Like anarchist and writer, Ursula Le Guin, and wily old pragmatist, Bertolt Brecht, we can rightly decry our need for heroes. I liked the way that someone introduced Noam Chomsky at an Anarchist Conference in Sydney nearly 20 years ago, when she said that we anarchists weren’t supposed to have heroes, but we were certainly allowed to have our favourites, and there was no doubt Chomsky was one of these. I had to eat some humble pie after the conference, since I’d mildly scoffed at male friends, including Flaus, about them wishing they could have been Chomsky. I’d talked about a wonderful little cartoon I’d seen, where a young woman makes her boyfriend a Chomsky doll, since he adores him so much! But Chomsky had knocked me out the way, as people lined up to ask the “great man” their questions, and/or to make fragments of speeches themselves, and he answered each person as though it mattered. Both the stamina and the democratic spirit of the man were very special. There could be worse models of all-round decent human beings to be inspired by. In a similar way, John’s one of my own favourites.
John’s reputation had preceded him by the time I finally met him in 1982. As an undergraduate in Sydney, a close anarchist friend had mentioned him to me, spoken of his opinions about this and that (film and/or political point), and the fact that in his experience John lacked the sexism and grandstanding that characterised some of the other Sydney Libertarian and Push men. And he had a basic interest in people and respect for them.He was teaching film at the Free University then, and I was pleased film was being taught there (indeed, taught anywhere). I’d grown up on old Hollywood and got lessons from Bill Collins presenting Friday Night at the Movies. (While I was a student, Collins still had a day job – teaching Latin down at the Teachers’ College at Sydney University.) After work at weekends, I’d gone off on my own to now-demolished Sydney cinemas to see films with subtitles and British kitchen-sink realism. The Union Theatre film program was also pretty great while I was an undergraduate. And it turned out that Flaus had been one of the Sydney University Film Group, along with Barrett and Bruce Hodsdon, who put together and wrote about the films I was introduced to there (all kinds, but Monday night Westerns were especially dear to me, along with a particularly difficult-to-fathom Yugoslav film that I’d get to know far better in the future.) I owed a lot to the Film Group, without knowing any of its members at that time. I knew nothing of their internal differences and debates, but one of the best things about them was they were eclectic and crossed boundaries. They seemed open about what films were worth showing and talking about.
Later, while I was doing a higher degree in Sociology at La Trobe, during a Screen Studies Conference in the first year there, my supervisor introduced me to Flaus, whom he’d been wanting me to meet and talk to for a while. (Flaus was participating in the conference and no longer worked at La Trobe. I used to visit Cinema Studies, while safely finding my feet on the other side of the university, so I wouldn’t feel hostage to any kind of film theory taught there at the time.) Long sessions at Flaus’ place opposite The Black Cat in Brunswick St. followed. While full of ideas and countless stories, the man could actually listen; he could attend to what you said and address what preoccupied you, consider and engage with your ideas and opinions. There was a generosity about this that was confidence boosting for a mature-age student lacking in cultural capital. (I was meeting a good few champagne socialists in Melbourne, preoccupied by rank and with a liking for the good life – but they were resolutely puritanical in their socialism.) John’s way of dwelling, the socks hanging above the bathtub, the casual atmosphere and good humour, all in the mix there with serious ideas about film and society, were all things I felt at home with. With the exception perhaps of the socks, these are things I still value sharing with other people from “the country of movies”, wherever I go in the world.
A few little scenes where some of Flaus’ qualities show themselves:
During those early times in Melbourne, not having babysitters and liking our little son, Declan, to be exposed to films anyway, we all went along to a showing of Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) that John was putting on for his Council for Adult Education Class. I think it was when the lights came back on after the film that Declan fell off his chair and John, quite a big man and the focus of people’s attention, laughed that big, rich laugh. Publicly embarrassed, Declan decided he wasn’t that fond of the man and bore a child-size grudge. It didn’t take long, though, a few years later, when on a visit to John and Natalie, for that grudge to dissolve. John had immediately gotten out his cricket books and spent time with Declan and his younger brother, Cass, talking sport and statistics, talking about the way he hoped to have a place one day that would have a cricket pitch for visitors. “Hidden history” came out that night, too, as Flaus talked about an Aboriginal cricket team I’d never known about – interesting stuff, and as I’ve gotten older, this kind of history, grass-roots stuff, particularly of the Indigenous kind, has become more and more the focus of my own work too.
The day after a meal at my place, a couple of years later, the boys singled him out as the best guest we had – he actually included them as part of the general sociability. He addressed what he said to them as well as us adults – never mind they didn’t have film buff or academic credentials! At his 70th birthday celebration, he was concerned that my boys must be bored, since most people were older, and they would surely have preferred more activity. And to keep it in the family, after John spoke at the launch of one of my husband’s books, and my brother-in-law gave him a lift home, the brother-in-law told us the next day that he’d been delighted to meet and talk to John. He was so friendly, down-to-earth, “ordinary people”, easier to talk to than my husband and I really. Hmm…
John visited one of my PhD students; I haven’t a clue why now, though I know I made the introduction. The student’s family, particularly her mother, had had a fabulous time talking. The mother wanted to know if John was “attached”. Unfortunately for her, he was. (Natalie!)
John, Adrian Martin and I did a Life Matters on Radio National with Geraldine Doogue one morning. (I forget the topic, and would be happy to wager I was included as the token woman the research assistants contacted.) We really enjoyed it, and Geraldine was at least as happy as us. She thought we’d all be snobby, talk about films most people had never heard of, and most of all, be disdainful of things popularly enjoyed. (Her assistants certainly got the wrong people!) I suspect it was while we all had a coffee after the radio program that I mentioned I hadn’t read a particular book. A copy came in the post for me a couple of days later. And that’s not the only time that’s happened.
I’m glad to say that I tend to do this sort of thing with people a bit myself, even without a regular salary, since, like John, I’ve escaped from institutions. (Last time I wrote to him about what was happening in our education system, I signed off with, “Scholar in Servitude”. His next letter addressed me this way.) But the point is, good teachers are endlessly curious, enthusiastic, generous and good learners themselves. They tend to have a “contagious” quality.
I will hardly mention his acting, since others can talk better about that. Being far away from Melbourne now, I’ve only glimpsed him in the Jack Irish TV movies, for example. In Lamb of God (not the American groove metal band, but a play written and performed around 1980 for which I can’t find information on the Internet), I couldn’t believe how “small” he was able to make himself for the part, as the father of a family who became a spent man. And in Palm Beach (Albie Thoms, 1980), a film I’m not fond of, in the moment when he sits, again exhausted, and removes the toupee from his head, I think the film acquires a weight it didn’t have till then. But that brings up another of John’s qualities. He gave credit where he believed it was due to people like Thoms (well celebrated in Senses of Cinema by several significant film people last year) (1). And while old anarchists like Darcy Waters seemed a bit obscene and offensively masculine to some of us younger ones when he’d stride into our self-management group, usually uttering obscenities, again, John has always made sure he gave such people their due, as a witness and loyal old friend, who knew the man better than we did, and over many years. Indeed, he wrote a good poem about Waters, but Flaus the poet, I can’t touch on here…
I’ve seen Stromboli, Wild River, Cutter’s Way and Farrebique in the last few weeks. (You gotta love Paris!) And I wish John were around to talk with about these films. Which brings me to one severe criticism I have, which I’ll address to him directly. Why haven’t you answered my last email, John?! Having reached the 80-year mark is no excuse. A good few of my friends here saw their 80th birthdays years ago. Come to think of it, maybe that’s one elixir of longevity – a passion for film and a refusal of servitude!
1. See John Flaus, “Memoir of Albie”, Senses of Cinema no. 66, March 2013: http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/albie-thoms/memoir-of-albie/.