Tuesday, April 12, 2016

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK 1975

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” Edgar Allen Poe  1849

I love motion pictures for their storytelling, spectacle, entertainment, and escapism. But for as long as I can remember, the primary, fundamental appeal of movies has always been their ability to capture the ethereal, ofttimes rapturous quality of dreams and fantasies (as this blog’s title would suggest).

When I think of the moments when dreams and reality collided in movies for me, I think of the God’s-eye-view kaleidoscopic dance patterns of Busby Berkeley; the feverish surrealism of Ken Russell; the sound of Jane Fonda’s voice; the gravity-defying dancing of Astaire & Rogers; the consummate dignity in Woody Strode’s eyes in Spartacus; Polanski’s poetic evocation of dream logic in so many of his films; the way cinematographer Nicolas Roeg makes Julie Christie look in Petulia; the nightmarish, slow-motion demise of Beatty & Dunaway at the end of Bonnie & Clyde.

All of these moments—and moments like them—epitomize film’s miraculous capacity to both meet and exceed one’s fantasies while simultaneously inspiring new ones. Not every movie has to do this, but the fact that films possess the potential to render corporeal those very aspects of existence we ascribe to the ethereal is what made me fall in love with them.
For this very reason sports films, westerns, war movies, and action/adventures have never held a particularly strong interest for me. All that aggressive competition and combat – even when represented as heroic – just bring to mind the "nature vs. materialism" sentiments of Wordsworth’s The World is Too Much With Us. These films feel like products of the material (masculine) world, intent on exalting that which is singularly mortal, and therefore fundamentally minimal.
Movies that awaken me to what is beautiful and mysterious in the world - that inspire me to pay more attention, feel more deeply, recognize and appreciate the poetry in the unique and absurd...I like that. When I'm lucky enough to recall them, my dreams always feel like hyper-aware versions of reality. They seem to me to be, in their way, a truer vision of the magic and mystery in the world (and within myself) than my rational mind sometimes allows during what can be jokingly referred to as my "conscious" life. 
One of the more hypnotically exhilarating films to capture this sense of “movies as dreams/dreams as movies” (one I rate right up there with Robert Altman’s 3 Women) is Australian director Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Rachel Roberts as Mrs. Appleyard
Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda St. Clare
Margaret Nelson as Sara Waybourne
Helen Morse as Mlle. Dianne de Poitiers
Dominic Guard as Michael Fitzhubert
John Jarratt as Albert Crundall
The enigmatic tale of Picnic at Hanging Rock, condensed on the teasing “based on a true story or not?” poster copy used to promote the film, concerns a fateful Valentine’s Day in 1900 when, during a school outing to Hanging Rock, a mystically foreboding rock formation in Victoria, Australia, two schoolgirls and a teacher disappear, never to be seen again.

From this deceptively simple mystery plot is suspended a host of enticing themes ‒ practical as well as metaphysical ‒ from which can be drawn entirely different (yet peculiarly complementary) interpretations of not only the event itself, but the lingering, escalatingly tragic effect it has on all the individuals whose lives were irrevocably changed by it.
Vivean Gray as Miss Greta McCraw

The enigmatic tale of Picnic at Hanging Rock, condensed on the teasing “based on a true story or not?” poster used to promote the film, concerns a fateful Valentine’s Day in 1900 when, during a school outing to Hanging Rock, a mystically foreboding rock formation in Victoria, Australia, two schoolgirls and a teacher disappear, never to be seen again.

From this deceptively simple mystery plot is suspended a host of enticing themes ‒ practical as well as metaphysical ‒ from which can be drawn entirely different (yet peculiarly complementary) interpretations of not only the event itself, but the lingering, escalatingly tragic effect it has on the individuals whose lives are touched by it.

Sensitively adapted for the screen by Cliff Green from the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, it was established long ago that Picnic at Hanging Rock was not based on an actual event. But the intentional obfuscation of this fact by Lindsay throughout her life ideally suits a story in which the attempt to arrive at logical explanations through pragmatic means proves, in this instance, a futile pursuit at best.
Flanked by French teacher Mille. de Portiers on the left and match instructor Miss McCraw on the right, the girls are formally briefed before they depart on their picnic by headmistress Mrs. Appleyard. A briefing which can be summed up as: enjoy yourselves but make sure you don't have a good time.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Establishing a mood of hazy paradox from the outset, Peter Weir’s ushers us into his film—which is, in effect, a waking dream—with the image of its most ethereal character, Miranda, waking up from a dream. It is Valentine’s Day at Appleyard College; a rigidly formal, upper-class English all-girls boarding school plopped smack in the middle of the Australian bush, and the girls are all caught up in a flurry of romantic preoccupation.
"Meet me love, when day is ending..."
The romantic valentines the girls share with one another express
a depth of emotion largely stifled by their surroundings
And just as the surrounding barren landscape contrasts with the school’s lush gardens, and Hanging Rock’s organic asymmetry silently defies the illusion of order presented by stark traditionalism of the school’s architecture; the sensual stirrings within Mrs. Appleyard’s adolescent charges bristle against the stern repressiveness of Victorian era British Colonialism.
These contrasts soon establish themselves as a motif in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the subtle discord between nature (encompassing both the supernatural and preternatural) and the desire to control it (as exemplified by the staunch dominance of school headmistress Mrs. Appleyard), are put to the test by the unexplained disappearance of the aforementioned students and teacher.
Little Girls Lost
The disappearance of Miranda (Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Irma (Karen Robson)
is depicted as an act of mystical somnambulism

Because the film begins with a title card already informing us of the girls’ disappearance, the early scenes, for all their soft-focus sensuality (makes me wonder if Brian DePalma caught this film at a festival before he shot Carrie’s memorable slow-motion girls’ locker room scene) carry a sense of menace and foreboding.
Natural emotions and actions are thwarted at every turn. Miranda, the school free spirit, is the object of a girlhood crush by her lonely roommate Sara. Sara’s overtures of love are accepted, yet frustrated by Miranda’s cryptic premonition: “You must learn to love someone else apart from me, Sara. I won’t be here much longer.”

In addition, after witnessing the girls binding themselves up with corsets (apparently a picnic doesn’t require comfort), we’re given scene after scene where teachers attempt to quiet and suppress the natural ebullience of girls anticipating an outing.
All this has the effect of creating an atmosphere redolent of an emotional pressure-cooker (a feeling enhanced by the strenuously non-romantic math instructor as she pragmatically demystifies the miracle of Hanging Rock by going on about its formation being the result of earthly eruptions).
(After posting the above screencap, my partner told me its painterly composition and use of light reminded him of George Seurat's pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - completed in 1886.) Beautiful.

By the time the three more developmentally inquisitive girls traipse off to explore (the naïf Edith [Christine Schuler] tagging along) their eventual disappearance into the almost beckoning columns of the rock feels like a date with destiny.
Two local boys also on the rock that day – Michael, a high-born Englishman, and Albert, an Australian coachman – find their lives touched (profoundly) by the disappearances.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
If the first part of the film feels like a deceptively pastoral rumination on Victorian ethos imposed upon Australian culture (vis a vis British Colonialism); then the second part, structured as a crime mystery shrouded in a psychological melodrama, feels like a battle royale between nature’s enigmatic indomitability and man’s arrogant faith in all being comprehensible and tractable.

Among the townsfolk, the urgency to discover the fate of the missing girls (compounded when one is found unharmed, but lacking any memory of what occurred) arises as much out of the fear of uncertainty as concern for their welfare. At the school, Mrs. Appleyard frets over how the heedlessness of the event will color public perception of her institution, her inefficacy in the matter fueling a need to exert her will over the staff and pupils. Particularly the rebellious but emotionally vulnerable Sara. Sara is an orphan, abandoned by parents, Miranda, her caretaker, and her longed-for, absent brother (the latter, another lovely metaphysical quirk in a story overflowing with them). 
Mrs. Appleyard, intent on breaking the stubborn will of the student with the least social stature
The sum effect of all these emotional and psychological upheavals is that the disappearance of the schoolgirls comes to erode everything everyone has come to know and rely on. This discord and disruption dramatized in the contrasting images of Australia’s resilient-looking fauna juxtaposed against the fragile white swans introduced to Australia by the British settlers (only black swans are indigenous). Similarly, the vaguely threatening sounds of nature on the film’s soundtrack feel like an angry response to the near-constant sound of ticking of clocks indoors.

Picnic at Hanging Rock ends on a note of compound human tragedies. But true to the film's thematic responsiveness to the instinctual, sensual, and constant; nature seems to triumph and prevail. Hanging Rock remains as it has for millions of years: unchanged, unyielding, and the conclusive guardian of its mysteries.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I find it somewhat remarkable to consider that outside of the mystical Australia vs Colonialism angle I  described above (the particular thrust of the film that spoke to me most fervently), Picnic at Hanging Rock actually operates on about fifty other levels simultaneously. Whether the themes relate to spiritualism, sexual awakening, death and loss, existential mystery, the birth of the Edwardian era in Australia, romantic idealism, etc. There are just so many fascinating and diverse ways to look at this movie.
Hanging Rock -  Appleyard College / A precipice vs. an edifice
One exalts the natural spirit, the other seeks to suppress it
Visually it is as sumptuous as they come. The almost otherworldly cinematography by Russell Boyd (Starstruck) renders Australia a continent of the mind. The seductively lush, yet mystifyingly ominous exteriors are pointedly offset by the meticulous (and spectacularly fine) art direction (David Copping, Martin Sharp, and I'm sure many others) which fills Appleyard College and the home of Col. Fitzhubert with determined Victorian overkill. It's clear the Colonialists intend to counter rugged Australia by bringing every stitch of orderly Great Britain with them.
It's impossible to speak of Picnic at Hanging Rock without giving credit to the invaluable contribution made by its haunting musical score. Composer Bruce Smeaton and pan flutist Gheorghe Zamfir (with some additional assist by Beethoven) imbue each dreamily-evoked scene with just the right tone of languorous unease.

PERFORMANCES
Welsh actress Rachel Roberts (stepping in for the last-minute departure of originally cast Vivien Merchant (The Maids) is the rock against which all the characters in Picnic at Hanging Rock must collide. Backing up her startling hairdo, severe manner, and clipped, precise diction with a forcefulness that knocks everyone else off the screen, Mrs. Appleyard is an even more memorable entity than the character of Miranda.
Peter Weir gets splendid performances out of the entirety of his cast. I have nothing but praise for the ensemble work in Picnic at Hanging Rock, with special kudos going to personal favorites Helen Morse (who I honestly thought was French), Anne-Louise Lambert, Margaret Nelson, and John Jarratt.
Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Jacki Weaver as Appleyard College's handyman and maid, are so very good as two grounded characters who, while lacking the dreaminess of the schoolgirls, instead possess a true gentleness of heart 

I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time in 1979.  Then, unfamiliar with the plot or Peter Weir's trance-like, atmospheric style, it felt like the most elegant horror film I'd ever seen. Very unsettling and disturbing in a compellingly subtle way. Since that then, I've seen this movie more times than I can count. Each time finding more to marvel at and discover. However, the best thing about it is that it has ceased feeling like a dream remembered. Even a little bit like a remembered nightmare: that's when you're no longer unsettled or frightened, but it's fun being reminded that you were.
A terrific scene of Polanski-level tension is when Irma, the only girl to be rescued of the
missing three, visits the gymnasium before departing for home


BONUS MATERIAL
Watch the two-hour "making of" documentary - Picnic at Hanging Rock: A Dream Within A Dream

No evening of TV watching in the early '80s was complete without at least one sighting of this record collection commercial for Zamfir: Master of the Pan Flute. Warning, if you're a fan of the delicate and stirring way Gheorghe Zamfir's music is used in Picnic at Hanging Rock, I strongly suggest you skip the commercial. Otherwise it's available on YouTube  HERE

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

Copyright © Ken Anderson

24 comments:

  1. One of my absolute favourites, as I know we've discussed previously over on my blog

    http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/picnic-at-hanging-rock-1975.html

    Oft-imitated, but never bettered.

    Really good read as always Ken :)

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    1. Hi Mark
      I'd forgotten I'd read your wonderful piece some time ago and we discussed how it was a mutual favorite. Then as now, my favorite allusion you make to this film's unique effect on the viewer is the line:
      "Ever dozed off after a few drinks on a hot day only to wake from a disturbing dream where, when left to recount the day's events, you're not altogether sure what was real and what was imagined? Well, that's Picnic At Hanging Rock."
      That about perfectly sums it up for me. Thanks for jogging my memory and including the link. And of course, I thank you for you kind words! On that score, right back at you, Mark...a really good read!

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  2. I first saw this movie on a double-bill with THE LAST WAVE. Although dissimilar in setting, tone, and visuals, they do share a dreamlike quality--in fact, THE LAST WAVE is in part about how we ignore the meaning of our dreams at our peril.

    What I remember most about PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is Rachel Roberts's performance as the school's headmistress: how her forceful, assured personality begins to crumble under the weight of not so much the loss as if the mystery of why the women have gone missing. Also her realization that she depended on one of her fellow staff members more than she ever realized or acknowledged. An arresting movie--but I believe I came to like it better on subsequent viewings when I knew the ending would be ambiguous and not really resolve the mystery.

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    1. Hi Deb
      Your description of "The Last Wave" is perfect; I've always thought it would make a great double-bill with Roeg's "Don't Look Now"; another film about the perils of ignoring one's instincts.

      Rachel Robert's is SUCH a force in this film. Knowing a bit about her troubled life, still came as a surprise to learn that she was also a force to be reckoned with off-screen (gentle Miranda - or at least actress Anne Lambert - even going so far as to describe her as a "dragon" during filming!)

      Your observation citing your appreciation of the film after subsequent viewings is an excellent one, as indeed the average person's "training" in movie narrative vocabulary makes the first viewing one almost completely preoccupied with the plot.
      That certainly was the case for me. One part of my brain was so intent on listening and watching in the service of picking up clues and "solving" the mystery...tons of information about the genuine content of the film flew right past me.
      Once I knew the mystery was not to be solved, the second viewing was almost revelatory in all that was present in the substance and body of the film that completely passed me by.

      When you get to be my age perhaps you'll discover the same can be said about life. When we're young we spend so much time convincing ourselves that there is order and a plan and path to follow - later, in maturity, we recognize that focusing on trying to figure out the "plot" of existence is a good way of blinding oneself to all that is mysterious and fascinating about just being on the journey.
      Thanks for so thoughtfully sharing your impression of the film, Deb!

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    2. "When you get to be my age..." Ken, I am chuckling. Based on some of the autobiographical information you've shared in your essays, I believe we're almost exactly the same age (I was born in 1957, graduated high school in 1975). Yes, as a like to say, in the seventies, I was a Disco Dolly, in the eighties I was a Reagan-era go-go girl (although I never voted for him), then one day I looked up and it was 1999 and I'd been married ten years, had three kids, and was teaching Sunday School! "Well," I said, "when did that happen?"

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    3. Ha! Exactly the same age, indeed!Were practically tracing each other's footsteps: born the same year, graduated the same year, heavily into disco in the 70s, became a professional dancer in the 80s (also never voted for Reagan). This month marks 20 years with my partner, and these days I teach one dance class a week...on Sundays (which everyone calls church).
      No kids (Yay!... for me, that is) but hope one day I can say I have adopted three dogs.
      If you say you grew up in the SF Bay Area, I'll plotz!

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  3. Ken, a bit of trivia about the two Mrs. Appleyards you might find interesting. Vivien Merchant fell apart personally after a divorce from Harold Pinter and alcoholism eventually killed her at only age 53. Rachel Roberts never fully recovered from her divorce with Rex Harrison and her alcoholism worsened tremendously until she took her own life... at age 53.

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  4. Whoa! Now that's a very Hanging Rock-worthy bit of eerie trivia there! Like the curse of the Miss Appleyard role...Thanks for that, Poseidon!

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  5. After years of reading about it, I finally caught 'Picnic...' during a revival in the '90s (very little chance of it ever playing on television here). By then I knew thoroughly the movie would not reveal its mysteries so my initial viewing was markedly different from the others here.

    I mostly like the 'touched by grace' arc of the two boys which is to me very similar to what viewers feel when watching the movie: they make it 'click' if you will.

    I am immensely frustrated by the fact that only the shorter, revised Director's Cut is available these days.

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    1. Hi Mangrove
      Thanks for calling attention to the role the two young play in the narrative.Their work is very fine and not often discussed in the context of how significantly they are affected by the events.
      And I'm with you...I'm all for director's being able to tinker with their movies after-the-fact. But out of respect to people who fell in love with a film before the director went through some late-in-life epiphany, I wish the original version were were still made available.
      Thank you for commenting!

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  6. Hi Ken,

    Wonderful overview of this totally unique viewing experience. Like you I walked into the theatre not really knowing anything about the film. It had attracted strong word of mouth but I had managed to just hear the recommendations without learning the plot. So as it unspooled and after I adjusted to its rhythms, fortunately I had heard it was understated so I was prepared for it to take a bit to get where it was going, I was captivated by its sedate beauty and eerie tone. The fact that the only familiar face in the film was Rachel Roberts, who is really wonderful, helped add to the spell of the story since that recognition factor of a big star never pulled you out of the narrative. Glad you mentioned the composition of shots and the grace of the photography, it really does owe so much to the impressionists. Reading this I realized it has been far too long since the last time I watched it and I’ll have to revisit it soon.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Excellent point about the lack of familiar faces. I live for the star system, but certain kinds of films definitely benefit when you are unable to attach a preset persona on a particular actor.
      When I saw the "making of" documentary and found that a few of the adult cast members were well-known and popular Australian actors, it made me glad that I had absolutely no familiarity with Australian cinema.
      I'm not sure when you last saw this film, but the Criterion DVD is sharp as a bell and looks better than it did in the theater.
      Thanks for the kind words and glad to hear you too are a fan of this film.

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  7. A wonderful write up on one of my favorite movies, Ken. I had NO IDEA that two-time Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver was in it. The Zamfir music haunts my dreams! Nothing to add to your expert analysis, except I miss Peter Weir's directing and so many of the other great Aussie movies of this era - I think My Brilliant Career is due for a Le Cinema write up!

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    1. Thank you, Tanya! Turnabout's fair play, as I had NO IDEA Jacki Weaver was nominated for two Academy Awards!
      I really must step up my Aussie film exploration (which does pretty good on the musical front, as I love Starstruck and Moulin Rouge)- but I have never seen "My Brilliant Career" - thanks for reminding me of it!

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  8. Sometimes you write about a movie I've not seen and I'm compelled to go find it online and watch. Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of them. You've captured it so well. This movie is beautifully filmed. Many of the scenes look like impressionist paintings coming to life. But then there is the sinister Hanging Rock looming over everyone, casting shadows and ominous sounds. Questions and possibilities abound throughout the movie about various issues, but we get no answers. The way the rock affected people, especially the girls, made me think of the reaction Judy Davis' character has when visiting the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India - captivated, spellbound. Delicious!

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    1. Hello Bella
      That's one of the nicest compliments you can give someone who writes about films; that something in the expression of one's personal appreciation of a movie can inspire someone else to seek that movie out.
      Thank you!
      I'm pleased to read you enjoyed the film and found value in its dreamy ambiguity. I like your use of the word "sinister" in describing the rock, for it really is a sinister yet beckoning presence in the film.
      You reference a film I've never seen, "Passage to India," perhaps turnabout will inspire me to discover that film one day. Thanks for visiting my blog and especially for so eloquently sharing your thoughts on a film I so adore.

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  9. Hello Ken. This film always fascinates me. It's so beautiful and dreamlike. I still get chills when the girls ascend the rock. It's very effectively filmed. For every time I see it I enjoy the unresolved end more and more. There's always new stuff to pick up. It's haunting to see the effects of the disappearance on the others left behind and how their lives fall apart. It seems like the girls vanished into something wonderful and heavenly while the others were left behind to deal with the dull and empty everyday life in reality. Are they envious of the ones that dematerialized?

    Everyone in the film gives fine performances. I like Karen Robson who plays Irma. I think she's underrated. It's a wonderful part of the story that one of the girls comes back from the rock! It ads to the mystique that she remembers nothing and that she had lost some of her clothing. Does she regret coming back after the hostile reception and doubts about her character that she receives?

    There is an interview on the Daily motion with the author who talks about her book and the film. She seemed like a wonderful character. Thanks for writing about the film!
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      What an excellent observation: "It seems like the girls vanished into something wonderful and heavenly while the others were left behind to deal with the dull and empty everyday life in reality. Are they envious of the ones that dematerialized?"
      Like you, every time I see the film I'm made ever more grateful that there is no resolution to the fate of the girls. The very fact that there is no fear or sense of danger in their disappearance into the rock does lend itself to the suggestion that the life left behind is where the suffering is, not the world into which they've vanished.
      Thanks for singling out Karen Robson, too. I agree that she gives a very fine performance that is perhaps overlooked in a film with so many good, understated performances.
      I hadn't really thought about it, but you're right that it's a great storytelling touch to have one of the girls returning from the mountain, but her reappearance clears nothing up, in fact, it only serves to make things MORE mysterious (you have the narrative/observational instincts of a film critic, Wille!)
      I saw a brief interview with the book's author on YouTube (I'll have to check out DailyMotion) and i agree, she seems like a fascinating character unto herself. Thank you for another thoughtful comment, Wille. Always so many well-considered points you bring up.

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    2. Not only "there is no fear or sense of danger in their disappearance into the rock", but it is an active disappearance, they are leaving us.

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    3. Yes! Excellent point...they're not being spirited away, they're departing. Which is infinitely sadder for those left behind.

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  10. Hi Ken,

    I watched this movie four or five times back in the late 1970s, and it was great to be reminded of it again. I just read that book's author had indeed written a final chapter that "explains" what happened to the missing girls. From its summary on Wikipedia, it seems to be completely unrelated to the tone of the book. I'd be interested to see what you think.

    Thanks again for a look back at this unique film.

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    1. Hi Allen
      I read that summary of the book's final chapter when I was writing this and I'm SO glad it was not included in the original text.
      Nothing's worse than having an enigma explained and made over-literal (at least for me). And the explanation given is rather banal compared to what the imagination is capable of conjuring up given the beauty and subthemes of the film.
      When I was a young man, I think I would have wanted to have the mystery explained in some way. Now, I realize it's a richer experience not to be told everything. That way, this film/story becomes unique and personal to everyone who reads it or sees it.
      What could be better than to have a film that is uniquely our own, based on our individual perceptions and interpretation? That ending is akin to those cards they place beside works of art in many museums- the ones "explaining" an artist's intentions.
      I don't know that we need to be told what we see so much.
      Thank you for visiting this older post and for bringing up an interesting point. maybe you'll share your feelings about that final chapter?

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    2. Thanks for your most interesting thoughts, Ken. I agree with you that the story of "Picnic..." was better off...as were we its readers...without the "ending." Based on how it's described in Wikipedia, the ending sounds as if it were plucked from a different story, altogether. I'm going to try to find it and read it in its entirety.

      I liked your analogy to the little signs in art museums. While I wouldn't want to take away the job of anyone who writes those signs, I feel that any given art work should speak for itself.

      Back to "Picnic," I found Rachel Robert's portrayal (have I got her name right?) absolutely mesmerizing, and ultimately found myself much more interested in what made her "tick" than in what happened to the somewhat silly girls up on the mountain.

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    3. Hi Allen
      I agree with you about Rachel Roberts, as good as everyone else is, I'm afraid the film would have been a bit too airy and mystical without such a (to use your word) mesmerizingly grounded individual as Roberts. she is SO good, and so rigidly of this world, that her presence grounds the film's mysticism.
      Have you seen the deleted scenes of her going to the rock at the end? (It's on YouTube and the DVD). It's great stuff, but I'm so glad it was never used. Once again, this film works so beautifully on the imagination.

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