Interview with David Stratton

On the phone, it’s surprising to hear a voice that is so familiar. David Stratton has been on my TV since I was a kid, so it makes sense. But when he says my name and asks how I am, it feels like a surreal moment in a film when the TV talks back.

Stratton hasn’t been on the box since December last year. He and co-host Margaret Pomeranz decided to retire their weekly film review show, At The Movies, after 28 years on air together. While it’s hard to imagine Stratton as anything but a film critic, it’s a career he found himself in rather than one he actively pursued. Following his 18-year stint as director of the Sydney Film Festival, where he first battled the Australian Classification Office on issues of censorship, Stratton began programming films on SBS. It was around this time he was asked to write for Variety, following which reviewing opportunities began to flow in, including beginning The Movie Show with Pomeranz in 1986.Pomeranz often described their duo as a balancing act, Stratton as the pedagogue and she as the “bum on the seat” viewer. Her description of Stratton rings true throughout his career. As an educator, festival director, and film programmer, Stratton has generously shared his knowledge of film and created opportunities for people to see them.

“I think there’s plenty of scope on free-to-air television for such a program [like At The Movies]. I thought that back in 1986 when we started, and I think it’s still true today. I’m sure there are lots of young film critics who are very, very capable of doing it.”

“I think that’s absolutely true. I’ve always, from the very beginning wanted to share my love of films with other people, so I suppose that’s been my life’s work,” Stratton says.

“When I was about 19… I started a film society in my hometown in England and looking back I guess that was exactly the same thing. There were films that I’d seen, and I’d loved and I wanted to give people where I lived the same opportunity to see them too. And running the Sydney Film Festival for 19 years and then also programming and hosting films on SBS for all those years. That was all part of the same kind of thing. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing; if you can’t make them, you can at least proselytise them.”

Stratton continues to hold this attitude as the curator and patron of the first Great Britain Retro Film Festival, happening now in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth. A retrospective of British cinema the main criteria hinged on the ability to get good copies of films selected. Two of the movies featured were what sparked the idea for the festival after they were digitally restored to 4K resolution – a level of resolution that adequately translates all of the subtleties of celluloid film to digital sparked the idea for the festival.

“The most important thing was that we could get really good copies,” Stratton says. “It all started really, this British Festival when they produced beautiful new copies of two great British films The Third Man and Tales of Hoffman. Tales of Hoffman, by the way, is a slightly longer version than any that’s been seen before too. It seemed like a good idea to see if it was possible to put together a kind of cross-section of British films. It’s by no means comprehensive; there are lots that had to miss out, unfortunately.”

There were many films Stratton would have liked to have included: “I’d like to have shown at least one of the films that Joseph Losey made in the ‘60s like The Servant or The Accident.”, But he’s very pleased with what they’ve pulled together for the 2015 program.

It’s not just black and white classics either. “It covers a lot of territory really,” says Stratton. “The oldest film I’m showing in the program is The 39 Steps, which is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films made in 1935, and its still a really great film. I think one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films. And the most recent is Slumdog Millionaire, so you go through a wide range of British films there.” Other more recent titles include Gosford Park (2001), Brassed Off (1996) and Sense and Sensibility (1995).

“There’re also a couple of films that really demand to be seen on the big cinema screen, like Lawrence of Arabia,” says Stratton. “That’s such a different experience if you see it in the cinema than if you see it on a television screen. I don’t care how big your television screen is.” 2001: A Space Odyssey falls into this category of the program, and the chance to see the 2 hour and 41-minute science fiction epic in seats more comfortable than the Astor’s is a treat.

“I used to know very vividly how cumbersome 35mm film could be, how heavy the cans of them could be because I’ve carried them. A Francis Ford Coppola film nearly broke my back once just carrying it upstairs to the projection room.”

Two films whose source material has been revisited multiple times in film and TV are also included in the retrospective. The 1946 version of Great Expectations and 1995’s Sense and Sensibility are both held up as superior adaptations, yet each has been reimagined several times over.

“I’m not a huge fan of remakes,” says Stratton. “It all depends, I guess. I suppose every generation deserves a version of some great work, I’m thinking more Shakespeare there. We’ve had so many versions of Hamlet over the years, and each one brings something different to it.” But not every remake manages to do that.

“Those of us who have memories long enough to remember the original versions very often make evil comparisons with the new on all sorts of levels. For example, the version of Far From The Madding Crowd – which is very good in many ways and Carey Mulligan is very good. For me, I just couldn’t get out of my head how much better Alan Bates, Peter Fincher and Terence Stamp were in the original film version. I kept saying to myself, ‘You mustn’t make these comparisons because it’s just not fair on the new film’, but I couldn’t help it. I think Alan Bates was so much more believable as a Dorset farmer than this Belgian actor [Matthias Schoenaerts] who played him in the new version… If you come to it without having seen the earlier version, then it’s going to be a whole different experience.”

While Sense and Sensibility had been adapted for TV twice before and once since, the 1995 film manages to stand apart from comparisons with other versions. “The thing with Sense and Sensibility is the screenplay is written by Emma Thompson, who, of course, is in the film as well, and here was this Taiwanese director who made a couple of films in Taiwan – he made three films in Taiwan, one of those partly in New York. Who would have thought that then he would come to England and make such a great adaptation of Jane Austen, such a quintessentially British film? That’s an extraordinary leap, and he did it with such success. And he’s gone on to make some very interesting and very different films from Brokeback Mountain and so on… Ang Lee is an extraordinary filmmaker and… Sense and Sensibility is one of the great classical adaptations in British cinema.”

While Stratton mightn’t enjoy modern takes on certain films (or popcorn; he hates popcorn), he fully embraces the modernising of cinema in other ways. Namely the switch to digital technology to transport and project films.

“Partly because of my experiences in directing the Sydney Film Festival I used to know very vividly how cumbersome 35mm film could be, how heavy the cans of them could be because I’ve carried them,” says Stratton. “A Francis Ford Coppola film nearly broke my back once just carrying it upstairs to the projection room.

“But now of course on DCPs [Digital Cinema Packages, the digital files used to screen films in cinemas] it’s easy, and I think that what you see on the screen is very, very good. In the old days, films could get scratched and torn and all those sorts of things – that doesn’t happen anymore. I know purists say, ‘Oh, it’s not the same now that it’s not a 35mm film.’ I’m not a purist in that sense at all. I think if it looks great on the screen I don’t really mind how it’s projected, but it certainly does make it more accessible and easier to handle. I’m pleased about that.”

While Stratton is often portrayed as a Negative Nancy in parodies and self-parodies, watching At The Movies, it was rare for him to tear a film to pieces. Stratton has said before that the film critics he admires are those who come from a positive place, and it is something he aims to do himself.

“I’ve always had the view that I’d rather be positive about a film than be negative,” says Stratton. “[Some critics have] almost delighted to be negative, just rejoicing in the fact that they can get stuck into something, and it’s easy to write about a bad film. It never gave me any pleasure to do that, because I would like to be able to recommend good films to people not have to slag off on bad films… Some reviewers I know take the opposite view and like to pull down something, I’d like to build it up.”

The GBRFF is Stratton’s latest contribution to the Australian film and cinema industry. The program introduces us to some of the films we may have missed or reminds us of the disruptive cinematic experience some of these films had before 3D and CGI were commonplace.

But his time with Pomeranz presenting their movie reviews week-to-week is what most people know him for and will have the most impact in its absence from our screens. The torches in fighting censorship and directing the Sydney Film Festival have been picked up and carried by others since his departure. But, as James Zarucky recently discussed on Spook, his and Pomeranz’s weekly and accessible presence on a free-to-air public broadcaster hasn’t. (Pomeranz has moved to Foxtel’s Screen.)

“I think we still need that,” he says. “It’s a shame that the ABC decided not to [replace us]. I mean in fairness to the ABC they experimented a bit. They had Jason Di Rosso and Judith Lucy standing in for Margaret and myself when we went on holiday for a couple of years. But I guess in the end they decided not to go ahead. I hoped they would, either with those guys or with others, but they decided not to, and I think that’s partly to do with funding cuts and pressure on the ABC as well.

“And, I guess, I don’t know why, but Margaret and I attract quite a large audience, and there was the fear that without us it wouldn’t have the same impact. I don’t know. I think there’s plenty of scope on free-to-air television for such a program. I thought that back in 1986 when we started, and I think it’s still true today. I’m sure there are lots of young film critics who are very, very capable of doing it but here we are.”

Less than a year since the credits rolled for the last time, it’s hard to tell if this will have a long-lasting effect on Australian film and independent cinemas. The Australian film industry has seen its best year in two decades in 2015, and the digital online releases and platforms like Netflix are getting more eyeballs on Aussie films in non-traditional ways. But some distributors are worried.

“I know that distributors and independent cinema owners do bemoan the fact that we’re not on television anymore because that was the main source of information and appreciation of the sort of films they were selling,” says Stratton. “I would be sad to think that the fact that we’d decided we’d had enough after 28 years made it more difficult for quality cinema to be distributed.”

This interview was originally published on Spook Magazine on August 11, 2015.

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