DVD Review: David Stratton - A Cinematic Life/David Stratton's Stories of Australian Cinema
This documentary, written and directed by Sally Aitken, exists in two versions, a feature-length cinema release (David Stratton: A Cinematic Life) and a three-part, three-hour television series (David Stratton's Stories of Australian Cinema), which aired on ABC in Australia in 2017. This two-disc DVD release contains both. I reviewed the former from its London Film Festival showing here so this review will concentrate on the latter.
It's not so simple to say that the television version is simply a longer version of the cinematic one. While each overlaps with the other to a considerable extent, they are differently structured and their separate emphases are hinted at in their titles. A Cinematic Life is more a profile of David Stratton, though does discuss particular films important both to him and to Australian film history, with interviews from filmmakers and actors. The television series includes some of the personal material, but is more a personal history of Australian Cinema, along similar lines to such films as Martin Scorsese's A Personal Journey Through American Movies, Bertrand Tavernier's more recent Journey Through French Cinema, and, specifically for Australia, George Miller's 1997 documentary for the Century of Cinema, 40,000 Years of Dreaming.
As Sam Neill says in the opening sequence of each episode, it's hard to imagine Australian cinema in the last fifty years without David Stratton. Unlike the makers of the documentaries above, he wasn't and isn't a filmmaker himself, but has become an integral part of his country's cinema, and his twenty-eight-year television partnership with Margaret Pomeranz (first for SBS's The Movie Show and then for ABC's At the Movies) meant that they were the two most visible film critics to the Australian public, similarly to the way that, say, Roger Ebert (in partnership with first Gene Siskel and then Richard Roeper after Siskel's death) was to American television viewers and for many years Barry Norman was to British ones.
David Stratton was born in England in 1939, just before the start of World War II. His father served in the army and his mother volunteered for the Red Cross, so for the first six years of his life he was brought up by his grandmother, who instilled a love of films in him from a very young age, taking him to the cinema on a regular basis. His father, whom David barely saw until he returned from the War, thought all this cinemagoing was a waste of time and expected him to move into the family grocery business. The first Australian film David saw was The Overlanders, on its British release in 1946. In 1963, David left for Australia as a “Ten Pound Pom”, a scheme which gave cheap passage to Australia as long as you committed to stay there for at least two years. He didn't come back.
In 1966, he became the director of the Sydney Film Festival and remained in post for seventeen years. He reviewed for Variety and continues to write for The Australian. His book on the Australian Film Revival of the 1970s, The Last New Wave, introduced me as much as anything else to his adopted country's cinema. He followed it with The Avocado Plantation, about the Eighties, and has been reported as working on follow-up books. In the 2015 Australia Day Honours List, he became a Member of the Order of Australia.
The three episodes are entitled Game Changers (59:43), Outsiders (59:48) and Family (59:04). Each begins with a personal anecdote before spending some time discussing a particular film, using the personal material to link to the film. The films are not discussed in any chronological order, but almost by free association. For example, a mention of David Gulpilil's presence in Crocodile Dundee (“Crocodile” Dundee for those outside Australia) segues into a discussion of how Australian cinema has dealt with its Aboriginal peoples, with Claude Chauvel's groundbreaking Jedda (the first Australian feature film made in colour) and, more recently, films made by Aboriginal directors, such as Warwick Thornton's Samson & Delilah.
Stratton's history as a campaigner against censorship at the Sydney Film Festival leads into the Ozploitation era and films which made use of the new freedom in ways that Stratton regrets, such as Turkey Shoot, which he described in his Variety review as a “sadistic bloodbath” and, according to the film's producer Antony I. Ginnane, cost the film a foreign sale as that review caused the Malaysian censor to ban it. Brian Trenchard-Smith, the film's director, is given a right of reply, regretting that Stratton seems to have missed the irony and very black comedy in the film. (And I'd agree with Trenchard-Smith on this one.) However, Stratton acknowledges, there are some genuinely fine films under the Ozploitation banner, one of which being Mad Max, and Stratton shows George Miller his positive review from Variety. Not all critics at the time saw anything in the film, but Stratton was one who did.
As a newcomer to Australia, Stratton felt an outsider for quite some time, and this feeds in to episode two, and a classic film about an outsider, Muriel's Wedding. This episode deals with the films which came before the 1970s New Wave: They're a Weird Mob, whose production and big box-office success intensified calls for Australia to have its own film industry, and two films made at the start of the 70s in Australia by overseas directors, Wake in Fright and Walkabout. The latter film leads into a discussion about Australia's treatment of Aboriginal peoples, with Aboriginal director Rachel Perkins's satirical musical Bran Nue Dae.
The final episode deals with family, those we are born into and those we make. On the personal level, this covers his long partnership with Margaret Pomeranz, who isn't interviewed but meets Stratton for lunch in Sydney. One much-loved Australian film dealing with a family is The Castle, and Stratton admits he got this film wrong, finding it patronising and caricatured at first, but coming to realise what many other people have seen in it. It's a film which many Australians know more or less by heart. Another contentious review of Stratton's was of Romper Stomper: he acknowledged the film's great skill but refused to give it a star rating as he worried about its impact and found it irresponsible. The film's director Geoffrey Wright threw a glass of wine over him at a party and is on hand here to give his right of reply, still calling Stratton a pompous windbag.
Other communities are migrant ones, such as Greek-Australians in Head On, directed by Ana Kokkinos and based on a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, both of whom are interviewed. And there are also families on the wrong side of the law, such as the one in Animal Kingdom. This final episode is dedicated to the memory of Paul Cox, whom Stratton visits at home. Cox is terminally ill with cancer, but even so was still planning a new film, which sadly he didn't live to make, passing away in 2016. We end with Stratton's all-time favourite Australian film, which is Newsfront.
As with its big-screen sibling, this series are clips from a large number of films, from all eras of Australian cinema, including extracts from several silents it's hard to get to see nowadays. You'll no doubt end this three hours with a long list of films to track down or to watch again.
This DVD release from Transmission films comprises two PAL-format discs, both encoded for Region 4 only. The first contains David Stratton: A Cinematic Life (102:06) and the extras, while the second has all three episodes of David Stratton's Stories of Australian Cinema with a Play All option. Each episode begins with an advisory notice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers that it contains the images and voices of deceased persons. The DVD carries the advisory M rating, though occasional strong language and brief Oxploitation gore would get it a 15 if it were submitted to the BBFC in the UK.
A Cinematic Life is in its cinema aspect ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. It says “2.35:1” (also anamorphically enhanced) on the DVD box for Stories of Australian Cinema, though it's actually 1.78:1. The material with Stratton and the interviews are all in the wider ratio, as are most of the extracts from Scope films, but when we have a clip from a film in a narrower ratio, the height of the frame is used, and the full width as well when an extract is in 16:9 or partly letterboxed into 1.85:1. Jedda and earlier films are shown in 1.33:1. There are a few examples where the original aspect ratios aren't respected: Evil Angels (if you're outside Australia, A Cry in the Dark) is cropped from Scope to 16:9 and several Paul Cox films are shown in 4:3 when they should be 1.85:1. For A Cinematic Life, the whole film is transferred at 2.40:1, so the extracts from films in narrower aspect ratios have varying amounts of black bars to the sides, plus the letterbox.
As for the transfers themselves, the series is shot in HD video with extracts from films mostly shot on film (35mm or in some cases 16mm), and all looks pristine, with the film extracts in the best state available. The Story of the Kelly Gang, from 1906 and the first feature-length (over one hour) film made anywhere in the world, and a reel of which Stratton handles reverently on a visit to the National Film and Sound Archive, is heavily damaged, but sadly that's how it is with that film, of which only fragments now survive.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, though that's mainly used for the music score, as much of the series consists of talking-head or one-to-one interviews, Stratton speaking to camera and extracts from films, many of which have mono soundtracks. Regrettably, there are no subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing.
The extras are all on the first disc, and comprise some of the items which were available online on ABC's website at the time of transmission, under the banner title “Celebrating Australian Cinema”. First up is “Favourites of the Stars” (6:52) in which several Australian actors and directors speak briefly about their own favourite Australian films. This is organised in round-robin style, so, for example, Mad Max, a favourite of both Eric Bana and Bruce Beresford, is followed by George Miller's own choice – which may surprise you, as it's the 1919 version of The Sentimental Bloke. “Filmmakers Review David Stratton” (3:49) is what it says, though the comments are complimentary – Geoffrey Wright doesn't feature. After that, there's an extended interview with P.J. Hogan (5:22), extracts from which are in both versions of the documentary, in which he talks about how he filled the “uncastable” lead roles of Muriel's Wedding with Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths. “At the Movies Redux: Lunch with Margaret and David” (8:44) is a fuller look at that lunch in Sydney (with seemingly no one else present except the waiter), full of affectionate banter.
Two short “Film in Focus” items look at The Dressmaker (4:34) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2:34), with the directors of each on hand, and George Miller showing Stratton the storyboards for his film. That film was a huge hit worldwide, while The Dressmaker was on its home turf if not elsewhere, and both are in the top ten Australian films of all time (not adjusted for inflation) at the local box office. In “Farewell At the Movies” (7:17) Stratton interviews Geoffrey Rush about one of his more challenging roles, taking Stratton's place (with Cate Blanchett as Margaret Pomeranz) for the episode of At the Movies marking David and Margaret's twenty-fifth anniversary as a screen partnership, of which we see extracts. And finally, “David Stratton: ABC Guest Roles” (3:03) features some of Stratton's guest appearances in other shows, clearly showing that he was not afraid to send himself up.