Runtime: 90 minutes
Directed by: Sally Aitkin
David Stratton’s love for Australian cinema had a massive impact on Australia’s film industry. It is ironic that he wasn’t even born here, yet has cemented himself as a cultural icon on our shores. With David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, New Zealand-born Sally Aitken has crafted and warm and uplifting portrait into the film critic and the movies that shaped both this country and him. The film chronicles a little bit of David’s childhood in Wiltshire England, but the bulk of the film focuses on Australian films and their creators.
Aitken traces David’s journey back to spending the war years with his grandmother, an avid filmgoer, at their local pictures every afternoon. Born into a family who did not share his enthusiasm for cinema, Stratton’s younger brother Roger describes their relationship as, “We got along, but we were not close because we have absolutely nothing in common.” His appearance in this film works in providing an emotional, familial backbone for this portrait.
The documentary makes the case that many Australian films link to David’s personal experience. For David, Chipps Rafferty (who starred in 1946’s The Overlanders) showed that risk takers are rewarded – a fitting description for David’s life. In 1963, the opportunity for David to turn his passion into a profession came when he was offered the job of Sydney Film Festival director. David’s father was furious: he was originally meant to stay for two years and return to England to take over the family grocery business. This emotional touchstone is paralleled with the scene of Anthony LaPaglia arguing with his son in 2001’s Latana.
David Stratton and advertising executive Phil Adams lobbied for federal funding for Australia’s film industry and paved the way for filmmakers like Jane Campion, Philip Noyce and Peter Weir. Much of A Cinematic Life is given over to the actors and directors responsible behind the country’s landmark films. They don’t specifically speak of what contributions David made to their films. Instead, David analyses the emotional punch the films had on him.
There is a lot of humour to be found in A Cinematic Life. David’s battle against Australia’s classification and censorship board in the 60’s paved the way to his least favourite home-grown genre – ’80s Ozploitation (low-budget, action, horror, sex-romp fare). “Be careful what you wish for.” Students from David’s film history course at Sydney University provide insight into David’s strict classroom manner. It was on television that David became a cherished institution and his At the Movies co-host Margret Pomeranz pops in to reflect on the long-running programme, and mock David for reading Enid Blyton novels as a child (“They’re for girls”).
David doesn’t cut corners when it comes to his less-flattering views of Australian films, arguing that his job comes with responsibility. He still has not changed his mind about Romper Stomper, the film he famously refused to score on air, concerned with the implications the film’s relentless depiction of racism could have on society. Although David claims this wasn’t true of zero stars, it did lead to an antagonistic encounter with director Geoffrey Wright at a film festival years later. Wright is interviewed in the film, referring to David as a “pompous windbag.”
Anyone who has read David’s biography I Peed On Fellini may be frustrated by the lack of insight into his extended family (David is a husband and father). The most emotional point of the film comes from David remembering meeting his father, who returned from the war, at age six. However, if you have followed David as a film critic (like myself), A Cinematic Life offers a fascinating, funny and moving portrait of the movies that educated him. It certainly inspired me to check out one of David’s favourite films, 1971’s Wake in Fright, and his least-favourite, 1982’s ocker-horror Turkey Shoot.