In the early 1970s when academic film study was beginning, most of us would wait for what John Flaus was going to come up with next. Those of us professionally teaching film were a very small community. Very few had tenured academic appointments and these were made as tenuous as possible. The academic establishment hated the very idea of the discipline being taught at all, especially by Australians. John’s great strength was that he placed Film in the mainstream of academic study, pointing to the relevance of Myth, Psychology and History for understanding the medium. This made him very difficult to refute; and Flaus could be fearsome in controversy on his chosen battlefield, the academic conference.
For those of us fighting to get appropriate films for our courses and collecting information from what original sources were available, John’s insights were invaluable and continued to shape our teaching even after he left academic life. At the basis of all his work was something that came from one of Australia’s great teachers of English, the late Bill Maidment. As John told me: “I learnt from Bill to ask these questions about any film or literary work I was examining: What does it mean? What did it mean when it was first released or published? What is it about? What is it really about? What does it assume? What does it assert? What does it imply?” At the heart of his teaching was a belief in the integrity of the individual cinematic work and the vital importance of the original context. This was a significant corrective to the arrogant present mindedness of the time. Our best students at least could adjust to the style and period in which a particular film was made.
Flaus’ great achievement was that, often well ahead of film scholarship in Britain and America, he mounted a series of arguments demonstrating the artistry in mainstream Hollywood genres. This was largely achieved through patient talking and discussion. In debate John would be the first to recognise a good idea and improve on it. And he was by all accounts a charismatic teacher. Certainly the visiting lectures he gave for me were of very high quality.
As part of his work on film genres Flaus adapted French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ theories on myth to American cinema. Certainly this was part of the then fashionable 1970s structuralism. But John never applied the anthropological categories solely to an individual work. There was always a context and above all comparisons. We will have to wait until the forthcoming publication of Flaus’ articles and papers, but I believe his work on cinematic mythology will survive.
Like many of us John was not very good at playing academic games and he has since become a film actor. Flaus has, of course, written extensively about screen acting. Predictably he liked performers who excelled at stoic restraint. When his daughter Caitlin burst into tears at the end of a screening of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet John exclaimed, “I brought her up on Randolph Scott and George Raft, she shouldn’t be crying over Leonard Whiting”. He was also an eloquent defender of Gary Cooper against the well-bred disparagement of Frank Legge, the ABC’s anti-Hollywood film critic in the ’50s and ’60s. So it was hardly surprising that John’s doomed gangster in Chris Fitchett’s Blood Money displays the restraint and understatement he discussed with such insight in his articles on Raft and Cooper. To date Blood Money has been Flaus’ only leading role in a feature, but we live in hope. Surprisingly for a soft-spoken man, his voice and presence easily fill a theatre and John has had a distinguished career as a stage actor appearing often by invitation.
Although Flaus has written more than he has been credited with, he still has much to teach us. Perhaps, after his collected articles are published there will be more reflections on the art form that he has devoted so much of his life and imagination to understanding.