Malcolm Wallhead’s 15-minute voyeuristic essay on Melbourne city life, consumerism, and waste is plotted within the arc of a cinematic day. This structure – the musically edited rhythm of the images, the frequent “looking back” at the camera of people passing by, and the visual preoccupation with bodies and urban space – connects The Cleaners (1969) with such city symphony films of the 1920s and 1930s as Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929) and Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Walter Ruttmann, 1927) which “constructed a ‘symphony’ based on the diurnal cycle of life in the modern metropolis, while simultaneously infusing avant-gardist perspectives with a historically and politically cognizant form of social criticism” (1).

More than a film about workers, The Cleaners is a visual essay about Melbourne city centre’s desire for a clean modernity and the polluting nature of its transient inhabitants. It was shot in 1969 when the city was near the end of a 20-year period of “urban spurt” (1956-1975) that transformed its face and skyline. As Miles Lewis writes in his Melbourne: The City’s History and Development:

this is the time when the resumption of full scale building, the recovery of prosperity, the pressure of increased population and the easing of restrictions, initiated the third dramatic transformation in the urban fabric. […] The traditional street grid was assaulted by the creation of setbacks and forecourts. This is the period when an architectural bias is most justified because there were real architectural changes and they had a real impact on the population as a whole. (2)

The Cleaners was Wallhead’s fifth film (3). It was produced in collaboration with the State Film Centre of Victoria, then about to move into its new East Melbourne premises. The film is a valid articulation of a Melbourne city essay film based on a visual observational strategy that is resolved mainly through its montage of images and sounds. Its kinetic style differs from the then dominant form of many documentaries since it is organised around visual themes and structures (in terms of rhythmic editing), rather than being driven by a commentary and social analysis. In The Cleaners the sparse commentary seems supplementary, something added after editing, and therefore sometimes acting to modify the more fluid meaning of the images. The film can be divided into different parts, each with it own pace: the slow images of Melbourne’s city centre in the early morning; the dynamic arrival of the crowd at Flinders Street Station; the progressive work of the cleaners; the Soviet-style montage of products and waste; the city at night; the calm of the morning after, when the cleaning trucks wash the streets before another day begins; and, finally, a littering episode.

The film opens with early morning images of deserted streets in the city’s centre, “empty” shots of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and shows the new, post-1959 high-rise skyline from the Yarra River. The shape of a man with his back to the camera can be seen as he walks along the riverbank to the city. The resulting atmosphere is sparse and unreal. If it wasn’t for a couple of cars moving in the distance it could be a metropolitan still-life, or a possible location for an apocalyptic post-nuclear film set ten years after Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959) landed in Melbourne. It therefore establishes an unusual site: a deserted, voided or dehumanised Melbourne. It creates a place that has only subsequently become a more familiar object in the filmic imagination of the city (4). The commentary suggests a disturbing connection between this sense of a void and the idea of cleanliness: “Melbourne is one of the cleanest port cities in the world. How it is this way is the business of the cleaners.” The spell is broken by the arrival of a train entering the dark, backlit space of what we assume is Flinders Street Station (this time without its monumental façade). The train triggers the arrival of the crowd onto the screen and into the city space, returning us to a more familiar, populated reality.

The crowd section is the longest, and works as the main focus for the film. People come and go, without apparent destination. The camera enters a visual dialogue with the transitional bystanders. It directly films the crowd or stands in orthogonal axis with the road. It catches different details of commuters and shoppers (shoes, legs, bags) and is confronted by people looking defensively at the camera or trying to avoid being watched. The look into the camera and the attempt to avoid its gaze is reminiscent of early cinema, and in the local context, specifically a film like Marvellous Melbourne: Queen City of the South (Cozens Spencer 1910), one of Australia’s earliest documentaries. At this earlier time, the engagement with the camera told of the desire of the actor-spectator to be part of the show. In The Cleaners the post-television actor-spectator already knows that being in the eye of the camera means a loss of control over her/his own image, and s/he constantly fails to engage. As Keith Beattie suggests, “the ‘look back’ at the camera foregrounds the corporeal as a presence within the city film capable of confronting and resisting the camera’s objectifying gaze” (5). It is also significant that resistance to the gaze comes and is documented from the crowd, but is absent when the cleaners are filmed. This suggests that the camera has a moralistic role in revealing the opposition between the unproductive guilty crowd and the productive workers not worried by it presence.

When we see the cleaners on screen we begin to suspect that the director is not so much interested in who they are as in what they do. In this sense, it is revealing to compare Wallhead’s film with Antonioni’s second short N. U. (Nettezza Urbana/Urban Cleanliness), which documents a day in the life of a Roman street cleaner in 1948, the same year that Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) was released. N.U. also uses a diurnal structure, but its dynamic is quite different. Antonioni’s 11-minute film is built around a central character who appears in the rainy early morning in Rome’s centre. We see him at work, then at lunch with his pals, and finally we follow him returning home to the distant suburbs. The city is an organic secondary character, filmed with a texture-enhancing photography; it appears dirty and biologically active, while the body of the citizens remain mainly unfilmed. There are some similarities in the message of the cleaner who not only works and cleans, but is also clean himself. Beyond that, The Cleaners is a different kind of film object, with other priorities. Wallhead first presents the city, then the crowd, and, finally, the cleaners. Melbourne’s city centre appears sunny and metaphysical; it is a parallel presence, the mental core of the film. The crowd arrives by train and is presented not in terms of its individuality but as a multiplicity, constantly traversing and using the urban space, apparently without a clear destination. Those working are the cleaners; not a singular entity or story but themselves a collective concept, representing the function of a category, in this instance employed as a positive force to underline the negative. Here the specificity of the work of the cleaners shadows and informs the non-specificity of those walking in the city. These are not workers (they are potentially not “clean”), and are certainly consumers. But the cleaners and their job are, in a certain way, an outcome of the crowd’s consumerist identity.

The most explicit scene in this sense is the montage of garbage being sorted in a truck, intercut with shots of the consumerist products as the speaker enunciates their names. The whole sequence is edited to the rhythmic sound of machinery.

The Cleaners engages metaphorically with Melbourne’s dynamic of non-representation (6). It shows the deserted, metaphysical city apparently without people, but then shows the Melbourne crowd without an identifiable background, people without a specific city. It uses these two visual realities to recompose a mental image of modern Melbourne. It mirrors reality, constantly reflecting an image which is other than itself.


  1. Keith Beattie, “From City Symphony to Global City Film: Documentary Display and the Corporeal”, Screening the Past no. 20, December 2006: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/20/city-symphony-global-city-film.html.
  2. Miles Lewis, Melbourne: The City’s History and Development, City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1995, p. 127.
  3. The other Wallhead titles are Shelter (1965), Figurines – Some Works of David Swift (1965), Sculpture (1966), Fremantle Cray Fishers (1967).
  4. The deserted images of usually crowded city-spaces are a common science fiction device to help produce the feeling of an uncanny urban space. This trope has been used since at least the 1950s and not just in sci-fi but also to convey the experience of urban alienation and displacement. A key example of this occurs in the final sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962). Today Melbourne has its own “Deserted Melbourne Postcode 3000” group, with over a thousand photos posted on the Internet community website, Flickr.
  5. Beattie.
  6. Adrian Danks, “Don’t Rain on Ava Gardner Parade”, Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, ed. Deb Verhoeven, Damned Publishing, St Kilda, 1999, pp. 173-185.

The Cleaners (1969 Australia 16 mins)

Prod Co: Malcolm Wallhead Film Productions/State Film Centre of Victoria Filmmaker: Malcolm Wallhead Music Arranged by: Margaret Jane Drake

About The Author

Federico Passi is a filmmaker and PhD candidate in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University (Melbourne), where he is completing his dissertation on cinema and urban space. He is also the editor of the film site iCine.it.

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