LFF 2017: David Stratton: A Cinematic Life Review
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There's a certain type of film critic whose profile in his or her home country reaches further than those who read their books, or read the newspapers or magazines they write for, because they review on television. In the United States, there was the late Roger Ebert (who had his own documentary, Life Itself) in partnership with Gene Siskel and, after Siskel's death, Richard Roeper. In the United Kingdom, for many years the public broadcast face of film reviewing was the recently departed Barry Norman. And in Australia, David Stratton, whose onscreen partnership – clearly very fond, if sometimes teasing and bickering – with Margaret Pomeranz ran for twenty-eight years.
Stratton was born in England in 1939, just after the outbreak of World War II. As his father was called up, and his mother volunteered for the Red Cross, he spent his first few years with his grandmother. She was an avid cinema-goer and took young David along with her. At one point, we see the scrapbooks he kept from an early age, with his comments on each film inside them. The first Australian film he saw was The Overlanders on its British release, at the age of six.
Sally Aitken's documentary (the 106-minute cinema feature I'm reviewing, also a longer and differently-organised three-part TV series, broadcast on ABC earlier this year) is two things: a portrait of Stratton and also an overview of the history of Australian cinema, along the lines of Martin Scorsese's A Personal Journey Through American Movies or, more recently, Bertrand Tavernier's Journey Through French Cinema. As for Australian cinema, we had George Miller's 40,000 Years of Dreaming, made in 1997. But while those are all personal pieces, they are the work of men who are filmmakers themselves. Stratton is in his different way as much an insider as them, someone as well placed as them to see a large part of this history as it happened.
As Stratton is someone who has seen, by his own estimation, over 25,000 films (not counting repeat viewings), that cinematic history is an integral part of his own history, and the documentary uses one to reflect on the other. Stratton was never close to his father, and only really saw him at the age of six when he returned from the War, and Aitken illustrates this with PS' meeting with his errant father in Careful He Might Hear You. Stratton Senior expected David to go into the family grocery business and regarded cinema a waste of time, and did not take David's leaving for Australia in 1963 well. David soon discovered that by volunteering at the Sydney Film Festival he could see films for free, and when in 1966 there was a vacancy for the directorship of the festival, he applied for the job and got it, staying in post for eighteen years. He was a champion of the slowly-emerging local cinema, which had its revival in the following decade. He also reviewed for Variety and begin his television partnership with Pomeranz in 1986. His books The Last New Wave and The Avocado Plantation, on 70s and 80s Australian cinema respectively, are very much recommended, and the former was to me as much an introduction to this country's cinematic history as anything else. While he and Pomeranz retired from their television show in 2014, Stratton still reviews for The Australian. He's visibly moved when he talks about his parents' visit to him in Cannes, late in their lives.
As a history of Australian cinema, A Cinematic Life doesn't follow a chronological order but more a thematic one, with certain films being given more extended treatments. He begins with a film which sits right at the start of the 70s Australian cinema revival, Wake in Fright, with Jack Thompson (whose first film this was) and director Ted Kotcheff on hand to discuss it. Stratton's feelings of outsiderhood feed into his next choice, Muriel's Wedding. It's later on that we dip back into the earlier history of the country's cinema, with a look at the now-dated but still quite groundbreaking Jedda. You can sense his awe as he visits the archive and handles a nitrate reel of The Story of the Kelly Gang, from 1906, the first feature-length film made anywhere in the world.
There are plenty of people on hand to talk about Stratton, beginning with his brother Roger. Margaret Pomeranz isn't interviewed as such, but we see them meeting for a meal and chat in a Sydney restaurant. Filmmakers from both sides of the camera are also interviewed, by no means always uncritically. While Stratton campaigned against film censorship – up until the early 70s amongst the strictest in the first world – two directors get a right to reply concerning films that he disapproved of. Brian Trenchard-Smith regrets that Stratton found Turkey Shoot a sadistic bloodbath and didn't pick up on the black comedy in the film. (I'd go along with Trenchard-Smith on that one.) Stratton refused to give Romper Stomper a star rating as he considered its portrayal of a neo-Nazi gang dangerous. The film's director Geoffrey Wright tells how he threw a glass of wine over Stratton at a film festival party and still considers him a pompous windbag. Stratton himself owns up to missing the appeal at first of The Castle, a film many Australians now know by heart.
As ever with a film like this, there are plenty of clips, mostly (but not always) respecting the original aspect ratios. If you have any interest in Australian cinema, you'll leave this film with a long list of films to look out for, or to see again.