Tuesday 28 March 2017

David Stratton: A Cinematic Life (2017) - Movie Review

Even in the world of Internet criticism and the democratisation of opinions about media, there is still one name and one name only who is the most important film critic in Australian history: David Stratton. The Oceanic answer to Roger Ebert, gaining mainstream attention through the Australian version of At The Movies with fellow critic Margaret Pomeranz, he basically embodies everything I both love and hate about the typical newspaper film critic. He has a very evident love for the medium and helped build up the Sydney Film Festival, but he also employs a lot of the faux-profundities and literary snootiness that I have railed on many times before. Still, regardless of all that, I find myself almost required to show respect where it’s due because of his importance to the industry. Have to admit, I wasn’t exactly anxious to check this film out, given how this is the sort of critic I usually try to avoid out in the wild, but considering how this year has been for Aussie cinema already, I reckon it’s worth being given its time in the sun on this blog.

The plot (such as it is): David Stratton reflects on his own life as it connects to films, both with my lifelong fascination with the artform and how he relates to it personally. While numerous prominent Australian actors and filmmakers talk about Stratton and his impact on the Australian film industry, we see said film industry through some of its most important contributions to world cinema.

Even though this is touted and framed as a look into the life and times of David Stratton, this is as much a look into the history of Australian cinema itself as it is a look at Stratton. From iconic favourites like Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle to international classics like Strictly Ballroom and the Mad Max series to underplayed gems like Wake In Fright and Evil Angels (the latter of which is underplayed due to historical dilution involving the phrase “The dingo stole my baby”), a very wide net is cast in regards to Aussie cinema. Hell, it even goes all the way back to the earliest days of the medium with The Story Of The Kelly Gang, a 1908 lost film that is regarded as the first feature-length film ever produced.
Between all this and the anecdotes provided by the interviewees, we get a pretty vivid look at the timeline of Aussie film culture, serving as a primer for a large number of cultural and aesthetic milestones. Even as a native, it is quite fascinating to look at the colourful and commendable history of this little island that is largely used as a joke about wildlife and beer so shite that we exported it to idiots who would actually drink it.

So, how does this relate to Stratton? I mean, his name is in the title and it’s purportedly about his life, so where does Aussie film history fit into it? Well, for Stratton, film is his life. The snapshots of his life that we get, from his strained relationship with his family to his feelings of isolation when first arriving in Australia, are depicted in relation to similar scenes in Aussie films. That, and a few tidbits from interviewees, but for the most part, we are seeing a man who relates to the world, and his adopted home, through the medium of cinema. When we see his extensive filing system for the films he’s watched (over 20,000 of them) and his written thoughts on each, even those unfamiliar with his work will see a man who is truly dedicated to his love for cinema. Of course, the film doesn’t exactly deify him either as they freely admit that he is still a man wielding only a singular opinion, outlined through his encounter with Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright and his changing perspective on The Castle.

Of course, when I see his filing system, I see something a bit different. It’s an incredible irony that, in watching a film about a man who connects his own life to films, I would see a film that I can connect to my own life. The obsessing over and encyclopaedic knowledge of what he’s seen, getting a job as an usher at the Sydney Film Festival so he could watch free movies, feeling that he is doing a service to not only his home of Australia but also to cinema at large by discussing and promoting films as he does; I can’t be the only cinephile who can see shades of their own history in those actions. Hell, even down to a moment about his grandmother taking him to see a lot of movies when he was a kid, a moment I watched in the cinema while sitting next to my grandmother.
Now, all of this probably means nothing to those of you who just want to know what films are worth watching based on my writings. But that’s the thing: Emotional and personal connections to films, no matter how subjective, have merit. Films serve a great many purposes for the average person, and among them are as a reflection of one’s own world in a way that can be easily digested through the veneer of being acted out on screen. And with this film, I found kinship with a man who I honestly didn’t have too high an opinion of in the first place because, quite frankly, he has much the same approach to cinema as I do; as I’m sure many others do as well.

All in all… wow. In no uncertain terms, this is a film that simultaneously made me proud to be an Australian, a film critic and an Australian film critic. As much about the history of one of Australian cinema’s most important figures as it is a look into Australian cinema itself, this is an amazingly-paced, edited and endlessly engaging documentary. Quite honestly, I can see myself watching this many times over and it’s quite rare that I ever say that about a film, even some of my all-time favourites. As much as I hold Silence in rather high regard for its relevancy and poignancy, this film still manages to strike a stronger chord with me personally. Kind of fitting, given this is a film all about personal connections with films.

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