City of Chromatic Dissolution (1999)

Princess Bridge, Melbourne. The rippling surface of the Yarra glints pink and blue, as if someone had poured oil across the river’s brown water. The skyscrapers on the north bank are pink, blue, orange and green in multiple overlapping copies; the original buildings seem to have vanished, leaving behind a stack of coloured shadows. The sky is a hard blue slab, unnaturally bright. In the distance, the people walking along the bridge are more pink shadows, semi-transparent, no longer quite part of the physical universe. Still, they don’t seem to notice or care, they go about their business, the sounds of traffic are heard as usual. Liverish spots fleck the surface of these images, indicating that the film stock itself is beginning to break down.

The film is City Of Chromatic Dissolution (1999) by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, two of Australia’s best-known experimental filmmakers, and – until recently – editors and publishers of the independent magazine Cantrills Filmnotes. Though the footage here was shot in the mid-’80s, it was only last year that they edited it into this fifteen-minute movie, which has been shown in Australia, France and North America as part of a program of their recent work. Structurally it’s simple enough: just a series of views of various parts of inner Melbourne, from panoramic wide shots to close-ups of the sides of buildings. The soundtrack blends and warps familiar urban noises – cars, buskers, the ringing bells of trams – into a kind of musique concréte.

This is one of several films made by the Cantrills that experiment with dramatic distortions of colour through three-colour separation processes. The original inspiration for this project (as the filmmakers report in the final edition of Cantrills Filmnotes) came back in the mid-’70s, when Kodak stopped making the Cantrills’ preferred 16mm reversal colour film stocks:

We felt that the closer Kodak came to accurately reproducing “true” colour with colour negative, the less we liked it compared with the saturated colour of reversal materials. So we asserted our independence and embarked on a series of colour films using the early colour technique of shooting on black and white negative in three colour separation and printing, in our case, onto Eastmancolor print stock. […] The colour was stunning – it reminded us of Technicolor – and an unexpected bonus was the way time and movement were expressed through primary colours (as we shot the separations consecutively rather than simultaneously)…(1)

The Cantrills add that they abandoned the project of “a Melbourne city film” after realising that their use of ageing film stock had produced unwanted spots and other discolourations. Over a decade later they reconsidered, deciding that these blemishes were in harmony with the overall effect – even serving as a metaphor for “the end of cinema.”

Whatever you think of this somewhat grandiose claim, it seems entirely appropriate that the Cantrills should accept chance as a collaborator. Their footage has in some sense been enriched and transformed – provided with new layers of possible meaning – by its ten or more years away from view. Surfacing now, it asks to be treated as a found object, something out of an alien time capsule. Though Melbourne today is recognisably the same place the Cantrills filmed in 1986, its skyline has undergone many significant changes since. Major new buildings have appeared, including the Rialto, once the tallest skyscraper in the Southern Hemisphere; the old shot tower is now “imprisoned in a glass dome” as part of the Melbourne Central shopping complex, and the Exhibition Buildings, built in the 1880s, have been redeveloped to incorporate a new museum. Considered as a “new” film, City Of Chromatic Dissolution is a blast from the past – especially since the Cantrills’ “experimental” colour process does indeed suggest ’50s Technicolor.

Miraculously, this retro effect makes some kind of sense – at least when you remember that the ’50s were also the Atomic Age, a boom time for science fiction and comics (the unmodulated colour here also recalls the “four-colour” printing characteristic of comic-books). The fragility of these luminous images – the weird way they distort time and space, while hinting that everything is about to collapse or fade away – suggests a world transmogrified by some freaky nuclear experiment. One phantom precursor might be the deserted Los Angeles, laid waste by visiting Martians, of The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953): at least, the saturated colours of the Cantrills are an uncanny match for the still-effective flying-saucer effects designed by George Pal, with their glowing red periscopes and green death rays.

Not that there’s anything scary about this particular apocalypse: the festive colours, along with the evenly paced editing and the absence of narrative, enforce a mood of cheerful (if slightly eerie) serenity. Life, or at least a ghostly semblance of it, seems to continue unimpeded by changes in reality’s appearance or physical processes. It’s as if the catastrophe that has overtaken the world has simultaneously demolished all possible claims to weight and seriousness. A cartoon disaster, comparable with the one depicted in Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1998) or with the hypothesis proposed by Jean-Luc Godard in his episode of RoGoPaG (Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini & Ugo Gregoretti, 1962): what if the world came to an end, and nobody noticed? From the same era, another obvious reference point might be Andy Warhol’s screen prints of car crash scenes, such as the Saturday Disaster series, where primary colours simultaneously throw us into trauma and render that trauma affectless, unreal.

Why does it seem appropriate – inevitable, even – for Melbourne to be depicted in these Pop Art terms? Perhaps, paradoxically, because of the persistent myth of Melbourne as the least spectacular city imaginable. For Barry Humphries, who has perhaps done more than anyone to mythologize Melbourne, this is “the land where nothing happens” – a place memorable only because “transcendentally dull”. (2) Commentators on Melbourne repeatedly stress its hopelessly out-of-the-way location at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, its dispersed population spread out over endless kilometres of bland garden suburbs, and its doomed rivalry with Sydney – its older, worldlier, more fashionable cousin. As Ava Gardner allegedly told reporters during the production of On The Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959): if you’re going to film the end of the world, this is certainly the place for it.

That quip depends upon a kind of reversal that’s especially common in cinema – where what we think of as normal and everyday becomes strange and threatening precisely because of its “normality.” Melbourne as the end of the world: this makes sense because Melbourne (in myth) contains nothing beyond the banal everyday, because Melbourne is where nothing happens. At the very least, images of mundane apocalypse and apocalyptic mundanity are central to many if not most cinematic representations of Melbourne (this is what links grim dramas like Romper Stomper [Geoffrey Wright, 1992] and Holidays On The River Yarra [Leo Berkeley, 1991] with gruesome fantasies like Body Melt [Philip Brophy, 1993]) (3). With its gloomy vision of a post-World-War-III Melbourne peopled by Hollywood stars, On The Beach itself is another of the key films haunting City Of Chromatic Dissolution. The point of On The Beach being set in Melbourne is that disaster (in this case, nuclear annihilation) can only be filmed where it has always already taken place. The “real” Melbourne comes to stand for a kind of non-place, since all that can be represented is an absence, a waiting: “When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come.” (4)

Yet this gaudy transformation of Melbourne doesn’t seem out-of-key with the place that locals have always known. Rather, as you watch the film, you realise that this other city, or something like it, has existed for a long time within more sedate, acceptable versions of Melbourne – only requiring a special kind of vision, like the Cantrills’, to make it apparent. It’s present, for example, in Melbourne’s many high-rise towers, constructed mainly between the ’50s and the late ’80s, and repeatedly attacked by conservative commentators like Humphries for their supposed tacky anonymity, the way they overpower or supersede more picturesque Victorian and Edwardian architecture. In City Of Chromatic Dissolution, however, these stark modern buildings come into their own: the poster-like colour erases detail, getting rid of their distinctive architectural features and making them look like something out of the background of a Dick Tracy strip, generic signifiers of a high-tech comic-book metropolis (Fritz Lang’s or Superman’s).

As the film goes on we see how buildings of this type can redefine their surroundings by creating their own mise en scène, as their panelled glass facades reflect the world in individual ways. Passing trams are bent out of shape as though seen in funhouse mirrors; buildings of traditional design are shattered into many differently-angled parts. The Cantrills note that “the moving clouds and traffic recorded at three separate times are, Magritte-like, reflected onto the building as if matted there.” (5) It’s as if the sky had been absorbed into the outside walls, or vice versa: we’re free to take this notion as literally as we like, since these illusory images are undeniably as “real” as any others we see.

Another strand of the film draws on a less monumental, more homely kind of pop art – something that’s also become a integral part of the Melbourne landscape in recent times. Architects and town planners have spent decades trying semi-successfully to break away from Melbourne’s staid image with the help of zany postmodern architecture, cute public sculptures, seasonal decorations (such as fairy lights on trees) and so forth. (6) The aim, in one way or another, is to create something that will be immediately striking: from the Victorian Art Gallery with its moat and water-wall, to the much-criticised Crown Casino, to the recent debate over the giant “shards” planned for the new Federation Square, Melbourne has never given up on its obsession with finding an “icon,” a memorable image of itself to rival the Sydney Opera House or the Harbour Bridge. As the Federation Square debacle shows, we’re usually too tentative to get it right – leaving us with a large number of brash oddities and “white elephants” dotted around town, many of them never properly completed according to the original plan.

Two of those would-be icons get pride of place here – the latticed yellow spire on top of the Victorian Arts Centre, and the large public sculpture Vault (by Ron Robertson-Swann), popularly known as the Yellow Peril. The nickname is another pointed reminder of ’50s paranoia – and the history of Vault‘s reception is a brief parable about the “monstrous” nature of modern art. Commissioned around 1980 for the new City Square, the sculpture (which consists of a number of large planes tilted against each other, like an outsize piece of origami) was ridiculed by public and critics alike, quickly removed, and eventually exiled to a small, tucked-away park in the south-west corner of the city, where it remains to this day.

More than anything, what seemed to offend people about this sculpture – it’s still occasionally referred to by the media in tones of mock-horror – was the sheer brazenness of its colour: its lurid, eyecatching, transgressive sheen. In City Of Chromatic Dissolution, the Yellow Peril achieves what might be seen as its ultimate destiny: pushed to the point of saturation, it’s more richly, inexplicably, obscenely yellow than ever before. It’s the colour of artificially-coloured butter; you could slice right through it with a knife. In successive shots, it’s also red, orange, and purple (as though viewed through a series of windows of differently coloured cellophane). Plonked down there in the park, it’s an inscrutable, otherworldly object, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Where has it arrived from? Could it be the catalyst that has unleashed this crazy transformation on the world? When you see a couple of shadowy children wandering around at the foot of Vault you start to worry. Is it radioactive? Are the kids about to disintegrate?

If this film, as the Cantrills suggest, is an elegy, it functions as such partly through the way it allusively takes up various signifiers of 20th century modernity – abstract art, the fear of global destruction, the dream of an ultra-modern City Of Tomorrow – and both literally and by implication encloses them in the past, rendering them infinitely quaint, childlike and harmless. (Of course, this is the same trick played by many Hollywood films in the retro mode – most recently, The Iron Giant [Brad Bird, 1999].) At the same time, the low-budget “special effects” represent a conception of (live-action) filmmaking that’s becoming equally quaint in these digital days: cinema as the transformation of a given reality, rather than the creation of a new reality from scratch. It’s in this sense that (though the Cantrills could not have predicted this when they shot their footage) City Of Chromatic Dissolution can truly be seen as a metaphor for “the end of cinema.”

Above all, the film’s beauty lies in its fusion of what have traditionally been seen as cinema’s two opposing tendencies: documentary record on the one hand, pure artifice on the other. It isn’t, as with digital effects, that some components of the shot are manufactured, while others are allegedly “real”; everything partakes of both qualities, through and through. This essential duality carries us back to the very beginning of movies, when all kinds of “trick effects” had an absolute, novel reality, and when to point a camera in any direction meant automatic magic: trains arriving at a station, people, buildings, clouds. Many of the films made then have a different magic for us now, as we recede from them in time: only recently has it become possible to watch crowd scenes shot in the early years of last century and know with virtual certainty that the people in them – even the smallest children, the babies in prams – are all dead and gone, out of this world.

Something of the same pathos can be located here, in an enormously speeded-up form. The people and places photographed seem ordinary and familiar, yet they’ve passed right away into a new dimension, where they exist, transparently, as film and nothing else. Before our eyes they’re turning intangible, disappearing into history, the archival past or the science-fiction future. The unreal city shown here may not resemble what we view as “reality,” but it’s certainly no more distorted than the versions of the early 20th century preserved for the modern viewer as faded, flickering black-and-white images. In another hundred years, if there are still people around to watch movies, will City Of Chromatic Dissolution seem to them very different from the common run of cinema as we know it, from any old film that someone might be shooting right here, right now?

Endnotes

  1. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, “Out Of Gamut,” Cantrills Filmnotes 93-100, pp 91-95.
  2. Ian Britain, Once An Australian, Oxford University Press, London, 1997, p. 93.
  3. See also Lee Harding’s odd novel Displaced Person, in which a Melbourne teenager and cinephile finds himself literally fading out of his own life. (Lee Harding, Displaced Person, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1979.)
  4. Maurice Blanchot (trans. Ann Smock), The Writing Of The Disaster, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1986, p. 1.
  5. “Out Of Gamut,” ibid.
  6. A typical recent example, in my own neighbourhood, is Fido, the six-metre-high wooden dog (complete with moving parts) erected last year outside Fairfield Station. Like others of its kind, this sculpture has generated a minor flurry of controversy, with articles related to it repeatedly popping up in the local media. One recent report details a proposal to install a digital camera in Fido‘s head so that “you could get a view on the Internet of what Fido is seeing.” An arts and cultural planner at the local council is currently “looking at the costs of it and whether it would be of value.” (Nathaniel Bane, “Artists eye Fido for Web view,” Northcote Leader, July 5, 2000, p. 3.)

About The Author

Jake Wilson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer, a film reviewer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former co-editor of Senses of Cinema. His monograph Mad Dog Morgan was published in 2015 by Currency Press and the National Film and Sound Archive. His website can be found at www.jakewilson.com.au/.