Mar 28, 2017

Five Stars for David Stratton. And for the documentary about him, and about the history of Australian film

I am still floating in movie junky heaven. Last week, finally, I got to go to the much anticipated preview of the documentary David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, followed by a Q&A with the stellar duo themselves, David and Margaret, back together again, and joined on stage by award-winning director Gillian Armstrong and the documentary’s director, Sally Aitken.

It was, fittingly, held in one of the last and most beautiful art deco homes of Sydney cinema, the Cremorne Orpheum. And there wasn’t a spare seat in spacious Cinema 4, filled – tautologically – with movie lovers and Stratton fans.

And the whole event was beyond my wildest expectations. The account of Stratton’s life and deep and enduring love of film was in itself both moving and fascinating. To see him go unerringly to the first review that he had ever written, in a childish hand for The Overlanders, was a joy. To hear his touching account of his mother’s eventual pride in his career choice brought tears to many eyes – his and mine included.

And over the many years of his filmic life in Australia we were ships that passed in the night. I was one of the many appreciative Sydney Film Festival goers in his early days of running it, back in the 60s; and to learn more about that time brought so many good memories back. And of course, over the many years of his on-screen partnership with Margaret I was one of the devoted fans of their work.

But, over and perhaps even above the bewitching stroll through his life (and who knew that our David was an internationally appreciated film critic for his many years with Variety magazine?), the documentary turned out to be an amazing appreciation of the history of Australian film, illuminated by excerpts from so many films that we older movie lovers have enjoyed and forgotten about over the years (OMG! Jedda! I have got to see that again).

The amount of work that it must have taken director Aitken and the film’s editor to pull all of this together so coherently just about does my head in to think about. They went right back to the first complete movie ever made, in the world, which just happens to be Australian, and the first of many about Ned Kelly. And they focus on a wealth of classics, and some duds, and some totally scary ones that I had avoided when they were first out, and feel totally vindicated about after seeing bits of what I’d missed: Wake in Fright to take a prime example. Having said that, it was very special to see Chips Rafferty both in one of his early movies, the aforesaid The Overlanders, and then in his last, Wake in Fright, and to hear about his stoush with his director in that, on the matter of real beer. One of the many treats in store for future viewers of this documentary, which was filled with so many anecdotes from so many Australian stars and so many directors of Australian films.

This is, quite simply, a feast of a film, about a life that is not only continuing to be – as it was – very well lived, but one which is also at the beating heart of our film industry. And his wonderful partner in crime should not be overlooked, for her place by his side there. And for those of you who also miss them deeply, and who were at that preview, I was the person who got up and asked them to please, please come back to us.

Their answer was an understandable “no”, due partly to having had enough of having to sit through the testosterone-filled, under-plotted, FX-laden films that now make up too much of Hollywood’s output. At the same time, they are both still plying their reviewing trade in various more selective ways, from reporting on films in The Australian and on Foxtel, to heading movie-buff cruises. It’s great to see that age is definitely not wearying them, and so I want to put a suggestion out there: what about a series of specials – say every half year or so – when they get together to review the best of what they’d seen in that time? Let’s work on getting a critical mass to urge David and Margaret and the ABC to think about that.

In the meantime, it is very good to know that a longer, three-part version of this documentary will be shown in June on said ABC.

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