Talking Heads: Eternity's Lawrence Johnston and Susan MacKinnon
Eternity. One day this single word mysteriously appeared on the sidewalks of Sydney, Australia, chalked in beautiful copperplate script. For 40 years it reappeared in different places, always written under cover of dawn's early light. To some it was poetry, to others a spiritual message, and for some it was the purest form of art. Like the magic of ancient wall paintings, the word left its impression on the soul of a city.
In 1956, 20 years after the word first appeared, the identity of the writer was discovered. His name was Arthur Stace. He had been a derelict, a petty criminal, and a hopeless alcoholic before his conversion to Christianity. The words of a fiery sermon by the late Rev. John Ridley rang clear in Arthur's head: "I wish I could shout the word eternity through the streets of Sydney." As Stace left the church, he began to cry and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write Eternity. He could barely write his own name, but by the time of his death in 1967 he had written Eternity on the streets of Sydney 500,000 times.
In the new Australian documentary Eternity , director-writer Lawrence Johnston and producer Susan Mackinnon blend interviews, archival film clips, and poetic black-and-white recreactions to transcend the traditional form of portrait documentary. The hour-long film has been released theatrically in Australia, has won kudos at such festivals as Sydney, Hawaii, Chicago, and Telluride, and will open at New York's Film Forum in May. Beautiful dreamlike cinematography by Dion Beebe and an emotionally meditative score by Australian composer Ross Edwards enhance the magical sense of place, time, and person. In meeting the "ghost" of Arthur Stace, the viewer becomes a witness and a participant in shared memory. Johnston's motivation for making the film was not just to tell "a story about Stace but also about other concerns I have about the myth of the city, of loners, of perceived eccentrics."
This is a story about a word. And a man. And a city. It is also a story about us, because without the witnesses the word would not have carried such meaning. It would just have been eight letters. I spoke to Johnson and MacKinnon on a very stormy day in Los Angeles. I glanced out the window across the courtyard through the pounding rain and wondered what word would find such resonance here in the City of Angels?
In Eternity you have stretched the documentary form in interesting ways.
LAWRENCE JOHNSTON: I was interested in making a documentary that was different from what I had seen. In Australia, documentaries are usually: You go to someone's house, you sit them on a couch, and you talk to them. Because this was such an unusual story, I felt it needed a whole world of its own.
When you go into the film, it's a dark kind of world, and you're submerged into it. Dion Beebe and I planned the way the film would look so that it would be seen on a larger screen in the dark. I think it's very important for people to see films together collectively. There's nothing like sitting with an audience and feeling a collective sense of enjoyment. It was always meant to be a cinematic documentary, rather than a realist one. If we had made a real documentary out of it, it would have lost the magic. I wanted to keep the sense of mystery about Arthur Stace. Even though you know a lot about him by the end of the film, he is still quite enigmatic.
How was Eternity funded?
SUSAN MACKINNON: Lawrence had done all the research by the time we got together. My role was to schedule and budget the film and search for the financing to do it. The total budget was $325,000 Australian [about $247,000 U.S.]. We went to the National Broadcasting [Corporation] here, but they knocked it back. They said the story was a bea utiful script, but the subject matter was too marginal. And I said, "I know it's marginal. That's why I like it." But it didn't get me a sale.
Finally the Australian Film Commission decided to finance the production without a television broadcaster involved in the financing. They only do that with one or two films a year. They choose people they want to foster and nurture [like Johnston], and they were interested in helping promote me as a new producer.
LJ: We're quite lucky here, as I discovered when I was in America. We have money that's given by the government to develop scripts for documentary films, feature films, and miniseries, and there's a funding body in each state. Film Victoria, which is in the Victorian state where I live, funded the research. As Susan said, the Australian Film Commission funded the major portion of the budget, and the New South Wales Film and Television Office funded a small percentage of the production budget.
People think that America is the land of the golden egg in terms of filmmaking because of Hollywood. I was telling a friend, "Look at the American films made outside the film schools and the studios, and they have endless credits of people who sponsored them." It takes so long to gather that sponsorship.
SM: I wanted to talk about the marketing and distribution of the film because it's been really interesting. In 1990, artist Martin Sharp and Remo Giuffre of the Remo Store, which is in the film, collaborated in marketing Eternity. Martin Sharp's pop art painting of the word Eternity is nearly as famous as Arthur Stace's chalk writings. The store allowed us to get into the merchandising aspect of the film, which most documentaries don't have. There were T-shirts and postcards, and we got templates made so that we had a lot of people out in the streets at nighttime chalking Eternity in yellow and white chalk. We had a big shop window that had the word Eternity displayed in it, and taxicab drivers remembered it and bus drivers remembered it, because they passed the shop window all the time. There are so many people now who talk about the film, and they haven't even seen it.
I think it pushed documentary a little further into a respectable place. Documentaries mostly get screened here on the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], which is great, but they kind of fade really quickly. They don't have a lasting resonance on people.
Congratulations on winning the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival. It came with a wonderful cash prize [$20,000].
LJ: It's an amazing festival. It's only been running for three years. I think they're interested in changing the morals of Hollywood, in a sense, so they're looking for pictures that are life affirming. A lot of people think I'm religious because of the subject matter of Eternity or that I'm a Christian. Going to Indianapolis, I thought that they would expect that of me. So it was refreshing not to pretend that I was, because my attraction to Eternity involved many interests, really, apart from the story.
Spiritually or emotionally, what were your reasons for making the film?
LJ: I think the older you get, you start to think about how long you have to live here. Some friends of mine have passed away from AIDS in the last couple of years, and as a filmmaker [it's made me] think, What are the important stories to tell? This story was so rich in terms of being a portrait of somebody who was perceived as an eccentric, yet achieved something without any kind of money or education through an unusual repeated action over a number of years. Also I wanted to make a photographic portrait of the city of Sydney, from the past to the present, which included the underbelly of city life. The past documentaries of Australian life have generally concentrated on the positive aspects of life. American cinema has much more of a history of recording urban environments. This film seemed a wonderful way to explore Sydney because of Arthur Stace's walks through the city early in the morning and late at night.
In the scenes of the Stace figure walking through the city, you achieve a feeling of walking through both space and time.
LJ: I open the film with shots of cities around the world because a form of eternity for me is the here and now. We are in a sense in eternity; it goes on all the time. People walking on streets, as well as the icons like the New York sky line, Big Ben in London, and Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles are icons that are known worldwide when you think of cities. In Sydney our icon is the Harbour Bridge, which figures a number of times in the picture. The film explores the iconography of a city in a kind of different way, mixing architecture with what Stace did.
How is it that a word became an icon? What did it tap into in people?
LJ: I think that one of the things the word tapped into is that eternity connotes a hope, a hope that life will go on. That if you're involved in a relationship with somebody, it will be forever, there will be a long history of that life or experience. Particularly now it's quite apt because of the way the media is constructed-everything is changing so much, and people's experiences are more short-lived. You go down to a street, and a shop you thought would be there isn't there anymore. I think one of the appeals the film has to people is that there could be a notion of eternity in some form. I think this is what happened when people saw the word originally, because it was a time before graffiti was commonplace.
I was interested to see that you chose to call your interview subjects "witnesses."
LJ: It is a Christian kind of term. [Everyone we interviewed] was a witness in one form or another. Also by my action as a documentary filmmaker [I was] having them report to me what they witnessed.
What was the process you went through doing archival research?
LJ: We used a combination of material, patched together from lots of sources. I sat through endless tapes. The archival material that makes up the opening sequence in Eternity came from Petrified Films in New York, who have a very extensive library. They were terrific. They had all this footage that was shot by Warner Brothers in the 1940s as street backgrounds. I believe that the opening shot was actually shot to be used in the Gary Cooper film The Fountainhead in 1949.
I talked to a friend of mine who knew about silent cinema. I love all films, and it was great to see this footage because it was all 35mm. Such wonderfully strong atmospheric shots, too. Some shots came from feature films, small moments from features. Like the shot of the drunk coming out of the bar doorway surrounded by pigeons fluttering by-that was taken from a 1920s Australian silent drama titled The Painted Daughters. There was some color footage of the city of Sydney that was shot by an old woman on standard 8mm, and we transferred it to 16 mm so that we could cut it into the picture.
I wanted to use the archival footage so that you weren't really sure what you were seeing, whether it was reconstructed or not. I looked through archives, not for specific streets, but more for emotional moments that were strong visually, so that when you come to them in the film they have a strong impact.
SM: We also did a nonlinear edit on the AVID. It was good for looking at hours and hours of archival footage. If we had done a Steenbeck edit, Lawrence would have had to decide from the beginning which pieces of archival footage we wanted to use. This way we could grab the shots off of the tape, see how they worked in the work print, then order precisely the shots that we were going to use. The AVID was also great for dissolves. There are about 240 dissolves in Eternity, and we could instantly tell how they would work.
How did you blend the archival material with the recreations?
LJ: I told Dion Beebe that I wanted the Arthur Stace figure to walk through the film like a ghost, just as he had walked through the lives of the people in Sydney. Most people never saw him. He walked through locations that you can go look at today, but we wanted to give it a feeling of the past. This was achieved by framing. So many people frame everything so that you know where you are. We wanted to get the feeling that you weren't quite sure where you were but there was a familiarity about it, especially for Australian audiences.
There's a wonderful story about the archival footage from the film The City of the Sun.
LJ: That Film runs only ten minutes. It's a portrait of Sydney made in 1947. It was such a cute little film. It had some wonderful shots. There is a shot in the film [Eternity] where the Arthur Stace figure [in the recreations] passes Wynyard Station, which is in Sydney. I was looking in some of the archival material for shots of men in hats walking. I found that shot, and it wasn't until later in post-production that we contacted the wife of the man who shot the film and she said, "Oh well, yes, that's Mr. Eternity." She had been there in 1947 when the film was shot, which was basically documenting commuters coming out of the railway station. No doubt he was heading toward the turnstiles to get a few Eternitys in.
I wish I had known because I was saying to Susan we could have pinpointed it in a way, but there's something actually nice about leaving it sitting by itself without the audience having to know it.
Do you like mysteries?
LJ: I love mysteries. When I was researching the story, it really became apparent. Because a little bit was known about him, but it really was like I, as the filmmaker, became a detective. I remember when I got the letter from the old man who was involved with the renovation of Sydney's General Post Office. He talked about the construction and putting the bell back into the clock tower. At the end of the letter he had one sentence. It said, "I daresay that it [Eternity, which Stace had written inside the bell] is still there." And the hair on the back of my neck bristled. We didn't know that it was there. We climbed up there, way up high on a staircase, and there it was-the word Eternity chalked in perfect copperplate script inside the bell. When we sit with audiences at film festivals and they find out that the word Eternity is still written inside of the bell there is an audible gasp.
What's next for each of you?
SM: I'm furiously trying to have a life after Eternity. I'm working on a project about men and their sheds, about the exploration of solitude. Also a series on the top Australian contemporary women artists. They're almost unknown because of the chauvinistic thing.
LJ: I'm essentially a dramatic director. Eternity is my first documentary. I’m directing a prison drama, Out of the Blue, by Melbourne writer John Brumpton. Also I've been writing a feature script, Homefire, about families and the influence parents have on children.
At the end of making the film, what did you decide eternity meant to you?
LJ: I guess I'm like Dorothy Hewett , the writer [interviewed in the film] who says we are in eternity now. I don't believe we go to heaven and we live forever. I think there's a memory we live on in, or we live on in things that we achieve. And I know that I will live on through the films I make.
Pamela Beere Briggs is an independent filmmaker and lecturer at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a member of New Day Films.