Invariably an article about David Stratton begins with something like, “the man synonymous with Australian cinema”. It’s a curious and peculiar thing to write; effectively equating one man with Australia’s modest film history and culture. I wonder how comfortable David is with this sort of cultural appropriation. Given that a film has been made him, his career, and his relationship to Australian film – I’d say reservedly comfortable. He won’t stress the point, but there’s no denying the extent to which David has dominated film culture in this country since the 1960s. Born in England a week after the Second World War began in 1939, young David was being groomed for the family grocers business, yet showed an avid interest in films from an early age. It was his grandmother who took him to the cinema during the war, with a father stationed in Burma and a mother who volunteered for the Red Cross.
At the age of 19 David founded a film society in his home town, programming from the rich expanse of international cinema. He came to he attention of the Federation of Film Societies in England, and was made a board member in the western regional division, still only 20 years old. It was during this time that David decided to come to Australia under the 10 pound offer, wanting to travel before his father plunged him into the family company. He arrived in Australia in 1963, continuing his voracious film watching in Sydney. What baffled David when attending the Sydney Film Festival was the censorship that came with almost every film shown. In some cases, films that he had watched and loved in England, were banned in Australia. This mobilised David to raise his concerns with the festival’s board, and they subsequently made him a member. A motion, drawn up by David, was passed by the board, causing the standing director to resign, and it was David who was asked to take his place. He must of made quite the impression. He did not return to England, but stayed to direct the Sydney Film Festival for the next 18 years.
David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, directed by Sally Aitken, charts the rising career of David alongside the development of Australian cinema. It hovers around the prolific, daring, rich period of the 1970s – a time of astounding films including Walkabout (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and David’s personal filmic seducer, Wake in Fright (1971). This period has been called Australian New Wave, signalling the remarkable creativity and vitality that defined the films released. The sheer number of films produced was record defying, with nearly 400 films between 1970 to 1985. It was a startling resurgence in Australian film after a near extinct film industry following the war. I asked David, considering the film’s predilection for films of this era, if he thought it was fundamentally nostalgic, wishfully looking back to a richer time in Australian cinema. He simply responded by saying, “there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia.” Hands clasped around a cup of hot citrus tea, David nurses a cold on the day I interview him. Nevertheless, he talks with ease, posterity, and frankness on ‘a cinematic life’.
How then, does he reflect on contemporary cinema in Australia? “I think it has it’s ups and downs. I think we’re making some interesting films. The problem is distribution. I mean, we can make some very good films but if they’re not well-marketed and distributed then its hard for them to find an audience, even if they get good reviews. For example, going back three years, The Babadook (2014) – which I thought was a remarkable film – did very well overseas but nothing here. Predestination (2014), another remarkable film, again, did very well overseas but nothing here. The one I’m fearful for at the moment is Hounds of Love, a West Australian film, which has been finished for almost a year and it’s an excellent film. But I fear it won’t find an audience because the distributor may not be able to handle the marketing and promotion it deserves.”
An ode to Australian cinema, it does feature more of film than it does of David. Aitken has sought to trace the interlocking bond between David’s life and his love of film. From watching the 1946 classic The Overlanders as boy in England, the film meanders through Australian filmography, constantly clutching at the facts of David’s life. “One of the things I wasn’t even aware she [Aitken] was doing was teasing out these areas in which my life intersects with some of the Australian films I particularly like. I’ve never thought of that before, but she makes it surprisingly clear. That was something I learnt when watching the film for the first time.”
I think Stratton has a very precise methodology when it comes to reviewing films. For him, it’s a process of perception, experience, and reflection – reworking his gut reactions into a cohesive case. The central tenet being, does the film succeed in what it set out to achieve? He’s fair and reasonable, unyielding to any ideological or aesthetic school of thought. “The first thing I do is experience the film and make notes about my own gut reactions. If I’m writing for The Australian, for example, I feel I have to take into account the readership, and the sort of people that read The Australian, and maybe try to be a little bit subversive with that readership. But don’t publicise that too much because they might wake up to me.
“This was true when reviewing for At the Movies, the basic thing is – does the film work for you, and do the filmmakers succeed in what they set out to achieve? But then you have to put those thoughts into a format that will fit the audience, or the readership. When I used to review for Variety – an American trade paper – they encouraged very honest opinions of the films without fear or favour. I could review a film for Variety at far greater length than I could for The Australian, or At the Movies even. In a way Variety was quite a pleasant outlet, and was also very good accreditation with a very old, established newspaper.”
It’s within this precise, film-by-film analysis that I feel my grandiose cultural questions buckle and slide under his pragmatism. On the question of whether Australian films find it difficult to break from certain cultural myths and archetypes, I mention Baz Luhrmann’s Australia in passing. Well, of course David fixates on the film and offers a review stored away, and now at the ready. “I didn’t share the general negativity over Australia. I think the title is silly. When I saw it a second time all the traditional material Baz was evoking from films of the 1940s and 50s – it all made sense and it all came together. I think there’s still some dodgy acting around the place, but I think it’s a very underrated film, Australia.” It’s this specificity and obsession with film that gives David an encyclopaedic knowledge of not just Australian, but world cinema. At the beginning of A Cinematic Life, David introduces the audience to his filing system of all major directors in film history. Each slip of card has the director and their entire filmography printed with it’s date of release. It’s an extensive and thorough collection, epitomizing the organised obsession of a man in love with film.
Successfully, A Cinematic Life resists the tendency to present David’s thought cohesively, without doubt and ambivalence. I ask David about changing one’s mind about a film, and the example of the Australian classic The Castle used in the film. “The thing about The Castle is that comedy is the most difficult genre, because what I find funny you might not find funny, and that’s quite understandable. I think The Castle is such a specifically Australian humour that when I first saw it – I should say that I try not to find out anything about a film before I see it – I thought it was a bit ordinary. It didn’t make me laugh, and it’s certainly not cinematically interesting, so I gave it a very lukewarm review. Then people starting say to me “you’re so wrong about The Castle”, and so I looked at it again, and I liked it a bit more. Now I’ve seen it about five times and I’m beginning to really like those characters. But I think it’s no accident that it didn’t do any business outside Australia. They had high hopes for it in England, America, but it did nothing. I think it’s so specifically Australian, with a specifically Australian type of humour that it’s hard to cover elsewhere.”
On the subject of changing one’s mind, I ask David about Lars von Trier, the Danish director recently known for his films Nymphomaniac and Melancholia. In a memorable exchange on The Movie Show for SBS, Margaret Pomeranz and David are pitted against each other on von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. An exasperated Margaret says, “David, it seems to me that everything that I embrace in this film repels you.” David responds with, “yes, watching this film was like having someone scratching a blackboard for two hours.” It’s an exchange characteristic of the coarse, defiant chemistry that made Margaret and David’s show such a success at SBS, and later on with At the Movies on the ABC.
Retrospectively, David remains unchanged when it comes to Lars. “I liked his first couple of films, The Element of Crime and Europa. I met him once or twice, I suppose you shouldn’t be influenced too much by the negative vibes that emanate from somebody like Lars, but I just…” David trails off, and I presume he was affected by the depressive nature of Lars’s persona. “I have a theory that film directors impose their sensibilities on the films they make. Lars von Trier’s sensibilities are not ones that I respond to at all. I think he’s a limited talent to be honest. A limited talent who is a great – and where I will give him pull marks – marketeer. Dreaming up the Dogme thing, which is the most absurd cinema movement that ever existed – consisting of you can’t do this, you can’t do that, when in cinema you can do anything. You don’t have to make rules, you can do anything.”
The Dogme 95 movement began in 1995, concocted by the Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. In its manifesto they champion traditional filmmaking without the interference of advanced technologies, and call for artistic direction to be restored to the director, away from managerial studios. “They set up Dogme and used it to market some very mediocre Danish films, and not only by Lars. Films that would never have found international distribution. So in that sense it was very clever because he got enough going for these films to find audiences and distributors around the world. Then of course no sooner had he set it up he started breaking all the rules. So it was never serious, it was a scam. I also don’t like the way he portrays women in his films, and there’s an ugliness to his films that I don’t respond to. I didn’t change my mind about Lars von Trier.”
It’s astounding to think that there are few major directors from the last 50 years that David hasn’t met. In a similarly nostalgic tone to A Cinematic Life, he talks of the significant changes to film festivals since he finished directing the Sydney Film Festival in 1983. “In the 1960s and 70s if you wanted to get a film for the Sydney Film Festival you pretty much had to go to the filmmaker. Today, it’s all sales agents. But then, there were no sales agents. Part of my job was to get to know the filmmakers, and in a sense, befriend them, have dinner and a drink. Then you could say to Bernardo Bertolucci, I really want The Conformist for next year’s SFF. He could say “sure”, because it was his decision, and the same went for other filmmakers too, like Kurosawa for instance.” David speaks of these towering filmmakers in passing, as if they are, in part, distant friends.
“It was a great period because you got to know all these great filmmakers, the 1960s and 70s being a great period for cinema. So I think the whole festival thing has changed a great deal. I think the SFF shows too many films these days. You could argue that it gives you more choice, but the bitter truth is that by trying to pack in so many you inevitably show some films that are hardly worth screening. It seems to be like numbers rather than quality. That’s a trap that some festivals fall into.” I ask David what his program would look like. “I would show 34 new release features, and a retrospective of say 10 features. That’s much more curated. You also have to remember is that in those days film was on 35mm, which was very heavy, and shipping by air – because the producers didn’t want the films to be out of their hands for too long – made the cost of bringing the 35mm very high. So the budget had something to do with it. Now, of course, it’s all digital.”
Under the purview of communications personnel, I mange to wrangle one last question from David Stratton. He teaches a history of world cinema course at the University of Sydney for continuing education. What might he have to say to film students, or simply students interested in film? “I would say see lots and lots of films. Not just new ones but old ones as well. I think it’s like music, if you want to play jazz or experimental music, it helps a lot if you know the basic notes, and I think it’s the same with film. The best filmmakers, including this guy (points to poster of Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence) are steeped in film history. Now you don’t have to watch everything the way I do, but certainly I think you’ll be a much better filmmaker, or reviewer, or anything, if you have seen all the key films from the 20s to the present day.” Like Scorsese, David is steeped in film history. A Cinematic Life renders this fact indisputable. Nor can you deny the intelligence, openness, and dedication David has brought to Australian film culture.
Interview by Ryan Suckling, Art by Ruby Mae McKenna
An abridged version of this article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 2 STOP