Architect Victoria Spring 2008
Australian Institute of Architects
“It’s a Kennedy”: Melbourne, the Cinema and the work of Chris Kennedy.
Culture and place are intertwined in ways that don’t make them easy to separate, especially in terms of our experience of them. If we look at the cinema we see this subject constantly addressed. We’ll also see that there is a constant exchange between our stories and those stories we see reflected on the screen.
Chris Kennedy is a production designer, who over the last twenty years, has worked on many Australian films, including GHOSTS…OF THE CIVIL DEAD (1988), DEATH IN BRUNSWICK (1989), SPOTSWOOD (1992), STIFF (2004) and THE BRUSH OFF (2004), all of which were set in Melbourne. In these films we see images of Melbourne that we are familiar with. The representations of place connect us to the film and the films back to us. This happens through the cityscapes, and also in the rooms, pictured in these films, which show the way(s) we live. David MacDougall in his book TRANSCULUTRAL CINEMA writes that, “tacit knowledge” is that knowledge which,
“…we can not “tell” in the abstract; it is knowledge we can only convey by showing – by expressing our relation to it in a manner that allows others to enter into a similar relation to it”(29).
It may be that the descriptions of place contribute towards defining place for us in that the choices made for locations and sets created - the spaces and places created by the production designer, in some way distils Melbourne for us. Perhaps they “pick out” the quintessential bits of Sydney Road, (in STIFF) for example, that we readily recognize as Sydney Road – and by doing this it defines what it is about Sydney Road – that makes it Sydney Road - and by us recognizing it, makes us (in some way) a part of it.
GHOSTS…OF THE CILVIL DEAD is not for the most part set in Melbourne. The film is slow and menacing. It’s set in a prison (out in country). Nick Cave in an interview, on the DVD for the film, says that the main character in the film is the prison itself. The set that Chris Kennedy created in this film results in an environment that is extremely oppressive: for the prisoners and the guards alike. The film ends at Parliament Station connecting it directly (and terrifyingly) back to us. (It’s our story too.) This is one of the points the creators of this film are making - you can’t lock people away in harsh environments without involving the whole society. This closing scene is very effective use of place in storytelling. The film makers suggest through the use of space (in part at least), that the desperate nature within the prison is deliberately created, by those in control, those who remain unseen: those who own the prison and the government who legislates: the people responsible for the creation of this, particular space.
“It’s a Kennedy” is a line from THE BRUSH OFF (filmed for the most part in and around Melbourne’s - arts precinct). The “Kennedy” they are referring to is – a work of art, a sculptural piece, in the gallery, with in the film, (which is actually ACCA). It is funny in part because, not only this piece but the whole film is a Kennedy. By referring to the work in this way links what is going on in the film to the world out side the film. It has the same effect that MacDougall discusses in regard to the last shot, , in the film THE 400 BLOWS which is a freeze frame of the main character. He writes, “In calling attention to a reality outside the narrative, Truffaut [the director] refers us from the character back to actor who plays his part” (32). In calling our attention to the production designer it calls our attention also, to the world out the film, in our case, Melbourne. Perhaps what these films and other films like them do is to play a role in each of us “discovering” our own “portraits” of Melbourne. In their book MELBOURNE: A PORTRAIT (1960), Mark Strizic, photographer and David Saunders wrote,
Each [wo]man has in his[her] heart.
His[Her] own portrait of his[her] city;
To discover this portrait is revealing,
For his[her] city has made him[her] while [s]he made his[her] city.
Clarke, John. Stiff, 2004.
Hillcoat, John. Ghosts…Of the Civil Dead, 1988.
Joffe, Mark. Spotswood 1992.
MacDougall, David. Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998: 25 – 60.
Neill, Sam. The Brush Off, 2004.
Ruane, John. Death in Brunswick, 1991.
Strizic, Mark and Saunders, David. Melbourne A Portrait. Melbourne: Georgian House, 1960.