Saturday, March 13, 2010

Castaway with David Stratton

Last night I attended ACMI's Desert Island Flicks with David Stratton. I'm really enjoying this new ACMI regular event, where a film personality discusses the five films they'd want to have if marooned on a desert island.

First thing, DS apologised for cheating. His selection was five that affected him so deeply that they had changed his life in some way. This is, for me, what film is largely about - part of a larger dialogue about life and life issues.

DS is probably most well-known as the co-host of TV's At The Movies and it's previous SBS incarnation, The Movie Show, for the last twenty-four years. He helmed the Sydney Film Festival for 18 years from 1966 to 1983, during which time he championed the 'last New Wave' of Australian cinema and fought against parochial film censorship. As a precursor to his weekly time slot with Margaret Pomeranz, DS also championed world cinema on SBS with presentations on SBS of World Cinema and Movie Classic selections. During this time, he had unusual freedom to present a treaure-house of films that introduced many to a different world of cinema, and he mentioned during the evening that some of these were technically banned in this country.

The evening was introduced and moderated by the very informed and informative Deb Verhoeven. She mentioned that DS was born in 1939 and came to Australia in 1963 at age 24 as a '£10 pom' (ie in receipt of assisted passage).

DS's selections are basically a short autobiography. He mentioned that five is an arbitrary number - he could have just as easily selected 10, 20 or 100, but that we'd be there until after midnight. Here then is his selection:

1. Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, USA, 1946)
As a young child during the war, DS grew up with his father absent. Living in Andover, Hampshire, he developed a love of cinema from his grandmother, who took him to the movies four or five times a week. Much to his mother's disapproval, the grandmother had no sense of censorship and would take him to anything. This film left a powerful impact on the 6 year old Stratton mind, with it's melodrama full of immoral characters, and left him "mildly traumatised".

2. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1955)
As a 16 or 17 year old living in Birmingham, DS was aghast to realise that, despite no shortage of cinemas in the city, he'd seen everything screening. By this time he had become consumed with cinema and pretty much lived to see the next film. It was at this time that he discovered film societies and crossed town to see Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). He joined up for the monthly screenings and the next month he discovered foreign language films with Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.

As a "lusty teenager", DS was taken by the overt sensuality and consequently had a crush one of the beautiful actresses (whose name I don't recall). Most importantly, he was introduced to a whole other world of film that has had a profound influence in his life.

3. Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia, 1965)
It was 1966 and DS was the director of the Sydney Film Festival. The nature of censorship in this country at that time meant that virtually every film for public exhibition had cuts, even innocuous films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This continued until 1971 when Don Chipp became the Minister for Customs. According to DS, the two preceding ministers were idiots.

The nature of censorship meant that quite often, the first time DS would see a film was in the less than ideal environment of the censor's office as they would comment on various scenes to be cut. The censor demanded about 20 cuts to Loves of a Blonde. DS wrote an intemperate letter to the censor, effectively calling him an arsehole, that he had a hideous point-of-view that insinuated a dirty perspective of the film.

The next day, DS received a phone call (I think) from the censor's assistant who said the censor was extremely insulted and that if the film was to be shown, the cuts must be made. DS complied but decided to never again screen a film with any censor's cuts. While screening a clip from the film, DS commented on where cuts were made, and really, they showed how prudish and unnecessary the censors were.

4. Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Konen/Gene Kelly, 1952)
It is well known that Singin' in the Rain is DS's favourite film. At the time, he was living in Chelsea and was immersing himself in MGM musicals. This one struck him for its being highly cinematic and has stayed with him. He estimates that he's seen it some 50-60 times. An element that is important to him is that it is about the transition from the silent era to sound, and that silent films are an art form that is not much understood by contemporary audiences. He spoke at some length on this subject.

DS also mentioned his awe of Gene Kelly and how he met him in Australia and he hadn't appeared to age at all - especially his hair colour had remained unchanged over the decades. He later interviewed Kelly at his home in Beverly Hills and when a short bald man answered the door, he realied that Kelly had previously been wearing a wig. DS's admiration for the man was not just due to his great on-screen talent but also because he was a very genuine man whose politics DS respected. Kelly's wife had been black-listed during the dark McCarthy era and Kelly had been active in supporting those artists.

5. The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)
During his directorship of the Sydney Film Festival, DS championed the works of many Australian directors, including Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong and Paul Cox. He became friends with several of them, including Weir, who allowed him on the set during the making of The Last Wave. In one kitchen scene, filmed in an actual house, there was not enough room for the cast and crew for DS to sit in, and so he crouched under the table at David Gulpilil's feet.

The night's proceedings then turned to a Q&A session. Some of what transpired is as follows:
  • In reponse to a question about the relevance of film criticism, DS mentioned the recent sacking of Todd McCarthy from Variety magazine after 31 years and that he (himself having written for the magazine for 20 years), wrote an intemperate letter of complaint.
  • It was revealed that as of 2008, DS had seen some 125,000 films (it's well-known that he records every film he's ever seen, even as a child - something I do myself, though I started my list in 1995).
  • DS is hoping to make it to 25 years with Margaret Pomeranz, which will make them the longest on-screen film criticism partnership. This will be sometime next year. Later I asked if he had anything planned beyond that to which he replied that he's 70 years old and on his last legs. I suggested maybe he could go back to his roots and champion the films he loves rather than what he clearly finds a chore at times, having to see the latest Sandra Bullock or queasy-cam (his term) Paul Greengrass film. DS went into some length about his early days at SBS and the unparalleled freedom he enjoyed in those days. He didn't think that freedom was possible today, and certainly not at the ABC. Without going into details, he was clearly unhappy with how he and Margaret were treated at the end of their stay at SBS.
  • In answer to a question DS mentioned that bad films have always been made, but that decades ago, the bad films were better than most of what is produced today. It's hard to argue against that, in my opinion.
  • In answer to a question about the onscreen chemistry with his co-host, DS mentioned that only twice did the show have to be stopped because their arguing got out of hand. Both times it was Margaret getting out of hand - surprise, surprise!
  • DS mentioned that hand-held camera work evolved from TV but that's it out of control and caters to a young audience. He described it as a video game style and that Paul Greengrass had made a living out of it (I can't watch his films). The Hurt Locker was mentioned as a film where the hand-held work wasn't too distracting and that modern directors should look at cinematographers like Haskell Wexler to see how hand-held should be done.
  • He wondered whether viewers get bored with his complaints about hand-held camera. I called out that it's always appreciated and others in the audience nodded in agreement.
  • The big film festivals like Sydney and Melbourne now show too many films - half of them aren't worth seeing (which I've written on before, and agree with). Previously, Sydney would screen about 50 films, and nearly half of them would get a theatrical release.
  • For DS, much of the magic of cinema has gone. Partly that's a reflection of himself (as I've often said, some kinds of magic can only happen once), and partly it's because films aren't as good as they used to be. What once received general wide release, can't even garner an arthouse release - this has of course been mentioned in multiple spheres in recent times, a lament many of us share.
  • The best fun DS has had in his professional life has been the ten-year course he's run at the University of Sydney, covering the history of cinema, with about 100 attendees. He's started a second ten-year course, and about 30% of the students are repeats from his first course. He loves the personal interaction and the research he does to present the course. Unfortunately, he hasn't yet worked out how to clone himself for us Melbournians.
The evening was very different to the previous debut event with Adam Elliot (I plan to write on that - I was preoccupied with other things at the time). That's a reflection of the individuals being highlighted as much as the different vocations. With Adam Elliot, it was fascinating to see how his selections were a reflection of his work (or rather, vice versa) whereas with David Stratton, his selections were more about the path his life had taken.

The next Desert Island Flicks sessions will be with journalist Chris Masters, followed by indigenous elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin and then director Tim Burton. I highly recommend them, and with a limit of 80 seats per session, you need to get in early.


Jurguens said...

He has a good selection of films there. I wonder what five films I would choose... Something to think about it.

And it sounds like a great discussion afterwards. Hopefully I can make it to one of these desert islands in the future.

Side note: I'm far too undisciplined to record every film I see, and I think it's too late for that anyway, but I have friends who do it and it's actually a great idea.

Paul Martin said...

For each film, a clip is screened, and one of them was about 15 minutes or more. It's a great guided tour of someone else's important films. It's a bit like checking out someone's book or DVD collection when you're visiting someone, which I think is always interesting, even if you don't have the same taste.

In this case, I don't always have the same taste as David Stratton - I actually saw Singin' in the Rain a while ago purely on the strength of it being his favourite, but was underwhelmed by it. But after his presentation and his discussion of it, I'd be prepared to watch it again and consider it afresh. That's what I like about film discussion in general - the insights it gives us into not just the films we love, but maybe those we don't.

Chris Masters is the next Desert Island guest. Do you know who he is, Jurguens? He's an investigative journalist with no connections to film that I'm aware of. The guy is really intelligent from what I understand and I'll definitely be aiming to go to that. Let me know if you're inteested, and maybe we can catch up?

I started watching films after my marriage broke up in 1992. It started as a trickle, just watching stuff at the cinemaplex and, as my hunger for it grew, I outgrew the cinemaplexes, which basically only show 5 or 6 films, ie, every film that screens is a repeat of another the same, but with a different title. Getting bored with those, I discovered the arthouse cinemas and after a while I started collecting my cinema tickets as a record of what I'd seen. I had about five years of tickets and I decided to put them into an Excel spreadsheet.

Now I work as in a field where I am considered an Excel expert, and my use of the spreadsheet, while no means anything fancy, has developed along the way. It's part of my personality, I've always been into journals, recording things, etc. You can start any time. I find it interesting to be able to reflect on a year, or a decade, or to see when I saw something, or where, with who. Because I record all those details as well.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I used to worship Stratton and Pomeranz even though I disagreed with them regularly. But in recent years I've reached the point where - though I respect them somewhat and aspects of what they do and stand for - I can barely tolerate them.

Stratton's refusal to engage with any movie that features shaky handheld camera has made him irrelevant to me and, I'd say, to much of the most important contemporary cinema. (I understand that he finds it irritating, but I don't think he understands that it's an aesthetic in its own right and it serves a productive purpose.)

Another thing I find irritating is the way they give Every movie three-and-a-half stars. They'll bitch inarticulately for five minutes and then cap it off "But there's some fun to be had. Three and a half stars."

And also both of them suffer from a common movie critic syndrome, whereby they're quite comfortable pondering a film for several paragraphs of essentially meaningless phrases like "truly inspired" or "absolutely mesmerised" or "visually stunning" or "mouthwateringly beautiful" (the adverbs! they kill me!) without making any incisive or productive observations about precisely why it's "diarrhoea-inducingly amazing" or whatever. For all it really contains, just about every review of theirs in the past few years could really - and much more efficiently - be summed up as "I loved it", "I liked it", "I liked it but I shouldn't" or "Queasycam".

Paul Martin said...

I hear you, Goran. Their show used to be one of my must-see's of the week, but that was a long time ago (truth is there's little that interests me on the small screen). I find Pomeranz particularly irritating, and her denigration of Stratton is often offensive. But, like you, I respect them both.

I got the impression from Stratton's talking that his show is just a job for him. He bemoans the quality of film-making today, and the films that he's obligated to watch in order to present critique on TV.

Stratton's harping about hand-held is not universal - he acknowledges that it was used to good effect and to an acceptable level in The Hurt Locker, which I agree with. I generally agree with every warning he gives about hand-held. I think he's well aware that it's an aesthetic in its own right, but that he generally hates it. Again, so do I, with few exceptions. I think it's a fad that appeals to younger audiences - for me, I have to look away from the screen.

I argued long ago that David and Margaret let way too many balls through to the keeper by awarding a blanket 3 stars to virtually every dog Hollywood film, regardless of how bad it is. IMO, there should be a helluva lot more 1/2 or 1 star reviews, but you have to consider the target market. The show appeals to a mainstream market who go to see these films and love them.

A couple of years ago, I found it insightful to read the transcripts to their show. For any given film, there's virtually no critical commentary on it at all. As soon as David tries to start on an angle, he gets cut off my Margaret, tut-tutting him in some way. It's rare for a valid point to be made.

Another problem I have with the show is the number of spoilers, including trailers. I never watch trailers to a film I plan to see. Too much of the show is spent watching the trailer while the plot is being divulged. I seem to recall David saying some time ago that he wouldn't watch a show like his.

So, with some exceptions, I think we're on pretty much the same page on this one, mate.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Paul, you and I have been agreeing way too much lately.

Paul Martin said...

Sorry, I can change the subject matter if you prefer. Something we're sure to disagree on - Almodóvar? FWIW, I usually enjoy reading your posts, Goran, even when I disagree. Even if it's Almodóvar.

Rodney said...

125000 films seen!Is that a misprint,otherwise you would need to watch 2000 films per year,5.5 films a day(going by a 60 year time span).I'm 42 and have seen 8000(10000 including repeat viewings).I know David was director of the SFF for 20 years and has worked as a critic.It is not possible to watch more than 60,000 feature films in a lifetime.

Paul Martin said...

Dunno, Rodney. That's what I wrote down at the time. Maybe it's my error, maybe it includes shorts.

Paul Martin said...

Maybe it was 25,000? That would make an average of about 400 per year, which sounds about right...