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Australia's Version of Roger Ebert

By ScienceGeek | Books | August 3, 2010 |

By ScienceGeek | Books | August 3, 2010 |

David Stratton is to Australia what Ebert is to America. He is part of the landscape of movies in this country, having run the Sydney film festival for decades, though, in Victoria, his influence is centred around his appearances on TV. There are two nationally-funded television channels in Australia. They are the ABC, which for some reason, has garnered the nickname ‘Aunty,’ that tends towards shows that are purely Australian or kid-orientated, while SBS caters to our large immigrant population. As a child, I ignored SBS, but I watched it more often as I hit my teens, particularly when I got interested in anime (and every young teenage boy knew the Friday night movie on SBS was the closest you’d get to seeing nipples, at least, until the internet arrived). If Aunty is a woman of the land the kids all adore (she did, after all, give birth to the Wiggles), SBS is her multi-racial husband who speaks several languages and tends to be naked a lot.

My first memories of David Stratton revolve around a grey haired, bearded man introducing the film I was about to watch on SBS. For many years, he was their ‘Feature Film Consultant (i.e. he chose their films), and introduced most of them. He also reviewed recent movie releases, alongside Margaret Pomeranz on ‘The Movie Show’. They are the classic opposites. In the early 2000’s, he and Margaret moved their program from SBS to ABC, and renamed it ‘At the Movies’.

This is a man who loves films. The earlier chapters of his autobiography, describing his childhood and early adulthood in England, revolve almost entirely around what movies he saw. When he describes his trips overseas (which he did a lot of), he mentions very little of the place itself, only the films he saw. When he’s offered the opportunity to teach film at university, he responds with a TEN year course on ‘The history of film’.

He fought, very hard and eventually, successfully, for changes in Australia’s censorship laws. I found it echoes the current battle to allow an R18+ rating for video games. The arguments are all the same, for both sides, and even the battle itself is echoed. Stratton makes the claim that pressure was really put on the censorship board when the distributors of Easy Rider realised Australia’s laws meant it couldn’t be played here, or had to be changed so greatly the movie itself would be a failure. (In much the same way, the distributors of Alien Vs Predator have refused to change their game, and simply didn’t distribute it here, while the most recent Left For Dead had to make so many changes that it was virtually unplayable. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a ‘public discussion’ on the subject was released by the Attorney Generals not long after these events. Equally interestingly, the most outspoken opponent, the AG of South Australia, is now the former AG of South Australia.)

But back to the autobiography. Stratton is also a man who, it becomes apparent, is incredibly self-absorbed. Of course, this may just be because, you know, it’s a freaking autobiography, but essh! He name-drops like a rapper, devoting entire paragraphs to the day he spent with a director or actor, and, in the appendix, lists every film ever shown during his 18 years as director of the Sydney Film Festival, yet he mentions the volunteers who made the festival possible a grand total of twice, both times in regard to his final film festival, most of the way through the book. Eighteen years of festivals, and the best they get is: ‘Not only did we present a strong line-up of international cinema every year but we had never lost money. That was undoubtedly as much a credit to my tiny, underpaid, intensely loyal staff and to the work of many volunteers…. as it was to me.’ Personally, I’d suggest that, given that Stratton would spend 5 months a year travelling around the European festivals on the SFF’s money, the profit was ENTIRELY due to those staff and volunteers.

Later on, when describing the changes that took place at SBS just before he left, Stratton begins his complaints about the new director with the claim that the man didn’t immediately acknowledge him or knew his name. His other complaints were legitimate, but prefacing them with this childish pouting makes it hard to take them seriously.

I also read this book around the same time Roman Polanski made his ‘woe, poor me’ statement. Stratton inadvertently explains his mindset, and the people stridently supporting him. Stratton complains bitterly about feminists ‘who had evidently failed to see the funny side’ of a film he showed at one festival, and ‘pilloried’ the director. Having not seen the film in question, I can’t comment on the humour, but the first line of the next paragraph is extremely telling. ‘The poor treatment afforded to such talented directors… by segments of the audience depressed me.’ Apparently, this was one of the reasons he resigned as director of the Sydney Film Festival not long after.

It’s that strange superiority complex. That talent is so rare that the person who possesses it should never be questioned by the rest of society. By default, the people who recognise and treat said talent with the deference it deserves are also above those ‘boorish’ people who do. Stratton sits in dark cinemas, where light only comes from the screen, and he believes that this is the only light. And that he, having bathed constantly in it, now possesses his own glow.

The message comes, over and over, throughout the book. The real world is not as relevant as the film. His relationships are built on the foundation of a shared love of film, and so little is said about actual personalities that I wondered if Stratton even noticed, or if he simply didn’t care, as long as they were fellow acolytes at the Church of Cinema.

That said, the book is interesting. Despite the rampaging ego, I have to admire a man with this much passion for a subject, and I have to acknowledge and appreciate how much he has done for cinema in Australia.

Oh, and yes, he did pee on Fellini - accidently.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of ScienceGeek’s reviews, check out Suburban Scientist.

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