Opinion

Sites of Violence: The Australian Landscape Image as Witness

Bruce Isaacs considers how the spatial expression of Hollywood’s film noir infuses cinematic portrayals of Australian landscapes in films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Samson and Delilah, transforming the natural world from setting into a felt presence.

A scene from “Picnic at Hanging Rock.", 1979

Film Noir

One of Hollywood’s greatest genres – film noir – emerged in the early 1940s bookending the second World War. It has become a well-established aesthetic form, marked by distorted spaces and chiaroscuro patterning with high contrasts between light and dark, densely packed frames, and expressionistic style.

Left: Reed, 1949. The Third Man. Top: Welles, 1941. Citizen Kane. Bottom: Huston, 1941. The Maltese Falcon.

There is an intensity that is created through this spatial distortion, making film noir perhaps the most interesting and transgressive American film genre in its subversion and transgression of classical aesthetic norms. Noir’s filmic space deliberately breaks from compositional stability, distorting and elongating the lines and segmentation within frames of classical compositional symmetry. In short, noir is a radical departure from a realist ideal, offering instead aesthetic, ideological, and political content that signify more than the content of the frame. It is part of a deeper modernist experimentation in which subjectivity, selfhood, social, political and existential identity are configured through the materiality of space.

The aesthetic modality of Hollywood’s film noir has traditionally represented a distinctly American pictorial and thematic landscape. It’s this synthesis of a film style and a national visual and thematic imaginary that I want to try to import into a reading of an Australian landscape image in both Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Warwick Thorntons Samson and Delilah (2010). There’s a lot of sea between noir as an aesthetic modality and Australian cinema of any era. Yet Australian cinema directly engages in composed depictions of an Australian landscape and thus, like noir, is often particularly attentive to the thematic and subjective capacities of, simply, land.

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The Colonial Landscape

And so to the notion of a ‘landscape image’ in Picnic at Hanging Rock. The film is set in 1900, and marks a transformation toward modernity, and toward an aesthetic Modernism in Australian cinema. The film follows the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher while on a picnic excursion to Hanging Rock, a geological formation in Victoria. The narrative begins within a private college where the young women, led by Miranda, face the promise (or threat) of liberation, a freeing of the self and the subject from the constraints of a rational/intellectual civilisation. The college is infused with a spirit of the Victorian Gothic – a place of repressed desire and mystery.

Exterior and interior view of the college. Weir, 1975. Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The visual framing of the narrative in Picnic in Hanging Rock shifts throughout the film. The further the young women move from the institutional trappings they’ve left behind, namely the constraints of an ideological and aesthetic Victorianism, the more the frame takes on the qualities of a de-naturalised and expressively aestheticised landscape image. The site the girls visit is an area that has been inhabited by Indigenous traditional owners of the land for 30,000 years. Their excursion is thus an exploration and an intrusion. This dualism is communicated first through a camera shot foregrounded by branches and leaves, out of focus in the depth of field, which provides an impressionistic, almost dream-like quality to the exploratory image. As the tone shifts to that of intrusion, the image increasingly eschews the close-ups used in the illumination of character for medium-long shots, and increasingly, extremely long shots that reveal the land as a whole and as a sentient, viewing presence.

 

 

The girls gaze up – but they are not looking at, merely, sky. “Look,” says Miranda, “way up there into the sky…”. What follows is a low angle shot, without a stable viewing point – there is a slight canting of the viewing angle, and a slight undulation of movement that suggests that this is not Miranda’s POV. Rather, the low angle expressive image, in movement, transfers sentience to the natural space. The landscape shifts from the observed to the threatening voyeur. The shift from the leafy ensconcement to the starkness of an overhead shot is confronting in its perspective, but much more importantly, it’s confronting in its feel. The image is covered in a helicopter shot, taking on the radically different sensorial quality of mechanical movement. We are removed from the intimacy of a dreamlike, oneiric passage through the land by a scream and rush close-up – a forceful ejection from one aesthetic modality to another. From above, the viewer locates the figure of a young woman as she flees through a vast landscape.

Consideration of images of space as more than a representation of content draws attention to an elaborate cinematographic scheme, a transformation from the visual to something felt, something material. In the presence imbued within the landscape, the natural world becomes something else entirely. Suggesting that the land in Picnic at Hanging Rock is a surveilling presence and a threat to the subject presenting a rupture of the materiality of repressed subjectivity as an aesthetic form, trope, or approach to the composition of the image and sound of the natural world.

Samson and Delilah: The Indigenous Landscape

In contrast, Warwick Thornton’s 2009 Samson and Delilah presents a very different itinerary of the Australian landscape image, charting the spatial and temporal image of a pointedly Indigenous Australian landscape. The film follows two young Indigenous teenagers as they leave the difficult circumstances of their remote community and embark on a journey of intense struggle, survival, and love. Samson and Delilah is also a film fascinated by land and its inhabitants yet characters are not isolated nor broken from the land. Instead, they are frequently situated in wider, deeper shots in relation to the land, which is both a natural landscape, and a natural environmental framing of individual and collective lives. Even when isolated in shallow focus, the landscape remains tangible and affecting. This is a landscape image that materialises presence in organic, harmonious relation to the subject.

Thornton, 2010. Samson and Delilah.

Whether in conflict within the world of the city or within the Indigenous community, landscape in Warwick Thornton’s mise en scene and montage schema resonates with the commingled presence of Samson and Delilah. As they move through the landscape, they neither explore nor seek to conquer it. Thornton’s landscape image is not a segregation or a partition. Rather, whether in the natural space of the land, or within the community, the landscape is depicted through an aesthetics of the whole. In its fullness, the land maintains deeply affective qualities and in the final, and very beautiful, sequence of the film we see that it is the land that nourishes its inhabitants. Against the surveilling landscape of Picnic at Hanging Rock, this landscape image presents a reclamation of the Australian land as a living presence. For Samson and Delilah, such spaces and the times of their inhabitance establish harmonious “life rhythms”. As Thornton himself has said, this is a profound relationship to the land, being part of it, and being in a reciprocal relationship to it.

The transgressive spatial and temporal environments of film noir are useful in engaging Australian filmic space in deeper, more nuanced ways. Through this lens, distinct senses of presence within the Australian ‘Landscape Image’ emerge. The landscape images in Picnic at Hanging Rock and Samson and Delilah exceed representation – in both cases the landscape is present and active in the narrative. Landscape and place is composed and configured through the cinematic lens, and it is through this rendering that landscape is felt rather than observed. Space is not a containment of form and action, as it is in a classical compositional form. Rather, the materiality of space signifies, and registers the affective punch of, that which cannot be made visible.

 

Edited by Hannah Della Bosca from Bruce Isaacs symposium presentation.


This article is part of the Sites of Violence project which merges artistic and academic understandings of human and non-human experiences of violence, and the processes, emotions, and meaning that this violence reveals. This transboundary approach dismantles learned indifference by introducing novel perspectives to old problems, and facilitates productively disruptive collaborations between researchers and artists.


Bruce Isaacs is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History. His research focusses on a wide range of film studies-related topics: histories of film (with a focus on Hollywood, though he has abiding interests in various ‘New Waves’ and movements), film aesthetics and style, critical approaches to film production, film and popular culture (including the relationship between film and other pop culture art forms such as television, literature and music). Bruce is currently intrigued by various developments in High Concept Hollywood and its evolution of new aesthetic practices, including digital and 3D cinema.

Hannah Della Bosca is a Research Assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute. She has co-authored papers on generational coal mining identities and energy transitions, as well as the role of place-making, disruption, and emotion in resilience policy adaptation. Hannah holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Sydney and has a strong research interest in the nexus of environmental law, policy and place.