Talk to any Australian between the ages of 20 and 80 about movie critics, and without fail, two names pop up: Margaret and David, the beloved duo who fought over films for 30 years on screens around the country.
At The Movies gracefully retired in 2014, but true passion never subsides – and cinema is unquestionably David Stratton’s greatest passion, given that it has consumed his every waking moment since he was a young boy.
“You can get passionate about the arts – whether it’s cinema, theatre or literature – because they touch us in so many ways,” says Stratton, looking fondly on his obsession. “You can get very passionate, and Margaret [Pomeranz], I think, is probably a more passionate person than me on the surface. Although I think I have passion lurking just beneath the surface.
“I think [the show] worked because we were different types and because we didn’t mind saying what we thought about films, but we were also very understanding of the other person’s point of view.”
Stratton has spent over five decades seeing through the eyes of others, be it on At The Movies or in his 18-year tenure as director of Sydney Film Festival. Now, his audiences finally get a glimpse of the world through his eyes, in a documentary feature and series based on his career – David Stratton: A Cinematic Life.
“I never thought that anybody would be very interested in me or my opinions outside those areas,” says Stratton, “and so when the proposal came to make this film, as I say, I was quite flattered and intrigued and concerned and all those things. I think it turned out pretty well! But I’m too close to it to really know what I think.”
It would be wonderful to see co-host Margaret Pomeranz’s take on the film, but she too is close to the project, having featured heavily in the narrative of Stratton’s life.
“She phoned me the other day and said she liked it and that she cried, which is rather nice,” he says. “But I don’t think she’s going to review it publicly – I mean, she can’t, because she’s in it, she’s got quite a substantial supporting role.”
A Cinematic Life paints a portrait of Stratton’s years in the field by engaging directly with the medium. As a lover of Australian cinema, he has championed a great many films and filmmakers that would otherwise not have entered the zeitgeist as memorably as they did. Among the artists that speak fondly of Stratton in the film are Nicole Kidman, George Miller, Russell Crowe, Gillian Armstrong, and other stalwarts of the industry. Sadly, its book counterpart has not yet found an outlet, even though Stratton’s autobiography I Peed On Fellini was roundly celebrated.
“The sad fact is, I’ve written a book, a sort of encyclopaedia really, of Australian feature films since 1990… but I can’t find a publisher,” he says. “Maybe this documentary will get publishers interested after all, but it’s there, it’s written!”
For Stratton, this points to a changing culture around film criticism – it’s easier to get your voice out there, but harder to be heard than ever before. He believes there are three vital factors to success as a critic: dedication, passion, and pure blind luck. Oh, and watching tonnes of movies.
“The only advice I can give to young would-be critics is to see lots of films,” he says. “Not just to see current films but to delve back into cinema history, because that’s how I learnt about the cinema – I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t even go to university, I didn’t even finish high school! But I learnt about cinema by watching films.
“I try to watch a film every day that I haven’t seen before. That’s my challenge to myself, and that adds enormously to my knowledge. So I watch films from 1930, 1940 and from anywhere, from Czechoslovakia or Japan – I don’t care, I just want to see a new film every day.”
With every film he sees, Stratton takes down notes, archiving them in an enormous handwritten database of the 2,500+ films he’s watched. It’s something he does for himself, and perhaps occasionally to refer back to when lecturing on film history at the University of Sydney. This technique is what has made Stratton known and loved – a breadth of knowledge on everything cinematic.
“If I can say one thing about my career, I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he admits. “I mean, I was very well-informed from an early age about films, but even so, I was very lucky to be just in the right time and the right place when they urgently wanted a director to the Sydney Film Festival. I didn’t apply for that job, they asked me.
“Luck plays such an important role, but you’ve gotta have the dedication and the passion and the knowledge as well … Write about everything that you see and just write it for yourself. And doing that will just encourage you or enable you to express your ideas and your feelings about the film and the aspects of the film that you think are important to convey to people.”
[David Stratton photo by Mark Rogers]
David Stratton: A Cinematic Life (dir. Sally Aitken) is in cinemas Thursday March 9. Watch the trailer at Transmisison Films.