A life­time at the movies

David Stratton ex­plains the ti­tle of his new tell- all mem­oir to Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

AS a young man be­ing groomed for the gro­cery trade in post- war Eng­land, David Stratton es­caped to the movies 10 times a week ( twice on Wed­nes­days, three times on Sun­days and once ev­ery other night). As a child, he reg­u­larly slunk off from board­ing school to at­tend the cin­ema, some­times ask­ing strangers to buy his ticket so he could see adult films ( the equiv­a­lent of to­day’s MA movies). Clearly, Stratton was a film nerd and pur­sued his hobby with al­most un­hinged in­ten­sity.

‘‘ All the kids of my gen­er­a­tion did that,’’ he protests mildly, when I ask about the risks of a boy ap­proach­ing strangers at the movies. Back then, Stratton — who left school at 16 and was ex­pected to take over his fam­ily’s gro­cery busi­ness — had no idea his fix­a­tion with the big screen was a dress re­hearsal for a long, dis­tin­guished ca­reer in film.

Even to­day, aged 68 and per­haps the coun­try’s best known film critic, Stratton seems lost for words when asked if he’d ever imag­ined his child­hood hobby would lead to a ca­reer rub­bing shoul­ders with the gifted and gor­geous ( Fran­cois Truf­faut, Satya­jit Ray, Francis Ford Cop­pola, Ni­cole Kid­man, Uma Thur­man, Peter Weir). ‘‘ I never dreamed, never dreamed . . . I still don’t un­der­stand it, re­ally,’’ he says, that mod­u­lated, made- for- broad­cast­ing voice trail­ing away.

His life­long ob­ses­sion with film is laid bare in his new mem­oir, the ar­rest­ingly ti­tled I Peed on Fellini: Rec­ol­lec­tions of a Life in Film .

Still, there was a price to pay. In the mem­oir, Stratton, who em­i­grated to Aus­tralia in 1963 as a 10- pound Pom, ad­mits the long hours and over­seas travel he put in as the first pro­fes­sional di­rec­tor of the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val ( 1966- 83) cost him his first mar­riage and pre­cluded a close re­la­tion­ship with his two chil­dren when they were young. ‘‘ I was not, I am sorry to ad­mit, a suc­cess­ful hus­band or fa­ther,’’ he con­fesses.

Stratton’s SFF gig also dis­ap­pointed his fa­ther, who’d hoped his elder son would re­turn to Eng­land to take over the fam­ily busi­ness, a whole­sale and re­tail com­pany that had been in the fam­ily for gen­er­a­tions.

Even to­day, snow- haired and pink- skinned as a new­born — he has, af­ter all, spent much of his life in dark­ened cine­mas — Stratton’s con­sum­ing re­la­tion­ship with the big screen can make him seem strangely un­worldly.

Over a chicken curry at an in­ner- city Syd­ney cafe, he ad­mits that apart from ABC news and cur­rent af­fairs, he doesn’t watch television, the medium that made him a mi­nor celebrity. Even though he has re­viewed or pre­sented films for SBS and the ABC for more than 25 years, Stratton also con­fesses he doesn’t know who Jerry Se­in­feld is; his feisty co- host of ABC TV’s At the Movies , Mar­garet Pomer­anz, re­cently ribbed him about this on air.

With a slightly wounded man­ner, Stratton tells me Pomer­anz set him up: ‘‘ Mar­garet knows very well that I ba­si­cally don’t watch television. So Mar­garet was re­ally set­ting me up there be­cause she knew I never watched Se­in­feld . . . She was just us­ing it as an ex­cuse to have a bit of a go at me, but that’s all right.’’

Stratton, a film critic for The Week­end Aus­tralian , still spars with Pomer­anz and re­views across three me­dia ( TV, ra­dio and news­pa­pers). He has no in­ten­tion of re­tir­ing to smell the roses in Leura, the Blue Moun­tains gar­den sub­urb west of Syd­ney where he lives with sec­ond wife Susie. Lately, he has dis­cov­ered a new pas­sion: teach­ing film cour­ses to non- de­gree stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. ‘‘ It of­ten strikes me as strange that I . . . should late in life dis­cover that my most sat­is­fy­ing role would be as a teacher in film.’’

He was just 26 and a self- taught film buff when he was cat­a­pulted into the role of Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor in 1966. He set about putting the fes­ti­val — then run on a partly ama­teur ba­sis — on the map. He did this by pro­fes­sion­al­is­ing it, at­tract­ing big- name for­eign direc­tors as guests, and by wag­ing a long war against the cloy­ing cen­sor­ship that led to the ban­ning of some fes­ti­val films and the cut­ting of many main­stream movies in Aus­tralia un­til the early 1970s. He even­tu­ally suc­ceeded. The fes­ti­val was largely un­shack­led from the cen­sors in 1971.

‘‘ Very few peo­ple re­mem­ber how per­va­sive ( cen­sor­ship) was in those days. You could hardly see a film in the cin­ema that hadn’t been in­ter­fered with in some way,’’ he ex­plains. He says even Hol­ly­wood films such as Bon­nie and Clyde , A Fist­ful of Dol­lars , Rose­mary’s Baby and M* A* S* H were cut.

As SFF di­rec­tor, Stratton met the likes of Truf­faut, Jane Fonda, Ray, Cop­pola and Josef von Sternberg, some­times bring­ing the greats ( in­clud- ing von Sternberg, Ray and Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni) to Syd­ney. He also cham­pi­oned Aus­tralian films. In the mem­oir’s pref­ace, di­rec­tor Weir re­veals Stratton re­jected his first short film but ac­cepted his sec­ond.

Weir, who went on to di­rect no­table films in­clud­ing Gal­lipoli and The Tru­man Show , says that as well as en­cour­ag­ing lo­cal film­mak­ers, Stratton’s fes­ti­vals of­fered as­pir­ing direc­tors a broad menu of films un­avail­able any­where else in Aus­tralia. Such films, Weir re­calls, ‘‘ sent me home with my head spin­ning, back to my own screen­plays, to de­stroy yes­ter­day’s aw­ful di­a­logue and ba­nal plot­ting; to be­gin again’’.

As for the un­usual ti­tle of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Stratton re­veals: ‘‘ I ag­o­nised about it.’’ While I Peed on Fellini isn’t the world’s most po­etic ti­tle, it fur­nished him with this mem­o­rable open­ing line: ‘‘ My only en­counter with Fed­erico Fellini oc­curred in a toi­let.’’

It was a starry- eyed Stratton, at­tend­ing his first Venice film fes­ti­val in 1966, who ac­ci­den­tally weed on the Ital­ian au­teur’s shoes. This co­in­cided with a botched at­tempt by Stratton to in­tro­duce him­self, at a uri­nal, to the great man. ‘‘ I never spoke to him again,’’ Stratton tells me with a gri­mace. ‘‘ Sub­con­sciously, I think I grew a beard so he would never recog­nise me. When­ever we’ve been in the same place I’ve avoided him be­cause he was very an­gry. God, he was an­gry.’’

* * * STRATTON can seem as af­fa­ble and un­ex­citable as a small- town GP. Yet he has strong opin­ions about Aus­tralia’s refugee pol­icy ( Aus­tralians, he says, have be­come ‘‘ less tol­er­ant, less hu­mane, more greedy, more self­ish’’), con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors who love to bag the ABC and, most of all, his for­mer em­ployer, SBS. He de­scribes as bit­ter his 2006 de­par­ture from the mul­ti­cul­tural broad­caster af­ter 25 years pre­sent­ing films and co- host­ing The Movie Show with Pomer­anz.

At the time, the pair’s de­fec­tion to the ABC made news­pa­per head­lines, partly be­cause The Movie Show had been one of SBS’s most pop­u­lar pro­grams. In his mem­oir, Stratton gives SBS man­age­ment the equiv­a­lent of a zero- star re­view. He points out that the net­work’s boss, Shaun Brown, pre­vi­ously ran TVNZ: ‘‘ If you’ve ever been to New Zealand, you’ll know that, what­ever the mer­its of the place, qual­ity television isn’t one of them.’’

The film critic says soon af­ter Brown was ap­pointed to SBS, he and Pomer­anz were told the net­work’s mar­keters wanted The Movie Show to be spon­sored by a cof­fee brand, which they were to en­dorse on cam­era.

‘‘ We hadn’t been con­sulted about this in ad­vance and when we heard about it, we weren’t en­thu­si­as­tic,’’ he writes.

Stratton re­veals he was dropped as a movie pre­sen­ter with­out be­ing con­sulted. He also claims that while many of the best pro­gram­mak­ing staff were let go, the SBS bu­reau­cracy grew un­der Brown.

He ob­jects strongly to SBS’s rel­a­tively new ad breaks dur­ing pro­grams. ( Pre­vi­ously, ads on SBS were quar­an­tined to slots be­tween pro­grams.) This, he be­lieves, spells ‘‘ the death knell for what was once a qual­ity television net­work which was highly re­garded the world over’’. The de­par­ture of pop­u­lar news­reader Mary Kostakidis last year ‘‘ was the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin for SBS. It is now noth­ing more than a low- rat­ing com­mer­cial sta­tion with lit­tle to rec­om­mend it ( apart from the oc­ca­sional doc­u­men­tary).’’ Stratton tells Re­view SBS still broad­casts good pro­grams, but ‘‘ I can’t watch it any more’’. Mind you, he also notes that his present em­ployer, ABC TV, is be­ing pro­moted as ABC1 ( to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from the dig­i­tal ABC2). ‘‘ God Almighty? What’s the point of that?’’ he asks, then pauses: ‘‘ You run the risk of be­ing dubbed old- fash­ioned in not lik­ing that sort of thing.’’

In fact, Stratton’s views have lunged left­wards since he ar­rived in Aus­tralia 45 years ago. He was then a Men­zies- vot­ing ‘‘ mid­dle class English­man for whom the work­ing class — La­bor vot­ers — were the en­emy’’.

He notes that since join­ing the ABC, he has be­come an oc­ca­sional tar­get for con­ser­va­tive crit­ics, in­clud­ing the The Aus­tralian ’ s Greg Sheri­dan. He ac­cuses such crit­ics of us­ing his views to mount at­tacks on the ABC. When I ask about this, he pro­duces, with a grin, an of­fend­ing col­umn from a manila folder. Clearly, Stratton likes to keep his de­trac­tors on file.

The critic’s 40- year ca­reer, which in­cluded a stint as a correspondent for the Hol­ly­wood bi­ble Variety , has at­tracted in­ter­na­tional praise and hon­ours. In 2001 he was pre­sented with a Com­man­der in the Or­der of Arts and Let­ters, France’s high­est cul­tural award, for ser­vices to cin­ema. He has an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney and also re­ceived a com­mem­o­ra­tive medal from the Cannes film fes­ti­val for his work cov­er­ing that event.

He has sat on the ju­ries of the Ber­lin and Venice film fes­ti­vals. His fel­low jurists at the lat­ter in­cluded Mario Var­gas Llosa, Thur­man and David Lynch. This sounds im­pos­si­bly glam­orous, but he writes that the judg­ing process was so

heated, ‘‘ no­body was happy about the de­ci­sions that were made’’.

There is some­thing of the small busi­ness­man’s pride in his hav­ing kept the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val in the black for al­most two decades, in spite of it be­ing mostly un­sub­sidised. ‘‘ Dur­ing the 18 years I ran the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val, we made a profit ev­ery year. Ev­ery year,’’ he re­peats em­phat­i­cally.

Al­though it is now sub­sidised, the SFF has strug­gled fi­nan­cially in re­cent years. Stratton thinks it is over­shad­owed by film fes­ti­vals in­ter­state. Part of the prob­lem, he says, is that it has be­come too big. ‘‘ Is there a case for be­ing a bit more se­lec­tive?’’ he won­ders aloud.

As a critic, he’s some­times ac­cused of be­ing too soft on Aus­tralian films. He re­sponds: ‘‘ I’ve al­ways fessed up to the fact that I re­ally like Aus­tralian films . . . It may be true I might be a lit­tle more tol­er­ant to­wards an Aus­tralian film than I might be to­wards an­other film . . . Hav­ing said that, I have been pretty harsh on some Aus­tralian films, and it hasn’t been a par­tic­u­larly good time for Aus­tralian films lately.’’

In a fur­ther ad­mis­sion, he dis­closes re­view­ing Hol­ly­wood films has be­come a strug­gle, writ­ing: ‘‘ Each week, I’m re­quired to see ev­ery film that opens in Aus­tralia; at one time this would have been a plea­sure, but th­ese days I have to say that more of­ten than not, it’s a chore. It some­times seems that Hol­ly­wood has al­most en­tirely gone over to mak­ing films for teenagers.’’

Could it be that David Stratton has at last tamed his in­ner film nerd? I Peed on Fellini, by David Stratton, William Heine­mann, $ 34.95.

Critic’s choices: Op­po­site page, clock­wise from left, movie man David Stratton; Buster Keaton in The Gen­eral ; Gene Kelly in Sin­gin’ in the Rain ; and Or­son Welles in Cit­i­zen Kane ; this page, a scene from Seven Samu­rai

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