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The Augustas – Heidi Rae Cooley

The Augustas
Scott Nixon, 18 min., 16mm, 1930s-1950s
Preserved by the University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections
Added to National Film Registry: 2012

Essay by Heidi Rae Cooley

In 2012, the National Film Registry added The Augustas along with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Matrix (1999). This remarkable eighteen-minute film documents no fewer than thirty-six Augustas, as seen by independent insurance agent and avid amateur filmmaker Scott Nixon from the 1930s through the 1950s. Nixon (b. 1901–d. 1980) was a second-generation Augusta, Georgia native, and the filmmaker’s passion for his hometown might explain the film’s obsession with Augusta. Nevertheless, the film is structured to test this interpretation. It begins as a chronicle of places named “Augusta,” teasing us to assume that the filmmaker intends a survey of American cities and towns sharing this name. Soon enough, however, Nixon branches out to include other Augustas: a mill, a plantation, a military academy, a fort, a street. He sums up with the completely unexpected Hardy Phlox Augusta, a flower. It is a playful film. Nixon’s sense of humor shows from its opening title—pilfered from a silent film—which warns his spectators to behave. But inasmuch as the phlox functions as a punchline, it also presents a puzzle.

The film does not document an itinerary or a history—although viewers are tempted to look for both in its images of roadmaps, roadways, and railroad timetables; in its automobiles of different decades; and in its mixture of black and white and color footage. As an editor, Nixon prefers surprise and delight over chronology or geography. As such, we jump from one Augusta to another, in seeming haphazard fashion, only to realize by the time we arrive at the concluding image of a flower that we’ve taken a very different sort of tour. Through amplification of this kind procedure, Nixon leads viewers to the conclusion that, above, beyond, and through its many beautiful guises, Augusta is a state of mind.

As a mental state, “Augusta” inspires curiosity and cataloging. Nixon’s film quietly urges us to continue his work by asking ourselves: what other Augustas are there? We can follow Nixon’s example and discover that “Augusta” names a 19th century Empress of Austria, Caroline Augusta, for whom the flower was named. We might recognize a form of the word “Augusta” in the ninth month in the calendar, August. And we see its semblance in the name of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. As his son, Cobbs Nixon, recounts it, Nixon had wanted to name his daughter “Augusta Georgia Nixon.” Here Nixon found a limit. But his practice of documenting Augustas is still contagious. Augusta-finding is fun, and by encouraging the game, Nixon’s film draws attention to the ways we make sense of things. We search, collect, and organize. We make lists, count, and compare. We categorize and label. Rarely do we really ask ourselves why we do these things in the particular ways we do. Most of the time the point is simply to do them in ways that “make sense”—whether or not we understand why. Nixon’s film raises the cataloging of Augustas to the level of art and in so doing encourages us to reflect on sense-making habits we might otherwise take for granted.

We may take our sense-making habits more for granted now that our mobile devices have made Augusta-finding so much easier. Here Nixon was especially prescient, making a film for our time as much as for his. Nixon filmed and connected Augustas by seeking them out on roadmaps, railway schedules, and, presumably, seed catalogs. Those mid-century media, like the map apps in our smartphones, catered to an expectation that “Augusta” was a definite someplace or something a person wanted to find. By assembling his film in such a way as to place that findablity in question—which Augusta, exactly? why not all of them?—Nixon demonstrates that our expectation of a singular best or right result amounts to a denial of creative possibility. His film shows us how we, too, might use our technologies to surprising effect. In its deft execution of what in retrospect seems to be a fairly simple idea, The Augustas encourages us to see our mobile devices as gateways to discovery and expression as well as tools for efficient travel and communication.

A member of the Amateur Cinema League, Scott Nixon made home movies of the customary sorts, films of vacations and birthdays, as well as many films about trains. He amassed over 36,000 feet film (16 and 8 mm) over the course of five decades. While these home movies were originally donated to the Augusta Museum and the Augusta chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (both of which are located in the state of Georgia, USA), they found their way to the University of South Carolina in 2000 where they currently reside in the Moving Image Research Collections (https://archives.library.sc.edu/repositories/10/resources/251). Fortunately, restoration of The Augustas by Colorlab was made possible by a National Film Preservation Fund grant in 2008.

Nixon’s procedures for photographing and specifying places as “Augusta” remain familiar to us decades after their compilation because they belong to a history of practices we continue. As good tourists, family chroniclers, and/or Facebook friends, we propagate forms of documentation that also preceded Scott Nixon. At the same time, Nixon demonstrates that how we “see” something might very well challenge the norm. Augusta may not, in fact, be a place, it may be a flower. The Augustas is significant not because of how many Augustas it presents but because of what it reveals about us as people. It is significant because it invites us to use the various technologies we take for granted to make connections that challenge others to think about the connections they make. Nixon sets a high bar for those of us who carry the power of web searches and mobile video in our pockets. But his example demonstrates that we have no excuse not to participate actively in shaping how we, as a community of thinkers, see and understand the world around us.


Heidi Rae Cooley is the author of Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era (2014),