MAN OF THE SCREEN
From a young age, film critic David Stratton knew where his passion lay, writes Philippa Hawker
One of David Stratton’s earliest memories is an imaginary movie in which he was the star. He was 2½ or three years old, he says, and for a camera he used a mirror from his mother’s handbag, pretending that his reflection was a movie image. “I remember consciously thinking, ‘ OK, I’m going to start making a film of me’, and feeling regretful that I hadn’t actually started earlier.”
That was his first and last attempt at being a director. “I probably know my limitations. I guess I felt I would never be able to make films that were as good as the ones I admired most,” he says. “The other thing that it maybe shows, this youthful ‘film’ of mine, is that maybe — I’ve thought about this occasionally — what I wanted to be was an actor.”
In a new film, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, a companion piece to his forthcoming three-part ABC TV series, Stories of Australian Cinema, director Sally Aitken presents a more personal take on Stratton, his passion for films and his connection to Australian filmmaking.
Directors and actors talk about Stratton, their films and the films of others. Geoffrey Rush says Stratton is “and I mean this in the nicest possible way, professorial”. Ana Kokkinos describes how he has “taken Australian cinema to the world, but he’s also brought world cinema to us”. Movies themselves sometimes seem part of the conversation — Aitken has given them an almost interactive role in the storytelling.
The first thing she shows us, however, is the Stratton filing system, an archival resource he draws on every day. Wooden cabinets and card indexes allow him to locate material collected and carefully ordered over decades. He can produce a film review written when he was seven and had just seen his first Australian movie, The Overlanders (1946).
Stratton was born in England in 1939 and grew up in Andover, Hampshire.
“Cinema is my life, I suppose, and has been since I was a very small child.” At his father’s insistence, Stratton left school at 16 and went to work in the family firm, a wholesale and retail grocery business founded in the 1820s. “My father always made it clear to me that he wanted me to take over [the business], and I thought that was my destiny. I always assumed that’s what I would do.”
In 1963 he came to Australia for what was supposed to be a short stay. When the job of director of the Sydney Film Festival became available, he applied for it. Accepting it, he says, was a difficult decision: more than 50 years on, the pressure of parental expectations is a painful subject for him. “I honestly still feel bad about it today, since my parents, particularly my father, almost despised the cinema and really couldn’t understand why I wanted to stay in Australia and work in it.”
He stayed at the festival until 1983, became a film consultant and presenter for SBS, and a film reviewer for Variety. In 1988 he began his enduring role as film critic for The Australian (Stratton’s reviews of Jasper Jones and Bitter Sweet are on Page 15). And then there was his influential reviewing partnership of almost 30 years with Margaret Pomeranz, first at SBS and then at the ABC, that turned them into household names.
As for making the film and the television series, Stratton says: “What I hope will flow out of this whole experience is that people will be persuaded to go and find some of these films and have a look at them.”
The public’s attitude towards Australian films has changed since the 1970s, he says. “We made a lot of mediocre films that disappointed people and gave Australian films a bad name.”
He says older audiences who often support Australian films don’t want to see, for example, The Babadook or Predestination because they think they are genre movies they won’t enjoy. And younger audiences tend to avoid local films. “So two of the most interesting Australian films of recent years don’t get an audience.”
In the meantime, Stratton continues to pursue his passion. He hosts movie sessions on cruise ships. He teaches a course on cinema at Sydney University. He has completed a book on Australian films since 1990, having written on movies from the 70s and 80s, but can’t find a publisher for this one.
And, of course, he sees a movie a day, as he has always tried to do — a film that is new to him, that is. Today before our conversation, he tells me, he watched Jean Gremillon’s 1930 La Petite Lise, the director’s first sound film. “And now I’m going to sit down and write about it. I’m not likely to use it, but I will write about and file it away, and it will be there.”
will take part in selected Q & A sessions at screenings of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life ahead of its national release on March 9. reviews A Cinematic Life — P14
David Stratton: ’Cinema is my life, I suppose’