You oughta be in pictures

Did you ever spend your time at school, when you should have been paying attention, drawing pictures of little stick men in the margins of your geography book designed to spring to life when you flicked back the edges of the pages? The equivalent today I suspect of surreptitiously watching episodes of Family Guy on an iPhone under the edges of a school table.

The art of the moving picture was widely practised in Australia from the earliest days of cinema. In the early 20th century, Australian film in some respects rivalled the embryonic industry on the West Coast of the United States, very apt for a newly Federated Australia. In the century before, Australians had thought of themselves as Englishmen living abroad and spoke of going “home” to Great Britain. By Federation we were thinking of ourselves as first and foremost true blue “Aussies” but with our own special place within an Empire on which the sun never set. Historical drama with a local content was popular in Australia from the outset and the world’s first narrative feature film is believed to have been the 1906 “The Story of the Kelly Gang” which, pertinent to this story, was filmed at locations around the Heidelberg district, many of which would have been familiar to the residents of Yallambie at that time.

Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845.

These included the property Charterisville, leased at that time as a dairy farm by the family of the producer’s wife and located today in Burke Rd North, Ivanhoe; the Rosanna Station railway siding, where scenes of Kelly’s “last stand” at Glenrowan were filmed; and at nearby locations in both Eltham and Greensborough, where additional scenes were made.

Kelly's last stand from the 1906 film, "The Story of the Kelly Gang".
Kelly’s last stand from the 1906 film, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”.

The film was a great success and made a fortune for its backers, sparking the outlaw as a subject of film genre and popular culture with the iron clad bushranger being subsequently portrayed on screen by a diverse range of alleged actors from the Australian Rules footballer Bob Chitty to Mick Jagger of rock and roll fame. In the words of the real Kelly as he faced the scaffold in 1880, “Such is life.”

The precise story of early film making in Australia is probably lost to history like the cellulose nitrate film stock on which it was recorded. It is known that Kooringarama Films shot a silent short feature in and around Eltham in 1928 called “Borrowed Plumes”. Kooringarama Films was an amateur company and followed up the following year with four reel, one hour feature, also shot in Eltham, called “As Ye Sow” which was shown to audiences in local halls around Melbourne with an incidental musical accompaniment delivered on a hand cranked gramophone.

Still from the short feature, "Borrowed Plumes" filmed in Eltham in 1928.
Still from the short feature, “Borrowed Plumes” filmed in Eltham in 1928.

Three decades later Tim Burstall, an Eltham resident whose wife taught French at Eltham High School, made his first short feature “The Prize”. It was shot using an old clockwork camera of the type used in battle in the first world war mounted on a 1930s tripod from an Antarctic expedition. It portrayed a boy wandering through the bush in search of a lost goat and most of the locations used were in the vicinity of Eltham. The film won a bronze medal at the Venice Film Festival of 1960 with Burstall later going on to play a principle and “Purple” part in the reinvention of the Australian film industry in the 1970s.

Screen still of Heidelberg Park restyled as Somerset County Fairgrounds, from 2006 film, Charlotte's Web, (Nickelodeon Movies).
Screen still of Heidelberg Park restyled as Somerset County Fairgrounds, from 2006 film, Charlotte’s Web, (Nickelodeon Movies).

Locations in and around the Heidelberg district continue to be used today in both film and television. The 2006 Nickelodeon production “Charlotte’s Web”, used locations around Heidelberg Park which was transformed for the purpose of the screen to resemble a fair ground in the mid-west of the United States. Similarly, the final episode of Series II of the “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” saw the artist colony “Montsalvat” in Eltham portrayed as a property in the so called “Australian Alps”. In the event and after the addition of a few dodgy special effects, that hang out looked oddly enough more like a castle hideaway in the Swiss Alps. A sort of Monsalvat on the Matterhorn.

Montsalvat in Eltham as seen in Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013, (Every Cloud Productions).
Montsalvat in Eltham as seen in Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013, (Every Cloud Productions).

The process is not without the potential for problems all the same with the owners of a home featured in the 2013 movie “The Conjuring” reportedly suing Warner Bros for an unspecified amount over trespassers coming up to their home as a result of the film’s popularity.

Screen still of Banyule Homestead from Episode 3 of The Ex-PM, (CJZ, ABC TV).
Screen still of Banyule Homestead from Episode 3 of The Ex-PM, (CJZ, ABC TV).

Most recently in Heidelberg, Banyule Homestead has been seen in great detail on the small screen in Shaun Micallef’s amusing “The Ex-PM”, (which also features scenes shot in the surrounding area including one from the opening episode shot on Greensborough Rd, Watsonia), while Napier Waller’s Fairy Hills property continues to be portrayed as the Ballarat home and surgery of the titular character in the returning series, “The Doctor Blake Mysteries”. As ownership of Banyule Homestead changed hands a few months ago and the Waller home enjoys a peculiar rates agreement with local Council, perhaps the publicity isn’t seen as a problem at those properties.

Everyone with a camcorder or even an iPhone can be a film maker of sorts these days although, previously, home movies were limited to the lens sharpness and the sometime dubious technical skills of those fortunate enough to own 16mm or 8mm movie cameras. Yallambie itself was captured on film in a fascinating and previously discussed flick of this sort in the late 1950s, before the subdivision of the estate and while it was still operating as a farm. The 20 minutes of silent, 16mm colour moving picture was shot by Peter Basset-Smith, a professional film maker and friend of the of the last descendants of Thomas Wragge to live at Yallambie.

Bassett-Smith’s film stands alone today as a fascinating tribute to that now vanished era. A few years ago a former singing chum of my wife contacted us out of the blue with news that she had embarked on a career herself in film making. In fact, she was in the process of co-producing a low budget horror film with her son for which development was well underway. She too had been to Montsalvat to enquire about using that property as a location but was disappointed to learn that the fee asked by the trustees was almost more than her whole production budget.

“Hmmm, a horror story you say? I know just the place. It’s not quite Montsalvat or the Matterhorn but will suit your needs.”

So it was that the production crew came to Yallambie as our guests and spent a couple of days on location in the our garden shooting scenes for the movie “Killervision”, (21 Black Entertainment, 2014). It was great fun to be an observer of the process and I soon perceived the possibilities of the creative, almost addictive buzz that is a part of the film making business.

Character brandishing a piece of 4 by 2 in the garden at Yallambie, (Killervision film still).
Character brandishing a piece of 4 by 2 in the garden at Yallambie, (Killervision film still).

Some of the action filmed at Yallambie required one of the actors to run through the garden screaming at the top of his lungs brandishing an ugly piece of 4 by 2, (in reality a lump of balsa wood). I wondered, probably too late, what the neighbours might think about this blood curdling racket and was rather perturbed at one point to hear police sirens in the distance. When those sirens came nearer and were obviously proceeding down Yallambie Rd I started to feel really concerned. I was standing next to a car at the time belonging to a member of the film crew and could see a set of (prosthetic) severed fingers oozing fake blood which had been left on the dash board. ‘How would I explain this to the cops?’ Thankfully it was a false alarm as the sirens proceeded further afield. Maybe the hamburgers from Maccas on Lower Plenty Rd were in danger of getting cold on their way back to the station.

On the soccer ground in Yallambie Park, (Killervision film still).
On the soccer ground in Yallambie Park, (Killervision film still).

The movie, “Killervision” was eventually finished and sold to an international film distributor. The credit cards used were balanced and the actors were paid. We received a complimentary DVD copy of the movie and it was with amusement that I saw while viewing it later that the exterior of the Homestead appears very briefly and out of focus on screen where it is described as being a facility for the mentally disturbed.

Fictitious university prospectus featuring Homestead, (Killervision film still).
Fictitious university prospectus featuring Homestead, (Killervision film still).

In a world being rapidly changed by the advent of new technologies, the art of the moving picture is no exception. Local cinemas were once to be found in many suburban venues around Melbourne but the multiplex venue has largely seen their demise. The Were Street, or Rotex Cinema in Montmorency with its purple curtains was one that I remember as a lad but there were earlier venues in both Burgundy St, Heidelberg and Upper Heidelberg Rd, Ivanhoe. A changing industry almost saw the death of the Australian film industry and certainly the closure of most independent suburban cinemas but a modern Renaissance, supported in large measure by Federal Government tax breaks, has seen the trend reversed. Hugo Weaving who has appeared in many Australian films of this later era as well as several international blockbusters was quoted from ABC television last week, saying that:

“This is a golden era of film-making in this country, we just don’t know that. I’ve been saying that for ages. I think our films are getting better and better, we [Australians] are just not going to see them.” (One Plus One, ABC TV)

Ol’ Elrond himself believes that the problem is basically selling the idea of Australia to a local market:

“We have an industry which is so slanted towards American films that it’s very, very hard for Australian films to get a look in.”

Ol' Elrond himself.
Ol’ Elrond himself.

It’s known as the “cultural cringe” and the problem is not a new one. The film makers involved in the “The Story of the Kelly Gang” in 1906 only realized the contribution to cinematic history they had made long after the fact, when it seems several of them jockeyed for credit of the initial concept.

On release of the 1959 Hollywood movie “On The Beach”, an American film that was shot in and around Melbourne about a world destroyed by nuclear holocaust, Ava Gardner is supposed to have said that Melbourne was “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.”

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on location for the 1959 film "On the Beach", (Stanley Kramer Productions).
Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner filming the end of the world in Melbourne.

The story is almost certainly apocryphal. The quote appears to have been written by a Sydney journalist struggling to make deadline but it does illustrate all the same a very real and enduring inferiority complex that has always been a part of our way of looking at ourselves in this country. Meanwhile the Australian film industry continues to acquit itself on the global stage and not just with the export of Australian acting talent overseas. It has been said that to be born an Australian is to win the prize in the lottery of life. They call this the Lucky Country. It’s a pity we haven’t quite noticed it.

The_Story_of_the_Kelly_Gang_Poster

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