Cultural Cringe and ‘The Lost City of Melbourne’

A new documentary goes some way to explaining why the city looks the way it does.

By guest author Natasha Frost from the New York Times.

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Visitors to New York often remark that it feels like stepping into a film set. To walk through Central Park is to trace the footsteps of Harry and Sally, Spider-Man or various Muppets. Momentary glimpses of the Chrysler Building or the New York Public Library work almost as an establishing shot: This is New York City, baby.

Melbourne has little such on-screen cachet. Its skyline barely sticks in the memory. Instead, those architectural aspects that linger are on a far smaller scale: the lacy ironwork that fringes cottages and terraced houses; the unusually broad streets of the central city; the independent cinemas spread across town — the Astor, the Palace, the Sun Theatre — with their grand facades and gently creaking seats.

And while people in New York celebrate its cycles of boom and bust, ask Melburnians about their city’s recent history and many draw a blank. It barely features in school curriculums, which take a broader approach. Even at the municipal museum, the wing dedicated to the city’s history dwells on its colonial roots, before galloping through the last century.

A new documentary, “The Lost City of Melbourne,” goes some way to explaining why the city looks the way it does. In less than 90 minutes, the movie retraces Melbourne’s architectural history, eulogizing some of the magnificent 19th-century buildings felled in the name of glass-fronted progress in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

The film premiered earlier this year at Melbourne’s International Film Festival. Since then, screenings at independent cinemas across the city have regularly sold out, as Melburnians rush to learn more about the place they call home.

Gus Berger, the movie’s director and an independent cinema owner in Thornbury, started the self-funded project in lockdown. “It was really like exploring another city,” he told me recently. “Even though I know Melbourne so well and I’ve lived here all my life, it was just like exploring a sort of secret city, if you like — a city that I wasn’t familiar with.”

While the movie seeks to celebrate what Melbourne still has, it also mourns the “cultural cringe” — a famous phrase coined by the Australian critic A. A. Phillips in 1950 — that led developers and planners to raze some of the city’s most splendid Victorian buildings.

“We decided we were too old-fashioned and too Victorian for the world’s gaze, as we approached the Olympic Games and the queen’s visit,” said Mr. Berger, referring to events that took place in 1956 and 1954. “Everyone seemed to be moving forward and modernising, and I think that Melburnians just felt that they weren’t, and they didn’t want to be left behind.”

Watching the movie, I was reminded of “Hovering,” a recent novel by the Australian writer Rhett Davis about the city of Fraser, a Melbourne analog. A character describes her onetime desperation to flee this “proverbial outpost”: “It was nothing, this city. It was no New York, or London, or Hong Kong, or Rome. No child wondered where it was in the world, imagined what it would be like to go there.”

Do Melburnians still feel like this? Mostly not, but maybe a little. “Cultural cringe” is not so overbearing, at least, that a wrecking ball threatens the city’s most iconic sites — but it also explains why Mr. Berger and his audiences have had to go to such lengths to learn about what came before.

And though viewers, by and large, have loved the film, the anxiety at its centre — is Melbourne enough for the world? — filters through to its reception. “I am not sure how this documentary would resonate with non-Melburnians,” one reviewer frets. Another questions whether the film will have “problems reaching an audience that isn’t invested in the city.”

The residents of 1880s Melbourne would have had no such qualms. A London journalist, visiting in 1885, called it “Marvelous Melbourne,” writing: “The whole city, in short, teems with wealth, even as it does with humanity.” It was rich and beautiful, and migrants were drawn by the promise of a land boom, which led to land in some parts of the city being as valuable as that of London. Over the course of the decade, the population almost doubled, from 280000 people in 1880 to 490000 in 1890.

“The Lost City of Melbourne” goes some way to recapturing that civic pride. It is spellbinding, heartfelt and deeply, proudly local, but it also makes a compelling case that the world’s eyes ought to be trained on this pearl of a town, as it was and as it is.