A work in progress, Forgotten Foundation is an exercise in cinematic archaeology that pits the contemporary urban landscape against the ghosts of its recent past. The work uses footage of the demolition of Marrickville King’s Cinema in 1971. This archival footage is matched with recently shot super 8 film that revisits the site some forty odd years later. Accompanied by a soundtrack constructed from musical shreds of the filmic past the resulting work occupies an uncertain space between the forensic and the elegiac.
Below is a Google Map that identifies and locates all the sites that I am working with for this project. For each of these vanished cinemas I will match the archival footage of the building’s demolition with footage of the site and surrounding landscape as it appears in 2012. I have annotated each marker with the dates of the opening and demolition of the cinema it pertains to as well as a link to further information. To get an idea of the landscape today you can use the street view function.
Some soundtrack sketches. These were made in real time in a the ppooll networking system for Max/MSP and have minimal EQing applied. They were conceived of in relation to the footage I have been reviewing.
Some stills from the demolition of the Winter Garden cinema in Rose Bay. The very title of this place embodies its own sense of loss. By some strange coincidence it shares its name with the site of Roland Barthes’s Winter Garden photograph; an image of his mother aged five which forms a pivotal reference for his extended investigation into photographic meaning, Camera Lucida. It is a book that has been on my mind as I trawl through these sites of erasure, intensely aware of the weave of past and present, and presence and loss that this film footage presents.
“The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.”
“The Photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed.”
(Roland Barthes, 1981, Camera Lucida, trans R Howard, New York, Hill and Wang, p.85. & p.87.)
While reviewing the hours upon hours of footage of Sydney cinemas being demolished that the Mckenzie collection contains I have found myself wondering about the motivation for such a dedicated and unwavering engagement. On one level the films display an acute awareness of the forces of modernisation and capital that so effectively reshaped the city in the later half of the 20th century. Given the geographical and temporal scope of McKenzie and Kent’s documentation they undoubtedly possessed a broad view of this process of urban reinvention. Indeed, the very demolition of the cinemas themselves can be viewed as emblematic of this process, just as the construction activity that gave birth to them some fifty or so years earlier was for an earlier epoch. For the viewer of 2012 much of the city that these films reveal is unrecognisable and often unthinkable.
Alongside this undeniable historical significance the collection also evidences a personal vision strongly invested with a desire to preserve, if only in image. The often blunt factuality of the footage is tempered with an altogether more reverential and reflective tone. It is this characteristic of the footage and the project itself that I find most alluring and complicating. hinting as it does at the range of other “meanings” that reside in these deceptively simple films . In an interview with the NFSA historian Graham Shirley conducted in 1992 Bernie Kent identified Roger McKenzie as the driving force behind their documentary activities. In reminiscing he recalled a phrase of McKenzie’s that framed his activities in a poignant and somewhat poetic light: “This will be what was.”
(Quote sourced from Bernie Kent, Oral History. Interviewer: Graham Shirley 1992. NFSA master title no. 225077.)
One of the great challenges and pleasures of engaging with such a sustained body of documentary footage like the Roger McKenzie collection is contextualising the pictorial decisions that were made in shooting it. The footage that I have been reviewing stretches over a period of twenty or so years from the mid 1960s to the 1980s and was shot by both Roger McKenzie and Bernie Kent. In the earlier years they used black and white film but by the mid 1970s they are shooting almost exclusively on colour reversal stock. The films that I am looking at were mostly made in response to the imminent demise and subsequent demolition of a range of suburban and city cinemas. As such, this filming activity was invested with a sense of urgency as repeated visits were made to a single site to document the progress of the demolition and finally the resulting erasure of the building from the landscape. It is not uncommon to come across sequences that dolefully gaze at an apparently empty building site. For the most part these documented demolition “events” are as geographically dispersed as they are temporally disconnected. The filmmakers travelled widely within the Sydney region to shoot this footage, usually by means of public transport that invariably makes an appearance in the films. There is resoluteness to their pursuit that is evidenced not only by this dedication to the task at hand but also by the footage itself. While the pictorial quality of the films varies in terms of composition, focus and exposure it is nevertheless unwavering in its pictorial determinedness.
The programmatic nature of filming these demolished cinemas was never really articulated as such by the filmmakers. It is however, practically undeniable. That these essentially isolated instances of loss were grouped together and assembled as reels is evidence enough to suggest that McKenzie and Kent viewed these films as forming an extended body of evidence. This is not to argue that the filmmakers were possessed of some grand conceptual plan, but rather to recognise a relationship between the archive and its constituent parts. It is a recognition that a power resides in the very act of accumulation. An accumulation that evidences a desire to record and preserve the present as it becomes the past.
Since I have been in residence at the NFSA I have spent much of my time reviewing a selection of footage from what is known as the Roger McKenzie collection. This collection was acquired by the Archive through donations made by Bernie Kent in 1992 and 1998. The bulk of the McKenzie collection consists of 35mm footage that Roger McKenzie had collected over a lifetime working in the film industry. A smaller second collection consists of actuality footage shot on 16mm by Roger McKenzie and Bernie Kent that documents the changing face of Sydney in the later half of the Twentieth Century. As documentarians they were especially concerned with recording the passage of modes of transport (steam trains, railways) and architectural forms. Given both men’s lifelong involvement with the moving image (as projectionists and cinematographers) it is perhaps hardly surprising that they were especially interested in recording the demise and subsequent demolition of many of the city’s cinemas and theatres. It is this footage that is central to my research.
Working with the staff at the Archive I have been able to identify a selection of the McKenzie/Kent films that document the demolition or passing of a number of Sydney cinemas. For the most part this footage has previously existed as singular preservation prints from which access copies have had to be made, a time consuming process that was undertaken before my arrival. I am now reviewing these access copies of the 16mmm footage shot by McKenzie and Kent looking for sequences that I will use in the development of a series of short experimental video works.
The process of reviewing this footage (some many hours in total) is as intriguing as it is revelatory. Indeed, the film footage of the demolition of Sydney’s cinemas is everything I hoped for; starkly observant with more than a few traces of poetic reverie. Alongside this ‘primary’ subject I find myself drawn to the incidental details of city life that are caught fleetingly on the peripheries: The colour of the buses, the look of causal dress, a small lone boy skipping past a milk bar. Taken individually these details are hardly remarkable or unusual. However, I cannot help but be struck by their poignancy in relation to my primary subject. There is a barely articulated tension here between the stuff of the everyday and the imminent destruction of these cinemas. We are reminded that these cinemas are buildings that occupied the landscape as unsustainable and unwanted reminders of the recent past.
After spending the week contemplating the destruction of so many Sydney cinemas it was by happy accident I found myself at the Campsie Orion on Saturday. The building is now used as a function centre and is one of the few surviving (and reasonably intact) examples of a suburban Sydney Art Deco cinema. The Orion was opened in 1936 and operated until 1959 after which it was purchased by the local council and miraculously escaped demolition. A more complete history of the building can be found here
Here is a selection of photos of the Campsie Orion taken on my phone, and yes that is a boxing ring in front of the stage.
Just so we are all on the same page, here is some detail from my original research proposal:
The aim of this project is to work with and through a selection of film footage and photographic images held by the National Film and Sound Archive that documents lost cinemas in the Sydney area…..The footage of now-demolished cinemas that I have identified in the NFSA collection will be used as a cipher through which to imagine the contemporary urban landscape. Central to this project is the idea of the filmic document as an index of loss. Film is engaged as a type of haunted presence that stands outside of time and in doing so not only evokes the trauma of loss itself but also activates a new program of documentary activity.
The historical importance of these films cannot be underestimated as they provide a valuable record of, and insight into, a largely superseded model of cinema spectatorship. The pictured cinemas are architectural forms that speak of communal and localised spectatorship. Ways of seeing that have largely been erased, or at least radically reconfigured, by new patterns of consumption and the attendant forces of an ever-changing mediascape.