The time is 1980; the place, a crucial node on the grid of inner Melbourne, where Swanston Street, running north to south, crosses Flinders Street, running east to west. Four corners, four landmarks. Southwest corner: Flinders Street Station, an opulent monument to the city’s Edwardian boom days, and a traditional rendezvous point ever since (“meet you under the clocks”). Northwest: Young and Jacksons Hotel, dating from the mid-19th century, with Jules Lefebvre’s once-notorious nude, Chloe (1875), occupying pride of place in the saloon bar. Northeast: St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne’s most prominent Anglican church. Southeast: Princes Bridge Station and the unloved Gas and Fuel Corporation offices, both demolished in the late 1990s to make way for the new Federation Square (1).
It’s an ordinary day. Pedestrians gather at each of the corners, crossing when the lights change. Buses, trams and cars go by. There are women with handbags, solitary men loitering outside the pub, occasional families and groups of youths; few if any men in suits. Most people are dressed for mild weather: the evidence suggests a weekend in spring or autumn, perhaps a Sunday, though there’s no sign of activity at St Paul’s. As in most “documentary” footage shot in Melbourne before the mid-1980s, the most striking thing is the absence of non-European faces.
Formal parameters: a series of shots of varying lengths that trace a clockwise path around the intersection, beginning at Princes Bridge – looking westward towards Flinders Street – and ending 11 minutes later in the same spot. The trajectory is not wholly predictable: there are moments when we return to earlier vantage points, and it’s hard to tell how far the shots have been arranged in a “correct” temporal order. Usually, the camera is positioned on one corner and aimed directly across the street, but there are also some medium shots (apparently taken from tram stops) and diagonal perspectives that show two corners at once. As in other John Dunkley-Smith films such as Train Fixation (1977), passing vehicles regularly “mask” the wider view. The sole human figure given prominence is a young man with a microphone, who pops up in the foreground near the start of each reel: presumably the filmmaker himself, or his assistant.
Like other films in Dunkley-Smith’s “cityscape” series, Flinders Street (1980) was designed for dual-screen projection, encouraging the viewer to compare and contrast two “versions” of the same work: one reel is in colour with ambient sound, while the other is black-and-white and silent. Despite variations in editing, much of the “content” of the two reels seems to be identical: having viewed them sequentially rather than simultaneously, I’m uncertain whether they were assembled from the same footage differently processed, or whether (less plausibly) two cameras were operated side-by-side.
Within the history of avant-garde cinema, it would be easy to view Flinders Street as a typical “structural film”: materialist in orientation, deliberately banal in imagery, ultimately “documenting” nothing beyond the image-making process. Thus in a 1980 discussion of Dunkley-Smith’s Hoddle Street Suite (1977), Sam Rohdie dismissed the film’s representational elements as merely “the brute, dull, denotative fact of cars, lorries, roadways and streets” (2). Writing in 1981, Adrian Martin similarly labelled Dunkley-Smith’s cityscapes “hardline structuralism” with “the ‘content’ of the images… counting for absolutely nothing” (3).
Written in 1978, Dunkley-Smith’s own account of his approach echoes these statements with some slight but suggestive differences:
If my films are “structural”, it is because they are the result of structural activity – seeking to order/analyse/de-construct the outer/actual reality and to re-order/synthesise/re-construct it in such a way as to reveal previously concealed order or pattern or structure – both in the “real” world and in the material reality of the filmic event. (4)
If the “real” is put in quotation marks here, its representation serves as more than just a pretext to be exploited or an illusion to be undermined. Rather, an existing structure – in this case, a logic of movement regulated by timetables and traffic lights – is “revealed” by a further structure mapped onto the location, determined partly by the will of the filmmaker and partly by the technical means at hand. Two methods of imposing a form on the flux of reality: the square of the grid, the square of the frame.
Dunkley-Smith is careful to distance himself from any claim to a “personal” vision or a “social” message: it would be a mistake to understand Flinders Street as a romantic protest, the cry of a human spirit trapped by a rigid system. As Rohdie remarks, Dunkley-Smith’s anti-style is seemingly “without a rhetoric” (5), making no effort to prescribe an attitude towards the objects and people depicted. The sporadic handheld camera movements of Flinders Street lack even the pseudo-precision that advertises “rigour”; meaning appears in the film like a buzz in the background, leaving us the task of separating signal from noise.
Thus it’s our choice as spectators whether we detect irony in the sight of a cinema hoarding above a window of Young and Jacksons, advertising movies playing around town: Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967), invitations to a fantasyland which we won’t rediscover here. Other adverts displayed on the sides of trams resemble enigmatic appeals from a lost civilisation: “Your Old Friend Clag” or “Anyhow… Have A Winfield”. In one of the shots of St Paul’s, there’s a brief tilt upward, like a feint at piety: conscious or accidental, who knows? A rare close shot of the number on the side of a bus might be taken as yet another sign leading nowhere – or as a reminder of the mathematical ordering principles which govern both the city’s public transport and the editing of Flinders Street itself.
Structure emerges from the dance between structure and non-structure. Like traffic in the city, Flinders Street is controlled by a clear set of rules, yet there’s always the chance for figures onscreen to break the pattern (by crossing against the lights, for example, or by acknowledging the camera). One way of describing the film would be to call it an exercise in psychogeography, as defined by Guy Debord: “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (6). Another would be to say that Dunkley-Smith treats the intersection as a model of how an artwork ought to function: an open field of possibilities, with lines of movement used to connect opposing points.
As David O’Halloran says of Dunkley-Smith’s more recent slide presentations, “[d]ifferent viewings of the same work can result in radically different experiences depending upon the point at which those viewings begin” (7). The inclusion of Flinders Street in a 2011 program of “Melbourne” films is an act of re-framing in its own right, identifying the film as a document of a specific place and time. Far from betraying Dunkley-Smith’s intentions, this adds an extra level to the game of comparisons, allowing Melburnians to measure the images on both reels against the city of the present.
Knowing the terrain of Flinders Street like the back of my hand, I had no trouble assembling its visual fragments into a spatial whole. For audiences elsewhere, the challenge of puzzling out the geography may be one of the film’s chief pleasures: perhaps I should have prefixed this essay with a spoiler alert. Still, a range of other riddles are proposed to the puzzle-minded. Viewing both reels twice over, I spent some energy trying to deduce whether the entire film was shot on a single occasion – and if so, at what time of day. Like a bumbling detective, I missed the obvious: I should have been watching the clocks.
- Andrew Brown-May and Shurlee Swain (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 273-74, 298-99, 635-36, 793.
- Sam Rohdie, “Avant-Garde”, The New Australian Cinema, ed. Scott Murray, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 194.
- Adrian Martin, “Little Films We Made”, Filmnews vol. 11, no. 4, April 1981, pp. 9-10.
- John Dunkley-Smith, “The Work of John Dunkley-Smith,” Cantrills Filmnotes no. 27-28, March 1978, pp. 45.
- Rohdie, p. 193.
- Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography: Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography ”, trans. Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/urbgeog.htm. Originally published in 1953.
- David O’Halloran, “Constructive Sight”, Some Star to Steer By: John Dunkley-Smith, 1977-2000, Glen Eira City Gallery, Caulfield, 2000, p. 5. This catalogue can also be accessed at: www.gleneira.vic.gov.au/Files/CITG.PDF.