MAN OF THE SCREEN

From a young age, film critic David Strat­ton knew where his pas­sion lay, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - David Strat­ton Stephen Romei

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’

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