Canberra: A David Lynch film come to life

by on Wednesday, 21 April 2010 8335 hits Comments
Rate this item
(0 votes)
“I love dream logic.  I just like the way dreams go.”
David Lynch in “Catching the Big Fish: Mediation, Consciousness, and Creativity”

Growing up in Canberra, I never thought of it as being a particularly remarkable city.  It was just the place where I lived.  Then one day when I was about 13, I read an interview of some backpackers in the local newspaper.  When prompted for their views on Canberra, one suggested something along the lines of “it is like a David Lynch movie – everything is neat and tidy but you wonder what is really going on below the surface”.  Not having yet seen any movies by Lynch - America’s legendary surrealist chronicler of urban life - I was a bit puzzled by this comparison, but with time I came to see what that scruffy backpacker was alluding to.  My hometown was not quite like other places.  And this is good.

Nestled in the mountains in the south east of the continent, Canberra is the capital of Australia.  Commonly known as ‘the bush capital’, it is filled with parks and open spaces, and is bisected by a series of freeways and large arterial roads. There, the car is king.  Construction began in 1913 following an international architectural competition won by Walter Burley Griffin, the famous American architect.  Canberra was instigated to satisfy the grand ambitions of Sydney and Melbourne to be Australia’s home of government.  As a city built completely from scratch, Canberra offers a glimpse of how the designers of yesteryear envisaged the city of the future: decentralised, dispersed and blending with nature. Over the years governments, commercial interests and architects have all challenged Burley Griffin’s vision.  While the city has turned out considerably different to how he envisaged it, Canberra remains unique.

Built with its important role in mind – parliament and bureaucracy – Canberra has long being the butt of jokes.  It is commonly derided as being boring, a bunch of suburbs in search of a city, full of public service drones and a waste of a perfectly good sheep paddock.  And the traditional response from Canberrans is just as hackneyed – the city is pretty, clean, safe, a great place to raise kids and so on.  But there is something more to the city than these well-worn claims, all of which sprout some tendrils of truth.

It would be easy to arrive in Canberra and think, “Strewth, what’s goin’ on here?”.  Compared to other cities, there is not a lot of human activity on the streets.  This lack of traffic and pedestrians can easily deceive you.  One day when riding my bike to school, I managed to ride for 5 minutes before encountering any other traffic.  It was as if everyone in the city had vanished overnight.  This was slightly eerie, but energising - I felt like I had my own private city.  Just as a dream takes a familiar scene and tweaks it, so too was my trip to school flipped on its head.  It is such moments of serenity shape the disposition of Canberra.  Perhaps this is what caught the backpacker’s imagination.  The thrum and buzz so often associated with seats of government is not there.

Lynch once said “A sense of place is so critical in cinema because you want to go into another world.  Every story has its own world and its own feel and its own mood.  So you try to put together all these things, all these little details to create that sense of place.  It has a lot to do with lighting and sound”.  Lynch succeeds in doing this in his films.  While presenting everyday settings and scenarios with which we are familiar, but then managing to skew these in a way that puts a slight slant on reality, Lynch masterfully injects a sense of magic into the mundane, making the normal feel other-worldly.

Canberra-Mt-Taylor3_smallIn many ways Canberra can feel like another world, and much of that can be attributed to the light and sound there. The city is nestled in a series of valleys and plains.  Views from any of the nearby mountains show a reasonably low-rise city threatening but not really managing to poke out from beneath the leafy canopy.  Canberra’s generous endowment of trees, parks and nature reserves attract a great range of wildlife (birds, possums, kangaroos, wallabies) that are hard to miss if you spend any amount of time in the city and particularly around its fringes.  In most parts of town the good burghers of Canberra awake to bird song, songs which can continue throughout the day.  I fondly remember the calls of the Currawong echoing from one building to another on winter evenings in the Woden town centre. While not particularly common, it is not unusual to see a kangaroo hopping down a suburban street, such is the overlap between city and country.  And the sun shines an awful lot.  Even a bitterly cold winter’s day is made bearable by the warming rays of the sun.

 

At some point I came across the idea that Aboriginal designs are reflected in the street alignment.  I’m not sure how true this is, but it certainly is an intriguing proposition.  Australian Aboriginal art is often influenced by myths from the Dreamtime, the time in the past when the world was created.  These Dreamtime myths are reinterpreted on the canvas in a unique style, generally comprising dots and striking patterns.  When viewed from above, or on a map, the streets in the older and central areas of Canberra appear as a series of circles linked by straight lines, mimicking some aspects Australian indigenous painting techniques.  Canberra’s large circular roads, some of which are concentric, conspire to baffle out-of-town drivers.  But given that so many towns are built on boring yet functional grids, for some this lack of lineation offers a round type of respite, at least to those who know where they are going.

canberra_04And just how is the landscape of Canberra manifested in its residents?  Barring the odd traffic jam or booners[1] in Toranas[2] doing circle-work[3] in a suburban cul-de-sac, the city tends to have an air of calm about it.  Not unlike that of a country town.  For most residents it is not too far to get to a park and the surrounding mountain ranges are also conveniently accessible. But at times it seems like Canberrans think too much (on average, they are the most educated and highly paid in Australia), are too eager to complain and too prone to melancholy.  For those new to town, it can be a bit difficult meet new people as cliques prevail.  Like most places, there are many people struggling to make ends meet.  It is by no means an urban utopia.  And for a lot of people Canberra is not much more than how I saw it as a child: a reasonably pleasant city that while bland, is comfortable. To these folk I suggest that if you are willing to let it work on your imagination and dream a bit, like the backpacker did, Canberra can inspire.  Maybe not in the same way as a scenic mountain vista or a mega city bursting with life, but the potential is there in Canberra.  You just need to surrender yourself to it.

In referencing David Lynch, perhaps the scruffy backpacker was hinting that away from the quiet leafy streets and behind the front doors, lurks a seedy unfolding nightmare that is at odds with the well-manicured image that Canberra tends to display.  Think Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  No doubt this is true, for if you look for it, human misery and intrigue is just as present in Canberra as it is everywhere else.

Who knows what that backpacker really meant?  He probably left Australian shores some time ago, undoubtedly more tanned than when he arrived, and hopefully enriched by having taken the time to let his mind wander, inspired by his days in Canberra.

(Photos by Stephen Dann, Andrew Schroeder and Pascal Vuylsteker)
04
by Pascal VuylstekerPascal Vuylsteker

[1] Unrefined people, often young, prone to ostentatious acts of stupidity.

[2] A late model iconic car produced by Holden, favoured for its muscular performance.

[3] Driving a car in a manner that the wheels spin and a large amount of smoke and noise is produced.

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Website: twitter.com/paul_farrelly

Help us!

Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation

AMOUNT: 

Join our FB Group

Browse by Date

« June 2020 »
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30          

We have 5198 guests and no members online