A lifetime at the movies
David Stratton explains the title of his new tell- all memoir to Rosemary Neill
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