John Flaus became active in the film society movement in 1953 and in the following year he published in Voice: The Australian Independent Monthly, falling out with the editor on the question of the political message of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). These are facts that appear in his CV, which includes that he worked as a Psychologist’s Assistant at Long Bay Penitentiary; that he undertook a BA at Sydney University from 1955 until he eventually graduated in 1971; that he drove a truck (1956-1958); worked as a clerk; and was Assistant Secretary of the Worker’s Educational Association of NSW (1967-1970). His first acting role was in an adaptation of Frank Moorhouse’s satirical The American Poet’s Visit (1969) directed by Michael Thornhill.
What does not appear on his CV is that Flaus is an anarchist. Throughout his life he has resisted the authority of institutions in favour of a belief in individual freedom. At 18 he was drafted. Having refused the government’s invitation, he received a summons to court where the judge asked him if his objection was religious. “No”, he said, “I have no religion”. “Well”, asked the judge, “what would you do if an ‘Asiatic’ tried to kill you?” “I’d kill him”, replied Flaus. “Well”, said the judge, “that is what soldiers do, so what is the problem?” John replied, “no, you asked me what I’d do, but if I was a soldier, I’d have to do what someone else told me to do” – and therein lay the problem!
Flaus appeared on 3RRR’s Film Buff’s Forecast with Paul Harris from 1979 to 1990, and when the station banned him from smoking because of the sound of a match striking on air, he brought carrots in and proceeded to crunch them instead. Following a “flood of protests to the station”, they let him smoke. According to Flaus, “they could not stand the sound of someone eating healthy food on air” (1).
When serving on the board of the Australian Film Institute (AFI), someone also tried to stop him smoking:
The 1950s and 1960s
In the 1950s, Paddington was a working-class area and home to Flaus, who was at the time starting a family with his partner Judith. He was raised and educated by Sydney’s Poor Clares and Christian Brothers, on “a diet of Hibernian pietism” (2), but once free of them, he rejected religious and puritanical dogma. So it was from this context that he encountered the Sydney Push, a left-wing group that rejected conventional morality – or as Flaus has said, they were “against wowserism”, and so was he (3). “The Push” welcomed writers, intellectuals, activists and filmmakers.
Holding libertarian views, Flaus observed that people connected with the Push came together for different reasons. Apparently some Push members were notorious for “collecting” people for the night. He recalled that there was one, now “an internationally famous commentator”, who was “one of the great collectors”, especially of “blue-collar ruff-heads” – but as he wryly noted, she did not “collect” him (4).
For over 60 years Flaus has been a significant part of the screen culture ecosystem – the plankton if you like – swimming against the current, fulfilling a crucial, foundational and sustaining role. In many visits to talk to my Australian cinema students Flaus explained this important principle. In any ecosystem, including that of screen culture, there are those who work in the undergrowth, and without it the more visible parts of the industry cannot survive. The output of any industry is reliant on a vibrant screen culture and Flaus has done more than his share over the years. For example, throughout the vibrant 1970s Flaus’ engagement with screen culture included membership of the committee of the National Film Theatre of Australia (1970-75), acting as assessor for the Experimental Film Fund (1972-75), an inaugural role on the Founding Council of the AFTRS, and membership of the board of the AFI (1973-1988) (5).
As Flaus has said of himself, I am “an undergrowth person”:
From the 1960s, Flaus made a major contribution to screen education and scholarship. He had an input into the inaugural cinema component of Fine Arts at the University of Sydney, and to Cinema and Media at La Trobe University (1972-1975). He was even Head of Education at AFTRS (1976-1977). At the end of the ’70s and early ’80s he worked at Caulfield Institute of Technology (1978-80), the Council of Adult Education (1978-84), Swinburne (1979-84), and taught courses or gave lectures at various other institutions including Deakin (Rusden) in 1981. In 1992 he wrote an important essay for the journal Continuum which John describes as an “Aesthetics and Pragmatics of Screen Acting” (6). On top of the 98 acting credits he has listed on IMDb (7), John has appeared in an untold number of student films, and students have felt his generosity over many decades.
I regard myself as having had the great fortune to have once been one of Flaus’ students, and to him I owe my love of experimental film – I am one of an untold number of the “Flaus Alumni”. One might ask how someone who left school at 16 found his way to achieve all that he has, and to have acquired his exceptional intellect, creative talent and aesthetic sensibilities. He always has a book in his hand or in his pocket, but he is also always greatly interested in others and in sharing. When he has come to speak to my Australian Cinema students I always tell them just to listen, his knowledge is broad and deep. Indeed, I’ve said to them that he is a lateral adventure: “don’t take notes, just treat him as if he is an experimental film”. When he taught me in 1981 he’d sit up the front in the film theatre at Rusden, his cigarette would glow red at intervals, and afterwards he’d say, “now, what can I tell you”, and we’d lean forward eagerly, despite having just watched more than 20 minutes of bricks in Paul Winkler’s Brick Wall (1974) – on the back of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill’s Warrah (1980) – and hours of other films that I continue to love till this day.
Australian screen culture owes John Flaus an enormous debt, as do all of those who have come in contact with him. He has made a significant contribution to every aspect of screen culture. From the 1980s John worked in the media, worked as a full-time actor, and wrote (with Paul Harris) short weekly reviews for The Age. He undertook occasional script editing or voiceover work, and worked in television. His contribution has been acknowledged by guilds and unions who have given him their most prestigious awards, including the Australian Writer’s Guild’s Dorothy Crawford Award (1994) and the Australian Directors Guild’s Cecil Holmes Award (2003). At 80, Flaus is still working and contributing. The reach and appreciation of his gift to screen culture was evident on the opening night of the 2014 St Kilda Film Festival where a short documentary about John called Life on Tape by Oscar Strangio (2014) was warmly received. One audience member said to me, “everyone loves John”, and I knew exactly what she meant – thank you John, from all of us in the screen culture ecosystem, you are a true maverick.
1. Flaus failed the medical due to problems with his eyesight and so he was never actually sent to war. The information in this paragraph is taken from an interview with Flaus undertaken by Mark Poole and myself on 1 May 2008. This clip and the other one that appears later in this piece are from this source and have been previously published with other interview clips in French and Poole, Shining a Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute, 2nd ed., ATOM, Melbourne, 2014: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/shining-light-50-years-afi/id797384477?mt=11.
2. The source of this information is the contributor’s biographies in Janis and Richard Londraville (eds.), John Quinn: Selected Irish Writers From His Library, Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, 2001, p. xxiv. See the chapter by John Tobin O Fearna Flaus, “Amok Summery of Bloomsday”, pp.195-200.
3. French and Poole.
4. French and Poole. See also one of the films emerging from this milieu, Albie Thoms’ Rita and Dundi (1966), a portrait of two women associated with the Push that features vistas of Paddington: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7Js2EJziKw.
5. The dates cited here are taken from Flaus’ CV.
6. See John Flaus, “Thanks for your heart, Bart”, Continuum vol. 5, no. 2, 1990: http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/5.2/Flaus.html.
7. “John Flaus”, IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0281313/?ref_=nmawd_awd_nm.