If you grew up in Australia anytime in the past half-century and have a passing interest in movies, chances are your tastes were shaped by David Stratton. As director of the Sydney Film Festival during its formative years and — of course — a host of The Movie Show and then At The Movies alongside Margaret Pomeranz, Stratton has had an immense influence on Australian film culture without ever making a movie himself.
Well, until now. Sort of. Stratton is the star of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, a documentary which just hit Australian cinemas (it’s also getting an extended, three-part version hitting ABC in the near future). The film, directed by Sally Aitken, acts as a biography for Stratton — covering ground from his fraught relationship with his father to the time he was under ASIO surveillance for programming movies from the USSR at the Sydney Film Festival — while doubling as a compact history of Australian cinema.
The release of A Cinematic Life sees Stratton on the other side of the media fence; rather than conducting interviews and Q&As, he’s the interviewee. A tricky interviewee, it must be said. With a biography — I Peed on Fellini — published, and now a biographical film, most of Stratton’s best stories have already been told. And the obvious questions about films he’s liked seem a bit pointless when you take into account he’s still an active critic nowadays, despite his retirement from television.
So I decided to try a different tack. Rather than rocking up with a list of pre-prepared questions designed to elicit slender variations on the answers given to a host of other publications, I opted for something more casual: a chat about the state of Australian criticism with someone who’d know more about it than practically anyone else. I wanted to plonk myself down next to him and assume the role of Ms Pomeranz (even if, with the beard and name, I’m perhaps better suited to sitting stage right).