Eternity: Eternity is a Long Time
God calls on Arthur Stace to write 'Eternity’ on the pavements of Sydney. Summary by Damien Parer
The work is an excellent example of creative filmmaking. Cinematographer Dion Beebe has beautifully recreated 1930s Sydney in black-and-white. Beebe has since gone on to a successful career in USA. The director, Lawrence Johnston has successfully used the medium to tell an engaging story of a simple man.
Recreating Sydney in the 1930s, the documentary is the story of Sydneysider, Arthur Stace. Arthur had a hard life that deteriorated into alcoholism and despair. In 1930 he heard the call of God at the Baptist Ministry. Although illiterate, he went immediately into the street and wrote the word 'Eternity’ on the pavement in perfect copperplate handwriting. Believing that God asked him to continue that activity for the rest of his life, he wrote 'Eternity’ over 500,000 times, on the pavements and buildings of Sydney and later Wollongong and Newcastle. His message has become an icon of Sydney, much imitated by artists.
Notes by Damien Parer
This clip shows an actor (Lex Foxcraft), playing Arthur Stace, walking through the streets of Sydney and using chalk to write the word 'Eternity’ in neat copperplate writing on the footpath. This is interspersed with footage of writer Dorothy Hewitt and photojournalist Mark Balfour, as well as the voices of two other Sydneysiders, talking about what Stace’s handiwork represented and the impact it had on them. The recreated scenes that depict Stace are shot in black and white.
Educational value points
- For 37 years Arthur Stace, a reformed alcoholic, would wake at 5 am to write the word 'Eternity’ on footpaths across Sydney. Stace is said to have written the word about 500,000 times until his death in 1967. The identity of 'Mr Eternity’ remained a mystery until 1956 when Stace was spotted chalking the footpath by the minister from his church and agreed to be interviewed by the Daily Telegraph.
- Many Sydneysiders felt Stace was as elusive as the word that he wrote and the documentary captures this by depicting him as a lone and distant figure ('a phantom in the night’) who moves in the shadows with his face remaining hidden. A slight man, Stace always dressed formally in a grey felt hat, tie and a double-breasted suit.
- In an interview with the Daily Telegraph Stace said he was inspired by a sermon given by the preacher John Ridley who exclaimed 'I wish I could shout eternity through the streets of Sydney’ and kept repeating 'eternity, eternity’. Stace claimed, 'His words were ringing through my brain as I left the church. Suddenly I began crying and I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write “Eternity”. I had a piece of chalk in my pocket, and I bent down right there and wrote it. I’ve been writing it at least 50 times a day ever since’.
- During the New Year fireworks that ushered in the new millennium in 2000, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit up with the word 'Eternity’ in honour of Stace. Stace’s life and his word have provided inspiration for numerous Australian artists, poets and filmmakers. As this clip shows, many people responded to the beauty of the chalked word as well as to its message.
- The film uses elements of film noir in the recreated scenes of Stace. Like film noir, these recreations are filmed in black and white and show an urban setting. The visual style of the re-creations borrows heavily from film noir in using high-contrast lighting (contrasting tones of highlight and shadow) low-key lighting (darkness and shadows), deep shadows and oblique angles that give a distorted effect. In film noir this distorted effect is associated with inner turmoil and alienation, but here it suggests both the enigma Stace presents and his obsession.
- The clip is an example of the poetic mode of documentary filmmaking. The poetic mode interweaves sounds and images in unexpected ways, and tends to stress mood, tone and effect rather than directly addressing the audience with a rhetorical argument. The sections in 'Eternity’ that recreate Stace’s life have a stylised, sometimes surreal visual quality. The use of excerpts from Ross Edwards’s romantic score 'Symphony da Pacem Domine’ throughout the film may be designed to reinforce a sense of enigma and a singular, powerful faith or calling.
- Sydneysiders are shown speculating about the meaning of Stace’s chalked 'Eternity’. Although most people recognised that his message was a religious one, the enigma of the word and the identity of its author fascinated Sydneysiders and some came to view him as the city’s conscience. It has been speculated that Stace was asking people to think about where they would spend eternity. Stace simply said 'I think “Eternity” gets the message across, makes people stop and think’.
- Stace always wrote the word in refined copperplate script. He claimed that 'The funny thing is that before I wrote it I could hardly write my own name. I had no schooling and I couldn’t have spelled “Eternity” for 100 quid. But it came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it, and I still can’t. I’ve tried and tried, but “Eternity” is the only word that comes out in copperplate’.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
This clip starts approximately 18 minutes into the documentary.
Interviews are interspersed with black-and-white footage depicting Arthur Stace walking through the streets of Sydney and using chalk to write the word 'Eternity’ in neat copperplate writing on the footpath. He is a lone, shadowy figure and the footage is accompanied by soft, haunting religious music.
Man 1 It had a religious effect but nothing to do with Christianity.
Dorothy Hewitt It was rather like one of those archetypal sort of messages that come from outer space, you know, and you wonder what it all means and then when I thought about it I thought it must be somebody writing it up who’s got some kind of religious message.
Mark Balfour, photo journalist I see it as an inspired word that he heard at a sermon in Darlinghurst. What interpretation he put on ‘eternity’, I have no idea but, nevertheless, it was instrumental in compelling him to go out into the street and write this word, like a phantom in the night for 40 years of his life across the face of the city.
Woman 1 It was so nicely done. You know, it had obviously been done with such care and came out with such perfection.
Man 2 It was copperplate script and there was something, of course, in the style of the writing of the word that actually was the aspect of it that was… that drew the eye.