Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies

If you're David Stratton, the co-host of At The Movies with Margaret Pomeranz, you can review anything. A well-loved yet contentious Australian figure, I find the temptation is too difficult to resist. I must ask: popcorn or choc-top? True to form, I receive a classic Stratton answer, one sure to ignite arguments all over the country.

"You're going to think me a terrible snob, but I'm against them both. If anything, I would be in favour of choc-top, because at least it's quieter and not so smelly."


Hearing Stratton debate the merits of popcorn against ice cream in his calm, well-bred voice is a reminder that he has spent almost his entire adult life buried in cinema culture, weighing up the merits of every scene he watches. At last count, he estimates he's seen 30,000 films, only a few of which have been reviewed on ABC's At The Movies, formerly The Movie Show at SBS before Pomeranz and Stratton switched channels in 2004. To celebrate a quarter of a century of heated Margaret-and-David debates, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) is presenting Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies. It's an exhibition of iconic reviews, discussions and interviews with a who's-who of cinema stars, including Baz Luhrmann, Heath Ledger, Tsutomu Yamazaki, the Coen Brothers and Steve Buscemi.


Over the years, of course, he's had his fair share of wretched viewing experiences. When it comes to a particularly vitriolic review of Battle: Los Angeles earlier this year, Stratton explanation for his condemnation of the film offers a revealing insight into his perspectives on film as an art form. "I would normally be more discreet, probably, I'd normally be more respectful. I think film is a very complex art, it's a collaborative art, it's something that a huge amount of money is invested in and an awful lot of people's talents go into it. I would normally want to give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt...[but] I felt Battle: Los Angeles was one of the worst films I'd ever seen in my life. I didn't think that anybody involved deserved much respect, to be honest, so I guess I was a bit outspoken."


Then, of course, there's the now-infamous Romper Stomper review, a film Stratton admired for its acting but refused to rate on the show. Geoffrey Wright, the director, refused to forgive him and two years later, Stratton received an unorthodox rebuke via a glass of wine Wright threw at him during the Venice Film Festival. "I think Romper Stomper was a very well-made film and an extremely well-acted film, and I thought Geoffrey Wright had a lot of talent. What troubled me about Romper Stomper was that it was made in a time, I think 1992, when there had been some racial problems with young Vietnamese people, particularly in Melbourne, and...I thought the film could stir up more violence..." he explains. "Looking back it was probably pretty foolish of me to think that I could get that message across [by refusing to rate the film]. So Geoffrey [Wright] was upset, but I must say I did get letters at the time, from people in the Vietnamese community, who thanked me for taking that attitude because they felt that the film...could stir up racial violence."


While Stratton could hardly be labelled a timid character in regular circumstances, it's clear that censorship is one element of film culture that has most moved Stratton to regular protest. For Stratton, his personal censorship struggle really began the year or so before his first year as director of the Sydney Film Festival in 1966, a role he held until 1983. Yet the censorship issue can be traced back to Stratton's early childhood and is linked to, of all films, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. As local councils were responsible for film classification in England at the time, Stratton was unable to view the film in his own shire, which had classified it as adults only. Yet the film was classified for a general audience in a town less than 12 miles away. "I guess in the preciousness and in many ways, the stupidity of censorship, that was something that was a fascination for me since I was very young." He rather succinctly sums up the conundrum of film censorship by adding, "You would not buy a book and find there's about three pages missing and accept that quite cheerfully, would you? You'd say 'I want my money back'...It's the same with a film. Why should you pay to see a film which is not in the same form for people seeing it overseas?"


Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies is exhibited at ACMI in Melbourne from 17 Aug - 4 Dec 2011. Visit acmi.net.au for more info. The 25 year anniversary episode of At the Movies screens on ABC1 on 26 Oct. More info at abc.net.au