Back in the early ’60s I often went to the screenings at Sydney University’s Union Theatre, where the Sydney University Film Group programmed an interesting repertory selection, together with the occasional imported film. I had just begun to sit in the front stalls at the movies, as I had two new friends who both happened to be short-sighted and always sat there so they could see properly (for me, after years of sitting much further back with other friends, joining them there was a revelation, and I’ve been sitting close to the front ever since). The front stalls were often disturbed by the (usually a little late) arrival of this tall, gangly man, untidy and often barefoot, accompanied by a brood of lively children. “That”, I was told, “is John Flaus”.
Over the next few years I saw John often, at parties and at the Push pubs; I heard his entertaining commentaries on current or classic cinema, and enjoyed discussions about his growing collections of books and newspapers, but it wasn’t until I became editor of FilmNews in 1976 that I really came to appreciate his role in the rapidly developing film community. Looking back through FilmNews, as I’ve been doing recently for another project, it’s instructive how often John Flaus makes an appearance.
FilmNews itself had evolved from the irregular roneoed newsletter put together by the small group of filmmakers who were struggling to screen and distribute their films in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time when filmmaking was still a marginalised activity. But as more films were made, more filmmakers emerged, and the Filmmakers’ Co-ops were established, FilmNews grew and expanded, and by the time I came on board it had evolved into a journal that was taking a much a stronger position on the issues that concerned not only the filmmakers and filmworkers of the Co-op, but the wider and suddenly growing film community. After the demise of the Co-op in 1984, and until its own demise ten years later, FilmNews further broadened its base; we reviewed films, interviewed filmmakers and policy makers, and got involved in the wide range of cultural and industrial concerns and campaigns that regularly bubbled up in what was a very volatile and committed film, media and communications sector.
While I’d been a committed filmgoer, and while a number of my friends were already involved in filmmaking, I hadn’t really taken much notice of the developments in the local film community until I came to FilmNews, where I found myself on a steep learning curve. I had to learn about the state and federal funding bodies, the various screen resource organisations, the unions and guilds, what they all did and who ran them. I had to learn about the various funding policies, the issues to do with distribution and exhibition, the need for an independent archive and a national film school.
But most of all I had to learn about the filmmakers and their films. The Co-op Cinema had regular screenings, and often showed new films as they arrived, but it was events like the Australian Reality seminar, held over the Australia Day weekend in 1977, and reported on by Albie Thoms in the March ’77 issue of FilmNews, that really helped in my understanding (1). Organised by the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and the Australian Film Institute, it was led by Flaus, who had programmed a very intensive long weekend of viewing. 18 hours of film were divided into eight sessions, with 33 films spanning ten years of filmmaking. The weekend concluded with a bonus screening of Pure Shit (1975), with director Bert Deling in attendance. Flaus put forward the proposition that these mainly short and low budget films “are more perceptive of Australian reality than recent big budget features”, and that their diversity of subject matter, narrative flexibility, contemporaneity, and their more frequent naturalness avoided the stereotyped characterisation of big budget features. In the following discussions this was attributed to looser structures, freedom from convention in dramaturgy, and the use of non-professional actors, while the frequent problems in sound quality in a number of the films was seen as a problem that needed to be addressed. Flaus suggested that the films contained a multiplicity of narrative options that were “a bet on the future” (i.e. foreshadowing future narrative trends) and Thoms remarked that his “skilful guiding of attention to [each] film certainly aided filmmakers in viewing films in a more incisive way”. I remember the weekend being lively, opinionated, informative, and filled with much talk – but I also remember being worn out at the end!
This weekend seminar and screening event was so successful that the Creative Development Branch of the AFC held another in Brisbane later in the year; in the November ’77 issue of FilmNews we published an edited transcript of Flaus’ introduction to this second event (2). FilmNews didn’t record what films were screened, although I think it would have been many of the same as in Sydney, with perhaps a few low budget features, as Flaus’ introduction this time emphasises the difference between high and low budget films rather than between short films and features. He told the seminar, “[a] lot of the pictures we will look at will look rough as guts. But a lot of them will surprise you with how much professional polish they have,” adding,
we’ll also show you films that have come out of group efforts where actors, and even the crew, have discussed what the scene should be… [have] helped draft a scenario and… consulted on the dialogue… [even argued] about what kind of a shot should cover the dialogue…. [S]ome are neither realistic or naturalistic…. Some have comic elements…. Some will be surrealistic… others will be a curious kind of mixture.
But, he said, “come the year 2001 we’ll be able to look back on the ’70s and say that that was where the really radical pictures were happening”.
In September 1979, FilmNews featured a wide-ranging and quite challenging interview, with the headline “Flaus Flays Flash Flicks & ‘Critics”’ over a great image of a beaming, wildly-bearded Flaus (3). (We loved the alliterative headline at FilmNews, but we were also guilty of a rather cavalier attitude to the elements of publishing; pagination and dates sometimes got lost or misplaced, and we occasionally forgot to identify contributors beyond their name, which is what happened to the interviewer for this particular piece, the now seemingly untraceable Hannah Dunne.) She explains how the interview came about; she heard that at a recent seminar organised by the AFC featuring the overseas “film critics” Alexander Walker and Rex Reed, Flaus had “had had a run-in” with the visitors. Tracking down a recording of the seminar, she decided that Flaus had “raised some valid and fundamental issues which were not discussed satisfactorily”, and organised the interview for FilmNews. It’s a fascinating read, and it’s particularly interesting how prescient Flaus was about issues that are not only still relevant, but have even become more problematic in the local film community today. And he was speaking over 30 years ago; an awful lot of films, funding, and policy changes have come and gone in that time.
The interview covers exhibition practice and especially the lack of venues to screen non-mainstream films (which actually included most Australian films at the time); as Flaus explains, most of the more than 300 films made with assistance from the Experimental Film and TV Fund (by that time) had yet to find an audience. Flaus talks about the direction in which the local industry seems headed, about local filmmakers’ ambivalent attitude to Hollywood films, about the changing role of the AFC, about marketing and the expectations of Australian audiences, and about his own role within the wider film community.
The actual dispute with the visiting film critics had apparently been sparked by Flaus stating his strongly held and well-considered opinion about the “fair working distinction” between criticism and reviewing, especially as it relates to film. The reviewer, as he explains, “writes for an audience that hasn’t seen the film yet”, and “pay[s] attention only to feature films… on first release”. On the other hand, he describes the critic as writing “about a film for an audience who have seen the film… [who] want elucidation of their own impressions… [and] want to get further into the film”. He talks about a critic’s interest extending beyond feature films, beyond contemporary films, into films of any period or country, and to documentary, the avant-garde and animation. Walker, he commented, had said that “the film critic relates to the film industry”. Flaus asked, as the majority of people working in film in Australia don’t work on feature films, shouldn’t those writers in Australia who saw their function to review and evaluate local production review “a whole range of films – documentaries, newsreels, sponsored films… television commercials… because the people who are making them are members of the film industry”? But Walker, he reported, “didn’t think that was the way to assess the film industry”.
Flaus argued that critics, film historians and people who set up film courses (and he could have included those who make judgements at film funding bodies) should get away from “this elitist view that the only films we ought to look at and try and learn something from, are the isolated masterpieces”. He believed that “people have been encouraged to continually narrow down [their taste]… [to] believe they are refining their tastes, when they stay away from certain kinds of pictures, but all they are doing is getting deeper into [a] rut.” What concerned him particularly about this was that “as audience tastes narrow down, filmmakers, and the investors who give them the dough to make the pictures, are trying to converge, are trying to chase the narrowing band”.
“What I’m afraid of”, he says (and this seems especially relevant today),
is that film is going to head in the direction of some of the other traditional art forms, and pass into a phase of decadence. When that happens it means that both the practitioners and a majority of their consumers, their audience, become increasingly concerned with technical matters, with superficial notions of excellence and so forth, and the medium itself will decline and may never recover. What has brought other art forms back is the resurgence of primitivism. Some practitioners say… there must be feelings, there must be emotional possibilities that the medium has… at its basis, part of the nature of the medium, that have been lost… let’s find what they are… [let’s] head on back to find these earliest, basic things and then build on them again.
Flaus concludes by saying, “[t]here’s got to be a movement, it’s got to be a challenge, you’ve got to shake people, so that they no longer feel complacent. What I’m interested in is any kind of movie that shakes complacency. That says, ‘Hey, you took something for granted – why?’”
FilmNews also managed to snare some interesting tidbits from Filmbuffs’ Forecast, the legendary weekly radio program on Melbourne community radio station 3RRR on which Paul Harris and John Flaus discussed all things film-related, interviewing all sorts of local and visiting film people. The first, in March 1988, was part of a mini-feature on Michael Thornhill’s new film, The Everlasting Secret Family, with an interview with Frank Moorhouse, writer of both the film’s screenplay and the book on which it was based, together with a review of the film by Liz Jacka (4). With our reviewer reporting, terribly sadly, that the Thornhill/Moorhouse collaboration had, in this instance, failed dismally “to be provoking to the intellect, confronting to the emotions, or, indeed, entertaining”, the feature had become rather smaller than originally intended, and we chose those excerpts from the interview which mainly concentrated on querying Moorhouse on his writing methods. Flaus, of course, knew both Thornhill and Moorhouse well from the old Push days, and one of his first acting roles in film had been in Thornhill’s short, The American Poet’s Visit (1969), written by Moorhouse from his own short story, and you do feel that he’s treading rather carefully through the interview with his relatively technical and impersonal questions.
The second excerpt is altogether different, and it acts as an obituary to the wonderful Michael Powell, who had died at 84. The March 1990 issue of FilmNews ran just a short grab from the interview Paul Harris and John Flaus had done with the great British director the year before, when his The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was screening at the Astor (5). By phone from London, Powell was enthusiastic about speaking to Australia, and hoped that people were experiencing as much enjoyment seeing his film, “as we did making it during the war”. He added, “each country should make their own story and make their own films, but I think it is so exciting that Australia has not only found good directors and good writers, but they’ve gone abroad and done films in America and England, even better than the ones at home”. Flaus, saying that he believed that The Archers produced “the finest English films of their period”, added that Powell had “kept doing new things, and bolder things than anyone else in the British industry. They should have looked up to you.” Powell replied that they hadn’t, that “[t]hey don’t understand the last film you made, and then when you want to make a new one, obviously you want to make it more interesting or quite different. They don’t understand this. They are the people who say you can’t do it.” And sadly, a year later he would be dead; there would be no more Michael Powell films.
For years the only way FilmNews could provide its readers with a contribution by Flaus was when he had been recorded at an event or in an interview, but one day I was astounded to receive a letter from him, typed on what appeared to be a manual typewriter from perhaps the 1920s (like one from His Girl Friday, perhaps). I was amazed and delighted, and immediately asked for a contribution; I remarked that he could now move on to the computer, or at least an electric typewriter. “Oh no”, he said, “I’ve only just mastered this – I need some time to enjoy it”. And the first piece he wrote, in the April 1991 issue of FilmNews, was “Miller’s Crossing – A Film Neither Structured Nor Constrained by Fashion”, an appreciation of the Coen brothers’ third feature (6); as this is really worth reading in its entirety, it’s being republished in full in this tribute.
The very next issue, May 1991, Flaus was back, this time with a thoughtful obituary of David Lean and Don Siegel, who had just died within a week of each other (7). As Flaus says, they had both got their grounding in the cutting room, and Lean, older by four years, made his first film in 1942, Siegel made his in 1946. “Lean’s influence on international cinema has been far greater, and I’m here to say most of it has been for the worse”, he says. It’s Lean’s last six films, Summer Madness (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and A Passage to India (1984) that he considers to have
contributed mightily to the decline of film culture. The movies aren’t dead yet but Lean has built their Taj Mahal. He was an auteur – for what it’s worth, a failed artist in whom aspiration replaced inspiration. His films became increasingly reactionary and decadent as they, and he, became celebrated….
[Lean’s] budgets are on the screen, not in some gobetween’s Swiss bank, but he did waste the medium. Those gorgeous images are the illusion of riches; actually they impoverish cinema.
By contrast, he says of Siegel that, “he got the movie off the page and onto the screen with more fury than grace, and the best of his work leaves us imaginatively reverberating years afterwards. Like Raoul Walsh, at his best he was better than beautiful, he was sublime.” He considers that Siegel’s
[s]uccinctness of action within the frame and ruthless progression to the next frame give his best work a narrative energy complementary to the depicted energy in front of camera…. Siegel’s work is exemplary in the use of cutting to abbreviate the perceived space of the establishing shot; he annihilates space and saves time, thereby raising narrative “value”. Lean, by comparison, privileges space but devalues it and sometimes annihilates narrative without raising contemplation. Lean is a putter-in, Siegel is a taker-out.
Flaus says that, “Lean and Siegel learnt contrary lessons from their cutting room years. The elder exalted the maxim ‘Don’t say it in one shot if you can use two’; the younger decided he could trust his audience’s intelligence.” And Flaus concludes, sadly, that the “box office tells us his trust was misplaced”.
He last wrote for FilmNews in the February 1993 edition; it’s a very interesting review, revisiting an Australian film, Heaven Tonight (Pino Amenta, 1990), which, as FilmNews says, “Shrugged off by the trade after a brief theatrical release at Christmas 1990… will get a second chance to find its public when the Carlton Movie House gives it a revival” (8). Flaus give the film a serious, considered analysis, describing it as “realistic”, and going into some detail about how he defines that; he says “that makes it rare and worth a look. Rarity is no guarantee of merit, but I can report that this production is never less than professionally competent, and its subject matter should be of intrinsic interest to a large public.” Its subject is the rock music industry, and Flaus praises the film for recognising this as a business, although it’s a business that has turned its back on the film’s main characters. As he says,
I have harped on the word “business” because the film never loses sight of this sobering realisation. In any form of cultural activity, from football to furnituremaking, when marketing dictates to creativity it puts a low pricetag on tradition….
Rock music… is the art form with the greatest commonality in our society over the last two generations. It is the most interactive and multifarious art of our time… despite the efforts of the “business” to keep the paying public uncritical, hence manipulable.
After some critical, but on the whole positive analysis of the acting, writing and directing aspects of Heaven Tonight, Flaus concludes, that
the film… deserves a public. But I wonder about “the public” when I consider the box office champions of 1992: Strictly Ballroom, trifle served as main course, and Romper Stomper, a sheep in wolf’s clothing – both brazenly derivative, redundant and sentimental. If “the public” can be dazzled by a pound of glitter and a ton of bluster will they rally to a modest, downbeat movie that isn’t trying to fool anyone?
(Sadly, I think his doubts were justified.)
Flaus travelled from Melbourne to Sydney by train to attend the event that celebrated Albie Thoms’ life and said there that he firmly believed that if he was to be remembered for anything, it would be for being part of a great film, Palm Beach (1980). And while I agree with him about Palm Beach, the FilmNews years were punctuated by screenings and reviews of films that John appeared in, from Queensland in 1976and Newsfront in 1978, to Wronsky (1980), Blood Money (1980), Plains of Heaven (1982), Strikebound (1984) and Bootleg (1985). In 1986 came John Hughes’ Traps, and then Flaus as David Perry’s alter ego in Love and Work, in 1988 Grievous Bodily Harm, and in 1992, Spotswood. He did television and voiceover work, too, of course, but I think he most enjoyed working in the kinds of films he had argued for back in those 1977 seminars. And for someone who so enjoys his acting, it’s interesting that two of the filmmakers he most admires make films without actors. As he said in the 1979 interview,
I think you’ll have to say that most of the significant and valuable works have not been in the area of drama…. [T]he work of people like Paul Winkler and Arthur [and Corinne] Cantrill will be seen by the art historians of the future as being the really creative flowering of filmmaking in Australia.
It seems quite some time ago that I was in Melbourne for “John Flaus’ final stage performance” in The Cherry Orchard; afterwards a group of friends enjoyed a late supper with him to celebrate his retirement from stage and screen. But of course it didn’t last. His memorable voice can still be heard in various TV and cinema ads, he’ll turn up in continuing or guest supporting roles on television (the ABC’s Jack Irish and Rake series, for example), and whenever a juicy film part is offered, he’ll still grab it (the old Afghan camel driver in Tracks). And why not!
1. A.T. [Albie Thoms], “Seminar: Australian Reality”, FilmNews vol. 7 no. 2, March 1977, p. 3.
2. Flaus, “The Low Budget Narrative Film”, FilmNews vol. 7 no. 10, November 1977, p. 8
3. Hannah Dunne, “Flaus Flays Flash Flicks & ‘Critics’”, FilmNews vol. 9 no. 9, September 1979, pp. 5, 13-14.
4. Flaus and Paul Harris, “Frank Interview”, FilmNews vol. 18 no. 2, March 1988, p. 13.
5. Flaus and Harris, “Michael Powell”, FilmNews vol. 20, no. 2, March 1990, p. 14.
6. Flaus, “Miller’s Crossing – A Film Neither Structured nor Constrained by Fashion”, FilmNews vol. 21, no. 3, April 1991, pp. 8-9.
7. Flaus, “Fly Away David, Come Back Don”, FilmNews vol. 21, no. 4, May 1991, pp. 8-9.
8. Flaus, “Heaven Tonight”, FilmNews vol. 23, no. 1, February 1993, p. 16.