In the Melbourne City
Animal Kingdom feels like a suburban Melbourne version of The Godfather to me. It’s epic and Shakespearean in its story, and yet you still feel like you can reach out and touch it. – Joel Edgerton1
Screen media form the connective tissue of Melbourne’s cultural and artistic life. From key moments in early cinema, such as the production of the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait, 1906), to the broadcast of national sporting events such as the Melbourne Cup and AFL Grand Final, to early video game developers such as Beam Software, which established its first offices in the city, there is barely a section of Melbourne that has not been illuminated and transformed by the pulsating arteries and veins of the city’s neon-soaked screen culture.
The articles that constitute this special dossier emerged from the Screening Melbourne symposium held in Melbourne from 22-24 February 2017. The symposium fruitfully connected scholars, industry, practitioners and the public to celebrate the city’s diverse and ongoing contribution to global, national and local screen cultures. In particular, it was intended to address four interlocking strands with the corollary intention of creating a unique space for scholars, practitioners and industry representatives to engage with the ways in which Melbourne functions and has functioned as a location and set of productive forces. The symposium posited four central and entwined strands for exploring the incandescent screens that capture this modern metropolis:
First, Melbourne on Screen arises through distinct and divergent representations and narratives. From proto-realist dramas such as Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) to the long-running suburban soap opera, Neighbours (1985-), and from the superhero blockbuster film, Ghost Rider (Mark Steven Johnson, 2007), to the low-budget, investigatory work of women trafficking in The Jammed (Dee McLachlan, 2007), the diversity of Melbourne’s emotional landscape, architecture and peoples allows the city to represent a multitude of potent screen stories. Melbourne on screen can be a primer for filmmakers to paint over and sell to international audiences: the city can function as an any-space-wherever – dull and transportable. Yet it is also a local and localised space, expressing the mood of the city’s inhabitants and its shifting and affecting relations.
In my adolescence, I think I felt very outcast; I felt lonely. I felt great loneliness, and sometimes I wouldn’t partake in Christmas, and I would go off and wander in the streets of Melbourne. – Michael Leunig 2
Second, one finds vibrant Screen Cultures emerging in Melbourne: the city offers a fertile example of how it and its peoples actively and creatively engage with the moving image. These cultures include historic movie palaces, restoration and archival work, museums, numerous film societies, public screenings, festivals, and citywide events such as the all-night arts festival White Night. Melbourne is home to Australia’s first film studio, the Salvation Army’s Limelight Department, and the cutting-edge Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It is a city where each of its universities teaches screen studies and where institutional, underground and pop-up screen events variously adorn its laneways and high rises alike with the very material out of which screen cultures grow.
Third, Screening Melbourne is also Seeing Difference. As a city, Melbourne’s identity is and has been actively cultivated through references to and recognition of difference, the call to political action and the acceptance and promotion of alternative subcultures and experimental practices. Screen texts as diverse as Annie’s Coming Out (Gil Brealey, 1984), Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998), and Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me (2013-16) are suggestive of the variety of ways in which the politics and poetics of difference help bring Melbourne to the screen.
I find it easier to write in the winter in Melbourne. When the weather is good you want to go out for a walk, ride a bike, go to a cafe or something. When it’s raining, when it’s a miserable day, I just sit down at my desk and get some work done. – Adrian McKinty 3
Fourth, Screening Melbourne materialises from and is taken up in the creative intersection between Page and Screen, from adaptations of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-), to On The Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959) and Monkey Grip (Ken Cameron, 1982). Melbourne has inspired novelists, poets, and screenwriters and they in turn have created vivid ‘pictures’ of the city.
Together these four strands breathe life into Melbourne, and Melbourne gives life to those screen texts that reside or hide there, that open ups its stories and images to its living presence.
The Screening Melbourne symposium was organised by the Melbourne Screen Studies Group, an inter-institutional university collective that brings together all Melbourne-based scholars and artists interested in screen culture. The symposium was sponsored in association with Deakin University, RMIT University, Monash University, Swinburne University of Technology, La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne. It was co-presented with multiple partners, including the Ian Potter Foundation, the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Experimenta Media Arts, Multicultural Arts Victoria and the Centre for Contemporary Photography. These partnerships included three live public performances sponsored by external partners:
- A screening of the newly restored The Story of the Kelly Gang at the Old Melbourne Gaol, supported by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra;
- A one-off screening of contemporary video artist, Daniel Crooks’ An Embroidery of Voids (2013), accompanied by a live improvised performance by Melbourne-based sound art group Ricochet. Sponsored by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE);
- An edited projection of photos and videos from the My Melbourne project, accompanied by an interactive live musical performance by The Yellow Peril Symphony. Co-hosted by the CHE and Multicultural Arts Victoria.
The seven articles collected in this special dossier come from a range of established screen academics and early career scholar-practitioners. The articles have been selected to showcase a variety of methods and approaches to the exploration of Screening Melbourne. Collectively, they take the reader across diverse terrains and landscapes – historical, architectural, reflective, textural, and contextual. This enables the special dossier to move from descriptions of exhibition buildings to analyses of leading artistic figures, and from significant historical periods to key screen texts, offering up a complex map or mosaic of the there/then and the here/now of Screening Melbourne. The articles are set out in general chronological order so that the rich screen history of Melbourne emerges across the dossier and so the reader can follow the widely differing materialities of the city’s screen culture as identified by each contributor.
In, “Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre: ‘the best cinema that has ever been built or is ever likely to be built’”, Lisa French offers a detailed history of the Capitol Theatre. The article, written to promote RMIT University’s revival of the theatre, charts the commission given to architects Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin; the cultural as well as national significance of the Theatre; and its place within Melbourne’s vibrant screen culture since it was unveiled 93 years ago. French also importantly spotlights the contribution to the theatre’s design by Mahony, whose work as an architect and designer was not adequately acknowledged during her lifetime.
Adrian Danks’ article, “Before On the Beach: Melbourne on Film in the 1950s”, brilliantly maps and challenges broader understandings of Melbourne’s filmic representation in the 1950s by exploring the various ways in which the city is figured in unjustly forgotten or marginalised films, including The Melbourne Wedding Belle (1953), Your House and Mine (1954) and Sunday in Melbourne (1958). Stanley Kramer’s fizzingly apocalyptic On the Beach (1959, as a film that dominates and defines popular understandings of Melbourne’s cinematic representation in the 1950s, is highly influential in reinforcing and promoting specific understandings of the city as a staid, sleepy, uneventful and architecturally conservative metropolis. Yet Danks beautifully demonstrates how Melbourne appears more dynamically across a disparate range of films, short films, mini-features and documentaries that provide a more critical, though at times celebratory, view of the changing cityscape of Melbourne, the tentative embrace of modernity and internationalisation (e.g. the impact of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics), and the changing ethnicities of the inner city and suburbs.
In “Sonic Disturbance and Chromatic Dissolution: the Cantrills remake Melbourne”, Tessa Laird evocatively examines the work of Australian experimental film legends, Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, who, over a fifty-year period, perfected a range of avant garde cinematic techniques including experiments with colour separation, repetition, exposure, and layered soundtracks. This ‘making wild’ or ‘becoming animal’ of the filmic medium is here given the term cinemal, whereby, in rearranging the viewer’s sensorium, the Cantrills’ re-enchant everyday life. Laird examines three aspects of their diverse oeuvre to suggest that their disruptive techniques call for a re-figuring of the way we conceive of the Australian landscape, as well as cityscapes, and the city of Melbourne in particular, and, finally, the domestic sphere.
In “Leaving Home: Kennedy Miller in Melbourne”, James Robert Douglas draws on textual, historical, and archival sources to argue that Melbourne’s screen culture and industry played a formative but ambivalent role in shaping the sensibilities and abilities of the company’s founders, George Miller and Byron Kennedy, during the period of the Australian film revival in the 1970s. Douglas suggests that although Kennedy Miller has been located in Sydney since the early 1980s, when its reputation as Australia’s most successful production house was established, its origins and trajectory as a company are intimately tied to Melbourne.
In Stayci Taylor’s practice-led contribution, “Screenwriting Melbourne/s: the challenges of re-presenting and re-creating Melbourne within a screenplay’s flipped-reality narrative”, she argues that establishing the screen city begins with the script. Taylor makes a case study of her own screenplay, set in an alternative Melbourne where gender hierarchies are reversed. Drawing on scholarship focusing “attention upon worlds as they are created in films”, 4 Taylor’s article considers cities as they are created in screenplays. Writing into a gap in screenwriting scholarship, where screen cities remain underexplored, the article seeks to position the work of the screenwriter in creating cities for cinema. Acknowledging screen cities are an illusion, even when shot on location,5 Taylor suggests they nonetheless begin on the page, skewed by narrative and cast design, as explored through the practice of screenwriting Melbourne.
In “Uncanny Suburbia, Hauntology and Post-Traumatic Poetics: Conversations with Dirk de Bruyn’s Conversations with my Mother”, Glenn D’Cruz’s reflective essay stages a poignant and personal conversation with Dirk de Bruyn’s autobiographical film, Conversations with my Mother (1990), in order to foreground the importance of Melbourne’s working class Western suburbs in articulating the filmmaker’s migrant identity. D’Cruz suggests that the Melbourne suburbs, as de Bruyn’s film intimates, are uncanny in the Freudian sense – spaces of dread haunted by a myriad of ghosts that generate a sense of anguish and foreboding. The essay also draws on Derrida’s concept of hauntology to situate the film within wider debates about experimental film practice, identity politics and the suburban spaces Robin Boyd once described as the ‘Australian Ugliness’.
Finally, in “Affectively Trapped, Fossilised and Fetishised: Early 1990s Melbourne through Stillness, Movement and Music in Proof”, Diana Sandars argues that the photographs of blind central protagonist, Martin, construct multiple Melbournes in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof (1991). Martin’s compulsive photography, a product of a dysfunctional relationship with his mother, is his primary mechanism to document and regulate his world. Through this process, Martin’s Melbourne exists as a fossil; the preserved remains of his memories. In contrast, his burgeoning friendship with Andy introduces a Melbourne captured in shared photographs that instead promise of community abundance; a promise connected with 1990s Melbourne live music culture. The soundtrack by Melbourne band, Not Drowning, Waving, contributes to this heterotopic representation of Melbourne, and their distinct musical style evokes a lived Melbourne. However, Sanders finally argues that Proof’s soundtrack combines with recognisable chronotopes of the inner city to re-fossilise this Melbourne for the present-day spectator for whom, like the film’s characters, Melbourne was their lived experience.
Where to Next?
The foundational work we present in this special dossier begins a wider project that the Melbourne Screen Studies Group hopes to enact and engender: to bring methods, theories and approaches together in the same exacting space to both find new ways of thinking about screen culture and to invigorate the screen studies research that is being done in and about the city. This call to newly think Melbourne’s relationship to the screen has recently led to a new symposium event, scheduled for June 2018: Sound-Tracking Melbourne. Through delegate presentations, panel discussions, industry events, and performance-screenings this symposium not only intends to give due critical and creative weight to the interlocking dimensions of sound design found in Melbourne screen culture, but to address the lack of sustained scholarship on the ways in which the city and its environs are imagined and brought to life on screen through particular ‘tracking’ soundscapes, from music videos to audiovisual art installations, and from film and TV to games and documentary. Sound-Tracking Melbourne is both a recognition of the importance of sound to moving image culture and an intervention – asking delegates to see and hear the intersections between screen and sound in newly important ways.
My earliest memory is seeing Michael Jackson in Melbourne with my sister when I was about ten. I still have this souvenir stick with a glove that would light up and make a peace sign in a bunch of different colours. I’m so happy my mom didn’t throw that out. – Emilie de Ravin6
On behalf of the organising committee, we hope to see you there.
- George Palathingal 2010, “Fight of his Life”, The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed 3 November 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/fight-of-his-life-20100527-wggs.html ↩
- Interview with Michael Leunig 1997, Compass, Aired: 25 December 25 1997, accessed 3 November 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/compass/intervs/leunig.htm ↩
- Adrian McKinty 2014, “Writing about the homeplace from 10 thousand miles away”, The Irish Times, accessed 3 November 2017, http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/generationemigration/2014/06/07/writing-about-the-homeplace-from-10-thousand-miles-away/ ↩
- James Walters, Alternative Worlds in Hollywood Cinema: Resonance between Realms (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Books, 2008), 215 (emphases added). ↩
- Maureen Thomas, “Screen Cities – Not All Bad?,” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 7, no. 3 (2003): 410. ↩
- Phoebe Reilly 2010, “Lost Star Reveals Her Favorite Music”, Spin, accessed 3 November 2017, https://www.spin.com/2010/02/lost-star-reveals-her-favorite-music/ ↩