Encounters with numerous remarkable men in a lifetime spent in and around the cinema have not effaced the vision of John Flaus’ bare feet planted in the ten-to-two position over the clock buried in the marble floor of Sydney’s State Theatre foyer.
It was probably during the Sydney Film Festival, but one might encounter John anywhere; in some blood-boltered horror for which he’d agreed to embody another bearded nutter; at a university seminar while a half-baked academic solemnly Got It All Wrong; even in the dusty, bare-board classrooms of the old Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in downtown Sydney where the Film Study Group had lured him one Sunday night to a screening of some Hollywood obscurity for which we shared a guilty pleasure.
That, I fear, was all we shared. Back in the mid-’60s, when Ian Klava, Graham Nicholson and I started Film Digest, John was One Of Them; the Balmain mob that clustered around Sydney University, slugging down an amusing Cab Sav and wittering about Barthes and Derrida. Or so we imagined, as we drank our Nescafé, nibbled an Iced VoVo, and tried, with the aid of a French/English dictionary, to decode what Jacques Rivette was on about in Cahiers du Cinéma.
How wrong I was. John, I saw in hindsight, was the Real Thing: rock-solid, drop-forged, bred in the bone: the genuine cinéaste, worthy of the company of Bill Everson, Kevin Brownlow, Henri Langlois.
John lived it. The bare feet were an emblem, but the real nakedness was intellectual. He was alive to movies. Graham and Ian and I loved film as the nerd loves the queen of the class. (When Graham was courting, he asked me to mail a copy of Film Digest to Margaret, whom he later married.) For Flaus, it was another love entirely – of a man for his mother; of a rebel for the revolution; of a tree for the earth. Of course he chose as his all-time favourite films the work of Dreyer, Vertov, Ozu, von Sternberg. They were men for whom cinema was, as for him, the stuff of life itself.
The Sternberg film John nominated in his top ten for a British Film Institute/Sight and Sound poll was Dishonored. Shanghai Express would have been the fashionable choice – my choice, dammit – but John shunned the obvious. Sternberg’s films were to him “brazenly stylised”, a judgement which, if valid, is most true of Shanghai Express. Might Dishonored then be the better film? He invited me to reconsider. And isn’t that what criticism is all about?
Looking back on a lifetime of movie-going, most of it outside Australia, one sees much in a different light. With what passion Ian and Graham and I admired the French! Cahiers du Cinéma embodied a vision of cinema almost holy in its purity. Armed with the tools of epistemology, Rivette, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Doniol-Valcroze and Flaus’ own ideal, Moullet, became surgeons of cinema, delving in the guts of the art we loved.
Who knew that Cahiers was a brand, not a belief system? That there was no nouvelle vague? That most of his colleagues regarded Rivette as a religious bigot, Truffaut as a womaniser, Godard as a sleight-of-hand merchant: not so much “a child of Marx and Coca-Cola” as a travelling salesman for their products.
Well, Henri Langlois for a start. And maybe Flaus too. His take on the nouvelle vague was always sceptical. What is artifice if not married with belief? Then we have the situation of which W. B. Yeats complained in “The Second Coming” – “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In the pages of Film Digest, John was generous to Le Peau douce, but it’s among Truffaut’s least significant films (if also one of the most characteristic.) That no nouvelle vague film figures in his BFI Top Ten (nor any Australian production either) can be no accident.
The WEA Film Study Group once screened Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley. I’d been alerted to its delights by Charles Higham, my mentor in film writing but, at the time, Sydney’s high priest of high camp, and the anti-Christ to the Balmain gang. John came anyway.
Before the screening, I tried to highlight the pleasures of a film so cynical that, were a print left in the dark for a week, it would sprout toadstools. The audience listened in sceptical silence, much as it viewed the film – until the moment Joan Blondell’s seen-it-all carny queen, realising she’s been conned by greedy, opportunistic Tyrone Power, says, half in rueful admiration, “Stan, Stan, aren’t you the foxy one”. Then I heard Flaus chuckle.
John, we didn’t deserve you.