Film review: DAVID STRATTON: A CINEMATIC LIFE, from ‘Built For Speed’

Like Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies and Bertrand Tavernier’s A Journey Through French Cinema, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life sees a prominent movie identity describing the films that are most important to him and that, in many ways, shaped his life. Like the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself the perspective here is a little different as the subject is a critic rather than a director.

Written and directed by Sally Aitken, the film sees Stratton recount his early love of film which was nurtured through very frequent visits to the cinema with his aunt during the Second World War. One of the films that made the biggest impression on him was The Overlanders and it was that film’s rugged landscapes and its star Chips Rafferty’s charismatic performance that partly inspired Stratton’s decision to visit Australia.

Later becoming Sydney Film Festival director, variety magazine critic and perhaps most famously a co-presenter with Margaret Pomerantz of The Movie Show on SBS and At the Movies on the ABC he has championed and in some cases savaged thousands of films. Here he concentrates on Australian films describing his favourites and those that met with his displeasure. His most treasured films include the mesmerising Picnic At Hanging Rock which helped launch what became known as the ‘new wave of Australian cinema’ in the 1970’s a movement that gave our film culture artistic credibility and propelled some of our best actors and directors to Hollywood stardom. He also reminds us of the excoriating power of films that critiqued Australian culture such as Wake in Fright and Evil Angels. The documentary also contains some fascinating behind the scenes shots from classic Australian movies.

Exploring film through various themes including female empowerment, the migrant experience and colonial rebellion, David Stratton provides a reasonably comprehensive look at the history of Australian film going right back to The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, possibly the first ever feature film. He touches on sub-genres like Ozploitation and briefly explores the work of our most prominent directors including Peter Weir and Baz Luhrmann. There are also interview/testimonials from superstar actors like Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Jack Thompson and Jackie Weaver.

Aitken takes a novel approach here breaking up the typical talking head interview/film clip format by placing David in famous film locations or scenarios that recall movie scenes such as the bar sequences in Wake In Fright. In this way she emphasises how deeply intertwined David Stratton’s life and cinema are although some of these sequences are a little goofy particularly the attempt to link Stratton to Muriel from Muriel’s Wedding.

Aitken gives the film a clean uncluttered appearance and appropriate to its subject, a dignified and low-key tone. Still, it doesn’t flinch from Stratton’s career controversies including his refusal to rate Romper Stomper as he thought it promoted violence and inflamed racial tension, a view with which this reviewer disagrees. There’s an amusing retort from Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright and it’s refreshing to see a documentary that doesn’t sugar coat its subject.

The film doesn’t provide a lot of detail about David Stratton’s personal life except to suggest that a life in cinema was not something of which his father in England approved.   As expected Margaret Pomerantz, his sparring partner from The Movie Show and At the Movies, appears and she has a few amusing digs at him.

Ideally, Aitken and Stratton would have covered more films, spoken to more directors and explored Australian cinema culture in even greater depth. This film is, however, a truncated version of a three-part ABC TV special so maybe that extended version will satisfy some of the minor quibbles with this film. For the time being, though, this is an excellent introduction to Australian cinema and one of its most dedicated acolytes.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Sally Aitken.

Release date: 9th March 2017.

Running time: 106 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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