Interview: David Stratton, A Cinematic Life

We interview Australian cinema icon, David Stratton, about being the focus of the limited release documentary film, A Cinematic Life, opening 9 March 2017.

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Opening on 9 March 2017 is the documentary feature film, A Cinematic Life. Front and centre of this homage to Australian cinema is our most beloved film critic and historian, David Stratton. Rushing in from a delayed flight, suffering with a throat infection, and decidedly exhausted, Stratton still graciously took the time to sit with Tracey Korsten to chat about the film and about his inexhaustible passion for movies.

First up, the question had to be asked what made this most private of men agree to participate in a film where he is the main attraction?

“Well,” he says in his signature dulcet tones, “this started out as a three part ABC-TV series in which I would reflect on some of the most interesting Australian movies…the ones that mean a lot to me. And as these things do, it changed a bit during production so that an element of it became how I got to be where I am. And it was only fairly late in the day that they decided to make a cinema version.”

The television version will be shown later this year on ABC but the emphasis is different. This is no biopic though. It is a journey through Australian cinema, but is also about the way that cinema helped Stratton, an immigrant, to find his sense of place here, and his vocation.

“I grew up in the UK and when I came out, I only intended to stay here for two years. But then I got involved with the Sydney Film Festival and the campaign against censorship. Eventually I took over running the Festival and ran it for 17 years. I met many film makers like Peter Weir, Phil Noyce, Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion when they submitted short films to the Festival and we’ve stayed friends over the years.”

There are many, wonderful, Australian stories that are crying out to be translated to the cinema. Stratton has three in mind, in particular.

Capricornia by Xavier Herbert and Voss by Patrick White. Both of them were nearly made into films in the 70s, but didn’t get there. And an incident I would love to see made into film is The Battle of Broken Hill. It’s an incredible story. Two Islamic men, living in Broken Hill in 1915, who were working as ice-cream sellers. They decided that they should do their bit for the Turkish cause, so on New Year’s Day, at the picnic grounds, they went with their ice-cream cart and opened fire. This story was nearly made into a film in the 70s. [A documentary feature was made about it in 1981, directed by Robin Levinson].”

But what of the films of his birthplace, Britain? David responds enthusiastically that he loved all the Ealing Comedies like Whiskey Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets, was a huge fan of The Goon Show and Peter Sellers when he started making films, and loves British war films like The Dam-Busters and The Sound Barrier. He also confesses to loving the films of David Lean.

Aside from film, there has been a deep vein of quality writing and direction appearing on the small screen over the last 15 years but David admits to never being much of a TV fan.

“Having to see every film that is released, and lecturing on film history, didn’t leave me any time, so I consciously thought I can’t [watch TV],” he says bluntly. “I did try recently, and bought a couple of series that came very highly recommended…I won’t tell you what they were!  But I thought they were protracted and flabby. Six hours where there should have been no more than two. So at least four hours of flab. A good film editor or director would have cut this right down.”

So does this most intellectual of cinephiles harbour a guilty pleasure? A film he was touched by despite the fact that it wasn’t terribly good?

“I think if I’ve been touched then it was a pretty good film. The fact that it’s touched you means that it’s worked. After all, the most important aspect of film is emotion.”

The David Stratton Special Oscars, as told to Glam Adelaide
Best car chase: The French Connection

Best ending: A film from 1933 that nobody’s seen called Only Yesterday.

Best opening: A Touch of Evil, 1958, Orson Welles.  They originally printed the credits over it, but now it can be seen as it was meant to be.

Best sex scene: Body Heat, William Hurt and Kathleen Turner

Best fight scene: I don’t like fight scenes very much, so I can’t even think of one. I’ve probably put them out of my mind!

Best soundtrack: Again…an obscure one.  The Bad and the Beautiful 1952. Magnificent music score by David Raksin. [Stephen Sondheim declared this one of the best film themes of all time].

Film you’ve cried through the most: There are so many! But I’d probably choose Brief Encounter 1945…their goodbye at the train station…

Film you’ve laughed through the most: Humour is so particular. I’d pick all of the Marx Brothers and all of W C Fields. And To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.  The Awful Truth is also very clever.

And finally, what would David Stratton’s desert island film be? He answers without a moment’s hesitation:  Singing in the Rain!

Interviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

A Cinematic Life opens on 9 March 2017 at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas and runs for a limited season until 15 March. It will also have two screenings only at the GU Film House, Glenelg on 16 and 22 March.

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