Life, from the sixth row

When I meet with David Stratton, history has just been made. There’s the fact that, for the first time, the wrong Best Picture winner has been read out at the Oscars, a moment that lead to eight minutes of shock, awkwardness and extremely entertaining spontaneity the Oscars are mostly absent of. But more importantly, Moonlight, a film made for $1.5 million, where actor Naomie Harris filmed her scenes in three days during a break from the press tour for Spectre, it’s an empathetic labour of love that tells the story of a lonely black boy in the Miami neighbourhood of Liberty City who becomes a lonely black man, slowly receding further and further into the shadows as the world leaves him behind. Despite its second life and the mistake that’s now rocketed it to fame beyond any Best Picture winner in recent memory, it still will go down as one of the lowest grossing. It’s personal, it’s quiet, it’s the type of film that Stratton’s show, along with an endorsement from his sparring partner Margaret Pomeranz, would’ve propelled to success.

Stratton’s passion for cinema is from a different time. In A Cinematic Life, the documentary about his and Australia’s journey through cinema (in cinemas around Australia now), he shows his card catalogue ‘collection’ of films (over 25 000 when the footage was shot nearly two years ago) and his collection of ring binders of reviews. He reminisces going to the cinema with his grandmother regularly. He pulls down one labelled 1946 in search of the first. As it would turn out, the choice of film to start his journey would be serendipitous as to where the boy from Trowbridge, United Kingdom would go – the Australian film The Overlanders, about a horseman Dan McApline (Chips Raffety, a hero Stratton refers to multiple times during the film) herding cattle across the desert of northern Australia. It was The Overlanders that set a spark, a zeal for local film that most Australians lack that saw him venture out on an extended holiday in 1963, never to return. When he arrived, there was a provision in Australia’s minimum wage for a husband, wife, and two children to go to the cinema once a week, a comfortable routine to moviegoing that seems absurd now.

He volunteered at the Sydney Film Festival, ushering and helping the festival run smoothly. Within two years, he was the artistic director, a position he held for 17 years. His aim at the festival was to open up the burgeoning festival to the world. He started a shorts section for local filmmakers, where early alumnae included George Miller and Gillian Armstrong. Ultimately, he helped an outlet that was being crippled by censorship and the lack of a local industry. Despite the fact that The Story of the Kelly Gang, an Australian film from 1906, is commonly cited as one of the first narrative films, a growing local industry didn’t follow. What was produced was largely documentaries and films by overseas talents. “Films were impounded as soon as they arrived. The censors had no taste in films, and no sense in what was quality and what wasn’t,” he says in an interview. “The festival was being censored.”

It was a role that took him around the world, with a trip to Russia for the Moscow Film Festival in the 1960s seeing him even being put on an ASIO watchlist. It part of a mission to befriend filmmakers and find films, necessary at the time due to the high costs and limited methods of communication as opposed to the present. Some are glimpsed in the documentary – Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Akira Kurosawa. When it came to reviewing, some were forgiving (Bertolucci), some weren’t. “One of my favourite directors was Paul Cox (the documentary is dedicated to Cox), and one of his last films I didn’t like at all, I thought it was very ordinary,” he says. “In fact, I rang him to say ‘Paul, I’m afraid I don’t like this film very much and I’m not going to give it a very good review’. And he said ‘that’s all right, you have to call it the way you see it’ or something. Then the morning after we went to air with the program he called and said ‘you really didn’t like it!’”

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An industry started to grow in the 1960s, bolstered in the 1970s by talents unearthed by Stratton such as Miller and Armstrong who took their tales of Australia, both real and imagined, to the world. Outside that, there were the outrageous films Australia was known for in the 1970s like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, typically seen in midnight movie houses. Stratton cites Wake in Fright as one that particularly affected him, as another foreign newcomer to the sunburnt country. But despite the early popularity of these unique films and their much different contemporaries like Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career, the hunger hasn’t persisted.

“It’s very difficult to get Australian audiences to see Australian films, unless it’s got some big…hook,” Stratton says when I ask about the recent renaissance of larger budget Australian films. Lion, The Dressmaker, and Mad Max: Fury Road have stormed into the history books and swept the Oscar nominations for two years running, but what about the rest? What about the independent films without stars or large budgets – The Babadook, Girl Asleep, Holding the Man, and even Tanna, which became the first Australian nomination for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature? “I think that we seem to be getting one or two films a year that do pretty well, and the rest don’t do anything. That is sort of unfortunate. There’s a very good West Australian film I saw the other day called Hounds of Love (releasing June 1 in Australia). I don’t think anyone will go and  see it, because the distributor is a small distributor and…the audience for Australian films seems to be older, young people don’t seem to see Australian films.”

I say that perhaps it’s some sort of cultural cringe, that despite the common perception that Australia only makes certain types of films, maybe we’re also conditioned to only see certain types of films, that perhaps the absence of younger audiences indicates a bigger issue of marketing and awareness. “I couldn’t understand why something like The Babadook did well overseas but not here,” Stratton says. “Why wouldn’t young people go and see that? I think while it was on there was also some dire Hollywood thriller that was so inferior, and I just don’t understand.”

But so was the effect of Stratton and the fandom he inspires – the cruises, where one can venture and watch films and see him and Pomeranz argue their opinions in a live At the Movies reunion; and the numerous festivals he curates, where he introduces personal classics to a next generation. When him and Pomeranz announced their retirement in 2014 after nearly 30 years on air, first at SBS and then on the ABC, it was met with sadness not only from avid viewers, who had made hearing their opinions and then deciding what to see at the cinema part of their weekly routine, but also cinemas and film distributors. Who was to give publicity now to the films that would remain largely unseen otherwise? Stratton and Pomeranz didn’t act like quick overviews in newspapers, but were instead present in the lounge room as if giving a personal recommendation. It’s a reverence unlike any that can be held by a newspaper or online critic, particularly in 2017 with the large number of voices. “On one hand there’s less mainstream criticism because there’s fewer newspapers,” he says “But on the other hand you’ve got far more because you’ve got so many people blogging. In the documentary Jacki Weaver makes the point that a lot of the blogging is uninformed, but i think that’s a bit unfair because they must be enthusiastic, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. I don’t have access to much of it, but at the same time I think it’s a very positive thing.”

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But viewers had their preference, whether it was for the extroverted Pomeranz or the quieter enthusiasm of Stratton. Their criticism was more often than not talking about high-minded films but not with pretension, trusting audiences more than distributors usually do. It’s a trust that Stratton carries over into his reviewing at The Australian. In his review of La La Land he said “When I saw this film in Venice I adored it but feared it would have trouble finding an audience”. When I ask how he feels about its success against the prevailing wisdom that audiences don’t like original musicals or something so ‘old fashioned’, he says he’s “very pleased to be proved wrong”.

Stratton and Pomeranz gave films like Orlando and Punch-Drunk Love rave reviews, got cinemagoers to see Terrence Malick, R-rated Bertolucci and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s three-and-a-half hour long Winter Sleep, and documentaries by Werner Herzog. Everyone has a story of how he encouraged them out of their cinematic comfort zone. It’s a show that would be possibly needed even more now, where viewing methods are so dizzyingly disparate that people don’t explore and instead fall into the endless cycle of blockbusters and staying in to watch Netflix (Stratton says he thinks “it’s going that way fairly rapidly”). Gaining exposure for films like Moonlight, which now, nearly two months into release is finding a second life after a monumental accident at the Oscars, is harder than ever. “I feel sorry for distributors who are trying to release marginal films and now find it so difficult to get any kind of attention,” he says. “I think also the people who rely on us every week to tell them what to see. We hoped the ABC would replace us with a younger couple and maybe one day that’ll happen, if not at the ABC, somewhere else, but I think they decided it was too soon.”

But there were sticking points for them with their audience, particularly with Australian films. “Margaret and I were often criticised for being soft on Australian films,” he says. “Both of us had the same response, this was one of the things we did agree on – when you see every single American film, or every single film, which means 90% American films, and then along comes an Australian film, even one that’s not very good, but is one that’s well intentioned and is telling a story for Australia, Australian actors, Australian sensibilities, we both tended to embrace such films as an antidote to other stuff. And sometimes maybe we were a bit…but I didn’t think so. We came down hard on some Australian films.”

The film reveals that Stratton’s emigration to Australia was an escape from his life in England, where he was clashing with his parents over pressure to continue the family grocery store business. During work days, he’d sneak off to the cinema. “I was an outsider in my own family, a black sheep who loved movies,” he says in the film, which draws parallels between his journey and Australian film’s roster of misfits, trailblazers and outlaws such as Muriel Heslop and Crocodile Dundee. Some of the conflating personal with what’s on screen can be awkward, reaches that seem undercooked and perhaps would sit better in the longer cut that’s yet to be seen (a longer, TV version will air on ABC in May). But nonetheless, the intention is there – to show the life of someone profoundly affected and comforted by the cinema, not only loving but living what he sees. He cites Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives as one of his favourite films, but one thinks of The Long Day Closes, where a young boy in England is also comforted by the escape he finds in a cinema (Stratton says they’re films that are “very personal…heartbreakingly so, I think” to their director Terence Davies). 

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The Long Day Closes

Stratton still watches a film a day, them his bread and butter that sustains him. When I ask how it feels to have a life indeed lived through cinema and what he hopes people take from the film, his answer is simple – to relive or discover their own, and Australia’s, cinematic history that’s laid in front of them. “You’re hardly conscious of it, that’s just the way it is” he says. “I’d like them to come out and think ‘wow, I must see Muriel’s Wedding’ again or for the first time. Or Picnic at Hanging Rock…I would love people to access these films and see them again.”

BONUS: a story that didn’t quite make the cut, from Cannes 1992 about Reservoir Dogs:

“Inevitably there’s one film you really want to get access to the filmmakers for… the publicist said ‘there’s this young american director who has just made his first film, we don’t have a budget, a publicity budget, to afford a hotel room to do the interview so the interview will actually be on the beach’. Literally, it’s the only interview I ever did on the beach. So she said ‘I think he’s made a very good film and he’s anxious to talk about it’. And I said ‘who’s the director?’ and she said ‘Quentin Tarantino’. Cannes is always a terribly chaotic time and sometimes even though you really want to see it, as much as you can, because you’re doing the interviews, I hadn’t seen the film. So I asked a couple of friends of mine who had seen it what they thought of it and if they could give me any ideas for questions. So I went along armed with questions. There we were…squatting on the beach. And I asked him the first question, and half an hour later he stopped. Two years later he was back in Cannes with Pulp Fiction, and now did he not only have a hotel room but a huge entourage.”

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