John Flaus joined the La Trobe faculty in 1972, the second year of my three-year stint there. Thus he was a working colleague of mine for just two years. But he made a strong and lasting impression on me.
I’d never known, and still haven’t, anyone else with such a vast and non-trivial knowledge of film as he had. And the recall: he was like Mr Memory in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). Ask him a question, or mention a film or actor or director, and he would spew out more observations and facts than you were capable of absorbing. His detailed memory of films was especially impressive, for these were the days when about the only way to see a film was to wait for it to come to a commercial theatre or an art house or appear on television. No stopping and starting; no re-viewing at one’s convenience. He had a cine-photographic memory. Once he had seen a film that impressed him, I think he was capable of re-watching it entirely in his head.
At La Trobe, I discovered how little I knew about film despite having completed a graduate program at Stanford. I learned from students and recent alums such as Rod Bishop, Gordon Glenn, Scott Murray and Peter Beilby, but I learned most from John. Here’s an example of how much he knew, and had read, and how little I knew. I had worked for six months on a screenwriting project at the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC) before heading to Australia, and I had decided that eventually I would do my doctoral thesis about the Film Board. When I mentioned this to him, he said something about “Unit B”. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Only later, when back at the Film Board studying it instead of working for it, did I come to recognise that he was referring to the production unit at the NFBC – there were five or six of them – that was responsible for its most creative documentary work – films like City of Gold (Wolf Koenig and Colin Low, 1957), Corral (Low, 1954), Universe (Roman Kroitor and Low, 1960) and Lonely Boy (Koenig and Kroitor, 1962). How did he know about Unit B? Later, I came across an article by Peter Harcourt about Unit B in the Winter 1964-65 issue of Sight and Sound. John had probably read that and remembered it several years later. Or maybe he didn’t so much remember it as re-read it in his head.
John taught me to value American films and genres that I had come to turn my nose up at. He brought Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959) to La Trobe. He brought John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). These are two films I return to often, the first for its moral clarity and lapidary aesthetics, the latter for its emotional depth and complexity. He also alerted me to the value of work by a number of second-rank directors such as Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller. It was in Australia that I learned to appreciate American film.
There is more to John than his vast knowledge of cinema. He is a moral exemplar: if ever a man followed the beat of his own drum while remaining in society, it is John. I think he loves nothing more than learning. It seems to me that just about everything he does, except for attending Australian rules football games, is in pursuit of knowledge.
I’ve seen John briefly a few times since I left La Trobe. While visiting Melbourne for a few days in 1985, I was a guest on a radio call-in show he was hosting at the time. The only thing I can recall having contributed to the show was a commiserating “Sorry, caller”, after John had completely dismantled whatever point or claim the caller had tried to make.
In 2006 or 2007, he, with his partner Natalie, visited my wife and me for a few days in Philadelphia. We took them for a drive through the Pennsylvania countryside: Amish country, river towns, cornfields, old industrial areas, abandoned train tracks. Everything interested him, especially the street signs at the corner of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues in Hershey, and a one-time drive-in theatre sans screen or speaker posts; just the rippled lot where the cars used to park on an incline for better viewing. Another day I took him to lunch with several of my colleagues. They were entranced. The conversation at the table was richer than they were used to, and it was only minimally about film. John could offer observations on just about any topic having to do with the arts. Breakfast with John was amusement in itself. I was doing a word jumble puzzle in the paper; he, from across the table from me and looking at the puzzle upside down, got all the answers in just a few seconds. After we’d all read them ourselves, he would go through the morning newspapers and cut out, for future reference, any article that interested him. Since just about everything interested him, he’d wind up with so many clippings that I wondered why he didn’t just take the whole paper.
My most recent memory of John was from a few days I spent in Melbourne in 2009. We arranged to spend a day together. We met at the train station. By now he was slightly stooped in posture, which was quite noticeable when he was walking. As we started towards downtown, we came across a used-book flea market of sorts. There were lots of vendors. John kept finding books that interested him. Holding a book in his hands, he would mutter to himself that he shouldn’t buy it, but then he would. We spent most of the morning there. He bought ten or 20 books. When we finally left the book market, his walk was even more stooped from the weight of the books he was lugging. We eventually wound up in Carlton and had dinner. We worked on a difficult English-style crossword together. He got more answers than I did.