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The Shadow of the Rock: Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Hot Desk Fellowships 2014

Read Tuesday, 18 Nov 2014

The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross spent her time at our hot desk working on a cultural history of Australian cinema, charted via discrete essays on key films from our industry’s inception until today. Her essays look at the unifying motif of terror in Australian cinema and how this fits into our larger national mythology. In this extract, she considers Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Shallow waves of cloud crash across a slate sky, cleaving the sun. Yet its path remains true, casting a lighthouse beam across the shadowy hill below. Rocks shaped like gravestones litter the slope – haphazard eruptions with no regard for a cemetery’s grid. Gangly trees cower before them. Two tiny human interlopers gaze up from a flat in the foreground, one kneeling down as if in prayer, the other’s arms raised in exaltation.

This 1855 drawing is one of the first known images of what would become known as Hanging Rock, a geological formation approximately 70 kilometres north-west of Melbourne located between the townships of Woodend and Macedon. The artist William Blandowski was an interloper too – a German zoologist and mining engineer who would found the Geology Society of Victoria. The drawing is one of 29 scenes Blandowski drew in preparation for his book Australia Terra Cognita, a study of Australia that would never be completed or reach publication; the land of the south would remain unknown for some time. Blandowski imbues the scene with biblical wonder, its ascending composition drawing the eye up to the heavens much like the iconography of the sermon on the mount. Yet it’s before nature, rather than its creator, that these figures repent. Strange and unsettling, this drawing gestures toward a mystery, one that veils the landscape still.

Hanging Rock would be made myth many years later, when a trio of schoolgirls and their teacher disappeared here. That this did not happen in real life but in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel The Picnic at Hanging Rock is almost beside the point. Much like Blandowski’s drawing, Lindsay describes the Rock’s ‘splendid spectacle’ through a parlance of life and death: ‘the play of golden light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, others grooved and fluted by prehistoric architecture of wind and water, ice and fire.’ She captures something so resonant about this place that it blurred fact and fiction in the national imagination. And Hanging Rock would become more mythic still, both in and due to Peter Weir’s 1975 cinematic adaptation, a film that altered the fate of the Australian film industry, casting a shadow that stretches on today, nearly 40 years later.

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‘The mountain comes to Mohammed, and Hanging Rock comes to Mr Hussey,’ says the peculiar Miss McCraw (played by Vivean Gray) in the film, as the coach brimming with schoolgirls approaches, looking down her bespectacled nose at their simple driver (Martin Vaughan). Once again the monolith invokes religious dread, an insurmountable obstacle before which humans must bow.

‘More than 500 feet high she is. Volcanic, of course, thousands of years old.’

‘A million years old Mr Hussey, or thereabouts.’

‘Yes well, that’d be right. A thousand million. Devil of a long time anyway, in a manner of speaking.’

While Miss McCraw relays the geological specificities, the girls stare up in awe at the looming form shading their path. Ancient and ever-lasting, Hanging Rock is a place where it seems as though history has stood still – a land that time forgot.

‘Waiting a million years, just for us,’ says the knowing Irma (Karen Robson), only hours before she’d be swallowed up, as if already aware of her destiny.

In fact both Miss McCraw and Mr. Hussey underestimated the formation. Hanging Rock is thought to be six to seven million years old, a period of time so vast it tugs at the mind’s contours. It’s an outcrop of the primordial world. Rising 105 metres above the ground, Hanging Rock is an anomaly even in this volcanic region (the nearby Mount Macedon was once an active volcano). This geological phenomenon is called a mamelon, taken from the French meaning ‘nipple’, though the forms it produces here are decidedly phallic. Crags develop after several successive eruptions of stiff lava from vents in the bedrock, each additional layer piling atop one another. As the lava cools it splits into columns, weathering into rough pinnacles over time; maybe even into gravestones, if you wait long enough.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which we live and work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present.