When I think of John Flaus, my mind goes back to an evening ten or 15 years ago, when Fitzroy’s Erwin Rado Theatre hosted a rare revival of Salt of the Earth – an independent, communist-backed drama about a strike in New Mexico, made in 1954 by a group of blacklistees led by director Herbert Biberman, one of the famous Hollywood Ten. The audience was a Venn diagram consisting of buffs, old leftists, and those belonging to both categories; Flaus was on hand to introduce the film, supplying historical background and, as you’d expect, digressing widely on broader issues of politics and cinema. After 20 minutes or so he was just getting into his stride when a thin voice rose up from the back of the auditorium. “Excuse me”, it said, or rather whined, “I thought we came here to see a picture, not listen to some bugger talk all night”.
There was a brief pause, before Flaus replied (as I remember it, anyway): “Why don’t you stick it up your arse?” The tone was mild, devoid of anger or malice, implying that the proposed course of action would be seen, on reflection, as the best thing for all concerned. There was the sense of witnessing a privileged moment: a display of skill by a consummate performer, and a teacher’s demonstration of how to use the Australian vernacular with maximum directness and speed. At any rate, no more interruptions followed, and Flaus was able to pick up where he had left off.
Other memories surface too. I remember Flaus slowly descending a ladder at the start of a La Mama production of Krapp’s Last Tape, a play ideally suited to his measured delivery – “Cracked voice. Distinctive intonation,” say the stage directions (1) – and to what you might call the flair for stillness which allows him to load meaning onto every gesture. I was too young to tune into community radio’s Film Buff’s Forecast when he presented it in the 1980s, but I remember him showing up as a special guest a few years ago, swapping anecdotes with the filmmaker Corinne Cantrill and defending the intellectual standards of 1950s Australian pub culture (“I went to cafés”, was Corinne’s firm reply). Once I ran into him on a bus to Carlton, and he spent some time explaining to me the difference between an authentic Australian accent – of the kind he has always championed – and the caricatured Strine all too often favoured by those who hire him for voiceover work.
Not that Flaus is necessarily averse to caricature: he can be broad and shameless where this is called for, and as a professional character actor has no qualms about embodying a “type”. These days, this usually means a more-or-less avuncular old-timer, scrounging a living like the jolly swagman of legend – he once actually played this character, for the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Central Queensland – or installed on a perch at the local pub. Nearly always he’s an ambassador from the nation he has himself described as Old White Australia (2); working-class Australia specifically, though he seldom exhibits the cheery vulgar aggro associated with the term “ocker”. Nor do his characters tend to bluster and big-note themselves, like many of those portrayed by, say, Bill Hunter. Though he’s quite capable of playing compulsive talkers – especially when cast as an approximation of “himself”, as in The American Poet’s Visit (Michael Thornhill, 1969) and Yackety Yack (Dave Jones, 1974) – his persona leans, on the whole, towards a certain introversion and stoicism.
In some ways he’s an Australian cousin to that generation of American actors, born in the Depression or slightly earlier, who in the 1970s seemed already displaced in time, incarnating old-school values on behalf of the New Hollywood. Minus his beard he looks a bit like a bushy-browed Gene Hackman, but nearer spiritual equivalents might be Harry Dean Stanton or Warren Oates: watching his small but memorable comic turn in Crackerjack (Paul Moloney, 2002), as a shunned lawn bowler typically slumped silent in the middle distance, it’s just possible to picture him taking on Oates’ comparably taciturn role in Cockfighter (Monte Hellman, 1974). While his homely style carries no hint of Zen cool or cowboy swagger, he has his own way of standing aslant the films he appears in – to all appearances “being” rather than “acting”, his crumpled face and sagging body betokening a deflation which is not quite defeat, while his mind seems fixed on an unattainable elsewhere.
For me, the quintessential Flaus can be found in a film like Queensland (John Ruane, 1976), one of the countless low budget obscurities in his back catalogue. Running a little less than an hour, this gives him a rare lead role as Doug, a ne’er-do-well factory worker and greyhound fancier stuck in the northern suburbs of Melbourne but dreaming of a happier life in a warmer climate. He and his roommate Aub (Bob Karl) suggest older, more fragile versions of the characters from Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, acknowledged as an influence by the director (3). Almost free of plot, the film offers a gallery of indelible Flaus moments: Doug lounging on the opposite side of the room while Aub exercises with stretch cords (“Jesus, mate, you’ll do yourself an injury if you’re not careful”); alone at a pub counter tackling a meat pie with knife and fork; walking hands in pockets down an empty suburban street, a cigarette wedged between his lips, while an ice-cream van slowly passes.
Made on a tiny budget without a professional crew, Queensland still manages to make striking use of direct sound, featuring a near-Bressonian emphasis on sharp, inorganic noises – the click of balls on a billiard table, the revving of a broken-down motor – that correlates with the dry economy of Flaus’ performance. It’s not a one-dimensional characterisation, however: there’s a resignation to Doug, but also a larrikin streak, visible in the flickering smile which turns into a seemingly involuntary grin (in fact, one of Flaus’ most strategic acting ploys). There’s sensitivity, too, especially when Doug meets up with his old flame Marge (Alison Bird) and tries to coax her into sharing his dream. When this fails, the bafflement is heartbreaking: “I know a lot of things haven’t worked out for us…. Christ, I don’t understand it meself.” The film hovers on the brink of condescension and sentimentality, and with another actor might have toppled over: Flaus maintains a distance from the viewer that allows Doug his dignity, while giving the sense that the intricacies of the Australian male character are being observed with loving connoisseurship.
Ben Mendelsohn, another actor with a strong feeling for the rhythm of Australian speech, recently described himself to an interviewer as a “boutique” talent (4). Flaus is this as well – and in one respect at least, beyond comparison. That is, I’m unable to think of anyone else in cinema who has contributed so significantly as both actor and critic; after so many years, it’s easy to lose sight of the strangeness of this, as if Manny Farber were also Edward G. Robinson or “Pauline Kael” a pseudonym for Shelley Winters. “Film critic” is, of course, a role in itself, played out in public, a fact Flaus clearly grasped early on; to some degree his acting and writing seem interchangeable, the former a criticism of the life around him and the latter an oblique form of self-display. Whatever the medium in which he happens to be performing – stage, screen, radio, print – the same qualities define his approach: an incisive intelligence, a distrust of ornament, and a desire to return to first principles whenever possible.
Unsurprisingly, he writes particularly well about film acting itself: his major essay on this subject, “Thanks for your heart, Bart” (5), is a potted textbook that everyone with ambitions in the field ought to read. It’s instructive, too, to look again at his capsule reviews written in the 1980s for the “Buff’s Choice” column in The Age, masterful examples of how to say something interesting – and often provocative – with minimal space. These are jointly credited to his Film Buff’s Forecast co-host Paul Harris, but you can spot the Flaus touches in accounts of films ranging from The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) (“more Faustian than Gothic”) (6) to In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) (“Liberal message fantasy which successfully masqueraded back in 1969 as problematic realism”) (7) and the all-time top-ten favourite that is Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961)(“Like a dream, like a dance, in the ceremonious intersections of the storyline and his genuinely fluid direction Demy weaves entrancing patterns of sensation and emotion”) (8).
Assertions rather than arguments, one-liners like these are cheques or IOUs – but Flaus has more than enough intellectual capital to cash them, as he demonstrates in longer pieces such as his Cinema Papers review (9) of Michael Thornhill’s Between Wars (1974), published not long before Queensland was shot. This is an especially charged example of Flaus’ criticism, in part because he is linked with Thornhill and screenwriter Frank Moorhouse in ways he chooses not to make explicit: all three have been associated with the libertarian Sydney Push, and Flaus also appeared as an actor in an earlier film from the Thornhill-Moorhouse team, The American Poet’s Visit, mentioned above. But Flaus clearly regards it as his duty to set any personal loyalties aside, going toe-to-toe with the film’s ideas in a genuinely critical, albeit largely admiring, spirit.
One of the greatest challenges in criticism, perhaps its central task, is to uncover the deep logic whereby patterns generate significance: to show, in other words, that form is content. Flaus does this superbly throughout his Between Wars review, which starts by examining some of the surprising historical elements introduced into this mid-20th century period piece, including “the Commonwealth Bank foreclosing on Depression year farmers, proletarian membership of neo-fascist movements, ABC censorship on air, and the police-state methods of the Curtin Government” (10). He then looks at how the main character, the mildly progressive psychiatrist Dr Edward Trenbow (Corin Redgrave), is framed against this background, a question that crucially allows him to shift the focus from content to form:
Within scenes Trenbow is not made systematically picture-dominant through lighting, composition, movement, nor is he given a large share of cutaways. One-shots of him, when they do occur, tend to be functions of cross-cutting dialogue….
We may not notice this technique, yet we can be influenced by it to accumulate the impression of an emotionally guarded character (11).
There is, again, a teacherly ring to this, with Between Wars becoming the pretext for a general discussion of how films can establish “impressions” through inconspicuous formal means. Subsequent passages carry theoretical speculation further, exploring how Trenbow functions dramatically as an “anti-anti-hero”, how the film engages with history without purporting to explain it, and how a “personal vision” of the past, put forward through fiction, may contain a measure of non-dogmatic truth. The entire piece gives the sense that Flaus is holding an active conversation with the film, unpacking its rhetorical strategies and staking out positions of his own in response, while emphasising that the success or failure of these strategies – whatever political or historical meanings they carry – depends on how far the filmmakers have mastered their chosen techniques.
The final section of the review pays generous tribute to Between Wars’ most stylish scenes with several paragraphs of close description, one of which begs to be quoted in full:
The arrival of Schneider [Gunter Meisner] in Australia commences with the camera on Trenbow, Deborah [Judy Morris] and Avante [Arthur Dignam] at the wharf, then it comes up to a deck-rail on the liner and tracks part of its length, picks up Schneider and moves in tight on him as he approaches the gangplank, stays tight as he descends, holds back a little as he steps ashore and approaches the waiting group; as they break into greetings the camera cranes up and away, centring them in an almost empty dock-side as it draws off into high-angle extreme long-shot. The scene has been all in one take. For skill, grace and sheer professionalism it is a shot that Preminger at his peak could not have improved upon (12).
Much is characteristic about this passage, including the closing nod to “professionalism” (and to Preminger, an auteurist god but far from a universally revered figure in 1974). Most notably, it constitutes an unobtrusive example of something which, as Adrian Martin has noted (13), Flaus is often up to, mimetic criticism: not only is the action described with a precision to match the precision of the mise en scène, but Flaus does it all in one sentence, paralleling Thornhill’s “all in one take”. Interestingly, the director Tim Burstall would single out this passage in a later Cinema Papers article attacking Australian film criticism from a sceptical “industry” perspective, pouring scorn on the idea that any director would be able to control camerawork this minutely (14) – which probably says more about Burstall’s limitations than those of Flaus. Indeed, the review condenses so much hard, practical thought about how to impart meaning and put a story across, it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened if Flaus the actor and Flaus the critic had merged, at some stage, into Flaus the filmmaker.
But maybe Flaus prefers to have something surreptitious about his creative achievement: more than almost anyone in Australian cinema he personifies the actor as auteur, albeit in a paradoxical way. To borrow his own line about Trenbow, he’s far from being a “systematically picture-dominant” figure – and yet his presence, even in a minor role, can colour a film’s whole mood and point-of-view. “If a film has John Flaus in it, then almost by definition it’s an eccentric, and probably a Melbourne eccentric at that”, Susan Dermody wrote in 1988 (15). This is less true than it used to be, when Flaus is all over the place like Woody Allen’s Zelig (he has seemingly never been in more demand, despite occasional rumours of his retirement). Yet whenever he pops up unexpectedly – as he does in beer ads, student films, soapies – he induces a peculiar cinephilic excitement, a sense that something has been smuggled past the guardians of culture. If they, or the public, only knew the full story!
Then again: what is the full story? Most likely no one knows, given the virtual impossibility of following every step of Flaus’ career (or careers) over half a century or more. He has several identities – the anarchist, the poet – which this essay has barely touched on; in everything he does, there lurks a sense of further possibilities kept hidden. No one encounter gives the measure of the man. And yet, regardless of context, in speech or on the page, his voice retains the same ruminative quality; as if the words, and the thoughts behind them, were being thoroughly chewed over.
Jake Wilson, August 2014
1. Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces, Grove, New York, 1960, p. 7.
2. John Flaus, “From Stage to Screen: Silent Partner”, Senses of Cinema no. 16, September 2001: http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/contemporary-australian-film/silent.
3. Peter Malone, “John Ruane”, Peter Malone’s Website: http://petermalone.misacor.org.au/tiki-index.php?page=John+Ruane.
4. Garry Maddox, “The Year the Drought Broke”, The Sydney Morning Herald 6 October 2012: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/the-year-the-drought-broke-20121004-270cf.html.
5. John Flaus, “Thanks for your heart, Bart”, Continuum, vol. 5, no. 2, 1992: wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/5.2/Flaus.html.
6. John Flaus and Paul Harris, “Buffs’ Choice”, The Age Entertainment Guide 19 May 1989, p. 6.
7. John Flaus and Paul Harris, “Buffs’ Choice”, The Age Weekender 8 March 1985, p. 8.
8. Flaus and Harris, “Buffs’ Choice”, The Age Weekender.
9. John Flaus, “Between Wars”, Cinema Papers vol. 1, no. 4, December 1974, pp. 367-68.
10. Flaus, “Between Wars”, p. 367.
11. Flaus, “Between Wars”, p. 367.
12. Flaus, “Between Wars”, p. 368.
13. See Adrian Martin, “Incursions”, The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton, Routledge, Abingdon, 2011, pp. 58-61.
14. See Tim Burstall, “What it’s Like on the Receiving End of Australian Film Criticism”, Cinema Papers vol. 2, no. 3, May-June 1975, pp. 214-15.
15. Susan Dermody, “The Company of Eccentrics”, The Imaginary Industry; Australian Film in the Late ’80s, ed. Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, AFTRS Publications, North Ryde, 1988, p. 134.