Directed by Sally Aitken
David Stratton is a very unique figure in Australian culture, as his work as a film critic from a young age propelled him to national stardom as he co-hosted the immensely popular At the Movies/The Movie Show for nearly 30 years with the charismatic and popular Margaret Pomeranz as his verbal sparring partner. Following the sad end of At the Movies a few years ago, this documentary chronicles David’s journey of discovering, and then advocating for, film.
More importantly, this film is extremely informative about the history of Australian film, an immense passion for Stratton.
The most important part of David’s journey is his ongoing influence in the world of Australian film, as he helped propel films such as Gallipoli and Mad Max to the global stage. We should all be thankful for this. His knowledge is certainly deep, as he takes us through the history of Australian film, from the first feature film ever made (Yep, it came from Australia in 1906!), to the pioneering film Jedda, the first Australian film shot in colour, and the first to boldly choose to tell a story about an Aboriginal couple.
Made during a time when Aboriginal people were literally in concentration camps, one wonders whether these Indigenous People had a choice in the matter. Regardless, we explore other films that have probed Australia’s very real horrific treatment of the true custodians of the land we live on.
Australian film icon David Gulpilil, by far the most accomplished and talented Aboriginal actor working today, is disappointingly and conspicuously absent.
The use of the Australian outback as a setting for horror is also explored, from the early Wake in Fright (1971) to recent films such as Snowtown (2011) and Wolf Creek (2013). In one of the rare instances where there is human interaction, Stratton visits an old pub that is littered with history of films made in the area. The vast scope of the Outback is certainly a great setting for a horror film, and it is interesting to see just how many movies have been filmed in that area alone.
Unfortunately, this interaction is not memorable at all, and lends a dull tone to the film as it explores films set in the outback.
More recent films are studied, and Stratton correctly points out that, unfortunately, it is extremely hard in Australia for local films to have any effect at the box-office. He doesn’t explore this opinion though, which is disappointing, as it is spot on.
This aspect of the film is its biggest strength, as we hear from several prominent Australian directors and actors commenting on the classic films being discussed. This makes up only half of the film. The other half is spent listening to David drone on about his some-what touching but largely boring, typical family tale of moving from England to Australia as a youngster, and his passion for everything related to film.
It is about as fun as it sounds.
Often referred to as a ‘walking encyclopaedia of film’, David lacks the charisma of his former co-host, or any charisma for that matter, to the detriment of the film. This is partly due to the decision to combine David’s life story with a study of Australian film, but it also must be said that as a person, David does not come off as very likeable, which is evident in the almost complete lack of interaction between David and Australian film-makers and actors. We get a lot of talking heads, but almost no discussion.
The only real interactions are the few minutes he spends with Margaret Pomeranz, who, while reminiscing over their 30 years together on television, essentially states, in a very polite way, that David is a stubborn, close-minded man. George Miller is the only film-maker that David actually talks to for the entire running time.
This is beginning to paint a picture of an extremely self-obsessed man.
David’s story as a critic is certainly interesting, and enviable. But one gets the sense that he is an extremely arrogant man with a closed mind. We are provided with the only example of him changing his mind on a film, originally giving the Australian classic The Castle 1.5 stars. He has since come to see the charm of the film, and why we all love it, but this close-minded attitude becomes grating.
This attitude was most prevalent in 1992, when he literally refused on television to rate a film because he disagreed with its apparent racist views. This provides the only interesting aspect of the film relating to Stratton; as director Geoffrey Wright‘s reaction to Stratton’s childish attitude is by far the highlight of the film, as brief as it is. This blunt refusal to give a rating to a film further demonstrates his dismissive nature, as if he is the king of film knowledge, and his word is final. He certainly acts as if this the case.
His story can inspiring, but is it anything special? One wonders, if he hadn’t watched so many films (over 25,000 according to David) while he grew up,would his opinion mean anything? If he was never paired with the incredibly charismatic Margaret Pomeranz, would this film exist? There is no doubt that their debates/arguments made the show very entertaining, but David by himself would be akin to torture
Simply watching a large amount of films and writing about them, without bothering to revisit past works, does not make for an amazing critic, though Stratton has certainly convinced many Australians of this. There is no doubting his passion, and he has done a lot for Australian film. This film is at its strongest when it focuses on the history of Australian film; if this had been the only focus, it could have been brilliant. I doubt thought that Stratton would want give us his perspective on the history of Aussie film if his own name wasn’t in the title of the film.
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