“I’m here to make a film about the end of the world… and this seems to be exactly the right place for it.” – Ava Gardner (allegedly) (1)
Marguerite Duras’ 1979 short Aurélia Steiner: Melbourne, provides an illuminating avenue through which to start to examine the representation of Melbourne in cinema. Throughout Duras’ film we hear the plaintive and melancholy tones of the narrator juxtaposed with beautiful, mute and seemingly endless views of the surrounds of the River Seine observed while travelling on the water. What is most striking about this representation of Melbourne, announced in the subtitle of the film, is its “absence” until the film’s final spoken pronouncement, and thus, its “lack” of representation. Throughout, the film schizophrenically juxtaposes various modes of address and investigates a creeping discordance between image and sound. In the process, Melbourne emerges as somewhere the narrator imagines and vaguely occupies, which is both some place and yet no place at the same time. Duras uses Melbourne in a manner which highlights its non-specificity and malleability. She uses the city as one site indicative of a more general retreat from history, and as a nondescript but evocative vessel for reverie on the great wounds of the 20th century. The film only very gradually suggests a sense of “being” in Melbourne. Where Melbourne appears at other points in her writing it is when she is trying to make sense of a world-weary diaspora, a flight from the sites of grounded meaning into anonymity. Duras’ choice of Melbourne is illustrative of its function as a figure of escape and emphasises its position as a fugitive city on the outer margins of the geographic and phenomenological world. This choice also recognises Melbourne’s centrality as a key destination for survivors of the Holocaust. I have no idea whether Duras ever visited Melbourne and her description of the place (or lack of description, more precisely) gives us few clues. Yet her use of Melbourne is strangely perceptive and her placement of it on a list of more-or-less anywheres is prescient of a history of cinematic representations of Melbourne as place.
In concert with this sense of lack, absence and displacement, Melbourne is often envisaged as a city of “not quite” catastrophe: evidenced, for example, by the slow apocalypse of On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959), the post-Holocaust malaise of Aurélia Steiner: Melbourne, the simulated apocalyptic streetscapes and falling space-junk of Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986) or the inevitable and carefully choreographed pyrotechnics of the Melbourne-shot Jackie Chan vehicle Yat goh hiu yan (Mr. Nice Guy, Sammo Hung, 1997). In Wrong World (Ian Pringle, 1985) Melbourne appears as city to return to when the specificity and flaneuristic pleasure of cities has imploded, as a postmodern malaise of neon light, overpass archways and anonymous concrete interiors. In all of these examples, Melbourne is used as a place to glimpse, stage or just vaguely suggest the “end” of the world while at the same time noting the city’s instability and malleability as an iconic force.
“My name is Aurélia Steiner, I live in Melbourne, my parents teach school. I am 18, I write…” (2)
Throughout this essay I will trace some of the dominant ways Melbourne has been represented in cinema by focusing upon the manner in which several overseas productions have viewed it. Thus this essay will concentrate upon how Melbourne is represented from outside, with a “foreign” eye, and the ways in which these representations formulate and circulate. This approach facilitates a focus upon a variety of national cinemas and diverse cinematic practices – from experimental and essayistic documentary to diasporic late 20th century Hong Kong action film and star-studded, internationalist Hollywood cinema. Particular emphasis will be placed upon the last of these, examining the representational preoccupations of, arguably, the key film made in Melbourne during the ’50s: the “prestige” Hollywood production, On the Beach, shot in and around Melbourne during the summer of 1958-59, based on a best-selling novel by Nevil Shute, featuring a number of major Hollywood stars (Gardner, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins) and which premiered at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on 16 December 1959. It is a film whose lasting impact revolves around several factors: the presence of foreign stars in local environments; the international cache of specific national cinemas; the visibility of filming in Melbourne locations; Melbourne’s representation in the film as “itself”. It is perhaps only in 1996 with the arrival of Jackie Chan to shoot Mr. Nice Guy that an international film event of somewhere near equivalent stature and visible local impact returns to Melbourne. But Mr. Nice Guy is a film with very different and much more mundane preoccupations.
For such an emblematically “locationist” film, On the Beach is surprisingly free of many identifiable and often over-determined Australian elements: Aboriginality (whether dealt with sympathetically or not); identifiable bush and outback landscapes and stereotypes; any reference to local flora and fauna; the transformation of schizophrenic cityscapes into iconic Australiana. In the process, it brings internationalist and refreshingly non-parochial sensibilities to its representation of Melbourne. Nevertheless, it is also, especially for those who live in the city and its environs, a film which is partly, though somewhat unconsciously, about the joke of Melbourne and its cosmopolitan and metropolitan pretensions. For example, a Sydney-based newsreel made at the time of On the Beach’s production knowingly proclaimed Melbourne’s cinematic transformation into a “Dead City”, as if it were an astute piece of typecasting hardly requiring a performance at all.
In looking at these representational patterns we need to consider how Melbourne performs, is allowed to perform or is performed in a film like On the Beach. In short, Melbourne emerges as less a set of buildings and random spaces than as an “idea”, a collection of spatial and temporal phenomena that never quite congeal into something totally solid. Not surprisingly On the Beach emerges as a paradoxical film which could have been filmed anywhere but also only in Melbourne.
“The film was widely perceived as the most important thing to happen to Melbourne since the Olympic Games, and some might add that it still appears thus.” (3)
1950s Australia is marked by several epochal events which paraded Australia, and more particularly Melbourne, on a world stage: for example, the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, On the Beach’s production and the 1954 Royal tour (4). An “exterior” or parochially “international” focus is common to many accounts of the period leading to claims such as those of Jane Bray, curator of an exhibition devoted to On the Beach’s production: “On the Beach was one of the signals of Australians coming of age – their realization that they were part of the world” (5). This questioning of belonging or not belonging to the world runs through many accounts of Melbourne, how it conceives of itself and is conceived from outside (6). Nevertheless, to get a sense of Melbourne’s explicitly multicultural and more general cultural shifts, its own internal critiques and problems, one must look elsewhere; to films like those of Italian immigrant Giorgio Mangiamele (7), to Gil Brealey and Paul Olsen’s essayistic documentary Sunday in Melbourne (1958), to micro-budget films produced under the auspices of organisations such as film societies and architectural revues (see, for example, Peter McIntyre and Robin Boyd’s Your House and Mine, 1954), and toward one-off oddities, like the virtually unseen Night Club (A. R. Harwood, 1952). Though of great cultural and often aesthetic interest these works are also rather inaccessible, often in precarious archival condition and not widely seen, not even at the time of their production; while film histories, restorations, re-releases and retrospectives are seldom all that attentive to material from this period (8). Thus, to properly gauge the cinematic representation of Melbourne, particularly in the ’50s and ’60s, one really has to look elsewhere. One must be an archivist and search outside of established histories. One must also see beyond some of the common assumptions about this period, and the dominant ways of looking at Melbourne they produce: stuffy, establishment, boring, suburban, municipal, sport-obsessed, overwhelmingly fixated upon one-off events, and with an inferiority complex in relation to Sydney. This is difficult as there are virtually no feature films made in Melbourne or which represent Melbourne during this period and the curious, ironic though strikingly identifiable images of Melbourne in On the Beach are pretty much all we have.
Essentially, I want to investigate whether these movies appear to tell us anything much about broader patterns of representing Melbourne. Those who view On the Beach, Mr. Nice Guy or even Aurélia Steiner Melbourne from “outside”, and in many ways that is what I am interested in here, will experience a very one or only slightly multi-dimensional view of Melbourne. On the Beach purports to present a nihilistic if openly humanistic view of the world and yet its mundane, safe and less than visionary view of Melbourne tells us something about its more general representational politics. Its view of Melbourne is essentially uncomplicated, relying upon a set of images and views of the city and country that have little to do with the complex social, racial and topographic shifts of the ’50s, or its memory as a boom city of the late 19th century (“Marvellous Melbourne”). The film’s gaze is seldom exploratory and resembles the look of a wearied traveller who is just pleased to be visiting a vaguely familiar country that offers few obstructions, challenges or differences (other than of the quaint variety). This lack of diversity is partly a result of locations chosen (Berwick, Williamstown, Point Lonsdale, Canadian Bay, Rockbank, Frankston, Swanston Street, Elizabeth Street, and “studio” interiors at the Royal Showgrounds) but is also because a complex view of the city’s contents (where Melbourne might become more meaningfully the last repository of a varied and representative humanity) might get in the way. The film is more concerned with the last flickerings of a kind of Anglo-American-Australian culture (read “civilization”) than anything else. The film also fails to encounter any African-American, Aboriginal, Eastern European, or Asian characters, nor, essentially, any non-Western concerns.
At the same time, On the Beach does have a surprisingly attentive eye for observational detail of the city, its topography, and aspects of its temporality. These representational qualities echo more sedate, generic and less dynamic claims for Melbourne, such as being “the world’s most livable city”, the site of the “friendly Games”, “one of the most filmable” cities or as a “great place to do showbusiness” (9). This is an insipidness reinforced by the marketing push of the Melbourne Film Office, a government body which champions Melbourne’s chameleon-like capacities, its easiness and hospitality, and highlights its ability “to transform itself into virtually any city in the world” (10). Taking its lead from the activities of its Queensland counterpart, The Pacific Film and Television Commission, the Melbourne Film Office openly promotes the city as a varied, flexible and heterogeneous package (11). These qualities are on the one hand positive, emphasising Melbourne’s ubiquity and a specificity residing in the extraordinary combination of less than distinct elements, and on the other hand negative, envisaging Melbourne as being swallowed up by a lack of specificity, a desperate derivativeness, and a wish to be somewhere else than it actually is. This suggests a mode of being that may have its roots in the internationalist aspirations and economic miracle of 19th century Melbourne: “By 1880 Melbourne measured its success by being like somewhere else, be it San Francisco, London or Paris, and by acquiring artefacts which allowed it a vicarious and peripatetic involvement with the world” (12). These qualities suggest the textual, cultural and spatial variety of Melbourne, as well as the difficulty of pinpointing aspects which are identifiably local. Melbourne’s grid-based layout, large Victorian edifices, and wide streets are often brought in to support a view of it as a staid and over-organised city. Aspects that, ironically, also facilitate its filming.
The opening moments of On the Beach are emblematic of this representational indistinctness and slipperiness. As an American submarine enters the heads of Port Phillip Bay there are no identifying landmarks, nothing that marks what we see (except for the local spectator, perhaps) as identifiably Melbourne. In keeping with this troubling generality, On the Beach makes no real attempt to introduce viewers to the city (Melbourne films are often curiously remiss in this respect). There is no shot of the skyline, no title-card, nor a montage of explicit views, attractions or identifying features. This is part-and-parcel of a general difficulty of conceiving of Melbourne as a “landmark” city or as a city of landmarks: does it have none, too many, are none outstanding enough, or are they too derivative? In his book Twins, Chris Gregory addresses some of these issues by conceptualising Melbourne as a city of doubles, twins and copies; where each recognisable building apes the facades, features and memories of other more desirable, exotic and cosmopolitan cities (13). In concert with this, Juliana Engberg suggests “that we are in a constant state of ambivalence about our city” and that “we practice a form of self-denial about our place” (14). She essays a complex and often contradictory set of attitudes toward Melbourne: “We are proud of our city. And yet we hardly know it and we constantly will it to be ‘other’ than it is.” (15) Engberg’s meditation upon a quixotic Melbourne provides an introduction to a collection of essays, most of which reiterate, some more vehemently than others, these complex and rather contradictory feelings for the city (16). They proffer a set of complexes, ethereal responses and quotational practices (which rely upon reference elsewhere to provide a definition or map of Melbourne) that resonate with everyday experiences of the city. Melbourne is drawn as a city always, already, represented. In keeping with this, Melbourne is often used as a cinematic stand-in for any number of other places: the light, sensibility and actuality of Europe in various Paul Cox films; for Prague in the seamlessly mixed footage of Memories and Dreams (Lynn-Maree Milburn, 1993); for Victorian London in the TV-movie The Ripper (Janet Myers, 1997), and to evoke the architectural and municipal memory of an older Europe and America in On the Beach.
Melbourne-based cinema is often iconically and representationally heterogeneous, temporally and spatially indistinct. It is not rich in elements like loving long shots of the city, aerial perspectives, predominant images or consistent representational tropes. Though the ubiquitous view of the Melbourne skyline from across the Yarra River does crop-up in numerous documentaries and fiction features (for example, Holidays on the River Yarra [Leo Berkeley, 1991], Mr. Nice Guy, Melbourne Olympic City ) it never constitutes a forceful, iconic or necessary image but only an attractive, mundane or picturesque view. This skyline shot, though geographically shifted and more menacingly framed than its Yarra River counterpart, has also become emblematic of a whole class of inner western and northern suburbs films such as Death in Brunswick (John Ruane, 1991), Nirvana Street Murder (Aleksi Vellis, 1991), Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998), Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) and Metal Skin (Geoffrey Wright, 1994).
“In a way Melbourne is Australia’s ‘New York’ to Sydney’s ‘California’.” – Robin Wright (17)
Melbourne’s cinematic representation has engendered very few considered critical responses [something this special dossier aims to partially correct]. One of the few noteworthy exceptions to this is Christos Tsiolkas’ essay “Aleka Doesn’t Live Here Any More” (18), which examines the representation of often nightmarish inner suburban, working class, and authentic multicultural Melbourne environments at the expense of other options including more mundane inner, middle and outer suburban experiences (particularly of ethnic communities). He also addresses the failure of these Melbourne-based films (mostly made in the ’90s) to represent (with exceptions like Moving Out [Michael Pattinson, 1982]) the internal migration of communities and individuals, inter-generational conflicts, and the changing spatial, temporal and cultural aspects of the city. Tsiolkos’ critique eloquently highlights an ongoing failure to represent the metropolitan experience of large sectors of the community.
Susan Dermody observes these representational trajectories in a more sympathetic fashion. In a chapter revealingly entitled “The Company of Eccentrics”, she champions an essential and refreshing ugliness against perfunctory and often nondescript signature shots as endemic of an identifiable Melbourne representational style (19). She focuses upon an eccentric, low budget, slightly perverse and idiosyncratic narrative cinema that most forcefully emerges in ’80s Melbourne (but which has roots in films like Brian Davies’ Pudding Thieves , Nigel Buesst’s Bonjour Balwyn , and John Ruane’s Queensland ). She stresses the refreshing and disarming elements of this visual style (obsessed by the road, the night, the industrial topography of the inner suburbs) in contrast to the visual signifiers that more commonly represent Sydney: “The bleaker, less scenic, and even ugly beauties of Melbourne offer themselves to the camera in a way that Sydney filmmakers, blinded by the dazzle of Sydney’s obvious spectacle, usually fail to respond to their own landscape” (20).
Sydney is regularly used as a backdrop and a dominant geography that is over-bearing, while films often struggle to bring Melbourne to the screen. Concomitantly, there is an on-going process of transferring iconic, identifiable and essentially Melbourne stories to Sydney; illustrating a preference for the more familiar, physical, and picturesque aspects of Sydney’s cityscape, landscape, harbour and weather. Among these transplantations are: The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919) – a film which then goes on to define the urban imagery of Sydney’s Woolloomooloo as perhaps the most iconic in late 1910s and 1920s Australian cinema; Monkey Grip (Ken Cameron, 1982); Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (Leslie Norman, 1959) – from a play evocatively located in Carlton and coincidently made around the same time as On the Beach and which, as if it to rub salt into the wounds, self-consciously frames the Sydney Harbour Bridge in many of its backgrounds. Superficially, On the Beach negates this process and yet its insistence upon and fidelity to the Melbourne locations in Shute’s novel is extremely ironic. It is as if only Melbourne can embody the blandness, calmness, and strange universality called for by Shute. Nevertheless, even more totemic are the few moments where the film breaks from this fidelity. For example, the carnage and excess of the “last” Australian Grand Prix, now firmly fixed as one of the film’s most ironic moments, was actually filmed in California.
An absence of distinctive rather than cumulative identifying marks can still be ascertained if one compares On the Beach to a film like Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966). Powell’s film revels in opening and closing aerial perspectives of Sydney’s landmarks and the grandeur of its topography. The first views of Melbourne in On the Beach are of an unenviable flatness, an already emptiness. Similarly, Mr. Nice Guy opens with a rather banal shot of the Melbourne skyline from across the Yarra River complete with a handy title to inform us of where we are looking at, a less than subtle marking that pricks memories of stories heard of Jackie Chan initially wanting to use Melbourne as a stand-in for New York.
Mr. Nice Guy itself has very little to say about or do with the specificity of Melbourne and yet it is also, at the same time, a very Melbourne film (full of locally identifiable locations, accents, actors, and characteristically inattentive ways of looking at the city). Its basic tenor is that of contemporary – perhaps postmodern – Melbourne, in particular the modern shopping malls, bridges, inner-city apartments and sidewalk cafes which characterise particular aspects of the city’s internationalisation. It combines these with several emblematic Victorian-era locations to produce a kind of palimpsest of the city and its representational heritages and trajectories. The film still shows us iconic buildings like the Melbourne Town Hall, Princes Bridge, and Flinders Street Station but they are juxtaposed, more or less randomly, with contemporary sites. They are also joined by the stunts that are performed between them. Thus, a defining feature of the Hong Kong action film is used to join these disparate and temporally disconnected spaces. Mr. Nice Guy does not deny the dominant representation of Victorian-era buildings in the imaging of Melbourne but neither does it dwell on these or use them as a means to suggest pertinent things about the city. It presents a breezily contradictory view of Melbourne that is refreshing and bland, evocative and comic book, and anchored in both old and new markers of the city. In keeping with this, Chris Gregory reads Chan’s change of heart about setting the film in Melbourne as both a recognition of the metropolis’ specificity and as indicative of a more general shift in the global imaginary of the city away from its post-Renaissance historical and cultural centres (New York, Paris, London, etc.): “The city of Melbourne had been pieced together like some gigantic stage set. That was why Jackie Chan had come, to work on the largest stage set in the world. But he had seen that Melbourne was also a city, a gigantic living body eighty kilometres across and filled with several million souls.” (21)
In contrast, On the Beach uses the largely Victorian edifices of Melbourne’s staid, one could say ruined, architecture to plot a blandly “distinctive” sense of place and backwardness. This conservative view of Melbourne has often been apportioned to the film’s overseas origins. But it is not sufficient to dismiss On the Beach as merely an American production, or to look at it inattentively and disparagingly as a consequence of this. The film that was shot on location in Melbourne from January to March 1959 is an explicit response to this location, did send rather solemn images of the city around the world, and is, along with the novel that is its source, integral to specific discourses that vacillate around Melbourne. Its preeminence and cultural impact as an event of ’50s Melbourne, and its relation to broader questions of Australia’s floundering film industry of the period, should also be emphasised. At the same time the rhetoric and legend (particularly relating to comments allegedly made by Ava Gardner) of these discourses needs to be sorted out.
Many local critics of the time perceived inevitable holes and absences in the film’s representation of the city but were generally positive about the perceptiveness and relative subtleties of the film’s treatment of Melbourne life. Most discussion of the film as an “event” speaks of its positive influence in putting Melbourne on a world stage. Factors such as the premiering of the film “simultaneously” in 17 cities worldwide, its “controversial” subject matter (the first big budget American film to deal “directly” with the aftermath of nuclear conflict), and the reputation of its socially conscious director further contributed to this sense of inflation.
Unlike the production of Mr. Nice Guy or the bid to procure the 1956 Olympic Games, the decision to produce On the Beach seemingly involved no explicit invitations. Nevertheless, its production certainly met with high levels of interest and accommodation by Melbourne’s political, economic and social communities. This can be traced through the wide and varied reporting of the film’s production in the social, arts and local news sections of the local press at the time. A brief survey of coverage in The Age during this period reveals a variety of approaches: reports of break-ins to the Kramers’ home; information on specific production elements like costuming; complete lists of all Australian cast members; detailed descriptions of dresses worn to the premiere and Ava Gardner’s outfits; accounts of Fred Astaire’s appearance at the races; reports on day-to-day filming.
A sense of any-representation-is-good-representation runs through many accounts of the film’s production. A sense of irony about how and why Melbourne was receiving such international attention, seemingly unavoidable considering the film’s nihilistic subject matter, is curiously absent from most of these local accounts. The sombre, desperate and somewhat symbolically pointed (Melbourne as explicitly the last city) mood of the film seems to have deterred such critical thoughts and counter-readings (but did not curtail a fascination for star trivia and gossip). Many accounts speak almost without complication about the potentially positive economic, social and cultural benefits. For example, Graham Perkins writing in The Age suggested that “as the film begins to roll around the world later this year, the free publicity for the city will be inestimable” (22). Perkins also goes on to remark upon the wholly positive impression the cast (with some doubt about Ava) and crew had of Melbourne, its weather, hospitality, and the importance of Melbourne, its character and cinematic freshness, to the success of the project. More revealing of the film’s paradoxical nature is Perkins’ description of the last scene to be filmed in Melbourne: “Easter at Mr. Kramer’s Showground studios was the fag-end of the adventure. And as T. S. Eliot predicted much earlier, the world ended with a whimper.” (23) Some other local commentators also occasionally hinted at the paradox of the event that was unfolding before them:
the story of the novel and film calls for an almost dead and deserted city, a city in which the pulsating rhythm of life has been stilled, and in which the expectations of a prosperous tomorrow have been replaced by an expectancy of impending doom and annihilation.
People in other parts of the world, if sufficiently interested to seek information about Australia, will therefore find little resemblance between the Melbourne of the film and the virile development and progress of a cosmopolitan metropolis with a decided expectancy of what tomorrow will achieve. (24)
This questioning of the film’s impact upon overseas perceptions of Melbourne is contained within an ostensibly positivist account which highlights Melbourne’s starring role in the movie and the centrality of the Port of Melbourne to the project, and that is essentially starstruck by the celestial presence of Astaire, Gardner, Perkins and Peck: “Australia is the firmament from which Hollywood ‘stars’ will shine brilliantly into the darkness of movie auditoriums throughout the world” (25). It is revealing that most non-Australian reviews of the film forget to mention Melbourne at all or only pay it passing notice while grappling with the film’s more weighty, palpable and significant subject matter. Thus, although the film’s subject, stars and sociological pretensions seem to have guaranteed the film’s international prestige and audience, its critical and popular reception seems little concerned with or even aware of Melbourne’s representation. Even a local writer such as the influential critic Colin Bennett disclaims interest in how Melbourne appears in the film, bowing to its broader social and one could say artistic significance: “Let us not over-emphasise Melbourne’s contribution” (26). Nevertheless, even Bennett cannot resist the temptation to comment upon the film’s somewhat contradictory, specific and generalist representations of Melbourne: “This is no fashion-plate view of our city, nor is it unfair to our business and beach life. We quickly accept this barren place of brick and concrete, with its horses, buggies, trams and bicycles, as a symbol of Anywhere.” (27)
The general and universal tenor of this approach is also evidenced by claims contained within the initial advertising for the film’s Melbourne premiere: “Melbourne and 16 other World Capitals will Tonight Honour the Biggest Story of Our Time!”; “the most shattering film ever made”; “the most spectacular premiere in Melbourne’s history”; “actually filmed in Melbourne”; and “If you never see another motion picture in your life – you must see ‘On the Beach’” (28). Despite the benefits of production experience and the goodwill generated it is unlikely that the film’s “tourist” images of Melbourne on the brink of human deforestation brought many to the city, undermining the film’s perceived function as a beacon of Melbourne’s existence.
On the Beach does produce quite an evocative and let’s say accurate sense of space, light, time and community. For example, the film goes out of its way to be almost tedious about directions, time travelled and the basic spatial coordinates of the city (even if it gets some of the activities and trajectories of this city very wrong). This mundanity can be contrasted to Nadia Tass’ Amy (1998), which in its final moments willfully confuses and collapses the spaces and “identifiable” landmarks of Melbourne to produce a delirious, illogical and celebratory sense of place. In contrast to the very plain, grided and planned spatial geographies of On the Beach it deals openly with the problem of representing Melbourne and of encompassing its varied elements, lifestyles and experiences. In both cases this play upon the practiced or lived experience of the city is only really pertinent to those who know the city. This is a spectatorial pleasure that lies in an explicit consideration and knowledge of place – of seeing the familiar, the unfamiliar alongside the familiar, or in recognising the trajectories and sorties the film makes (and its mistakes or jumps in spatial, cultural or temporal logic).
In a more general sense it is as if specific representations of Melbourne are fooled by its grid patterns, wide streets and streamlined organisation and apply these spatial first impressions to more complex phenomena. The view presented is like that produced by an overarching and monolithic, though not exactly panoramic, model. And like such a panoramic model it is the job of the localised spectator to see gaps, make connections, and in many ways mobilise and enliven the representation. The fissures and impossibility of encapsulating the city, finding its centres, boundaries and essences, are integral to this ongoing process. It may tell us something about the representational strategies of On the Beach that it does not really inspire the local viewer to seek out its various locations. These locations are rendered sympathetically and often in some detail but with none of the hallucinatory, transformative or potent historiography of a film like Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco-set Vertigo (1958); a complex set of representational strategies that propel many attentive viewers to visit its cinematically haunted locations. The sites of On the Beach are treated as little more than facades, and there is no attempt to encounter their representational, functional or everyday histories. In fact the film has little interest in the history of Melbourne and treats it rather vaguely as a city with some kind of heritage but devoid of much specificity. A contemporaneous “locationist” film like The Sundowners (Fred Zinnemann, 1960) informs many of the pictorial, temporal and spatial concerns of Sunday too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1975) – it even pointedly features several of the exact same locations – but On the Beach has inspired few imitations, quotations or sustained critical attacks. Its main claim on our critical consciousness revolves around a few alleged comments made by one of its troubled and less than gracious stars.
On the Beach is more interested in the city as a type, a rather neutral but culturally familiar space to play out particular conflicts, character relationships and to watch the world end, not with a bang, but with a whimper. The film takes specific and generically identifiable aspects of Melbourne’s architecture – mostly its grand Victorian-era edifices such as the State Library – and postulates them as the dominant face of the city (and of a “civilization” about to crumble). This reliance upon Victorian architecture, its decay and its signifactory capabilities, is a key factor in many representations of Melbourne’s cityscapes as time-coded anywheres. Nevertheless, central to On the Beach is that it does not just represent Melbourne as a polyglot anywhere but quite specifically as a logical place to stage, or rather, wait out the end of the world. This is a choice that revolves around a few key factors: that nuclear exchange would take place almost exclusively in the Northern hemisphere; that the outcome of this exchange would be the slow drift of radiation allowing time for conventional character-based drama; that Melbourne occupies something close to a logical endpoint in such a scenario; and, that Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand are conveniently, and typically, left off such a map of catastrophe.
The film is little concerned with what occurs elsewhere, including what might appear obvious points of geographic contrast and equivalence: Sydney, Wellington, Buenos Aires, Hobart, etc. The only other city represented in the film is a “mute” San Francisco devoid of any living or dead inhabitants, though curiously reminiscent of its ethereal emanation in Vertigo.
Many critics are unable to accommodate On the Beach’s collection of mute reactions, melancholy reflections and stiff upper lips alongside its very modern theme of nuclear annihilation. For example, Ernest Callenbach declaims the effectiveness of the film’s rather mundane approach to its subject, “It has all been so scaled down and civilized in On the Beach that the end of the world seems like not such a bad show after all” (29). Yet the slow, clean, unrealistic and just plain anti-climactic nuclear catastrophe on display (their are no bodies and virtually no deaths) does seem conceivable within specific conventions for representing Melbourne.
Melbourne’s representation in On the Beach runs counter to that of other cities in many other popular apocalyptic fictions, which often rely upon the shock of seeing familiar cities and landmarks twisted and annihilated. This is part of the fascination of films like Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998), When Worlds Collide (Rudolph Maté, 1951), Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968) and La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962). The sparkling but somehow dead images of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and Nob Hill that greet the submarine crew in On the Beach are the film’s only explicit concessions to such conventional images. The somewhat hysterical images of a deserted Melbourne in the film’s final moments do seem to have roots in this tradition but seem curiously inappropriate.
It is perhaps only later, at some distance from the film, that all these claims and qualities can be better assessed. Those who watched the film could get some sense of Melbourne’s geographic, topographic and sociological make-up. They could even indulge in, particularly if one was from Sydney, stereotypes of Melbourne as a dull, unhysterical, isolated and somewhat backward city. The horse-drawn buggies that populate the street in several early shots of the film are justified in terms of plot but they also provide a sly poke, for those who wish to spot it, at the staidness of Melbourne society. Those who organised the film’s Melbourne premiere seem to have also missed this potential irony as horse-drawn carriages were used to ferry dignitaries to the event (30). Such archaic modes of transport, a category within which one could also include trams, are often used to signify Melbourne. Inevitably, considering Mr. Nice Guy’s often-superficial nature, it features both heavily.
Perhaps what is most revealing in a film like On the Beach is less what it does represent than what it doesn’t. In this sense Melbourne becomes a city identified and represented through absences – absences which are often the consequence of representation rather than any reflection on the actual day-to-day workings of the city. The Melbourne of On the Beach is represented as a city with seemingly little to disrupt. The extreme disfiguration of a nuclear blast would seem out of place here, a gross miscalculation and misrepresentation of Melbourne’s Victorian-era values, buildings and ways; with a little sex thrown in. It was the greater emphasis placed upon the relationship between Peck and Gardner and some of the excesses of other characters rather than the film’s muted and opaque apocalyptic content that brought the dissatisfaction of Shute, who complained bitterly “of the emphasis they had placed on violence, drinking and sex” (31). In hindsight, and with no knowledge of the novel, this claim would seem faintly ludicrous considering the decorum and muteness of just about every element of the film. In fact other than a decreased focus on the rest of the world the film maintains the tenor of the novel, taking to heart the introductory quotation from T. S. Eliot that somewhat incongruously leads us into Shute’s turgid prose. Thus, Melbourne is not used simply because of its place on some imaginary atomic continuum but because it represents, before atomic catastrophe, a staidness, a backwardness, a quaintness.
“The end of everything perhaps, but there is always Ava Gardner…” (32)
I have waited until the concluding remarks of this essay to focus upon the most remembered and, depending on your position, pertinent, stupid, appropriate or inappropriate comment made about the film’s production. Ava Gardner’s reputed remarks about Melbourne being an ideal place to make a film about the end of the world have often stood in for any prolonged or even slightly attentive analysis of the film. Nevertheless, it is worth considering, for a moment, that Gardner (or whoever) may well have been right (33). First, Melbourne is a fairly obvious place to stage the end of the world in terms of geography (once one forgets Tasmania and southern New Zealand). Second, this is curiously appropriate as the Melbourne of this period is often seen as backward, isolated, and behind the times. This superficial view is given some credence by such institutions as the “six o’clock swill”, the kind of piousness and religiosity captured and critiqued in a film like Sunday in Melbourne, the record attendances at Billy Graham’s crusading sermons held towards the end of On the Beach’s filming, and the somewhat embarrassing preoccupation of Melburnians with the filming of On the Beach itself. Third, the activities of Melburnians, and the city itself make the staging of such a film possible. The comparative shots of depopulated San Francisco streets in the film are mostly model shots. The shots of Melbourne were conceivably just taken on a Sunday when downtown streets were habitually empty and the city virtually closed. Fourth, the film itself is curiously unhysterical, unemotional, and its response to the end of the world pious and ridiculously ordered, quiet, virtually silent and serious (though a sense of actual disruption can be determined from many accounts of the filming). This final element is over-stressed by the often returned to motif of a Salvation Army rally outside the State Library, the numbers in attendance dwindling, and banners framed to emphasise the broad message of the film (“There’s still time brothers”).
“Does anyone remember On the Beach as anything more than a lousy movie?” (34)
In the growing outer Melbourne suburb of Berwick two minor streets have been named for both Kramer and Shute in honour of their contribution to the film. This dedication recognises the importance of the images they generated to particular aspects of Melbourne’s identity. The film is thus “immortalized” and marked on the map of Melbourne in a rather unspectacular and indirect fashion. This act of “homage” also carries a more explicit ironic and symbolic dimension as although considerable shooting was completed in Berwick no footage actually found its way into the finished film. Thus, this act of naming marks a presence, an occupation and representation of the land that is absent from the film itself. It is thus something that we don’t see, a view of Melbourne that is to some degree excluded from the film (although it preoccupies many accounts of the film’s production), and that is emblematic of many cinematic representations of the city.
Duras’ Aurélia Steiner: Melbourne provides a suitably enigmatic focus for the concluding remarks of this essay. Melbourne is so vaguely and nondescriptly evoked in Duras’ film that it is not designated until the film’s final words. The title of the film I use here and earlier in this essay is a fabrication, a tool of convenience and clarity used to demarcate this specific film from several others which carry the same generic title (Aurélia Steiner). These two other films are enigmatically situated in Paris and Vancouver, and follow similar combinations of landscape-orientated footage and voiceover narration. Each carries a rather vague and clandestine relationship to the city that defines it. Thus, place is both essential to the identity of the text (how else to name it and declare its difference?) and curiously beside the point. It is this play of specificity and indistinctness, presence and absence, place and no place that is integral to many cinematic representations of Melbourne. It is in this nebulous and contradictory zone that Ava Gardner and Aurélia Steiner meet (35).
This article was originally published in Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, ed. Deb Verhoeven, Damned Publishing, Melbourne, 1999, pp. 173-185. This slightly revised version is reprinted with the kind permission of the original publisher and editor. Most of the general and specific observations about the “Melbourne film” made in this essay still hold true.
- Stanley Kramer, “Directing Doomsday”, Herald-Sun 30 May 1998, p. 14. There is no consensus on the exact wording or the correct attribution of Ava Gardner’s alleged comment on the production of On the Beach. Despite long being credited with this statement it is now generally considered that Gardner never uttered these sentiments. This comment’s favoured source is a poorly sub-edited interview “conducted” by Melbourne journalist Neil Jillett. This attribution may one day itself turn out to be apocryphal.
- From the voiceover narration of the English-language translation of Aurélia Steiner: Melbourne.
- Andrew Milner, “On the Beach: Apocalyptic Hedonism and the Origins of Postmodernism”, Australian Popular Culture, ed. Ian Craven, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, p. 190.
- Melbourne has relied historically upon large events to represent and anchor the city – from the international exhibitions of the 1880s to the prestige sporting events and endless “bids” of the 1990s.
- Joyce Agee, “On the Beach at Berwick”, Cinema Papers no. 91, January 1993, p. 23.
- A key aspect of any sustained account of Melbourne’s representation in the ’50s and ’60s would be to undermine the significance of rather singular events like On the Beach and highlight its representation in more peripheral (experimental, documentary, short fiction and advertising), localised and precarious forms.
- Particularly Mangiamele’s films dealing explicitly with the migrant experience and which are mostly set in and around Carlton: Il Contratto (1953), The Brothers (1958), The Spag (1960) and Ninety-Nine Per Cent (1963).
- The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia’s commendable compilation work, Melbourne Films of the 50s (1998), goes some way to bridging these gaps. Yet, its incessant excerpting of films, intermittent identification of credits and reliance upon specific prejudices about the period and city in some ways reiterate the problems of other less focused and more inattentive accounts.
- Tim Hunter, “A Great Place to do Showbusiness”, Cinemedia Magazine no. 1, January 1998, p. 30.
- Claire Sutherland, “Mecca for Moviemakers”, Herald-Sun 9 July 1998, p. 44.
- For an account of its Queensland counterpart see Toby Miller, “How do You Turn Indooroopilly into Africa? Mission: Impossible, Second World Television, and the New International Division of Cultural Labor”, Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1998, pp. 141-81.
- Paul Fox, “Knowledge and the City: Melbourne Metaphysic”, Imagining the City: Documents, ed. Penny Webb, Centre for Design at RMIT, Melbourne, 1991, p. 47.
- Chris Gregory, “Jackie Chan”, Twins, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, 1997, pp. 229-66.
- Juliana Engberg, “Introduction”, Imagining the City, p. 9.
- Engberg, p. 9.
- Particularly Virginia Trioli’s “Do not Bother to go to Calcutta”, Imagining the City, pp. 69-73. Trioli’s evocative account of this ghost-writing draws upon several cryptic mentions of Melbourne in an essay by Marguerite Duras.
- Robin Wright, “Urban Edge”, New Urban Cinema from Melbourne Australia, 1994, p. 2.
- Christos Tsiolkas, “Aleka Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Cinema Papers no. 117, June 1997, pp. 30-32, 45.
- Susan Dermody, “The Company of Eccentrics”, The Imaginary Industry; Australian Film in the Late ’80s, ed. Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, AFTRS Publications, North Ryde, 1988, pp. 132-54.
- Dermody, p. 134.
- Gregory, p. 266.
- Graham Perkins, “The End of the World is an Anti-Climax”, The Age 31 March 1959, p. 2.
- Perkins, p. 2.
- Harold B. Martin, “On the Beach”, Port of Melbourne Quarterly April-June 1959, p. 18.
- Martin, p. 17.
- Colin Bennett, “Last Days of Melbourne: Hollywood’s Pacifist Film”, The Age 26 December 1959, p. 11.
- Colin Bennett, “Great Impact of New Film”, The Age 18 December 1959, p. 2.
- The Age 17 December 1959, p. 20.
- Ernest Callenbach, “On the Beach”, Film Quarterly vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1959, p. 56.
- “On the Beach Premiere in Melb.”, The Age 18 December 1959, p. 1.
- Max Harris, “Prophet of Doom”, Nation 2 January 1960, p. 10.
- Penelope Houston, “On the Beach”, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 29, no.1, Winter 1959-60, p. 38.
- This is less true of Jerry Seinfeld’s comments about Melbourne being the “asshole of the world”.
- Pauline Kael, “The Intentions of Stanley Kramer: Ship of Fools”, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Arrow Books, London, 1987, p. 207.
- Many of the ideas developed in this essay evolved out of discussions with Deb Verhoeven and Quentin Turnour. I would like to thank them both for helping to produce a stimulating environment in which to complete this work