Some Advice On How To Be The Next David Stratton, From David Stratton
"The more the merrier."
If you grew up in Australia anytime in the past half-century and have a passing interest in movies, chances are your tastes were shaped by David Stratton. As director of the Sydney Film Festival during its formative years and — of course — a host of The Movie Show and then At The Movies alongside Margaret Pomeranz, Stratton has had an immense influence on Australian film culture without ever making a movie himself.
Well, until now. Sort of. Stratton is the star of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, a documentary which just hit Australian cinemas (it’s also getting an extended, three-part version hitting ABC in the near future). The film, directed by Sally Aitken, acts as a biography for Stratton — covering ground from his fraught relationship with his father to the time he was under ASIO surveillance for programming movies from the USSR at the Sydney Film Festival — while doubling as a compact history of Australian cinema.
The release of A Cinematic Life sees Stratton on the other side of the media fence; rather than conducting interviews and Q&As, he’s the interviewee. A tricky interviewee, it must be said. With a biography — I Peed on Fellini — published, and now a biographical film, most of Stratton’s best stories have already been told. And the obvious questions about films he’s liked seem a bit pointless when you take into account he’s still an active critic nowadays, despite his retirement from television.
So I decided to try a different tack. Rather than rocking up with a list of pre-prepared questions designed to elicit slender variations on the answers given to a host of other publications, I opted for something more casual: a chat about the state of Australian criticism with someone who’d know more about it than practically anyone else. I wanted to plonk myself down next to him and assume the role of Ms Pomeranz (even if, with the beard and name, I’m perhaps better suited to sitting stage right).
Stratton began on an optimistic note, praising the quality of today’s prominent Australian critics. “I don’t want to name individual names because there’d be ones I won’t name, but we have some excellent film critics writing for the print media, for Fairfax, and so on,” he said. “But of course, as we know, this is all being consolidated, being syndicated… so that is a sad state of affairs. It’s all to do with the decline of newspaper sales and the difficulties of the newspaper business. But in compensation, it’s easier than ever for people who want to express their views about films — or about anything — to do it through the internet. To blog it, and so on and so on. So, that is a very positive thing, I think.”
That’s not quite the spin that A Cinematic Life puts on the topic of internet criticism. Perhaps the most memorable quote from the film comes from Jacki Weaver who opines that, “these days of the internet; too many bozos give their opinions and they’re so unqualified and they wouldn’t have a clue and they should just pull their heads in”. “Someone like David Stratton who’s seen thousands and thousands and thousands of films is entitled — and in fact it’s incumbent on him — to tell us what he thinks about them because it comes from an educated place,” she says.
“I don’t agree with her about that,” muses Stratton. “I think everybody’s got their opinion. And if they’re so keen to express their view through a blog or whatever, all power to them. You don’t have to agree with them, but the more the merrier.”
I admit a pang of disappointment at this answer. Not because I disagree — I think that the democratisation of criticism, across any field, has brought more good than ill — but because I was hoping for a more contentious response. While I wasn’t being entirely serious about the Pomeranz comparison before… part of me had hoped for a lively tête-à-tête with Stratton.
When the (very nice) conversation turned to Australian films, the renowned critic offered a defence of one of the main criticisms directed at himself and Margaret while the show was running: their enthusiasm for home-grown movies.
“I very rarely hate Australian films. When Margaret and I were doing At the Movies, we were sometimes criticised for being soft on Australian films. It’s more interesting than that. If you watch every film that opens. So all the American stuff, and then along comes an Australian film, it’s sort of like a breath of fresh air. It may not be great, but in a way it has an attraction all of its own because it’s Australian, because it’s telling an Australian story, because it’s using Australian actors, and so on and so forth. I think that both Margaret and I would answer that accusation of being soft that we genuinely do like Australian films.”
Unsurprisingly, Stratton is also very passionate about the need for those in the industry to be fully educated on the history of the form — Australian or otherwise. “I think it’s a problem,” he says. “And it’s not only for film critics. I think it’s a problem for filmmakers too. I’m a strong believer that you can learn an awful lot about cinema just from watching films of the past. There’s such a rich, rich history. I would counsel anyone who wants to get into film criticism to quickly start exploring films of the ‘30s and ‘40s — and ‘20s even.”
This passion for film — Australian film, international film, old film, indie film, any kind of film that doesn’t feature prominent use of shaky cam — endures as Stratton’s legacy. Today’s film critics, navigating the wreckage of a decaying print media, may never achieve the kind of success that he has. But if we can’t be the next David Stratton, we can at least endeavour to share his passion for cinema.
David Stratton: A Cinematic Life is in cinemas now.