He’s been reviewing movies since before I was born and so it was a privilege to sit down with legendary Australian film critic David Stratton and talk about his life’s work and Aussie cinema as part of the release of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life.
Matt: I have to ask since it’s going to be talked about for a long time to come – did you see the debacle to end this year’s Academy Awards?
David: I didn’t because I was on a flight from Perth to Brisbane. I saw a glimpse of the disaster on the news. I felt sorry for Warren Beatty because he looked like he wasn’t sure what’s going on. It was obviously a big stuff up.
Matt: Are you a big fan of awards shows? Do you watch them?
David: I do watch them. I always watch the Oscars and this was the first time that I’d missed them in a long time.
Matt: You’ve spent so much time interviewing actors and filmmakers. What’s it been like on the other side of the fence as you’ve been doing publicity for this film?
David: Exhausting. No, it’s been stimulating because it shows people are interested in what we’ve done with this documentary.
Matt: When were you first approached about it? Did you think your life would ever be put up on the screen like this in such a way?
David: No. The original idea was not my life but rather my reflections on Australian films. We didn’t want to tell a history of Australian cinema. We wanted to originally make a 3-part documentary for the ABC which would reflect and comment on some of the most important Australian films. That changed, as these things do, and it’s ended up becoming a cinema film with a different title. There will still be an ABC series later in the year.
Matt: One of the things I like about the film is that it celebrates Australian cinema as much as it celebrates your life and work. Was that always your intention from outset?
David: That’s the director, Sally Aitken. She deserves full credit for that and I didn’t even know what she had in mind. She did it very cleverly and skilfully. It was only when I saw the film for the first time that I realised how she had extrapolated links in my life and some of the Australian films I’m so fond of. I don’t think that element will be in the TV series so the two are going to be rather different.
Matt: Having been part of the Australian film landscape for so long, is it harder to be critical of Australian films given you know so many of the people who worked on them individually?
David: It is hard. You don’t want to hurt the feelings of people you admire but we can’t always make a good film. I’ve given negative reviews to people I’m quite friendly with and I think that upset them initially but it was all right later on except for Geoffrey Wright which is referenced in the film.
A good example is the late Paul Cox. I was a good friend and I love most of his films. I didn’t like one of his later films and so I phoned up to warn him before we went to air that night with At The Movies. He said “that’s all right, you have to call it the way you see it.” The morning after he called and said “you really didn’t like it!” but we remained friends of course.
Matt: I have to talk about your run on The Movie Show with Margaret Pomeranz. I assume you both saw films together but did you talk about your views before going on air?
David: We didn’t always see them together. Sometimes we saw them separately. It depended on the circumstances but we never talked about them before going to air. I think that was one of the reasons the show worked. We were often surprised by each other’s reaction.
Matt: You’ve had the chance to travel the world and attend numerous film festivals. Which ones stand out? Which festivals should I be putting on my bucket list?
David: Venice. It’s the only one I’m still going to regularly and I’ve be going since 1966. It’s a great festival. Maybe the films are better in Cannes and the organisation is better in Berlin but Venice is Venice.
Matt: I was astounded in the film to hear that you average seeing about a film every day on average. Do you have holidays? Can you detox and not watch anything for a couple of weeks?
David: On this tour, I haven’t managed to see a film every day but I wouldn’t exactly call it a holiday (laughs).
Matt: Do you ever get star struck with any actors and filmmakers that you’ve had the chance to interview?
David: Not really. They’re ordinary people. Some are very relaxed and easy to get on with. Some are more self-important. The Australians in particular are very easy to get along with.
Matt: What do you think of the state of film criticism at the moment? There are fewer paid, published critics but a lot more people putting opinions out there though blogs and social media.
David: I think that’s the way of the future. There are fewer people getting paid to review films. There was a time when The Courier Mail had its own Brisbane based critic (Des Partridge) and now they take reviews from Melbourne. That’s the trend throughout the country. Filling that gap are people blogging with their ideas and while they may not be always informed ideas, they’re ideas those individuals want to express and I think that’s a great thing.
Matt: You clearly spend a lot of time focusing on film. I’ve always been curious whether you branch out and have much time for TV or live theatre?
David: Not as much live theatre as I’d like to. It’s always a question of time. I live in the Blue Mountains and it’s always a hike to get into the city and back again. That limits evenings at the theatre. I only watch political things on television. Insiders on a Sunday morning I wouldn’t miss for anything. Q&A is riveting television and Media Watch as well… that’s the television I enjoy.
Matt: There are some big names in the film that we see speaking very highly of you on camera – the likes of Nicole Kidman and George Miller. What was it like seeing it for the first time?
David: It was very touching. I met Nicole for the first time when she was about 15 years old and making her first film. I remember going on a junket for a film that her boyfriend at the time was starring in. He was doing all the interviews and she wasn’t in the film so she was just hanging about. We had a long conversation about the history of movies to fill in the time. Since that time we’ve been friends. George once told me off camera that he thought if I hadn’t shown his first short film at the Sydney Film Festival in 1971 that he might still be a doctor.
Matt: I’ll finish up by asking – do you think about legacy and what will happen to all your reviews and other collectables when you’re gone? The great Roger Ebert passed away several years ago but so many of his reviews can be found online and there’s also a review website named in his honour.
David: No, I haven’t but I should. I have no idea.