Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
How are film endings shaped by their socio-historical context? (PART I)
Author: Catalin Brylla
Abstract (E): This article explores the aspect of filmic narratolgy that has been neglected for a long time in cinema and media studies: endings. Richard Neupert’s The End – Narration and Closure in the Cinema (1995), a rare work on this topic, is examined, and its theory tested on Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), a film that does not easily fit Neupert’s framework. This film has raised controversial views about whether it has an open or a closed ending. Trying to shade light on this debate Picnic at Hanging Rock is examined a second time by proposing a new model that relates the ending to the context the film was made in.
Abstract (F): Cet article analyse un aspect de la narratologie du film qui a été negligé pendant longtemps dans les études spécialisées : les clausules. On analyse d’abord le livre de Richard Neupert, The End – Narration and Closure in the Cinema (1995), une des rares etudes en la matière. On interroge ensuite la théorie de Neupert à la lumière d’un film qui s’accorde mal avec son cadre conceptuel : Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). Ce film a suscité de nombreux débats qui portent sur la nature, ouverte selon les uns, fermée selon les autres, de sa fin. Afin de clarifier ce débat, on propose une nouvelle analyse de la fin de ce film qui rattache la clausule au contexte dans lequel le film a été fait.
Keywords: narrative ending, cinema, film, closure, cognitive film theory, total history
I am pleased to be able to thank and acknowledge the people who aided me throughout the research and writing of this study. The excellent academic guidance and patience of Mike Punt helped to plan and realise this project. Individuals who provided beneficial ideas, encouragements and beneficial support include Cynthia Freeland, Steven Schneider, Marie-Laure Ryan, David Richter, Linda Aronson, Armine Kotin Mortimer, Karen Diehl, Andrea Cambell, Donald Larsson, Samuel McCormick, Shane Nye, Julia Watson, Susan, Dan Shen, Amy Elias, Jim Phelan, Lee Kinsela, Eyal Segal, Coral Houtman, Florence Ayisi, Mary Cousins and Tania Hardisty. I am especially grateful for the outstanding internet newsgroups h-film and film-philosophy, through which I got tremendous support. Further, I wish to thank my mother Anna-Marie for her constant support and encouragement. Peter Weir's wonderful films inspired me to write this paper and become interested in narratology and endings. Last but not least, I offer my deepest gratitude to Pali for her great support, patience and understanding.
This study focuses on endings in films. The end is a unique time and the last impression of the film experience before the spectator leaves the cinema (Mousoulis, 2000). However, the ending is not always a full stop of the film experience. Often it gives clarity and reopens the film experience by making the audience revise the film after leaving the cinema. Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1964) offers a prime example: a young woman isolates herself in her flat and becomes progressively insane, having visions of intruders and finally murdering two men. The very last shot shows a picture of her family and her as a child. Everyone in the picture is smiling to the camera, apart from her, who looks at her father with repulsion. This striking last shot reveals that her inexplicable behaviour and disturbed mental state throughout the film is a traumatic consequence of her as a child being abused by her father. Here the end gives meaning to the whole story and makes us subsequently re-read the film. Nevertheless, the matter of endings can be even more complex. Filmic ends are theoretically described as open or closed, but sometimes it cannot be said if the end is open or closed. One of the main reasons is that there are not fixed criteria for defining the terms open end and closed end. Moreover, the overall problem is how to finally define the end itself.
The Problems with Filmic Endings
The first difficulty with film endings is that the term ending or end can be interpreted in a number of ways. A filmic end could be the end of a story, which could be shown at the beginning of the film, depending on the plot (e.g. Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder, 1950). However, it could be seen as the climax of a story or even as the epilogue after the climax. The end could also be the very end of the film experience itself, just before the audience starts leaving the cinema, in which case it would be the last shot or the final credits of a film.
Another problem with the ending is how to classify it. The most common notion used for characterising the end is open or closed. Starting from this premise, it has to be asked what an 'open end' and what a 'closed end' actually is. An end could be open if the further story or actions of the characters are unpredictable. Thus, a closed end would be if the story becomes predictable (Bordwell, 1985). This assumption sounds plausible, but often it can no be said that a story line becomes fully predictable because it depends on how the viewer perceives the end. Nevertheless, endings where the character dies, but the story itself is not resolved, as occurring in Italian and French political thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s (Beier et al, 1994) are difficult to categorise as open or closed. In addition, 'cliffhangers' complicate the reading of an end. 'Cliffhangers', especially used in film series, such as James Bond, open up a securely closed story in the last few seconds of the end in order to suggest a possible sequel (Neupert, 1995). Again, it is hard to decide if this is an open or a closed end.
How the end of a film is seen depends of course on how the film is read. According to Hayward (1996), narrative structure and narrative analysis of film first became an issue of investigation as part of the Structuralist debates on cinema in the first half of the 20 th century. Frameworks to analyse cinematic narratives based on semiotics were among others introduced by Roland Barthes and Christian Metz. However, since Structuralist narratology was seeking a common grammar of narrative, it ended up in a rigid formalism, lacking any consideration for audience perception and ideologies based on a specific socio-historical context (Hayward, 1996). Scriptwriting books, such as Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1994) and Robert McKee's Story (1999) also seem to be informed by Structuralism, since they use to prescribe rigid formalistic constructions for writing scripts. Thus, Structuralist narrative theories seem inadequate for analysing filmic ends.
As Hayward (1996) continues, post-structuralism was supposed to take a pluralistic approach and consider context and audience by cross-fertilisation of different theories. Regarding filmic narrative, the most significant and oppositional streams were psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology.
Feminist film theorists, such as Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), re-read Freud and Lacan and applied them to cinema. Johnston (1985), however, criticises the use of psychoanalysis to imply that woman can only have a negative meaning within a patriarchal society. Hayes (1993) goes further and argues that Freudian psychoanalysis is subject to huge criticism since Freud's theories were rather based on assumptions than empirical data, and they reflect the sexual repression common in the Victorian era.
In response, cognitive approaches in cinema theory have intended to regard the audience as an active reader, rather than a passive object (Plantinga and Smith, 1999). In general, cognitive film theorists, such as David Bordwell and Edward Branigan attempt to explain how the viewer comprehends filmic narratives by processing the perceived film language. However, this method is limited by the fact that the audience and context are generalised. Furthermore, socio-political factors that shape the film industry are hardly considered.
In this debate about the making of meaning in cinema narrative and narration are strong topics. Structure, form, style and beginnings are discussed and analysed. Yet, while the importance of endings has been acknowledged, no proper study has been undertaken to investigate them. This might be due to the fact that, as already mentioned, the ending is hard to define. Richard Neupert's book The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema (1995), the only thorough study on this topic, attempts to provide a framework of how to define ends.
Narrative film theorists, such as David Bordwell in Narration in the Fictional Film (1985) and Edward Branigan in Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992) deal with the end only superficially, but Richard Neupert's study offers an assortment of theories and deep analyses and suggests a simple system of categories to establish a film's ending. Moreover, his study does not isolate the end, but relates it to the filmic narrative structure as a whole.
The problem of the end can also be encountered in other time-dependent media and art forms, such as literature and music. In general i t appears easy to start a story or a piece of music, but it does not seem that easy to end it. Musical pieces that fade down instead of having a harmonic closure are common examples. There have been a variety of studies and theories written about the end in literature. However, considering that film is a very specific and rich art form and medium, it is rather surprising that hardly any significant work examines the ending in films. Thus, Richard Neupert's The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema (1995) is unique of its kind and demands further attention.
Neupert (Richard Neupert's The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema, 1995 will be referred to as 'Neupert' in the rest of this text) divides the filmic narrative in two elements: story and discourse. According to this binary division of narrative elements he establishes 4 possible film categories in terms of their ends: closed text film (closed story/closed discourse), open story film (open story/closed discourse), open discourse film (closed story/open discourse) and open text film (open story/open discourse). This system seems straightforward and applicable to any kind of film.
Nevertheless, Neupert's formalistic approach to allocate filmic ends to one of those categories ignores the socio-historical context of film production and does not specify a particular audience. Klinger (1997) and Corrigan (1992) stress the importance to discuss movies not as detached texts but as multiple cultural and commercial processes, through which the audience is encouraged to construct meaning.
The aim of this thesis is to outline Neupert's interventions and to test his theories by applying them to the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). Due to its restricted length it is not possible to analyse more film examples. However, it will be made clear that the deficits of his formalistic approach disable a particular reading of this film's ending. Conversely, an alternative approach of examining this film related to the social, cultural and historical context it was made in will prove that its ending can be established. Nevertheless, Neupert's terminology will be used, and story and discourse will be examined separately.
The first chapter will give a concise summary with appropriate comments of Neupert's The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema, followed by a short critical analysis, which will point out his main theoretical limitations.
In the second chapter Picnic at Hanging Rock will be analysed by using Neupert's methodology. It will be indicated that, whilst recognising the significance of his contribution, his theory employed for examining this film is limited.
An alternative, more efficient approach, as suggested by Barbara Klinger (1997), will be recommended in the third chapter. Picnic at Hanging Rock will be analysed in terms of its socio-historical context in order to establish the meaning of its ending.
Compared to the second, the third chapter will be considerably longer. This will be necessary, due to the attempt to consider as many aspects as possible to examine Picnic at Hanging Rock's ending. Klinger (1997) points out that, 'if the researcher discusses the connection of a film to only a few contextual frames, (s)he may asses its historical role too hastily.' By contrast, as she further explains, a totalised view provides a sense of numerous ideologies interacting together, and the overall meaning of a film comes more into focus.
The conclusion will summarise the arguments and how they support the
thesis. In addition, areas for further research will be proposed, and
the importance of this topic will be emphasised.
This chapter will give a relevant summary of The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema by Richard Neupert (1995). This will provide an overview of his coherent construction for defining film endings, as well as his way and approaches of analysing films and filmic narratives. Also, it will point out the gaps in his work.
In his introduction Neupert (1995) states that endings are the key pleasure and anxiety of reading a text or watching a film. In certain genres and modes of production the 'value' of knowing the eventual resolution varies dramatically: textual clues, generic rules and constellation of actors (stars vs. non-stars, especially in Classical Hollywood Films) can foreshadow the end. Thus, as he continues, the interpretation of a text's conclusion must relate to the interpretation of the text as a whole, and literary studies suggest a dual narrative structure (comparable to semiotics): story ('signified') and discourse ('signifier'). Neupert claims to continue this tradition, but applying it to the distinctive cinematic text by building a simple narrative model.
In Neupert's account the story is a complex system of characters, actions and events organised temporally and causally, which are all reconstructed by the viewer's activity. Each character and action has a varying effect on the resolution of individual scenes and on the eventual ending.
The discourse as opposed to the story is the narrative voice, which includes a group of techniques, such as editing principles and musical interventions. The discourse also functions as an inscribed narrator where the techniques may even collectively create a definite personality or presence.
Turning to the audience, Neupert points out that psychoanalyses and cognitive psychology are the two major movements in terms of spectatorship and audience perception. Also, watching and comprehending films is often compared to and approached like reading a literary text. He stresses that collapsing literary and cinematic perception and understanding into a unified process of 'reading', does a disservice to notions of semiotic specificity regarding cinematic codes and their comprehension, since film cannot be regarded merely as text. Therefore, as Neupert continues, it has to be accounted for how people process cinematic elements into an understanding of the story and its end, by using the simple model of story and discourse.
According to Lothe (2000) this binary approach for filmic narratives is based on Russian formalists, such as Boris Eikhenbaum, in the 1920s. Lothe explains that Eikhenbaum already emphasised the huge difference of 'reading' a filmic and a literary text, and examined films in these terms. David Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) is clearly influenced by the Russian formalists and Neupert follows Bordwell's approach. Neupert's analyses and his film examples show obvious inspirations from Bordwell's work. Consequently, the novelty of his intervention is not as he claims. He appears to use the discontinuity between literature and cinema to mask his influence by Bordwell.
Neupert's The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema is divided into four parts, each part dealing with a different category of his model: the closed text film (closed story and closed discourse), open story film (open story and closed discourse), open discourse film (closed story and open discourse) and open text film (open story and open discourse).
In part one, Neupert discusses the closed text film, featuring a closed story and a closed discourse. He makes clear that solid closure in conventional narratives satisfies individual and social desire for moral authority, a purposeful interpretation of life and genuine stability, all of which stand in sharp contrast to the chance and alterity in the world around us. The author does not take closed but unsatisfying endings into account, occurring in conventional narratives, such as Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Shaffner, 1968), Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973),The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) or Le Jour se lève (Marcel Carné, 1939). He seems to attribute the closed text film to Classical Hollywood, without considering Post-classical Hollywood or other films.
As Neupert continues, closed text films increase their sense of completeness by reinforcing the closure in each level of narrative and discursive production. Intertwined plot lines are parallel or interrelated in order to reinforce the story logic and the sense of closure. According to Thompson (1999), this is mostly true for Classical Hollywood films, but in Post-classical Hollywood, for instance, this is not always the case.
The conventional narrative is a chain of moments (each of them progressively significant) driven by the desire towards a coherent closure (Neupert). Moreover, character action has traditionally motivated and organised plot. Once a character is defined, the hero desires something new or seeks to restore an original state. This is obvious in the goal-orientated classical narratives. At the end a generic resolution eliminates the ideological threat and celebrates the well-ordered community. Consequently, closed Text films struggle to limit and direct themselves toward the overall resolution, and the narrative discourse is designed to reflect the story and create devices that conclude the film when the narrative is completed. He makes an important point here, which, however, is mostly true for Classical Hollywood films. Works, such as Robert McKee's Story (1999) or Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1994) offer complex but classical recipes for goal-orientated, character-centred and multiple-plot-lines-leading-towards-final-resolution films.
In terms of discourse, Neupert states that the most common strategy of closure is bracketing or returning to the 'primary' narrator.
Neupert's case study for a closed text film is The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952). The Quiet Man, a film of the Classical Hollywood period, is about Sean, an American boxer who returns to Ireland where he was born. The film finishes when he not only marries Mary Kate, his beautiful neighbour, but when he is accepted by the people in the village, reconciling with Will, Mary Kate's brother and overcoming a trauma he had from his time in the United States. The author emphasises that all major story functions and story threads are interrelated and concluded at the end. Thus, to reinforce Sean's success at the end, every thread is resolved in a positive way, so that his future regarding his goal (to settle down in Ireland) is secured: he gets a local wife, her brother becomes his friend, the people accept him and he comes to terms with his trauma.
As Neupert continues, the film's discourse is equally closed by framing the story with the musical theme 'The Wild Colonial Boy', which from the beginning is associated with Sean. In addition, the voice-over narration goes back to Father Lonergan, who also started the story. However, a primary omniscient narrator starts before and finishes the film after father Lonergan. Thus, the text is bracketed a second time. In the epilogue, the characters cheer the hero on a narrative level, but on a discursive level, they address the viewer (by looking straight into the camera), thus acknowledging his/her voyeuristic process and breaking the diegesis. Consequently, the audience cannot return to these characters and to the location, and hence, the tale is finished (Neupert).
The second part of the study examines the open story film, which has an open story but a closed discourse. Neupert points out that the open story film often bears a connotation with the real world, due to its non-classical narrative (multiple characters, no obvious goals, no cause-effect chains, open narrative ends). Sometimes the characters have vague objectives but they are not reached, and problems are not solved. Neupert describes the open story end as a generic convention, bound to films of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. Nevertheless, other films, like Picnic at Hanging Rock (see later), have classical narratives, characters with goals and a closed discourse, but they still make use of an open story end, which is far more unexpected than in New Wave or Neorealist films.
Also, as he further states, open story films are more interested in story than in discourse, so that the discourse is more conventional (linear and closed). However, as it will be shown later, the primary reasons for a film's story/discourse end can be traced further than genre and aesthetics: political and/or commercial decisions relating to the socio-historical context.
400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959), one of the first New Wave films, is the case study Neupert uses for open story films. It depicts the life of an unwanted single child, Antoine Doinel, living with his unsympathetic mother and stepfather. Having problems at school he runs away and is finally put into an observation centre for young offenders. In the end he escapes, but his fate is unclear, as Truffaut ends the film with the famous freeze frame of the fugitive Antoine on the seashore. Changes of mood and pace dominate, as well as a series of insignificant events for the narrative.
Throughout the loose story, as Neupert explains, event-to-event chains keep starting up and finishing, and small, seemingly significant actions are never referred to again. Also, larger action codes are omitted. Consequently, the story end of 400 Blows has no resolution that could refer to earlier action codes. Also, since there is neither a causal character motivation nor objectives the spectator is kept from expecting a unifying or culminating end. Thus, the open end seems a necessity and is perfectly motivated by the narrative. Throughout his study Neupert states that a common feature of open story films is their motivation of openness and inability of closure. However, Neupert does not consider films with classical narrative structures deliberately avoiding closure, nor does he concretely define openness. In chapter two this weakness will show that certain films do not match Neupert's categories.
Analysing the narrative discourse of 400 Blows, Neupert claims that it completely avoids subjectivity. The audience can only observe Antoine, but has no insight into his thoughts. This absence of subjective narration helps to weaken the notion of a clear goal and a consistent theme. Nevertheless, as Neupert continues, the discourse builds a consistent diegetic world and is fully closed, as can be seen by the restriction of the camera's point of view in the final scene: once Antoine escapes from the observation centre, the camera seems to follow only him until it stops in a freeze-framed close-up of Antoine's face. Antoine is looking straight into the camera. As in The Quiet Man, the diegetic world is disturbed; the voyeuristic experience is over, since the audience is 'seen' by Antoine, and the discourse closes. The discourse is also closed by the musical score. Like at the beginning the musical themes connected to Antoine are reassembled at the end, offering a flashback of the film's prevailing moods. Thus, the ending offers a discursive conclusion and brackets the film, both common strategies of a closed discourse.
Focusing on the open discourse film, which has an open discourse and a closed story, Neupert argues that the narrative discourse continues without telling anything new or extending the main story. The story elements in an open discourse film at the end would merely be catalysers for character mood or atmosphere. However, according to his earlier accounts on discourses, closed discourses are coded by bracketing, mise-en-scéne (such as the conventional final wide shot) and/or musical cues. Consequently, an open discourse would reject these closure devices and stop suddenly, rather than continuing without telling a story. Nevertheless, Neupert sees problems with this category and acknowledges that in most cases the active audience would construct a connection between unrelated images and the main story that was closed before, so that in practice no films are read as having a closed story and an open discourse.
In classical narratives the discourse reflects and is subordinated to the narrative (Bordwell 1985). In contrast, in Neupert's fourth category, the open text film, the narrative discourse becomes an independent entity alongside the narrative. Neupert establishes four main characteristics of open text films: lack of narrative linearity, lack of narrative plausibility, lack of narrative goals or premises and discontinuous time and space setting in the narrative. He declares that a truly open film will open up the very idea of text by its use of a variety of heterogeneous narrative tactics; hence no single strategy or level will be able to close off the film at the end.
In Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), Neupert's cases study for the open text film, Godard does not challenge the representation, but the code himself (Neupert). Therefore, the story begins in a rather classical way, setting up character goals and deadlines. Corinne and Roland set off on a journey over the Weekend, and each one is planning to kill the other. This set up gives the impression that the story will evolve around the two characters, as Neupert asserts. However, the story is centred on the disruption of their journey. A variety of implausible characters that have no other function than interrupting Corinne's and Roland's journey appear throughout the film, which makes the story looser.
Neupert affirms that Godard's open text story distances and engages the viewer at the same time. The audience is slowed down so they find themselves trying to locate a certain story line in this melange of seemingly excessive fragments, and this frustration demands a more active spectating process. Neupert assumes that when spectators do not know where a film is going they tend to watch everything because there is no way to be sure which elements prove significant later on. Subjective assumptions like this are recurrent in his study, and, although they seem plausible at first glance, they turn out to be unconfirmed by contextual factors or by any empirical data.
Weekend has an open narrative discourse that has to be discussed in terms of its point of views and multiple narrative voice structure (Neupert). In more conventional films like The Quiet Man or 400 Blows, the focalisation is tied to the main character, as Neupert asserts. However, as he continues in Weekend, the narrative discourse does not only focus on what physically surrounds Roland and Corinne, nor to what relates only to their journey. Thus, by the end the audience has witnessed a range of scenes that are never linked temporarily or spatially to the main characters, which helps fragment and eventually open up the narration of this open text film. It has to be considered, though, that a variety of Hollywood films have parallel interrelating narratives and multiple characters, and the focus changes accordingly (Aronson, 2001). Examples include American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) and The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), in which the discourse is securely closed. Surely, the degree of interrelation is important (For instance, in American Beauty the parallel story lines are less interwoven than in The Magnificent Seven), but how this might influence the closure of the discourse needs more examination than Neupert provides.
In his conclusion Neupert admits that this work is not totally exhaustive and instances of films that seem to slide between the categories will and should result from a study like this. However, as he contnues, the viewer as a subjective analyst finally decides how resolved or open a film is.
Nowadays, the shift of film studies is away from theorising the audience as a monolithic body of subjects, all sharing the same drives, fears and cultural determinations (Neupert). Here, the author clearly distances himself from the psychoanalytic and cognitive approach of audience perception. However, several of Neupert's explanations, such as how the audience comprehends a film (perception, interpretation, hypothesis-making and retrospection) are influenced by cognitive psychology (Plantinga and Smith, 1999).
Finally Neupert points out that the ending of a film also helps to outline ideological issues, especially in Hollywood films. The investigation of endings may help to put into question the concepts of realism or plausibility in the rendering of social patterns of narratology. Thus, as he continues, the issues raised by the study of endings involve how closure and resolution are determined by both film practice or language, and ideological factors. However, as he acknowledges, the issue of ideology was not explored in this study.
Neupert's study offers a consistent and simple approach to studying filmic ends. He introduces a variety of theories, which he cleverly merges into his framework of four distinctive categories of film endings. Neupert's The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema is the first thorough study of film endings, and an important contribution in narrative and cinema theory. His most important achievement is that he establishes the end as a crucial aspect of a narrative, which gives meaning to the whole film. Also, he demonstrates that examining the end of a film requires a close analysis of the whole narrative structure itself. Apart from this, Neupert raises many questions not only about filmic endings, but also about narrative theory itself.
One deficit is his definition of discourse. In the first two categories he establishes the closed discourse reasonably. However, in the last categories where the discourse is open, his definition of an open discourse seems very abstract and, as already mentioned, not justifiable comparing to the definition of the closed discourse. According to Zucker (1997), Neupert's geometric rigour leads to a hypothetical category that has no practical sense and is theoretically abstract. The open discourse and open text categories are intriguing and raise important questions about film style and form. However, they are not exhaustive, and theories, such as Brechtian aspects, are touched but not further explored.
Another gap of Neupert's study is his case studies. As Zucker (1997) puts it, 'his taxonomy falls along familiar lines: the closed categories conform to the rules of classicism, while the open categories comply with Bordwell's description of arthouse cinema'. Consequently his film examples, as Neupert himself confirms, motivate their endings. Films that do not easily fit in his categories are not considered. However, Neupert affirms in his conclusion that that this study should encourage examinations films that do not match his categories easily.
In terms of audience perception Neupert pretends objectivity but his assumptions on how the audience comprehends narrative structures seem too subjective and are neither supported by any consistent theory, nor by the socio-historical context, nor by statistical data. Neupert is reasonable enough though, to emphasise that in the end the individual in the audience decides how open or closed a film is.
The next chapter will reveal the limitations of Neupert's study, by applying his theories to a case study that does not easily fit his system.
In this chapter Neupert's approach will be applied to Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). Using his framework to establish the ending of Picnic at Hanging Rock will be problematic, as this is a film that does not easily fit his system since its ending is not typical of the narrative structure.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted from an Australian novel by Joan Lindsay, tells the story of a group of college girls who on February the 14 th, 1900, go on a picnic at Hanging Rock, a volcanic formation near Melbourne in the state of Victoria, Australia. Three girls and one teacher disappear on the rock without trace. Subsequent searches are without success. Michael, an English aristocrat, searches himself and finds Irma, one of the missing girls. She does not remember anything what happened on the rock. Irma falls in love with Michael, but he is too obsessed with Miranda, one of the missing girls. Meanwhile, the college's financial situation steadily declines as parents withdraw their daughters. As a consequence, Mrs. Appleyard, the headmistress, becomes addicted to alcohol. At the end Mrs. Appleyard commits suicide, Michael decides to stay and live in Australia and Irma returns to Europe. The missing girls are never found.
Picnic at Hanging Rock has several major story lines, all of which are character-orientated. At the end, each of those story lines is concluded and resolved. The first story line is about Michael, the young English aristocrat. He visits his aunt and uncle, members of the British Empire who administrate the region around Melbourne. From the very beginning it is clear that he is suffering from the decadent and repressive Britishness, as represented by his aunt and uncle. He admires the relaxed Australian mentality and way of life. Thus, his goal is to become part of the Australian way of life. The disappearance of the girls and his obsession with Miranda affect him insofar, as they strengthen his desire for change. Finally, he decides to settle down in Australia, and so achieves his goal. Mrs. Appleyard, on the other hand, affected by the disappearance, falls into a journey of self-destruction, which ends with her suicide.
Irma, the only girl found has had a significant change. Before the disappearance she is one of the innocent and naïve girls in the college who deny the importance of their sexual development and discover devious means to practice auto-eroticism (Bruzzi, 1997), or indeed homo-eroticism (Shiach, 1993). However, once Irma is found, she falls in love with Michael, but this first love experience fails because of Michael's obsession with Miranda.
Nevertheless, Irma has gained maturity and womanhood. Bruzzi (1997) points out that this change is reflected by the clothes she is wearing throughout the film. Before vanishing, Irma, as all the other girls, wears a white, frilly muslin dress. However, after she has been found, she wears an intensely adult scarlet cape, visually distinguished from the other schoolgirls still clothed in virginal white (Bruzzi, 1997). Sarah, another girl from the college has a similar fate as Mrs. Appleyard. The vanishing of the girls and the threat of being sent back to the orphanage, where she initially had come from, leads to her suicide.
The different story lines are all interrelated, since they are influenced by the same event: the disappearance of the girls on the rock. In addition they are linear and rely on cause-effect patterns. According to Bordwell (1985) cause-effect relationships are a crucial aspect of classical narrative. Each story line in Picnic at Hanging Rock has segments that causally motivate the segments that follow. For instance, Michael expresses the fact the girls could still be alive in the bush, so in the next scene he sets off to look for them. The next day he is found unconscious on the rock, holding a piece of frilly fabric in his hand. This leads to Irma being found. Irma being found by Michael, results in her falling in love with him. Rejecting Irma, Michael admits his obsession with Miranda and decides to settle in Australia.
In conclusion, all major story lines involve goal-orientated characters. The mystery of the vanishing itself seems to contribute little to their journey. The narrative structures of these primary characters' stories deal more with the effects of the vanishing, rather than with a solution. Hence, the question for them is not 'what happened to those girls', but 'how do I deal with it.' Each primary character has goals affected by the mystery, and at the end these goals are either achieved, resulting in a new balance, or they are not achieved and the character dies. In narrative terms, the vanishing at the beginning is the cause, and at the end the spectator witnesses its ultimate effects upon the characters, closing up each story line. At the end the story and each character become predictable. In addition, regarding the disappearance of the girls, the end offers an overall conclusion: A voice-over tells the audience that they were never found again. This conclusion amplifies the predictability of the story.
Admittedly, Picnic at Hanging Rock's story is not as straightforward as the story of a Classical Hollywood film, and since Neupert's analysis for a closed story comprises only narrative features of Hollywood films, it is difficult to apply his theory in the first place. This is mostly due to its multiple character structure (Aronson, 2002) and multiple narrative voices, which according to Neupert, are common features of an open text film.
In addition to this McFarlane and Mayer (1992) state that Picnic at Hanging Rock sets up clues and expectations, which are deliberately not resolved at the end. Hints on the disappearance are introduced, such as the stopping of the watches and the pink cloud on the rock, but they are never consummated by subsequent narrative developments. McFarlane and Mayer further claim, that Picnic at Hanging Rock employs similar narrative strategies to the European arthouse films. They give the refusal of causal connections as an example. However, as demonstrated before, it is possible to identify clear causal connections if the story lines of the specific characters are regarded. The story is not as loose and implausible as in Neupert's open story categories (open story and open text film).
The principal characters undergo a clear and plausible change of their traits. Moreover, each story line is concluded at the end and the story is completely linear. Yet, McFarlane and Mayer (1992) and Rayner (2000) are right in their claim that the film's overall causal gaps and loose plot seemingly contradict the classical narrative structures. Therefore, the story is not determinable by using Neupert's system. It fits neither his accounts for open stories, nor his definitions for closed stories.
Picnic at Hanging Rock's discourse is securely closed by the use of several stylistic devices. The story is bracketed on several levels, which, according to Neupert, indicates discursive closure. Firstly, the story starts and ends with a close-up of Miranda's face. Aronson (2002) asserts that she is the dominant character that has an influence on all the other characters. Thus, at the start she wakes up in the oppressive college, and at the end her angelic face is shown in the liberating nature in a flashback, shortly before she disappears. This encourages the reading of Miranda finally entering an alternative reality, as opposed to the repressive life at college (Shiach, 1993). This bracketing takes place in the diegesis. However, there is another bracketing performed by the primary narrator of the film.
According to Neupert, the primary narrator of a film operates at the highest, most extra-diegetic level of the film and strongly influences the viewer's understanding of the film from its start to its end. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, this primary voice tells the viewer in a caption at the beginning: 'On Saturday, 14 th February, 1900, a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock in the State of Victoria. During the afternoon, several members of the party disappeared without trace … .' At the end this introduction is mirrored by an extra-diegetic voice over, which tells us that subsequent searches and investigations were without success and the girls were never found, terminating forever our expectations for a solution and closing the discourse.
Another stylistic closure device is the quasi-freeze frame look of Mrs. Appleyard into the camera before the extra-diegetic flashback of the girls on the day they disappear. As at the end of 400 Blows, this look disrupts the voyeuristic experience of the viewer and closes the diegesis.
As with the story, the discourse does not stick consistently to a conventional approach. Apart from those discursive closure devices, it applies a system of multiple characters and focalisations. As already mentioned those multiple story lines are interrelated by the mystery of the disappearance. However, at the end they hugely diverge from each other in terms of character and achievements. As Neupert claims in the chapter on open text films, this is a strong sign for an open discourse.
The first problem with Picnic at Hanging Rock is that its story and discourse cannot be categorised with Neupert's study since they employ both arthouse and classical techniques, which seemingly contradict each other. The story has classical narrative features, such as causal story lines and melodramatic character traits (O'Regan, 1996). It also builds expectations towards a solution at the end. Yet, there is no solution at the end. Also, the overall story structure bears similarities to European New Wave and Neorealist films, using multiple, diverging narrative lines and significant causal gaps. Thus, Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a straightforward film example as Neupert used in his study. The discourse too, appears to have features of both, classical and arthouse cinema, and could be read either as closed or open.
The second problem of analysing Picnic at Hanging Rock is that it has a conclusion but no resolution of the mystery. It could be compared to a 'whodunit' film that rejects the solution of the murder. Neupert does not strictly define what an open story end is though. He uses notions such as 'lack of conclusion' and 'lack of resolution' randomly and does not provide a further explanation. He indicates that at the open story end the subsequent development of story and characters is always unpredictable. Thus, from this point of view Picnic at Hanging Rock would certainly not have an open story, since the characters and their stories are concluded and become predictable at the end. Yet, the causal gaps, the subversion of expectations regarding the mystery and the refusal to solve it could be seen to make the story open-ended. How one can account for these diverse and seemingly contradictory features of this film, and how one can establish its end as open or closed is still the open issue.
A third problem is that Neupert's formalistic and text-centred approach to filmic ends is generally restricted in several ways. Firstly, it is from the point of view of a United States theorist and spectator. Secondly, Neupert's approach is representative for the time it was written in. Zucker (1997) states that David Bordwell's decisive work Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) initiated a new trend towards narrative theory regarding film style and phenomenology. She confirms that Neupert is symptomatic for this tendency and an obvious derivative of Bordwell's interventions by combining cognitive psychology with reception theory.
This post-structural approach pretends a scientific objectivity without considering the audience's background, as Shiach (1993) asserts, and, as he continues, individual critics are not unprejudiced scientists but shaped by class, gender and racial factors. Hence, the next chapter will illustrate that as long as the background of the audience and a specific historical context are acknowledged, the ending of a film can be fully established. As Shiach (1993) confirms, 'no serious film criticism can afford to avoid analysing movies within their historical and sociological contexts and against the background of conventional signifying practices within the movie industry'.
(part I and II)
Books and Articles
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Catalin Brylla: "I have done a BA in Film and Video at the University of Wales College, Newport, UK. During my course I have made a variety of films, ranging from short experimental films to corporate videos. As film practitioner I am equally interested in film theory, especially narrative theory, and the impact of narrative and editing on the audience. At the moment I am doing an MA in Documentary Making at the Royal Holloway University of London, where I want to experiment with narrative in documentaries, and ultimately writing a paper on narratology and documentaries. Afterwards, alongside practical work (ie making films) I intend to empirically explore audience reception to filmic narratives, especially endings, and the impact of editing."
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