“I was lucky that I was in the right place at the right time,” says David Stratton, somewhat modestly when reflecting back on his life as one of Australia’s best known and most revered film reviewers.
Stratton is the doyen of Australian film reviewers, well known to television audiences through his thirty-year association with fellow reviewer Margaret Pomeranz on SBS with The Movie Show and the ABC’s At The Movies. Stratton also reviews movies for the international trade paper Variety, and The Australian, and he was the director of the Sydney Film festival for two decades in the late 60s and 70s. He is now the subject of a new documentary David Stratton – A Cinematic Life, which looks at his personal journey as well as looking at some of the key films in the rebirth of the Australian film industry in the 70s.
But as Stratton himself points out, the project didn’t start out that way. The original idea was for him to be involved in a three-part television series in which he talked about the important Australian films and talked to some of the film practitioners involved as well. But then as the project evolved the director, Sally Aitken, started to steer it more towards his life story and my background. “It caught up to me unawares somehow this was happening,” he confesses sounding somewhat bemused by the whole thing.
“I think she has done a terrific job. And one of the really interesting things she has done is to tease out films that I’ve admired and that meant a lot to me on an emotional level. She has teased out that some of them have direct links to my own experience, and maybe that’s why I was drawn to them. That was something I hadn’t thought of before, but that was something I learnt from watching the film”
Aitken comes from New Zealand originally, and so she hadn’t seen many Australian films when she came on board the project. Stratton sat down with her and talked about a lot of Australian films and suggested what she should see. “I think it changed her life probably,” he says with a grin. “And then we worked out the key films that we’d like to see featured with particular emphasis in the project. We couldn’t fit everything in of course, you never can. There’s more in the tv version as well. It’s not a history of Australian cinema, it’s not supposed to be showing just the most important Australian films. There are lots of terrific Australian films. What I would like to see is audiences go and see this documentary and come out of it saying: “I would like to see some of those films again,” or maybe see them for the first time. If that was the result I would be very happy.”
Stratton was born in England in 1939. His father ran the family grocery business and intended for David to eventually go into the family business as well. His father took David out of high school when he was 16 and sent him away to a nearby city where he was supposed to learn the grocery and retail trade from the ground up. But that was a great opportunity for him to live in a big city where there were lots and lots of cinemas. He recalls seeing one film every day, and two on Sundays. But then came the day when he had seen everything. Thankfully it was then that he discovered the local film society, which was showing foreign language films and classics. This opened up a whole new world for the teenaged Stratton, who was then exposed to Swedish films, French films and Polish films. “I was always happy to discover new films,” he says.
Stratton emigrated to Australia in 1963, a move which didn’t sit well with his father though. Stratton eventually landed his dream job of running the Sydney Film Festival in 1965, a job he held for two decades. But at that time there was no Australian film. They’re A Weird Mob was made that year, but there was really no sustainable film industry at all. That started to change in the early 70s. Around that time a lot of the young directors who would start making feature films were making short films, and those short films would find their way into the Sydney Film Festival. These were directors like George Miller, Peter Weir, etc, and Stratton championed their early endeavours. Stratton got to know these filmmakers. But he was also placed under surveillance by ASIO because he showed Soviet films and had visited Moscow a couple of times to secure many films for the festival. His experiences helming the festival led him to write a book in 1980 called The Last New Wave.
“I suppose there were challenges,” he says of the experience of running the festival, “but I loved every minute of it. It was great, it was a dream job for a film buff like me. I was paid to go overseas and attend festivals and go to cities to see these great film, like Paris and Rome and Los Angeles. The good thing about it in those days was that to get a film into a festival on the other side of the world was that you had to persuade the filmmaker, so I got to meet a lot of these filmmakers. The 60s and 70s was a great period for European cinema, and Asian cinema too. So getting to know people like Bernardo Bertolucci and Wim Wenders, filmmakers like that, I could write to them and say: “Bernardo, please send The Conformist to the Sydney Film Festival, it was on that sort of level. It’s not like that at all today where sales agents do everything.
“I’m not sure they’ve become more commercial,” he continues, “but how they’ve changed is that they now show far more films. I limited the number of films I showed for a number of reasons – one was that then they were made on 35mm and 35mm film is very heavy if you’re transporting it by air to or from Europe or North America, and the festival had to pay the freight. I can’t recall how much it used to cost us then, but it was the biggest part of the budget. That meant you had to be selective, you had to – to use a current expression – “curate” much more seriously than is done today. We showed about 35 feature films, but I would contest that they were 35 of the very best films of that year. You had to be terribly disciplined because you just couldn’t afford to do otherwise. And, of course, every session you rented in the cinema would cost money too, so we made the decision to limit the number of films and go for the absolute highest quality, and it seemed to work.”
David and Margaret became national institutions through their television appearances and their wonderful rapport was one of the reasons behind the success of their television shows. But audiences seemed to enjoy it more when they disagreed on a film. Did the producers of the show ever try to play up that aspect? “No,” he responds bluntly, “they knew we wouldn’t do it. They never tried. What you saw was what you got. We didn’t discuss the films before we wrote or recorded the show so I didn’t know what she thought and she didn’t know what I thought and sometimes we were generally surprised at each other’s conclusions, and I think that added to the success of the show.”
In the film Stratton admits that he initially dismissed the Australian classic comedy The Castle as being too patronising. But many people told him he had missed the point, and he has since revisited the film and has changed his opinion. “I think it is because The Castle is so Australian,” he elaborates. “I think it is significant that it didn’t work when they tried to show it in England and America, it wasn’t successful at all. Comedy is a very, very specific form and this is such Australian humour and I have to confess that I didn’t get it even after having been in Australia for so long, 30 years or so by then, I didn’t latch onto that humour. And now I’ve seen it several times since then and I think it’s delightful.”
Stratton admits that it is probably a good idea for a reviewer to occasionally revisit a film that he may initially have not understood or appreciated. So has he also revisited Romper Stomper, a film that he initially loathed. His outspoken and controversial comments about the film, which depicted neo-Nazi skinheads coming up against Vietnamese gangs in the inner-city suburb of Footscray, incensed the director Geoffrey Wright, who threw a glass of wine in his face at an overseas film festival. “I have seen it since,” he says. “I think it’s a very well made film, I’ve always said that, it’s superbly acted, it’s one of Russell Crowe’s best performances, and I’ve always said that. My problem with Romper Stomper was that it was a film that was dealing with a hot subject that was happening in the inner cities in Sydney and Melbourne, and the film did not give the audience any moral centre to identify with. I would like to have seen that element so at least you would come away with some positives. Obviously, Geoffrey Wright didn’t want to do that, so he made the film that he wanted to make. I just felt that it had the potential of being used by the wrong people.”
And surprisingly, Stratton thinks that the more people are able to express their views on films via social media the better. “I think it’s welcome,” he says. “I think the more people who express their opinion on films the better. They may not be as au fait or as well based in a knowledge of cinema but they will have genuine feelings, and I’m all for it.”
David Stratton – A Cinematic Life is in cinemas now. Later in the year the ABC will be showing the television version, which is rather different and has less of Stratton and his life and more about the films. The TV series will have a more thematic structure.