Meet the Critics: David Stratton — Australia’s avuncular film reviewing vet
It’s hard to imagine Australian film reviewing culture without veteran critic David Stratton. But could retirement be on the cards? In the latest instalment of Meet the Critics, Stratton drops a bombshell.
“As close to film reviewing royalty as one finds in Australia,” is how I described ABC host Margaret Pomeranz when Cinetology kicked off its Meet the Critics series in January.
Every queen needs her duke. David Stratton, the more studious half of Australian television’s most enduring partnership, wears the crown with aplomb. He’s been beaming into lounge rooms since 1980, and appearing in print for almost as long after judging and directing film festivals in Sydney and around the world. After a lifetime of cinema-going, the 73-year-old’s fastidious criticism has become synonymous in Australia film.
And yet, like his TV partner, the Stratton never set out to be a critic. And certainly not a celebrity.
“It’s sort of for me an unexpected by-product of what I am doing,” he told me from his home in Sydney. “Occasionally, when you’re not in the mood and having a quiet meal or something, it can be a little bit annoying when people come up to you but generally speaking it’s fine.”
In addition to appearing weekly on At the Movies, Stratton writes for The Australian and — this year at least — shares his love for the cinema (or sea-nema, as the case may be …) on a five-star cruise ship, presumably populated by sun-seeking, loafer-wearing film enthusiasts.
It’s hard to imagine Australian film reviewing culture without Stratton. So you can imagine my surprise when, around the half way mark in our interview, he drops a bombshell.
“I’ll tell you that I’m probably speaking out of turn here,” he said. “For the last couple of years I’ve been talking to ABC management about preparing for a transition, so that when Margaret and I finally retire from this they have got a couple of young reviewers ready to take over. And they won’t do it. They just are not interested. Their view is that when we retire, that’ll be it because nobody else can do it, which is nonsense.”
When I ask him directly whether he is currently contemplating retirement, the affable Stratton responds, chasing it with a chuckle, “we finished up 25 years last year and this is our 26th year. That’s enough, isn’t it?”
Stratton is the latest participant in Meet the Critics, which has profiled a collection of Australia’s most prominent film reviewers including The Age’s Jake Wilson, Triple J’s Marc Fennell, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Sandra Hall and Stratton’s fellow Australian critics Evan Williams and Lynden Barber. For a complete list of interviewees, visit the Meet the Critics landing page.
Given you’ve been on television for such a long time — and this is a subject I broached when I chatted with Margaret (Pomeranz) a few months ago – you’ve become a kind of celebrity yourself. I assume this was unintended. Does it ever bother you?
Bother is not quite the right word. You’re very conscious of it, obviously. It’s sort of for me an unexpected by-product of what I am doing. But on the other hand people are very nice, and the ones who come and talk to you obviously enjoy the program. Just occasionally, when you’re not in the mood and having a quiet meal or something, it can be a little bit annoying when people come up to you but generally speaking it’s fine.
I’m interested in your thoughts about the at times fractious relationship between Australian film reviewers and filmmakers. I remember reading in your autobiography about an incident when Geoffrey Wright (director of Romper Stomper) poured wine down your shirt after you gave his film a bad rap. Was that an awakening of sorts to how sensitively people can react to your reviews?
Let’s step back a moment. I never set out to become a film reviewer. Before I got into this, as you probably know, I was director of the Sydney Film Festival for 18 years. In that role I had to get to know all the Australian filmmakers. I was fortunate that that period when I was directing the Sydney Film Festival was a period of resurgence for Australian cinema. So I knew very well directors like Peter Weir, Phil Noyce, Fred Schepisi and Gillian Armstrong. All these people as they were stating to make the wonderful films that emerged in the 1970s.
It was my job to know them. To know what they were doing, befriend them…That gave me a very strong appreciation of the struggles and the commitment of Australian filmmakers and gave me an enormous respect for them. That’s the background to how I started out before I started reviewing. So I guess my approach to Australian films can be seen partly in that context.
Having said that, obviously you also have to be fair to the reader and the reviewer if the film is really bad, or doesn’t succeed. I mean, Australian films are rarely really bad. Very often they don’t succeed in what they set out to do. I had some problems with Snowtown. I thought Snowtown, although it had some very powerful performances, I thought maybe his (director Justin Kurzel) experience was shown in the way he set characters up at the beginning. I felt there were some elements in the film that didn’t work for me but I said it, I hope, in a positive way.
“you also have to be fair to the reader and the reviewer if the film is really bad”
Do you read much film criticism? What publications and writers do you recommend?
I never read film reviews until after I’ve seen the film and reviewed it. You know what it’s like: you can get even unconsciously influenced, so I don’t do that. I’m amazed sometimes when I’ve written a review and then later on I read somebody else’s review and they make the exact same points I’ve made. I think God, somebody reading my review might think I’ve been influenced by them!
When I go to see a film I like to know as little about it as possible. All I know is the name. I don’t even know where it’s from. I don’t know who made it (or) who’s in it. I don’t want to know any of that. I don’t watch any trailer for any film I haven’t seen. If a trailer comes on for a film I haven’t seen, I’ll either leave the cinema or close my eyes. I just don’t want to know any of that. So I go completely cold to every film that I see. As soon as possible after I’ve seen the film I write quite comprehensive notes. Not a review, but notes for me, of my immediate reactions to the film. Those notes will later form the basis of what I write for The Australian or At the Movies or when I used to write for Variety. The notes come first, which is everything I come out of the film instantly remembering.
So to continue your question, I read reviews later. As you know in Sydney you don’t get easy access to Melbourne papers so I don’t on a regular basis read the Melbourne reviews. But I see the national reviews and the Sydney reviews and I read them all. Internationally, I subscribe to Sight and Sound and Film Comment and I read the reviews in those magazines. I occasionally tune into Senses of Cinema as well.
Do you have any particularly favourite writers?
I think Tom Ryan, who wrote for the Sunday Age, is a terrific reviewer. I think Paul Byrnes in the Sydney Morning Herald is a terrific reviewer. So in Australia I would say probably those two. I’ve always had great admiration for Roger Ebert. These are reviewers who are positive. They don’t start from a negative; they don’t look for the worst in something first. That is what I like about them because that is what I feel too.
The internet has irrevocably altered the media landscape. What impact do you think the proliferation of writers on the internet has had on film criticism?
I’m not sure it’s had too much. I’m glad you say film criticism is a craft. I’m not sure the internet has had that much influence but I think it’s marvelous that so many people now are able to put their reviews out there. I think that can only be great because first of all it’s an indication that anybody is able to review films, and they do, and that’s great. The more the better. It also probably opens many people’s eyes up to different views and different opinions. So that’s great.
My next question was going to focus on when you decided you wanted to become a film critic. But you didn’t know you wanted to be one, so that doesn’t really apply, does it?
I never wanted to be one, really. Well, it’s not that I wanted or didn’t want to be one, I never thought about it. If you’ve read my book you’ll know that at a very young age I became involved in the film society movement in Britain. I came out to Australia, became involved with the Sydney Film Festival and directed that for 18 years. Through that I got to know a lot of people in Melbourne too, by the way, because I used to come regularly to the Melbourne Film Festival and meet the Melbourne film buffs. Then when I decided to quit the Sydney Film Festival – because I thought 18 years was enough for anybody – I had no specific job in mind, except that I’d been hired by SBS to program the feature films. At that time I was asked – and the first journal to ask me was Variety, who had one of their film reviewers recently die, and they asked me to take over as reviewer and cover films in major festivals including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Montreal.
The first reviewing I did was for Variety, then I was invited by the Sydney Morning Herald to do a few reviews for them when their regular reviewer was on holiday. Finally I was invited by The Australian to write for them, and then we started – me and Margaret Pomeranz – to approach SBS management for a film review program like Siskel and Ebert in America, or like Barry Norman in England. So you know what happened about that.
I guess the irony is that yourself and Margaret seem to have slipped into the film criticism industry whereas it is surrounded by hopefuls and have-nots. People are desperate to have these jobs now.
Yes, you could say that is an irony. The problem is, and I’ll tell you that I’m probably speaking out of turn here, for the last couple of years I’ve been talking to ABC management about preparing for a transition, so that when Margaret and I finally retire from this they have got a couple of young reviewers ready to take over. And they won’t do it. They just are not interested. Their view is that when we retire, that’ll be it, because nobody else can do it, which is nonsense. Nonsense. There are any number of young reviewers who could do it very well, and probably even better, but they won’t even consider it. At least so far. I mean, I am keeping on trying. I am pushing every chance I get because I think it would be sad and ridiculous to let the program die when it could be equally as successful if they found the right combination…They point to the fact that when we left SBS the replacement people didn’t work. But they didn’t maybe choose the right people, I don’t know.
“Their view is that when we retire, that’ll be it, because nobody else can do it, which is nonsense”
If these thoughts are rumbling around in your head, does that mean you’re considering retiring any time soon?
Well, I mean, we finished up 25 years last year and this is our 26th year. That’s enough, isn’t it? (chuckles)
It depends on who you ask. I would say not enough, but I’m a fan of the show.
You don’t have to do it every week!
The general public love to munch away while watching a movie. What are your eating habits in the cinema? Are you addicted to popcorn, sneak in the occasional choc-top, or there strictly to watch the film?
I am there to watch the film and I make notes. I can’t eat as well as make notes. No, I don’t like popcorn. Popcorn was an American thing, one of these things introduced into Australia I think in the early 80s, and it’s got such a horrible smell. I’m not a popcorn fan at all.
I love the smell of popcorn. I think maybe it’s because I find it immediately conjures up images of the cinema.
I think it probably has done that but you see for me it doesn’t, because what conjured images of the cinema in my youth were quite different smells. To me it’s an American thing. People always used to have popcorn in American cinemas. I didn’t have it but it was always there and you could always smell it – the bloody cinemas always smelt of popcorn, but it was never something I liked very much.
Moving onto the subject of tear jerkers. Do you often cry when you’re watching a film? If so when was the last time you blubbered up?
Oh look, I do, but not so much contemporary films. I was talking about this recently. Earlier this year there was some film called The Vow, which is obviously meant to make you tear up but it didn’t work for me at all. Maybe because it wasn’t a very good film. There are certain films that I have great trouble sitting through – well, not sitting through, I can sit through them — but they move me emotionally quite strongly. So yeah I’m not ashamed to say I have been known to cry in the cinema. I think we used this maybe in our 25th anniversary program. I’d once gone to a festival to see a film that starred Kate Winslet. When I went to interview her later on somebody had told her they saw me wiping away a tear at the end of the film, and she challenged me with this!
Who are you five of your favourite living directors?
Well, that’s not very easy. That’s a hard one. I guess I would say Clint Eastwood. I would say Martin Scorsese. The last two films I saw of his were terrific – the George Harrison documentary, which is really very very good – and Hugo. But the couple of films he made before that I was quite disappointed by. They were well made films but they didn’t engage me the way his best films do. At one stage I would have said Woody Allen, but Woody Allen has made a startling number of really bad films. But Clint Eastwood has consistently made films that have interested me. Some are obviously better than others but they are always on a certain level of achievement and interest. Also because he represents a classical kind of cinema that I very much respond to. In a certain sense I derive more pleasure from the cinema these days when I am watching films made from another era than contemporary. There are some exceptions, obviously.
Does this feeds into your, is it fair to call it a pet peeve, against films you perceive to unnecessarily use handheld devices? You’ve talked a lot about this on At the Movies before.
Yeah. There is nothing wrong with handheld cameras per se. Some great films were shot with handheld cameras. What I strongly dislike is the Paul Greengrass style of throwing the camera all over the place, zooming in on irrelevant things and then over-editing to the point where you reach the stage of nausea. I know that generation X or Y or whatever it is like this sort of thing. They’ve got no time or patience for character development and they just want action and so on. I’m sorry, it makes me sick and I really don’t like it. So there’s nothing wrong with handheld camera per se, it’s just when it’s badly used.
What are some of your favourite Australian films of the last ten years?
Just off the top of my head, Lantana. I think that’s a great film by any standard. I thought Burning Man last year was fantastic.
What is your first memory of the cinema? Or, if not the first, then your earliest recollection of watching films?
I started going to the cinema when I was very young. My grandmother took me, so my early memories are mostly those Disney films that kids of my generation were taken to, like Bambi. The thing was, in those days there was continuous performances, so you would go in – my grandmother anyway would take me in, and we’d sometimes go in in the middle of the feature and see it ‘round’, as the expression was. So you would see the last part of the feature and then you would sit through the trailer and the newsreel and the cartoon and the supporting film and then you’d see the beginning of the feature again. When you got to the point where you came in, if you were enjoying it you would see it again or get up and leave at that point. I have vivid memories of coming in on films that were halfway through, or nearly ending, and then seeing them round.
Alfred Hitchcock of course was one of the people who were very much against that tradition and he worked that to his advantage, as I assume you’d agree
When Psycho was released in 1960, Hitchcock was powerful enough to make several stipulations, one of which was that no photographs of the film would be shown in the lobby, or outside the cinema. It had very simple posters (saying) nobody would be allowed in after the film had started. That in itself was a great publicity campaign. People were forced, quite against their normal habit, to line up for the start of the film. And it worked. I remember the very first session of Psycho in the town I was living in at the time. There was a cue about a mile long.