“A nation found its identity through cinema and so did I. This is my journey through the movies that
made our nation,” David Stratton tells us.
The kaleidoscope of Australian cinema that features in the three part doco David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema is like putting up a mirror to our social history.
Evocative landscapes, striking themes, tender moments, anarchy and ribald ockerism pepper this time-capsule, luminously linked by Stratton’s assuring narration. Both a snapshot of our movie history, and of Stratton the man, its biggest challenge is -like that of a feature film itself- working out what stays on screen and what ends up on the cutting room floor.
Stratton divides his collection under three themes: Game-Changers (reviewed here), Outsiders and Family.
Game-Changers looks at the films that took Australia to the world, highlighted by the 70s new-wave films. But it begins with Strictly Ballroom.
Baz Lurhmann’s 1992 hit film is described as “audacious filmmaking” with “camp and loveable characters” that won a 12 minute standing ovation in Cannes and catapulted its young director onto the global stage. Together with designer Catherine Martin, the pair completed their Red Curtain Trilogy with Romeo + Juliet (filmed in the US) and Moulin Rogue, which itself reignited Hollywood’s love affair with the musical.
UK born Stratton was raised by his grandmother who took him to the pictures almost daily. “I became seduced as a small boy…. there was something magical about it,” he recalls. Invited to steer the Sydney Film Festival in 1966, he fell in love with the country -but was struck by its lack of homegrown movies. Alongside Phillips Adams lobbying the government to fund our industry, Stratton began programming shorts by young directors Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Jane Campion and Peter Weir.
Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is regarded as a seminal film, with its haunting beauty and lyrical quality. Stratton recalls it all from atop the rock itself (no easy climb for any senior!). Its success heralded a new wave of films for Weir and others: Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Newsfront, The Last Wave, Storm Boy, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, The Devil’s Playground and more.
But it was Crocodile Dundee that astutely followed a Hollywood genre making Paul Hogan a superstar and netting $328m at the box office in a year.
Stratton, who was writing for Variety at the time, laments that Indigenous Australia was still too overlooked. He reflects on 1955’s ground-breaking Jedda by Charles Chauvel, who cast 2 unknowns from the Northern Territory to put an Indigenous story on screen. He contrasts it with the stark but moving Samson and Delilah by Warwick Thornton in 2009.
Special attention is also given to Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979), Breaker Morant (1980) and Shine (1996) with key interviews including Bryan Brown, Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jack Thompson, George Miller, Gillian Armstrong, Scott Hicks & Bruce Beresford.
Coming in for criticism is 1982’s violent Turkey Shoot, which Stratton regards as “an obnoxious piece of work,” but director Brian Tenchard-Smith is afforded a right of reply. ‘Ozsploitation’ films followed: The Man from Hong Kong, Razorback, Snapshot, Chain Reaction and more…
Stratton’s work against censorship, notably toward the “ignorant stupid” officials of the 1960s, is also here to remind us of progress and the way movies sprang to life after liberation: Alvin Purple anyone?
And hands up who knew about the McDonagh sisters -female filmmakers from the 1920s- possibly the first female-led production company in the world (where’s that bio-pic?).
This is not just a series of review rehashes by Stratton, that would be easy given he has a whole library of them. Rather he manages to parallel the success of a film to the struggle of its filmmaker, or to reflect where we were as a nation at the time of its release.
To acknowledge, to challenge, to question and applaud…. maybe critics are not so bad after all?
David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema begins 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.