Six Walks Episode Six: Christos Tsiolkas on silver screens Transcript

Introduction, by Annika Kristensen, Senior Curator, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Six Walks is a series of audio walking tours, commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), and released in the lead-up to the forthcoming exhibition and research project Who’s Afraid of Public Space?, opening in the summer of 2021–22. Continuing ACCA’s series of Big Picture exhibitions, Who’s Afraid of Public Space? explores the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, and the character and composition of public life itself, engaging with contemporary art and cultural practices to consider critical ideas as to what constitutes public culture and to ask, and who might it be for?

Six Walks continues a rich history of artists, writers and thinkers engaging with, describing and depicting the various pleasures of walking, This program began as an invitation to six Melbourne-based writers to develop a narrative response to an area of the city that held a particular interest to them either personally or professionally, socially or culturally. These Six Walks were largely written while under strict COVID-related lockdowns – at a time when walking was one of few freedoms afforded to those of us in Melbourne. The series release has been timed to coincide the easing of these restrictions, allowing for expanded horizons and encouraging a renewed interest in our surrounding natural and urban environments and to the narratives, knowledge and histories latent within them.

Across Six Walks writers Idil Ali, Timmah Ball, Tony Birch, Sophie Cunningham, Eleanor Jackson and Christos Tsiolkas take us from the Birraung to Royal Park, from regal cinemas to abandoned military defence force bases, tracing desire lines as much as designated paths. They tackle concerns from public housing to motherhood, colonisation, migration, gentrification, restoration, surveillance, resilience, leisure and pleasure. In following their words, walking becomes a form not only of art and literature, but of thinking, observing, research, remembering, poetry, protest, mapping and making. What is revealed is a complex portrait of Melbourne as a city that is constructed from diverse, diverging and overlapping cultural, social, political, economic and historical paths.

Christos Tsiolkas first got to know the city by falling in love with film. In his walk through the laneways, streets and arcades of Melbourne CBD, Christos recounts the memories of early childhood trips to the cinema with his parents, teenage escapes from the suburbs to cinemas in the city, and his own discovery of secret quarters and spaces. The cinema is a space of dreaming. It is also an art, infused with eroticism. Many of Christos’s secret spaces may now have vanished, but in his recollections as he walks and meanders through the city, we can imagine the flicker of projectors and the experience of bathing in the luminescent silver light of dreams.

Christos Tsiolkas is a novelist, playwright, scriptwriter and essayist. His novels include Loaded, The Jesus Man, Dead Europe, The Slap, Barracuda, and Damascus. His other books include, Jump Cuts, an autobiography co-written with Sasha Suldatow. The short story collections, Merciless Gods, a monograph on The Devil’s Playground for the Australian Screen Classics series, and a monograph on Patrick White, for the Writers on Writers series. His work is published internationally, and many of his novels and stories have been adapted for the stage and for the screen. Christos is the film critic for the Saturday Paper.

Six Walks has been conceived to be ideally listened to in situ, with headphones on a personal mobile device. Maps, directions and access notes are included with each walk to assist with orientation. ACCA reminds participants to be aware of their surroundings, and to adhere to road safety guidelines at all times. Please note that when undertaking a walk, participants must assume personal responsibility for any liability, injury, loss or damage in any way connected with their experience of Six Walks. Recorded in podcast format, Six Walks can also be listened to from anywhere and at any time. Text versions of each walk are also available for download. An advisory note for listeners, that this piece contains strong language, sexual references and adult themes.

Christos Tsiolkas on silver screens

So much of the city has changed, vanished or been reconstructed, yet Stalactites Restaurant remains. I’m starting a walk here, because this is the first restaurant I can recall visiting. Of course, I must’ve been taken to other restaurants, to other cafes when I was an infant or a toddler, but I have no memory of those places. What I do remember, is rushing upstairs to the first floor of this restaurant.  My mother calling out to me, ‘Christos, be careful,’ and then stopping in astonishment. Looking up and being bedazzled by the ceiling, at dozens of paper mâché stalactites dangling above the tables. To my child’s eyes, it seemed magical, that we had indeed entered an enchanted cave.

Years later, I would be with a group of high-school friends. We would be devouring souvlakis, after a long night of dancing and celebration, and my friend Tasha would look up and remark, ‘Man, it looks like someone’s vomited across the ceiling.’ We will all burst out into hysterical laughter. I won’t confess that once I thought it was an enchanted realm. I’d already learnt to guard my secrets. I grew up in North Richmond, on Lincoln Street, and there were two reasons for coming into the city when I was young. Most Sundays, my parents would take my brother and I for a long walk into town. We’d cross Punt Road, and again, in my child’s imagining, as soon as we walked into East Melbourne, it was as if we’d entered another world.

Do you know that moment in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opens the door to the cottage that has been dizzyingly transported by the tornado, and the image shifts from black and white to colour? To the brilliant yellows and reds and blues and golds of the Land of Oz? What a thrill that moment is. Well, something similar occurred when we crossed Punt Road and left behind the roar of traffic, and the relentless, grim, industrial streets of Richmond. Suddenly the world was full of colour. We marvelled at the mansions and beautiful houses. I could hardly contain my excitement, as we were about to walk across to the Fitzroy Gardens. ‘That’s where Captain Cook lived, that’s where fairies lived.’

After some time playing in those miraculous surrounds, we continue our walk into the city until we reach Stalactites. My parents would have coffee, and my brother and I would guzzle Coca Cola. If we were lucky and there weren’t too many customers, the owners would let us boys rush upstairs to lie on the carpet and stare at the ceiling. I’d chatter away, half in Greek and half in English to my brother, telling him stories of the creatures who lived in those subterranean caves.

The other reason we’d come into the city, so very rare and so very special, was to see a movie in English. My mother, who adored cinema, would dress up, put on makeup, and my father would wear his best suit, a white shirt, a black tie. Mum swears she took me with them to see In the Heat of the Night. Of course, I have no memory of that screening. I was just an infant, but Sidney Poitier was one of my first crushes. Are we influenced by memories we no longer possess?

A few doors down from Stalactites is the Caras Gift Shop. Are there the amethyst and azure evil eyes dangling in the front windows? My father had the gift of removing the evil eye, a craft taught to him by his mother. My yia-yia grew up in a Balkan village and never had an education. Her law was that of the forest and that of the mountains. People from across Melbourne would come to our house in Richmond, and politely request my father remove the evil eye. It is said that one is cursed with the eye through envy and through spite, and even now, having grown old and being firmly secular and an Aussie, I still find my hand instinctively rising to my neck when I hear praise that I think disingenuous or insincere. It is a gesture of protection. I can’t tell you how to remove the evil eye. That knowledge can only be communicated to one other person in your lifetime, otherwise great calamity can befall the teller.

My father chose to pass on that knowledge to my brother and though, of course, I had a small shot of jealously when he told me that he had done so, now I understand his reasons. I was lost in books and in films from childhood. My brother has the greater intuition. He knows how to navigate the real world. My father made the correct choice.

My mother especially believed in the integrity of secrets. She loves her village, her first home, but she has no blind romance of that world. She says to this day, and she’s now in her early 80s, that the most destructive aspect of village life is gossip, and of how it is impossible to keep secrets. This city, Melbourne, it was hard for mum. She had no family when she arrived here in 1964, and she knew no English. She started work in a textile factory, the third day of landing on Australian soil. It was not an easy life, yet she loves this city. She loves that the city can keep secrets. My mother gifted me her love of cinema.

One night a week – sometimes it was a Friday, sometimes it was a Saturday – we’d go to the movies. Not here in town, we’d go to see Greek movies that played at the National Theatre in Richmond on Bridge Road. Often there would be a double bill, first a comedy and then a drama. We children would sit through the comedies because we loved the slapstick. All those fart jokes and naughty sex jokes. I’d probably be embarrassed by them now, at the casual sexism.

Mum and dad both loved the English ‘Carry On’ movies. We’d watch them on TV as a family together. The Greek comedies were very similar; lecherous old men and buxom nurses and young teachers. I think my parents loved the ‘Carry On’ films because there wasn’t a lot of talking in them. Slapstick is an Esperanto language.

Let me explain what I mean, by my mother gifting me her love of cinema. She adored classic Hollywood, and her favourite actors were Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly.  ‘Oh, we all wanted to be Grace Kelly, Christos,’ she would say to me with a laugh. ‘We all wanted to believe a rich prince would come for us.’ And she also adored the honourable masculinity of James Stewart and of Henry Fonda. By watching those movies with her, the luminous Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, or being entranced by the flawless beauty of Grace Kelly in High Society, I too fell in love with the movies.

I wasn’t scared of black and white. I learned that the screen was a portal to imagining and to fantasy. I’d walk to school and I’d be dreaming that I was dancing with Jean Kelly on a rainy, Richmond street, or in our backyard, I was defending the O.K. Corral with Kirk Douglas and Victor Mature beside me. The streets of my city stopped being dour and grey, they were lit up in technicolour.

My mother’s favourite actress was Aliki Vougiouklaki. How can I describe Aliki Vougiouklaki to you? She was a gammon, a little like Audrey Hepburn, yet she had the mischievousness of a young Shirley MacLaine. She must have made dozens of movies, and I must have seen them all. She was married to Dimitris Papamichail and they were the perfect couple. She was spunky and beautiful, and he was handsome and manly. If an Aliki Vougiouklaki was playing at the National, I would be jumping with joy. I needed to see it. I have this clear memory of a scene from a film, a film whose title I can’t recall. Aliki plays a poor, little rich girl who decides to run away from a ship building family, because they want to marry her off to some rich knob. She ends up working on a ship and Dimitris is a working sailor on the vessel. Of course, they fall in love, and there is a moment where he is on the bow of the boat, and he is singing a song of love, and his shirt is unbuttoned to his navel, his chest is hairy and broad, and his smile is wicked, and he looked so very beautiful. I knew I fell in love with him at that moment. That remained a secret. I too was learning that there were secrets one must keep.

When I was thirteen, my family moved from Richmond to the burbs, to Box Hill North, and my life changed. Suddenly, I was one of only a handful of wogs at my new high school, and at the same time, that exalted sensation that I experienced, gazing at Dimitris on the bow of the ship, deepened, and I became aware that my desires and my secrets further estranged me from the other kids around me. It was hard. It was fucking hard, but it was also a gift. Slowly, I became aware that we were not all the same, and that difference was not something to be afraid of. Books helped, and so did coming back into the city.

Every weekend, every weekend without fail, I would take the train into town and come to the movies. And that gift I had been given, to understand that one could lose oneself in the movies, that gift that my mother gave me became an anchor and a bridge. Rather than wanting to see the new Star Wars, or the new blockbuster, I started to search out different kinds of movies, movies that would make sense of my life.

It was such a different city then. I would get off the train at Flinders Street, and the streets would be oh-so-quiet. I recall the ‘boom’ of a wind blowing down Collins Street or Bourke Street, and sometimes you could walk a whole block and not see another living soul. The cafés were all closed, as were all the shops. Only the cinemas were open. Only the cinemas, and Stalactites. No, that isn’t quite true.

We crossed Chinatown, and we’re in the mid-city arcade. There were always people in Chinatown. Melbourne makes no sense, unless you comprehend the waves of migration that have helped structure this city. The Chinese were here before the Greeks. I’d use my pocket-money to buy noodles after seeing a film. The first porn shop I ever dared go into was in Little Bourke Street. It was run by this lovely old Chinese couple, and though I was only 15, I’d already started shaving and I looked old for my age. It was a different time. No-one asked for I.D. back then. The shop is still there, in Chinatown. It sells mobile phones now.

I listen to the languages all around me, and it reminds me that sometimes at the National Theatre, they would show a Bollywood film dubbed in Greek. The only sequences that were not dubbed, were the musical numbers. Oh, I remember dancing Ganesh and beautiful women in rainbow-coloured saris. I recall tall and dark, handsome men, leaping across sound stages. And in the cinema, my mum and my dad and their friends, all the adults would start humming the songs, and because they didn’t understand Hindi or Marathi or Bengali, they would make up Greek lyrics to sing along to. They’d be watching the enchanted screen, amazed by the twirling, dancing deities – Ganesh and Kali and Krishna and Hanuman – and they’d be laughing and smoking and singing along to the songs they did not understand.

Yes, the cinema was full of smoke back then. I was always fascinated by the twirling of the smoke as it hit the shafts of the projector’s light. It was a different world then. Some nights, walking back home after the movies, the moon high in the sky, my legs so tired for it was passed midnight, I’d be near tears, delirious for bed and my father would scoop me up in his arms. And beside him, my mother, cradling my brother, would be singing Hindi or Marathi or Bengali songs, but singing them in Greek. And I’d be falling asleep in my father’s arms, soon to be dreaming of dancing elephants. Nowadays, in the mid-city arcade, there is a Chinese cinema. Sometimes I pop in to see a movie. Sometimes I can be the only person in the auditorium who doesn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, and often the movies aren’t subtitled, but I learned from my mother that cinema is a visual language.

I follow the sweep of the editor’s art. I watch the faces of the actors, and I listen to the laughter or shouts or perplexed chatter of the audience around me. Like that audience long ago at the National Theatre in Richmond, everyone speaks during the movie. The socialising is as important as what is happening on screen.

Of course, they don’t smoke now, but I suspect they would if they could. These days, everyone is on their mobile phones. Melbourne is a migrant city. If you expect to understand it only in English, it is a city that will never make sense. I saw a film called The Devil’s Playground when I was 13, or maybe I was 12. Memory lapses in and out, doesn’t it? The Devil’s Playground was directed by Fred Schepisi – one of our greatest film directors – and it starred a very young Simon Bourke, as a boy at a Catholic seminary who was battling the demons of lust and desire. The character is straight, not queer like me, but I understood the battles. I also understood that Schepisi was offering a Pagan version of being in the world. This film that is gloriously beautiful, as cinema, as a script, with wonderful performances, gave me two gifts: it made me realise that I wasn’t alone in the world; it made me realise that Australia too, could make great art.

There were double bills at the National. A drama always followed a comedy, but we children rarely stayed for the second half. All those love stories, all those hysterical arguments between men and women, who wanted any of that shit? After intermission we would take turns running up the long staircase, and then we would slide down the bannister. We would do that again and again and again. Then, there was always a moment when one of the older girls or boys would shout loudly, ‘I hear music,’ and we would all rush out to Bridge Road. A woman was singing in a restaurant across the street. She was accompanied by a slim, young man playing the bouzouki. We’d look right, then left, then right again as we’d been taught to do so at school, and we’d run across the street, put our faces to the windows.

We’d spend the night walking up and down Bridge Road, our arms around each other. No one told us to go back inside because it was night-time, no one told us to be quiet, and no one told us to be scared. Accidents happened, sometimes tragedies happened, but our parents had come from places where accidents and tragedies happened all the time. We grew up not being scared.

So, as a child, I avoided the dramas. I loved the musicals, I loved the westerns and I adored comedies, but without the lessons. With my gradual understanding that the world was sometimes unkind to the different, I became hungry for another kind of cinema. As with the books I was reading, I wanted to know that there were possibilities beyond the suburbs, and that there were freedoms beyond the family.

On this walk, we pass the QT Hotel. It used to be the Greater Union Cinemas. The Greater Union had six screens, so there was always a great choice of films to watch. One afternoon, my father and I came into town together and he dropped me off at the Greater Union, before going off to drink coffee with some mates of his on Lonsdale Street. I looked up at the choice of films playing, and I decided to buy a ticket to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. I have a cherished moment of being a child, still in primary school, watching Barefoot in the Park with my mother. Robert Redford has never been more handsome than he is in that movie, and Jane Fonda has never been as funny.

My mother loved New York movies. She has family in New York City and she always dreamt of migrating there, but by the time she was an adult, the USA borders were shutting down. It was Australia that was emerging from the long, ugly sleep of ‘White Australia’, and only just beginning to take immigrants. The weekend she left Athens her friends took her to a screening of West Side Story. After the movie was finished, as they piled into a booth at a café near Omonoia, her friend said to her, ‘Imagine your year. You’re going to live that life. You’re going to be like Natalie Wood. You are going to the big city. I like to be in America, okay by me in America.’ Melbourne wasn’t America in 1964. It was small and, for my mother, so much smaller than Athens. ‘You couldn’t buy a coffee, Christos,’ she’d always say. ‘You’d be in the middle of the city and there’d be no sound. I never felt so lonely.’

Robert Redford directed Ordinary People, but he isn’t in it. It is about a young adolescent, played by Timothy Hutton, who is returning home from hospital after he has attempted suicide. His mother is played by Mary Tyler Moore and his father is Donald Sutherland. In many ways, the family was the polar opposite to mine. Do we still use the acronym, WASP anymore? Is it not woke enough? A pity, it does the job: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The boy’s family in the film doesn’t know how to communicate with one another. So unlike my family, yet there was something we shared: a terror of secrets, a terror of neighbours or family or friends knowing one’s pain or one’s shame. I became that boy in the film.

Hutton and Tyler Moore are astonishing in that movie. It’s not an easy thing to do, to be simultaneously raw as an actor, to reveal not only the character’s emotional vulnerability but also your own, and to do so while maintaining an actor’s diligence and control of their craft. I came out of the cinema and my father was waiting for me. I couldn’t stop weeping. I fell into his arms. He was shocked but unlike the parents in the film, he didn’t let me go. On the train going back home, he did say to me, ‘It’s only a film, son. Real life is harder.’ Or maybe he said that on another occasion. One can’t trust memory. That doesn’t make memory untruthful, it just means we have to be careful to not succumb to it, like nostalgia. Trust me, Melbourne wasn’t better then, it was just different.

Through high school, I would come back again and again to the Greater Union. I saw Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven there. I was so astonished by it that I wagged school for the first time and sneaked into the city on a Tuesday to watch it again. I had never seen a film quite like it, where a filmmaker had no shame of being a poet. It only played in Melbourne for a few weeks and I noticed in the newspaper listings that it was final days for screenings, and I just knew I had to see it again. It puzzled me, I wanted to work it out. I decided to wag school.

I walked with my brother to the high school. Then, as soon as the bell rang for the first period, I sneaked back out of the school grounds. My heart was thumping. I went back home and got out of my uniform, put on a shirt and jeans. My heart was thumping as I walked all the way to Box Hill station. Would someone see me walking the streets? Report me to the police? My heart was thumping as I bought the ticket to the city. I’m sure my voice squealed, and it was thumping so hard all the way into town, as I got off at Flinders Street, as I zig-zagged the street and walked to the Greater Union. Every time I passed a cop, I thought I would faint. And when I stuttered that I wanted a ticket to Days of Heaven, I was convinced that the woman at the counter was going to point at me accusingly, ‘This boy is wagging school,’ but she didn’t. She was bored and she didn’t care.

I watched the movie again. I got lost in a poem.

We need to be wary of nostalgia. Nevertheless, there is something from my past that I’m thankful for: people weren’t so scared for children and adolescence wasn’t childhood, instead it was preparation for adulthood. My father wanted to see Apocalypse Now. He didn’t love movies with the same passion my mother had for them, but he had a lot of time for the war film, and the movie was written about in the Greek press. Both he and my mother loved The Godfather movies, and I had excitedly pointed out to him that Coppola had also directed Apocalypse Now. One Sunday afternoon he said, ‘Hey, Christos, do you want to come and see the film with me?’ He wanted me there next to him to whisper the dialogue to him in Greek, so he could understand it. ‘I can’t go, baba,’ I said, ‘It’s rated R.’

He looked confused. ‘It isn’t pornography.’ And then, dismissively, he said, ‘you’re coming with me.’ He bought us the tickets, and no one stopped me going in with him. My father lived through World War II and the occupation. He saw true horror in the civil war. Apocalypse Now is only a film. Life is harder.

We both liked the movie. He thought the end went on too long, too much talking. When you cross Collins Street, look west. The cinematheque used to put on screenings in a small theatre room under the National Unity building. I first went to see a double bill there when I was 15. It was Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and his Shoot the Piano Player. You had to be over 18 to become a member. At the door, a man looked me up and down. ‘You’re not 18, are you?’ I shook my head, ‘but I really want to see these films.’ His face lit up when he heard that. He recognised the film buff in me. He winked and ushered me through.

Years later in the 90s, when the cinematheque is now at the State Theatre near Parliament, I will take a godson to see Elem Klimov’s, Come and See. That film is the atrocity of war seen through a teenager’s eyes, and I still consider it one of the greatest films I have ever seen. At the ticket counter, they refused to let my godson in. He was under 18. ‘Sorry, Christos, he’s too young.’ A flash of fury. ‘He’s exactly the right age to see this film,’ but then I have to accede, and I understand, the world wants to keep young people safe. Am I being nostalgic, believing that with something gained, something is also lost? What made me want to go and see a Truffaut film at 15?

My mother put me on the road to cinema. A teacher called Yaroslav Havir and a film critic called Pauline Kael, steered me further along that road. Mr Havir was my English teacher in year nine, and my literature teacher in year 12. In year 9, he introduced me to the glory of the ninteenth century European novel. He was a Czech immigrant, and his great passion was for French literature. He gave me Stendhal and he gave me Zola, Victor Hugo and Balzac. He also steered me towards the twentieth century, towards Gide and Camus.

His wife too was a great reader, and she’d talk to me about Cocteau. One day, in The Age, I read in the listings that the Valhalla Cinema in Richmond was screening Cocteau’s, Blood of a Poet and his Orpheus. It was a school night, but I pretended to mum and dad that I had to see the films for French. I took the tram and went into Richmond. I came out of that cinema and my world had changed.

Orpheus showed me that an artist had to descent, not only into dreams but to the furthest reaches of the netherworld if she or he wanted to pursue their passion. It demanded of me not to be scared. I was terrified of that demand but ever since, I’ve committed – or tried to commit – to its injunction.

Pauline Kael was a twentieth Century US film critic. As a shy, young queer who wasn’t very good at sport, I spent much of my time at the library. I would always check out the books in the cinema section of the Box Hill Library. It was there that I first came across Pauline Kael’s books. She writes with a muscular and slangy dexterity, and she’s one of the few critics that can make you feel you’re watching the film as you read her. She makes every film she writes about, whether she’s praising it or slagging it off, she makes it come alive. She led me to Truffaut, to Louis Mayer, to Bob Fossey, to Orson Welles.

I also received another great gift from Kael: the understanding that you didn’t always have to agree with someone to respect their argument. She hated some of the films I am most passionate about. It doesn’t matter. The older I get, the more thankful I am for this gift. Seems a kind of heresy these days, to stake a claim for the importance of heterodoxy and good faith disagreement. The Forum Theatre is on the corner of Flinders Street and Russel Street. Her writing on Wells’ Citizen Kane made me want to see that film, and one day in my HSC year, I noticed that Citizen Kane was playing on a double bill with Kubric’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is an aside, but I need to make it: I don’t know who it was who thought of putting those films together on a double bill, but if I ever discover who they are, I want to rush up to them, grab them and kiss them.

I took the train into town, got out at Flinders Street and crossed the road to The Forum. I came out four-hours later and immediately vomited into a bin. I had just seen two of the greatest films ever made, and my body was trembling. (It’s worth noting that Pauline Kael disliked 2001 – see, it’s okay to disagree). In my memory, I look up from the bin after having chucked, and the skies are red. There are cinders blowing down Flinders Street and the air is thick with smoke. It is the inferno from the Ash Wednesday fires. Yet, I know I was in the final year of high school when I saw those two films, and the fires blazed in 1983, the year after. I must have been leaving The Forum after having seen another film, yet in my memory, those two moments are conjoined.

I’ll say it again, it is not that memory is a lie, but it can also be a fiction. It was such a quiet city once. It was often a Saturday that I’d come into town to catch a movie. I’d do it straight after attending Greek school in the morning. I loved my family, but I also yearned for freedom. I wanted to escape the suburbs and I wanted to escape the roles I had to play at school. It was such a blessed liberation to escape into the movies, to visit other worlds, to imagine being other selves. The year Woody Allen’s, Manhattan came out, my friend Tasha and I saw it eight times. We fantasised about growing up, leaving Blackburn High far behind, moving to New York. She would be a senior and I would be a writer. We would be best friends with Diane Keaton. We would go to the best parties. We would listen to jazz, and we would be part of chic and subversive salons. Our boyfriends would be punk-rock singers. Like my mother, we were dreaming of New York. ‘I like to be in America, okay by me in America.’

I found another escape. I was taking up Cocteau’s challenge in Orpheus. Would I dare enter the netherworld? I look back on myself, and all I can see is a shy and defeated young kid. I used to berate myself all the time for not having courage, yet I did have desires. Yes, dreams of New York and being a writer, but also dreams of touching the skin of other men. One day, I took the train into the city, intending to go and see a film. I got in early and took the Elizabeth Street exit from the station. It was summer – and I do remember, I swear my memory isn’t playing me false here – that there was a strong wind, that the sun was harsh in the sky, that the perspiration was making my shirt cling to my skin. It was the summer between year 11 and final year.

For some time, I’d been aware of the porn cinema on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Lane. It’s still there, like Stalactites. Shame-faced, I would peer into the entrance, and quickly look away in embarrassment. There were all these tawdry posters of young women kneading their outsized breasts. Around the corner on Flinders Lane, there was an independent music shop called Missing Link Records. By this point, I had discovered punk and new wave, and I could spend hours in that store, listening to music. Punk and new wave were another form of escape. Some of the music was abrasive and ugly, some of it was an exquisite discord.

I would stare through the window, look across the street. There was a second entrance to the porn cinema, off Flinders Lane, and sometimes I would spy men descending the stairs into that hell. Strong wind, again, is blowing. It’s gone past midday and the city is emptying, all the stores are shutting up. Soon, Melbourne will be asleep. I walk out of Missing Link and the street is empty. No one can see me. I take my chance. Looking straight ahead, I cross the street, I descend the stairs. A plumped-faced man is flicking through magazines at the counter. He looks up, nods, returns to his reading. I have a three-day growth; my skin is honey-dark from the summer sun. I can pass for 18. I spend the first half hour looking at the straight porn magazines. Who is it that I want to convince that I’m not gay? Is it myself?

Then, slowly, I amble over to the corner where the gay porn is kept. (Remember, there is no internet, and there is no gay life on television). I’ve caught glimpses of it, in the movies that Pauline Kael has steered me towards, in the books that Mr Havir has made me read. Tense homosexual fumbling in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, the overwrought camp of La Cage aux Folles, a tender-hearted homosexual theatre director in Truffaut’s The Last Metro. That’s about it, and now I’m staring at a wall of naked men – a wall of men sucking dick. I am shocked. I am aroused. From time to time, a man descends the stairs, and I notice he buys a ticket at the counter. The plump-faced guy presses a buzzer and the customer walks through to the cinema. I’m not going to The Greater Union today, I’m not going to the MidCity, I’m not going to The Forum.

I walk up to the counter. ‘Can I have a ticket?’ He looks at me without really looking at me. He hands me a ticket stub and buzzes me through. There is a small corridor and then the cinema doors. My heart is thumping. My heart is thumping so loud. I push open the doors. The sound of moaning on the soundtrack is a din. On the small screen, a man and a woman are having sex. His penis is so large, I am immediately humiliated. ‘Do I have to be that big?’ Slowly, I perceive forms in the darkness. In the back three aisles, there is a scattering of men with their zips down, their cocks in their hands. I take a seat at the edge of one of these aisles. My heart is thumping so loud. A man turns and looks at me. He’s not young and he’s not old. He’s not handsome and he’s not ugly. He turns back to the screen. I’m red, my face is flushed. The man gets up, starts walking towards the back door. Then, as if changing his mind, he suddenly twirls. He whispers to me, ‘Excuse me,’ he takes the seat next to me. Within a few minutes, I will know what it is to touch another man. My semen is dripping from the back of the seat in front of me. I pull out my handkerchief to clean it and the man who’s just jerked me off, laughs and whispers, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I have never felt so elated.

Then, suddenly, the movie has ended, and the lights come up and a young woman is on the stage. The men around me quickly stuff their cocks back into their pants and zip up. The woman starts a slow-gyrating dance, taking off her clothes to AC/DC’s The Jack. The young woman looks at us with clear contempt, as if we disgust her. I am convinced she is looking straight at me. I have never felt so ashamed. I leap up, rush up the stairs, my heart thumping, my face blazing. I tell myself, I will never, never return to this place again. Of course, I do.

Throughout the next year, it was a different time. I didn’t know how else to touch the skin of another man. I didn’t know how to ask for that from my friends. There were times when the city was so empty, it felt like I owned it. I would come out of a movie and I would be the only shadow in the street. I remember going to the movies one Grand Final Day, and after I came out, it was if I was Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. I was the last person on Earth.

During the recent pandemic, I returned to the city. It was quiet, it was empty, and for a moment I thought I had returned to 1981, or 1982 or 1983 or 1984. Except that it wasn’t empty. The city is full of ghosts. I’m one of those ghosts. The young lad coming out, so thrilled and awestruck by the wizardry of Welles and Kubrick, that he has to chuck in the bin. I’m the boy, trying to make sense of how film can also be poetry, and deciding to wag school for the first time to watch Days of Heaven again. And there is the ghost of the lad who had to descent the bowels of a sex cinema, to learn how to touch a man. There are ghosts everywhere.

I walked through the empty streets during the recent pandemic, and I was comforted by the ghosts. Ancient ghosts stretching back millennia, stretching back to a life lived on the river. The ghosts of young men, leaving war and poverty behind to make a new future for their children that are placed on the other end of the world. And more recent shadows: overseas students and the homeless poor. I bring my hand to my neck for protection. I want to make peace with all those guys.

The first movies I remember are the Greek movies. Falling in rhapsody with Aliki Vougiouklaki, falling in love with Dimitris Papamichail, giggling with delight at the dancing elephants and the cheeky Hanuman. Yet, I know that my parents brought me to town with them when they came to watch Australian movies. If it was in English, wherever it was from, they’d call it an Australian movie. Mum swears I was there when they watched In the Heat of the Night, and dad said that he took me with him when he went to see Costa Gavras’s English language Z. I don’t remember.

The first Australian movies I remember watching, were at the Regent Cinema on Collins Street. I was so excited as I descended those big, enormous stairs, and that wondrous ceiling. So enchanting, glittering, it must be real gold. It was magic, and in my memory, the films I watched that day on that double bill were Ken Loach’s Kez, and the Walt Disney version of Robin Hood. Could this be so? Surely my memory is playing tricks on me. Who would program such a double bill? (Maybe the same person who programmed the Kubrick and the Welles). Kez is a movie about the hardship of being young and poor. It is also about the moments of freedom a young boy discovers in his love for a bird, in his brief forays into nature. Before, he will have to become an adult and work in the mines, become a labourer.

When we left the cinema, my father was wiping tears from his eyes. Though industrial north England is not Balkan Europe, he recognised something in that film, of his youth, of his life. Life is harder, of course, but some films get to truth and some films allow us to whisper secrets that we can’t yet tell anyone else. My father took my hand and we walked up Russell Street to Stalactites. He had his coffee, and I had some Coca Cola. I sneaked up the stairs and lay on the carpet, looking up at the ceiling, at those caves, at those magical secret caverns. There were worlds up there.

Six Walks has been commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art as part of the exhibition Who’s Afraid of Public Space? For more information about the exhibition, and to listen to other walks in this series, please visit ACCA’s website

ACCA acknowledges the support of Creative Victoria in the development of the Six Walks series.