distinctly outlined against the darker backgrounds. . . . The images are dark on dark, like a Gericault, with the characters' emotional lives brought luminously close." Days of Heaven opens in the bustle of an East-Coast city; it soon moves to the American heartland, and Malick's script, like his rural characters, is slow on speech. The stunning pictures follow one upon the other, slowly.
"Intolerably artsy," bellowed a critic, of Days of Heaven. Barry Lyndon, said Pauline Kael, "is one of the vainest of all movies . . . a coffee table movie . . . a three hour slide show for art history majors." People stayed away from BarryLyndon in droves. Others, their patience exhausted, walked out during the second or third hour. But despite the financial disaster, the film is regularly rescreened. Also, there are critics who (rightly, I think) believe it to be one of the few real masterpieces of its decade. Picnic at Hanging Rock, by contrast, was immediately liked. Days of Heaven turned, later rather than sooner, into a popular success. All three films, but especially Barry Lyndon, demand something very special of an audience. In his thoughtful notice of early 1976, the Canadian critic John Hofsess wrote: "Barry Lyndon throws down the gauntlet to those film critics who are really literary or drama critics in disguise and tests their ability to appreciate qualities of form, composition, color, mood, music editing rhythms-among other cinematic qualities that generally do not greatly interest them."
Now it is true that most kinds of films demand editing and pace which are crisp and regular. Inversely, it was the very overindulgence in silence, in metaphor, in artsy underlighting, and in shots which lasted far too long, that ruined The Spirit of the Beehive (Spanish, 1978). But it is also true that most directors, and most audiences, have been obsessed with "action," whether it be physical activity or rapid-fire, verbal interchange. We are an audience under cinematic blitz: an audience trained by successful comedies, like Robert Altman's M.AS.H., to watch and listen for many things at once and trained by dramas, like The French Connection to expect things at an ever-increasing pace. We would feel cheated byThe Road Warrior if, from moment to moment, there were any reduction in high speed auto wreckings. (It was picked as one of the 1982's ten best by many critics.) Only slightly less stupid, and still more commercially successful, is 48 Hours, during which we feel the director's nervousness when more than a few minutes elapse without someone getting slugged in the face or shot with a .44. It is movies such as these that television strains to match. Little wonder that when a quiet beauty like Barry Lyndon strolls along, and at an 18th century nobleman's pace, not everyone wants to watch, especially for three hours.
There is much to be said for slowing down the motion pictures. The locust swarm and the fire on the farm are more than enough action for the ninety minutes of Days of Heaven. A battle scene, a few duels, and a parent's brutal caning of a boy suffice in Barry Lyndon. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the scream of a girl, and much later, the furious galloping of carriage horses, are appropriate breaks in what would otherwise become too deliberate a tempo. These atypical moments accent the smoothness of all the others. Such moments also remind us of how much Malick, Kubrick, and Weir have done without words-or with only a tremor in a voice, the hesitation in a gesture, a short smile quickly arrested, or the disturbing failure of someone to do what we had expected.
There are as well things of great beauty to be had from camerawork-a quality of beauty that eludes other forms of art, and that is worth indulging, in the right kind of films. What a memory was made in Days of Heaven by Nester Almendros's single picture of an elegant wine glass, dropped by a meandering couple, that comes to rest in the bottom sand and night-darkened waters of a creek.
We know that it is possible to see an entire wing of the Louvre, or the Uffizi galleries, in an hour. But we also know that it is more valuable to spend two hours seeing any one room. What the directors of these three very diverse movies seem to believe is that, while cinematic art is not museum art, film-making can nonetheless take a good lesson from the master painters and still photographers. There is much to be said for stateliness. There are poetic powers in form, and in the slowness of the dance.