When I was a teen, I used to see the VHS copy of Picnic at Hanging Rock at our local version of Blockbuster, called Captain Video. I would stare at the alluring cover — featuring young girls in white dresses — and silently debate renting it to myself, every damn week.
It was the mysterious foreign film that offered untold pleasures… or unmitigated boredom. You didn’t know until you watched it. I knew it was a great film, but I didn’t know why. I always ended up renting Faces of Death. Or Mondo Cane. Or something more fitting for a basement of pimpled agitators. Not some foreign art film.
The Australian film came out in the mid-1970’s – a product of the brilliant Peter Weir, who later made Gallipoli and Master and Commander. He also made The Last Wave, another super creepy flick about the apocalypse and dreaded curses. It was more of a mood, and less of a movie.
The plot to Hanging Rock was simple: some girls go on a trip to a big old rock and never return. The offending picnic happened in 1900, at a place called Hanging Rock, on Valentine’s Day. The girls wore corsets and gloves, and resembled willowy, virginal angels. The flick moved like a day dream, alternating between the sighing beauty of those innocent and repressed, and the harsh unforgiving treatment of children less fortunate. It was a contrast of goddesses and orphans.
The movie became the most well known Australian film (aside from the Mad Max stuff), and it catapulted Weir’s career. It was a spooky flick – a horror movie without actual horror (which are often the best kind).
But this isn’t really a movie review.
It’s about obsession, infatuation, and the fuel that powers both.
All curiosity is fueled by mystery — and vice versa — a dumb observation, I admit. All hunger is fueled by desire for food, I guess. But the obsession to know is charged by the unknowable — and most mysteries in life offer a gift that the attention-craven masses of today seem to overlook. The less you know about something, the more badly you want it. It’s no wonder that so few find any Kardashian appealing. What’s not to know, when you’ve seen as much as their gynecologist?
In 2014, you forget how alluring it is to be unknown, to be outside of it all, to be obscure. To lurk in the shadows, to escape one’s gaze, to offer no explanation or easy entry point — that is surely a rare gift to possess. But we don’t see it that way, at least anymore.
Instead, we believe we aren’t alive until we are seen by someone else — in a selfie or otherwise. We are now officially more intrigued by our reflections, than our actual selves — Instagramming our expressions seem proof of life than our very own beating hearts. Worse, to offer evidence of intriguing existence, humans will often include a recently ordered meal in their documentation — as if your eggs benedict and mimosa brunch speaks volumes about your life choices in a godless void. It’s a harmless thing, of course — far better than assaulting a pensioner. But it’s mundane beyond belief.
I am a sucker for the absent, the missing, the gone. I love the void, for it allows me to fill it with all sort of stuff from my own head — making my target infinitely more alluring and compelling. My favorite bands — be they Tobacco, or Clinic, or Fantomas — operate on obscurosis — a phenomena I coined that describes that playful retreat into places you can’t, but want to follow.
Today, Hanging Rock makes me think about… well, today… and everything that bugs me about life.
I watched the movie, and — as most who did the same — was struck by the actress who played the mesmerizing, suffering orphan named Sara. The actress’s name is Margaret Nelson.
You can Google image her if you like, and that’s probably all you’ll get — a simple image of her — and not much else. She’s every bit as gone as the girls who disappear in the flick. Which is quite a feat, and something to admire. She replicated the plot of the movie, maybe as a cosmic joke.
I’m thinking about Margaret Nelson, because she makes me want to think about her.
She might be dead, I think.
The problem with her name is that there are perhaps tens of thousands Margaret Nelsons around the world — and a web search turns up only those with long lives lived, who now slumber beneath a headstone.
(I am sure you have done this before: searching online for an old classmate, a long lost love, a former coworker you worried about. You do the search, and the first thing that turns up is an obituary. And you feel the blood leave your head and hands. Then upon closer scrutiny, you are relieved to find out that this particular Jane Montero died in 1880. It wasn’t the same Jane who showed you her breasts in the park in sixth grade. You never do find that Jane, but you found someone else’s, and she is dead).
Obsession is charged by that itch — and the movie’s power is understanding that singular desire to inhale everything that is a person — at once. Sara, played by Nelson, is infatuated with Miranda, one of the girls who disappears on the rock. After Miranda disappears, Margaret builds a shrine to her, a display that reveals the ideal manner in which to idolize: well before you actually get to know someone.
It is fitting that Nelson, after this film, essentially disappears too. She is gone. One or two projects, and then poof! Gone. There is no way to know her. I’ve tried.
This Margaret Nelson that I seek is maybe five years older than me — and I wish her to be happily obscure — unknown and unknowable, running a bed and breakfast in Port Macquarie, NSW. She is Australian after all.
Maybe she steers a barbecue boat or runs a day tour catching mud-crabs. I envision Nelson, now a contented birdwatcher, conducting walkabouts at Kooloonbung Creek Nature park, eyeing with unmistakable verve the nearly 200 species of wildlife and feathered friends. Maybe she repairs kayaks beyond the mangroves. Or lives in a budget apartment near a town beach, tending bar at The Hairy Pipe. She, well into her fifties, might very well be that friendly, trim waitress who served you at the local airport, who showed you pictures of her kids. You could tell she was a looker when she was younger. She still is now.
But then again, she could be dead.
I hope not. I hope she’s happy, wherever she is.