I’ve known John Flaus for more than 40 years. Remarkably, he still looks almost exactly as he did when we first crossed paths at La Trobe University in 1969. Back then he used to be mostly a beard, grey and black, with a half-smoked, hand-rolled cigarette protruding from it and a black beret on his head. And, although the beard has come and gone over the years and the beret has been farewelled along the way, he still looks the same. Maybe it’s because of that beard that he’s always seemed to me to be much older than I am. Not necessarily wiser or better looking, mind you, just older.
La Trobe was a veritable hive of film related activity back then. John had just arrived from Sydney to take up an appointment teaching cinema in the School of Education’s high-powered Media Centre under the leadership of the estimable Patricia Edgar. Elsewhere on campus, Peter Beilby, Rod Bishop and Demos Krouskos were getting ready to launch the tabloid version of Cinema Papers. The first issue was published on 24 October 1969, followed by ten more with the same editorial board, the last appearing on 11 April 1970.
Post-La Trobe, in January 1974, it was reborn as a handsome magazine, under a new team of editors – Beilby again, Philippe Mora and Scott Murray.
Courtesy of their vision and tireless endeavour, and funding from the Media Centre – the good old days! – it probably still remains the best of all Australian film magazines, serious in intent, open-minded in its editorial line, illuminating in its insights and, occasionally, controversial.
Flaus was an important contributor to the early editions of the magazine-style Cinema Papers, whenever the copy could be extracted from him. Not good with deadlines was John. But even though what he really wanted was to be in the “pitchas” rather than just watchin’ ’em – he’s always been a performer at heart – what he wrote was invariably worth the wait. In the first issue, he reviewed Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), his commentary identifying “intimations of the sublime orphic transports induced and moderated by classical restraints” (1). In the July 1974 issue, he wrote a long, double-review of The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974) and Crystal Voyager (David Elfick, 1973), adjudging the former as “a catalogue of lost opportunities” and enthusiastically noting that the latter “may serve as sonarphotic metalogue to the imaginative flights of Shelley, especially the marvellous journey of Alastor, his Spirit of Solitude” (2). I’m still sorting that one out. As always, John was going for the jugular.
When I met him, it was soon after he’d arrived in Melbourne and he was looking for a place to live. Somethin’ more than just a roof over his head and a rockin’ chair by the fire. I’d just moved into a large, two-storey Victorian terrace at 169 Drummond Street in Carlton with two friends – Barry White and Peter Green – who’d bought the house and were looking for another tenant to join us there. So I pitched John to them and he came around for a chat. At which time, Barry recognised him as the chap he’d seen only the previous evening in the foyer of the Union Theatre at Melbourne University, arguing with a little kid – who turned out to be John’s son, Sean – about whether to stay there or head on over the road to “the Bughouse”.
John made all the right noises at the meeting, Barry and Peter took an immediate liking to him and, soon afterwards, he was ensconced in the room next to mine on the ground floor. He especially liked that because I had a TV, the only one then in the house.
Within days, his room was crammed with massive bookshelves: like a labyrinth with a bed. I have no idea how he’d transferred all those hardbacks and paperbacks from Sydney to Melbourne: classics, pulp fiction, literary criticism, history, every bloody category you can think of and then some (although I don’t recall any cook books). John used to be a hoarder extraordinaire and, while I see less of him these days, I’d be very surprised if there has been any change in his habits.
Another of those – which would drive me crazy – had to do with his voracious appetite for “pitchas”. If he hadn’t seen it, then nothing was going to keep him away from it. And if he had seen it and liked it, then try standing between him and the chance to see it again. It didn’t matter whether it was on the big screen or the small one, his commitment to the cause knew no bounds back then. And, since I had the only TV at 169, my room became his second home, day and night.
I still remember being woken by the sound of whooping tribes laying siege to white civilisation at two in the morning, or later, and finding John huddled in front of the TV with a blanket around his shoulders, like Dracula waiting for the dawn. “Not happy, John,” I would explode. “Shhh!” he’d reply. “Whaddaya expect? I haven’t seen They Died With Their Boots On for years. It’s a Raoul Walsh for Chrissake.” Of course! Excuse me! I should have known.
There are many adjectives to describe Flaus. Some of them are, in alphabetical order: easy-going, energetic, erudite, even-tempered (usually), exhaustive, exhausting, good-humoured, grumpy, honest, honourable, infuriating, insightful, learned, long-winded, loquacious, lovable, relentless, restless, supportive and trustworthy. What they describe, essentially, is a good bloke with a brilliant mind and an insatiable will to talk. He has a beautiful timbre to his voice (which has launched a thousand voiceovers) and a great, throaty laugh, endearing and engaging.
I remember taking him to my parents’ place in Greensborough, not far from La Trobe, for dinner one evening. There was much conviviality and conversation, about the university, films, politics, sport and life in general. The next day, my mother observed to me in her quietly winning way that he was “such an interesting man”, adding with an amiable twinkle in her eye that he “certainly likes the sound of his own voice, doesn’t he?”
Flaus has always loved stories. Ask him about a “pitcha” and, as often as not, and off-the-cuff, he’ll be able to give you a detailed outline of the plot, weaving in commentary along the way about directorial nuances and actorly bits of business. There’s something encyclopaedic about that brain of his. When it comes to talking about films made before 1970 – he was heard to tell a screenwriting class recently that “there hasn’t been a good pitcha made since 1970” – Flaus is without peer, insightful, tireless and painstaking in his attention to detail. He suffers the fools he encounters politely but not gladly, which is probably why he’s always been a much better talker than he is a listener.
And why he’s never got on with those assigned to cut what he writes to fit a set format. His relationships with magazine editors, who have some flexibility over the space they can allow to their writers, have generally been reasonably cordial, as far as I know. But his inability to understand that a capsule item of 100 words written for a newspaper has to be 100, give or take a few, meant that his time as a journalist was going to be short-lived. His outbursts of fury at the abbreviations imposed on his 1000-word tomes are legend.
Aside from the vigour he would pour into his indignation at this insult to his scholarship, the only exercise I ever saw him undertake was occasionally removing the aforementioned rollie from his beard. Tall and surprisingly agile, given the lack of exercise, he always seemed to roll along back then rather than walk. Sometimes he’d perambulate with haste: usually when he found himself running late for a program at the National Film Theatre at the nearby Dental Theatrette; sometimes he’d just amble, especially if he was chewing a companion’s ear at the time. Not just because of his height, he’s always been a big presence.
I remember how he used to fantasise about being played in the movie of his life by Sean Connery. I would gently explain that, whilst of course there might be some vague resemblances along those lines, perhaps Walter Brennan would be more appropriate. “Was ya ever stung by a dead bee?” Or, if I was feeling a little less kindly on that day, maybe – heh, heh, heh – George “Gabby” Hayes.
Back then, he went by several names: “John”, when one was addressing him directly; “Flaus”, when one was talking about him to others; or “Black Lung”, when one was trying to encourage him to look after his health a little better. For his part, he usually refers to me as “Thomas Patrick”, usually with an Irish inflection, and I’ve always found it warming. When I become “Tom Ryan” to him I know I’m in trouble about something.
One of his most appealing characteristics has always been the way he loves to have the piss taken out of him, and few have done it better than Paul Harris, his co-host on 3RRR’s Film Buff’s Forecast, a show that is still crazy after all these years, but lesser for the absence of Flaus (who would regularly refer to his co-host as “Polaris”). He took his leave about 15 years ago, although hints about his forthcoming departure had flown around like shrapnel long before then, as is now evident in a piece I wrote on the show in 1988 for The Herald’s Gold Guide and re-read by way of preparation for this piece (see Appendix).
John still makes occasional appearances on Film Buff’s – usually by phone from his estate in Castlemaine – and invariably finds himself ambushed by a barrage of puns from Paul. For him, though, it’s a chance to partake in the kind of conversation he likes best. It usually begins with reminiscences about the good old days, when he had an outlet to advise listeners about the best movies to see and how best to see them, and ends with his musings about his own screen career. Last time he appeared was a couple of weeks ago, talking up the Jack Irish telemovies, in which he has an ongoing supporting role, enthusing about how professional and unassuming Guy Pearce had been to work with, further debating the respective merits of those VHS and beta recording contraptions, and explaining how much he’d enjoyed working on Tracks, “even if it isn’t the best pitcha ever made”.
Tom Ryan, April 2014.
1. John Flaus, “Melville: Le Samourai”, Cinema Papers no. 1, January 1974, p. 57.
2. John Flaus, “Crystal Voyager”, Cinema Papers no. 3, July 1974, p. 277. This article is really a review of Crystal Voyager but does also contain some commentary on The Cars That Ate Paris in its initial paragraph.
“The Buffs Are Back” by Tom Ryan
The Herald Monday Magazine,18 July 1988
The film buffs are at it again. At the end of February, it looked as if the curtains had closed forever on 3RRR’s Film Buff’s Forecast. As far as hosts Paul Harris and John Flaus were concerned, if they couldn’t do it the way they wanted, they wouldn’t do it at all. And so, when the station management cut the show in half, Harris and Flaus – after almost a decade and without a cent to show for it – decided to call it a day.
But as of last Saturday, the buffs are back. From noon till 2 pm, 3RRR will again be turning its attention to film – well, kind of.
The station heads have been divided over Film Buff’s. Station manager Stephen Walker, who pushed for the one-hour format and who resigned last week, stuck by his original instinct: “I still think it would be a dynamite hour but perhaps too much is better than none at all”.
Shortly before they went to air, Harris and Flaus were a little toey. Paul seemed poised to be as provocative as ever: “John is very, very excited. He has months of opinions to share, countless scores to be settled, loads of information to be imparted.” And John’s knowing response took on a familiar tone: “Yeah, and I reckon I might just get to talk about some pitchas, too.”
At times, they are the Laurel and Hardy of Melbourne radio. John becomes Stan, innocent, awfully serious about things, forever wondering how Paul’s Ollie got to be running the show. He does what he thinks he’s supposed to until the inevitable verbal whack around the ears brings him to a bewildered halt. “But I thought ya wanted me highlights?”
There are other times when the buffs’ war of words suggests a different kind of relationship. The gremlins get into the happy patter, revealing John’s not-so-innocent side, and Paul instinctively recognises that this is not the time to play Ollie. The tensions are ready to explode on air: John gets ornery and begins to tread water in his vast pool of knowledge; Paul knows he’s lost control and plunges into an audible sulk.
Melbourne waits as “Danger” signs flash around the friendly chaos of the 3RRR studios.
But Dean Lyster, the show’s producer, has other melodies on his mind and, suddenly, the first soundtrack by anybody within reach transports 3RRR into what has become euphemistically known as “a music break”.
On a good day, the domestic tensions will take the form of a good-natured badinage. But things sometimes go wrong and we find ourselves eavesdropping on a full-blown family squabble.
At the Brunswick St. cafe where we’re talking, there’s not a microphone in sight, and certainly no “music break”. Do they ever feel in competition, matching wits? Paul’s frowning, but John turns on the charm. “No” – he’s sincere about this – “Because I can’t win in quality or quantity. Paul’s funnier than Harry H. Corbett.”
Paul can live with this modesty. “But John, you know that the show doesn’t work without you. You’re always full of surprises. And you make me laugh, too.”
John’s in analytical mode now and so it’s the right time to ask him about what he sees as the show’s limitations. “Phillip Kahllems, three years ago, said to me that he’d stopped listening to the show because there was nothing about pitchas on it any more. And I can’t blame him. I’m always getting interrupted and…”
Paul knows where this one’s heading: “Listen! People are always asking why John’s forever going crook at me because he doesn’t have enough time. I do it so that I can impart my enthusiasm, too. What John wants is a different kind of show altogether.”
They were still sorting that one out when I left them.
Tom Ryan, July 1988