David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, tells the story of one of Australia’s most beloved film critics. Directed by Sally Aitken it tells this story not just through interviews with Stratton and famous film stars, but also by taking a retrospective look over the collection of the Australian films that he loves (and in one famous case – hates). DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to David Stratton during a recent Perth visit to ask him about this documentary, and how it was for a man who had dedicated his life to film, to have a film dedicated to his life?
“It’s rather terrifying to see yourself up on the big screen being talked about …as well as doing the talking,” admitted Stratton. “I think Sally Aitken, the director, did a wonderful job of extrapolating from the films I like to my personal story. I never made these connections before. For example with Careful He Might Hear You, with the scene with John Hargraves meeting his son for the first time, Sally compared that to my father when he returned home from the war. It had me thinking about how many films I respond to because they tap into my personal experiences. It was more than I would have thought.”
A Cinematic Life, covers Stratton’s childhood, his arrival in Australia as a “10 pound pom”, his time with the Sydney Film Festival, and his work as an international film critic. The result is a rather honest and touching look into Stratton’s early life, the events that shaped his love of cinema, and the strain that put on his relationship with his father. At times you can see how emotional this is for Stratton, and occasionally difficult for him to revisit. “It was a bit, but since I agreed to it, I had to go the whole hog.”
Although from a purely intellectual point of view, Stratton’s greatest challenge was pairing down the list of Australian films he wished to discuss. Running as a counterpoint to Stratton’s life these provide both an insight into the person, as well as a reflection of the industry. “That was one of the most difficult things, and Sally and I had a lot of arguments about that. I still regret that some films I really like are not in there, but obviously you can’t fit everything in. I think she’s done a really good job of selecting films that tell an interesting story to concentrate on.”
Fortunately, he’ll get a chance to revisit that territory later this year with a TV series. “Story Of The Australian Cinema, that has some of the same material, but expands it. The form is quiet different, but there will be a lot more films we weren’t able to fit into the movie.”
For many of us though, it was Stratton’s work on SBS and ABC with co-host Margaret Pomeranz that will be best remembered. “I think that’s why the show was so successful for so many years, because of the two different opinions expressed. Very often we actually agreed on things, but people didn’t enjoy that as much. It was when we disagreed that people seemed to like it more. I think that was very valuable sometimes. Margaret went way off beam, and I was able to draw her back a little, and sometimes I did.”
As for Australian cinema, at least in terms of quality, Stratton thinks that things are doing well. “Lion and Tanna are in the running for an Oscar, though they probably won’t win (they didn’t). There’s also a lot of solid Australian films still to be released this year. Hounds Of Love (a Perth based production by director Ben Young) I thought was really good. In fact I thought it was rather superior to Snowtown.”
Between writing for The Australian, lecturing at Sydney University and looking to publish another book, Stratton is never short of things to do in his life.