The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith

Perth Street Scenes

Brian Shoesmith

The few scenes that make up Street Scenes of Perth,1907 constitute the earliest extant film on or about Western Australia. It was shot by Leonard Corrick probably in March or April 1907. Corrick belonged to a New Zealand theatrical family who toured extensively in Australia. The fact that they included film in their shows is demonstrated by the screening ofBashful Mr Brown at the Queen's Theatre on the 9th March 1907, underlining the importance of showmen, entertainers and vaudevillans in the development of the cinema as a mode of entertainment. It is also known that Corrick shot the 'Day/Postle Footrace' in Boulder on 10th April 1907, while on tour.

Street Scenes is a fragment. In one minute 54 seconds, or 2740 frames, or 20.8 metres of film (screened at 24 frames per second), a social history of Perth is presented. It contains four discontinuous but related scenes of streets in the Perth central business district. In shot 3 a bearded signboard man parades with a sign for the 'Kensington Park Races Today', which suggests either a Saturday or public holiday is represented.

Shot Time 00-14.13 14.13-14.20 Description Camera Moves L to R Static Camera, then extended pan R to L 24.20-58.06 Pan L to R 58.06-1.53.18 Pan L to R Scene The corner of Barrack St and St. George's Tce, outside the then GP0. Looking west along Hay St towards King St and His Majesty's Theatre, the camera swings east along Hay St. The camera continues to move east, traverses William St looking south and completes shot by looking east along Hay St. Camera looks south on Barrack St towards river then pans right along west side of Barrack St, traverses the Hay and Barrack Sts intersection and completes sequence by looking east along Hay St.

Each scene follows the same shooting strategy. The camera is placed in an appropriate position to ensure maximum coverage of the cityscape in one inexorable panoramic movement. There is little artifice in the film. Street Scenes belongs to the actuality genre created by the Lumiere Brothers in 1905 and is characterised by the cameraman intervening in a minimal way in the process of filming after the placement of the camera, thereby recording moments of real time. However, despite this sense of disinterestedness on the part of the camera these films remain richly textured documents. Street Scenes is no exception.

In the four scenes depicted a number of significant aspects of the filmic process and social structure may be discerned.

In filmic terms it is clear that a dialogic relationship exists between the camera and the subjects being filmed. In one sense the camera is neutral, a mere recording device set up in a non- interventionist fashion. In other words its conventions appear to be simple and easily grasped until subjected to scrutiny. For example, the transition from Shot 2 to Shot 3 in Street Scenes is an extremely subtle and sophisticated camera set-up and movement. The camera is recording a busy street scene. It then hesitates on a particular subject - a man dressed in the normal attire of the era, a three-piece suit and hat. Shot 2 stops on this subject, and then Shot 3 begins on the same subject. However, the camera has moved back a number of feet which has the effect of making the subject larger and more distinct, and at the same time establishes space for the camera to continue its pan of the street, and thereby include more social information in the traverse of the busy Hay and William Streets intersections. A transition like this required speed of execution and skill in camera manipulation and thus sets up the conditions whereby the simplicity of the conventions can be questioned, even those of semi-professional film-makers. However, the fascinating dimension of the transition is that the subject remains engaged with the camera at all times. His gaze returns the gaze of the camera in an open and forthright manner. His gaze is as unwavering as that of the lens which suggests that the camera and the subject have a dialogic relationship rather than an oppressive one; that the camera is welcomed into the community and treated to a frank scrutiny reserved for any stranger in an isolated place like Perth in 1907. Moreover, the ideological loading of the camera gaze is exposed by the interested look of the subject.

Indeed, all four shots in the fragment are characterised by subjects engaging the camera with reciprocal looks. In some instances this exchange is more compelling than others. Towards the end of Shot 1 a man is so interested in the camera that he doesn't look where he is going and this leads him to collide with another man who is just out of frame. A fight ensues which then distracts the crowd from the camera, which in turn sweeps on over the action. The inability to stop the programmatic sweep from left to right suggests that the movement captured by the film had to be matched by the movement of the camera; that film technique was formulated within an ideological framework of motion on a trial and error basis. Significantly, Shot 1 concludes immediately it has panned beyond the fight.

Shot 2 begins with a long view of Hay Street looking west. The movement of the camera is from right to left. We are presented with a long take of a comparatively empty street in which a good deal of incidental action takes place. There are a number of glances at the camera but at no stage does there appear to be any evidence as compelling as the fight in Shot 1 to suggest a dialogic situation has been established. After a number of viewings, however, you realise that a small boy in the bottom right hand corner of the frame stands transfixed by the camera. His presence controls the scene. For the first half of the scene the camera wrestles with his presence trying to move slowly beyond him but at the same time compelled to acknowledge his presence. That is, the camera is forced to acknowledge a gaze as fixed and concentrated as its own.

Again in Shot 3 the frames are so full of interest in the camera by the subjects being filmed that it is difficult to avoid connotations of exchange, dialogue and reciprocity. Towards the end of the shot the camera, continuing its right to left movement, picks up three young women moving in the same direction as the camera. Initially it is difficult to ascertain how conscious they are of its presence. However, as they cross William Street and a horse and cart sweep around from Hay Street to travel north up William Street, the three women then look up at the camera and smile. Their decision to undertake this manoeuvre at such a dangerous moment suggests more than a sense of total innocence of the relationship between themselves and the camera: between the female subject and the male gaze. Similarly in Shot 4: the frames are full of suggestions of collaboration between the subjects and the camera. A telling example is where a male pedestrian stumbles while crossing the street as a result of his infatuation with the camera. A policeman steps in to control the traffic and passers-by rush to help the man. In other words the camera did not intrude in this world but was welcomed.

In short, what we have in Street Scenes is a phenomenon that still exists today whenever a camera sets out to record actuality. People appropriate the camera's gaze and use it to signify their presence by waving to the camera and through it to the spectators of the spectacle. In other words the camera is used to legitimate presence in a way no other medium can. What separates the modern forms of this phenomenon from those in the fragment of Street Scenesis the self-consciousness of the subject in engaging in the camera and establishing the conditions of the dialogue. The frankness of interest demonstrated by the 1907 subjects has a dignity that is lacking in the modern forms because the conditions of the exchange have changed. Today we accept the camera not as a stranger to be welcomed and interrogated but as a commonplace object to be exploited.

Socially Street Scenes is even more richly laden than the primitive techniques of filmic construction. In general we get the impression of an overwhelming middle-class but vital urban centre. Virtually all the men are dressed in some variation of the three-piece suit. Working men leave the coat off and just wear the waistcoat. Moreover, there is only one man amongst literally hundreds in the fragment who does not wear a hat. The boys, too, wear juvenile variations of the male adult attire, including hats. Women are dressed in either long skirts and blouses, or dresses with long skirts. Without exception they wear hats. The cumulative impression of the dress of both males and females suggests an essentially prosperous environment. The shopfronts and the range of services the shops offer reinforce this view. However, this cannot be taken at face value. It may be that as the film was shot on either a Saturday or public holiday people dressed more formally thus accounting for the high standards portrayed. Moreover, by concentrating filming on the central business district the camera is bound to capture a segment of the population that tends to dress up rather than down, emphasising a middle-class nature of Perth.

Other significant impressions gained from the film are threefold. Firstly, there are no cars in the streets. Horses and horse-drawn vehicles dominate the streets with the exception of the trams. Indeed young men and boys can be seen riding their ponies in both Hay Street and William Street. The absence of the cars contributes to our nostalgic reading of the scene. Secondly, the streets of the central business district appear to be comparatively more busy than they are today. People appear more numerous and purposeful than they do today. Again this could be determined by the day on which the film was shot, or indeed by the presence of the camera itself. However, the internal evidence suggests that it is certainly not the latter. What it is, in fact, is a matter of placement. Corrick apparently knew which were the busiest sections of the town centre and he placed his camera accordingly, thus filming as large a number of people as possible which in turn became an enticement for the subject to go to see Corrick's show at the Queen's Theatre and view themselves as part of that show. That is, the decision to film the busy intersections of Hay Street and William Street and Hay Street and Barrack Street was primarly a commercial one and not an aesthetic one. Thirdly, there is an overwhelming preponderance of men in the streets. In Shot 1 which begins with a long shot of a number of men outside the GPO and concludes with the fight contains only four women and one girl in its duration. The concluding shot also portrays a male-orientated street scene with very few women on camera.

Historically Street Scenes provides a glimpse of the reality of Perth in the first decades of the twentieth century. It provides documentary evidence about a number of aspects of the material culture of Perth in that era - dress, transport, architecture, traffic flow and so on. At the same time it allows us to engage with the historical process in a stimulating manner. The past moves, assumes life but this in itself can be misleading. Like any historical document the film must be subjected to close scrutiny and evaluation. When this occurs it becomes apparent that Street Scenes is not just an exercise in nostalgia but a rich and complex document that speaks to us from a specific social position: its determinants are social and historical, but above all else, commercial, and it is the intersection of these discourses which provide the film with its fascination for late twentieth-century viewers.