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November 2, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

David Stratton…again, but just as interesting!


I’ve already covered David Stratton in this blog, but I wasn’t able to include all of the interview.  There was so much material I’ve been able to create an article with just as many juicy quotes as the first one. Here, I’ve repurposed the extra material to be read as an article on its own.

Films, censorship and friendly bickering: David Stratton for Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies

If you’ve ever been involved in an argument over the worth of a movie, you can almost guarantee that Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton from At The Movies have been there first. As one of the most well-known critic couples in Australia, Stratton estimates he has seen over 30,000 movies. Such a long reviewing legacy is part of the reason why the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) is running a free Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies exhibition from 17 August to 4 December. The exhibition features selected footage from a who’s-who of big-name cinema stars, including Baz Luhrmann, Heath Ledger, the Coen Brothers, Steve Buscemi and prominent foreign-language directors and producers.

After 25 years of friendly banter, the Stratton-Pomeranz review-show duopoly has become entertainment in its own right. For Stratton’s part, he can’t understand any of it. “The thing is, Margaret and I are there as reviewers, but somehow, I don’t quite know how it happened…we’ve become sort of personalities. It’s not something we set out to do, and it’s something I’m still a bit uncomfortable with, but that’s what seems to happen. I think it’s a slightly strange situation where critics…become personalities in themselves.”

With his neatly trimmed beard and British air, Stratton comes across as the harsher critic of the pair, while Pomeranz has an instantly recognisable laugh, constantly evolving hairstyle and a record of friendlier film ratings. The audience generally knows Stratton is the one to watch when the time comes to deliver the verdict on a controversial or poorly made film. While this makes it easy to assume Stratton might be a brick wall when it comes to asking personal questions, he’s actually quite good at making fun of himself.

“I’m a very uneducated person, I have to tell you. My father didn’t believe in tertiary education…he had a particular plan for me.” Stratton says. “He wanted me to leave school at the age of 17, so I never actually did the high-school [certificate] equivalent.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Stratton’s love of film is an easy access point into the man behind the film critic. As Stratton himself acknowledges, “I loved films…I would go to the cinema every night. I’d see everything, I literally saw everything…I was always passionate about film from a very early age.”

After spending his childhood and adolescence growing up around Birmingham, England, Stratton decided to visit Australia in 1963. He was offered the position of director of the Sydney Film Festival in 1966 and has been living there and campaigning against film censorship, particularly at film festivals, ever since. As Stratton points out, “It would be ludicrous to see that the Cannes Film Festival couldn’t show anything it wanted to show. It just is a laughable concept.”

Film censorship in Australia is a surprisingly subtle force that has, in all likelihood, touched most of the films released here in recent years. In many instances censorship does not take the form of an overt banning of an entire film. Rather, it’s selective editing of certain elements of films that has Stratton protesting. Such censorship has insidious and surprising repercussions for free speech, even when the film in question is not something that would normally be defended on those grounds.

“[The film] Men In Black…I think [this] film was given an MA rating by the classification board. The distributor wanted kids to see it, so the film was modified to get an M rating…Now that is not the censor’s doing, really, it’s the distributor’s doing. So that’s a kind of censorship that I think happens a lot in this country, but it’s never talked about and never publicised, and nobody really knows about it…unless you happen to talk to projectionists who saw the original before it went to be modified, you’d never know.”

Stratton points out that the systematic censorship of many films coming into Australia has the biggest impact on people who should be able to enjoy films in their complete, unfiltered glory. “You could say that the distributor has every right with a commercial project to make sure it’s accessible to the widest possible audience, including children. And that would be their point of view, obviously. But at the same time, don’t you think that adults going to see Men In Black should be entitled to know that they were not seeing the same version that people overseas were seeing. That’s a kind of censorship too.”

If a 25-year review-show reign doesn’t offer enough proof that Australians share the Pomeranz-Stratton love of films, the ACMI exhibition should help solidify their place in the annals of movie-critic history. Friendly bickering included. 

For more information on Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies, see the ACMI exhibition web page for session times and dates.

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