This special tribute dossier is devoted to one of the true legends of Australian screen culture, the inimitable and mercurial John Flaus. It marks a little over 60 years since the start of John’s involvement in “cinema” in Australia, and tracks his extraordinary and singular contribution to the field as a scholar, teacher, poet, cinephile, actor, broadcaster, tireless board member, mentor, script advisor, milkman, receptionist and later script assessor for Patricia Edgar at the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, much in-demand voiceover artist, archivist collector, writer and, always, anarchist. He has been integral to all kinds of cinema and the various places it has been screened, discussed and made across half of film history. As is indicated by the volume and quality of tributes and reprinted essays appearing in this dossier, John’s reputation and legacy is assured but hopefully further enhanced by this festschrift, particularly for those in other countries who haven’t had access to much of his writing or his thinking about the cinema.
Although for many people in Australia John needs no introduction – and there is no way that I can do his extraordinary and varied life and career justice here – I think it is important to highlight a few significant moments and contributions he has made. John has been variously associated with such organisations and movements as the Workers’ Educational Association Film Study Group in the early 1960s, the Sydney University Film Group in the mid to late 1960s, the often eulogised Sydney Push, and academic institutions such as Latrobe University (where he was integral in establishing film studies as a discipline in Australia), the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), and the Council for Adult Education. But he is a figure who ultimately and proudly belongs to no group and who has beaten his own path across a peripatetic career encompassing academia, radio, administration, and the various byways of the film and television industries. Although, along with other significant film-cultural figures of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Barrett and Bruce Hodsdon, John is not as widely known as he should be internationally – a fate not uncommon in the often tribal and heavily localised film cultures of the period, even between cities in the same country! – he is certainly some kind of legend in both Melbourne and Sydney, and has been championed by various filmmakers, critics, editors, actors, administrators and writers including the 23 contributors to this tribute, many of whom are key figures in Australian screen culture over the past 50 years.
In an essay published in the Bulletin over 40 years ago called “An Anarchist Comes to Power” (2), Frank Moorhouse seemed more interested in noting that John (or Flaus as he is commonly and affectionately called; you’ll see various alternations between these two names across this tribute) was the first person in Australia to go to the drive-in without a car or went everywhere barefoot than his ascension to the board of the AFTS (I’m not sure about the power though). John is the kind of figure that almost everyone likes telling stories and anecdotes about. One of my own, and highly symptomatic of John’s ability to talk around just about anything it is, was the moment during a guest lecture for an Australian Cinema course (in the early 2000s) when Peter Kemp piped up with “Can you say something about Yackety Yack, John?”, 45 minutes into a 50-minute talk on Dave Jones’ film. But I had prepared (warned?) the students by asking them to imagine that John had just stepped out of the film – in which he co-stars – some 25 or so years later. Although the character he plays in Yackety Yack (1974), Steve, is very closely aligned to John’s off-screen persona, this blurring of the lines and borders between various strata of film culture, the cinema and the world outside is integral to understanding John’s philosophy, ethics and singular contribution.
John has written and spoken about film – and various other things; his capacity to link ideas and topics together is extraordinary – in countless small and large outlets (mostly the former), ranging from his first writing job in 1954 for Voice: The Australian Independent Monthly, from which he was soon sacked, in early 1955, for claiming that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda, to his wonderful tribute to Albie Thoms published in Senses of Cinema last year (this is not to mention his evocative series of couplets, Parallacts, also published here). Once described as a cross between Bill Collins, a much-loved presenter of movies on Australian television who Flaus sometimes described as a “film lush”, and Marshall McLuhan (he’s still pondering that) (3), John was born in Sydney of staunchly Irish and Australian ancestry, moved to Melbourne in 1972 and “retired” to Castlemaine in the early 2000s. Despite entering his 80s in mid-April, John is still very active and in-demand as an actor, invited speaker, judge and thinker about movies (or the “pitchers” as he sometimes still calls them).
For many of us in the film culture scene in Australia, John has been an important, seminal influence on and pilot for the ways in which we think about, write about, talk about and watch cinema, and probably many other things as well. For me this is a very personal connection (one that is made more possible, I think, by the intimacy of radio) built up over hours of listening to John and Paul Harris in the 1980s on Filmbuffs’ Forecast on the community station 3RRR in Melbourne (4). I still miss the fascinating, astonishing and sometimes maddening way they would work their way through the week’s screenings, or not – sometimes they’d only make it to the TV schedules late on a Saturday night, the day of the broadcast – as well as the fondly remembered “Buff’s” Choice that appeared in The Age on a Friday. These two consuming passions dominated John’s critical output in the 1980s and are emblematic of his movement between long form discursive dialogue and the pithy economy required by the limits of a brief weekly column often covering six or seven films that were to be screened in Melbourne over the following week. But these twin poles also speak to the great preoccupations of John’s critical practice, swinging between the often aphoristic and “impoverished” domain of the B-movie and the more open field and duration of art and avant-garde cinema. John was, of course, a central figure in bringing together and analysing the various facets of so-called high and popular culture in Australia, often going out of his way to champion an underrated film, deflate an elephantine reputation (welcome, David Lean), promote a screening being held in some obscure venue, or just to ask us to look at a film from another perspective or through a different framework.
The late 1970s and 1980s is also the moment in which we started to see much more of John on film and TV screens in a range of movies including Phil Noyce’s Newsfront (1978), John Hughes’ Traps (1985; a continuation of the same character from Newsfront), Albie Thoms’ great Palm Beach (1980), John Ruane’s Queensland (1976; one of John’s most clear-eyed, melancholy and nuanced performances) and Feathers (1987), and Chris Fitchett’s Blood Money (1980) – in which he stars, with Bryan Brown in support! I’d also like to put in a special mention for his understated role in the Depression-era ABC TV series Palace of Dreams (1985). He has played well over 100 roles in film and TV ranging from the countless short student film productions he has tirelessly agreed to collaborate on to his very recent roles in the TV series Rake (alongside Yackety Yack’s Peter Carmody) and John Curran’s Tracks. Throughout this time John has also appeared in numerous plays including, recently, in The Madness of the Day, based on a short prose story by Maurice Blanchot, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
If I listed and talked about the quality, volume and range of John’s contributions to these various areas this introduction would quickly swell to an unwieldy length. But like many other aspects of John’s peripatetic career his work as an actor brings together performances in countless no budget films for which he was never paid, smaller scale “proletarian” dramas such as Queensland, low budget crime movies – both of which could allow him to make some connections to works he celebrated such as Manpower and The Killers – edgier works of narrative and formal self-consciousness (at one point in in Yackety Yack,John is introduced as “himself”, a figure who, to paraphrase from memory, “probably knows more about film than anyone else in Australia”), films on larger scales (such Newsfront and Tracks), and masses of voiceovers and onscreen performances in commercials for such companies as the State Bank of Victoria, Monroe Shock Absorbers, Hard Yakka and James Boags.
For me, as I know is the case also for my fellow cinephile Adrian Martin (5), John’s writing throughout the 1960s and 1970s was also highly influential, though seeking it out in important but obscure and often long defunct journals and magazines like The Sydney University Film Group Bulletin, Film Journal, Film Digest, Masque and Red and Black meant that these wonderfully detailed and often prescient articles (on such varied films as Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles, John’s much-loved War Comes to America, Melville’s Le Samouraï, and the Randolph Scott Westerns of Budd Boetticher) have come into my possession and awareness in dribs and drabs over the last 25 or so years. Some I’ve only just found while researching an as-close-to-complete-as-we-can-get-it bibliography (a Flausography!) for this tribute. John himself didn’t remember quite a number of them.
This tribute is designed to provide both a piecemeal, personal and multifaceted account of John’s “career” (is it that?), and put back into circulation a range of John’s most important pieces of critical writing. It particularly highlights the peak periods of John’s writing in the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s, as well as the 1990s when he wrote major pieces for Filmnews, Continuum, and CTEQ Annotations on Film (the 1980s is another key moment but dominated by his work in radio). Although much of John’s most significant and sustained criticism has been reserved for the more ephemeral realms of radio and conversation – the fields where he arguably operates best – he has published significant work on a range of films, topics and directors over a 60-year-period. John’s published criticism reflects significant shifts in emphasis but maintains a preoccupation with detailed and “sympathetic” description, genre and the key ontological questions that should drive any worthwhile and truly probing criticism. You will find these qualities at work in John’s important and clear-eyed pieces on Satyajit Ray, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel’s The Killers, La Peau douce, Miller’s Crossing and Two-Lane Blacktop. This reaches something of an apogee in his essay on Le Samouraï which provides a symptomatic, “mimetic” and brilliantly descriptive sense of the film. When I look back at this piece from 40 years ago, and his various essays covering the Boetticher/Scott “Ranown cycle”, I find it difficult to make clear distinctions between my own readings of the films and those of John heard across a decade of Saturdays in the 1980s.
The articles chosen for this dossier also reflect John’s tastes and canons. We have chosen several articles that cover films that have appeared in John’s lists of the most important or best or greatest films, including those he contributed to Sight and Sound in 2012 and Cinema Papers in 1984 (dedicated to Australian film): Brick Wall (Paul Winkler, 1974), Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971), Manpower (Raoul Walsh, 1941), Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955), Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967), There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956). Though, as Bruce Hodsdon has argued in the accompanying essay, Flaus hasn’t written anything substantial (that we could locate, anyway) on a number of his key films or filmmakers: Ozu, Dreyer, Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961), Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister, 1942), Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), etc. We only really have the memory of his classes, radio shows, public presentations and conversation to help us recall why he thought so highly of them. Perhaps, that’s how it should be, as it is John’s ability to “talk film” that is remembered most fondly.
John is, of course, also extremely important to the Melbourne Cinémathèque and Senses of Cinema. We have published a number of John articles in Annotations on Film, CTEQ Annotations on Film, Metro and Senses of Cinema over the last 25 years (starting with his piece on Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow in 1990, republished here), but he was also very significant in terms of championing the Cinémathèque in the 1980s – a period of transition (30 years ago) when it moved from Melbourne University to RMIT. John’s enthusiasm and support for the programme was essential in reinvigorating the organisation and getting audiences passionately engaged with the byways of film history, and this is a role he has performed countless times for many small organisations. I’m not sure the Cinémathèque would still be here, including as a collaborator with Senses of Cinema, without his passionate advocacy. John also spoke evocatively at the seminars on Ozu and Michael Powell that were run by the Cinémathèque in the mid-2000s. I still hold very dearly the look on John’s face when Japanese film scholar Freda Freiberg called Ozu a “studio hack”; for a moment he did indeed contemplate the possibility, but then settled back into an eloquent defence of the great director. His response was characteristically pointed and gracious, affronted and accepting.
It’s been a great pleasure putting this tribute dossier together (the numerous long conversations that it has inspired with John have been a great reminder of his extraordinary capacities, love of genuine dialogue and stamina). I hope it in some ways repays and reflects the central role John has played in my own life as a cinephile, as well as for countless others. Some of those people have been significant contributors to this dossier including a variety of critics, filmmakers, academics, administrators, writers (as if it was possible to make such clear distinctions in the world we’re celebrating here). We wish to thank them all for their terrific and heartfelt contributions to this tribute. In particular, I would like to single out Bruce Hodsdon who has been integral in putting this extensive tribute together, and has guided some of my thinking about John’s voluminous career. Bruce also provided numerous leads on where to find long out-of-print essays by John, an awful lot of context for an often nebulous and undocumented cultural history, and a reminder in a very long session with John of why cinema is so important to all of us. Bruce’s own contribution to this dossier is an as-close-to-definitive account of John’s published film criticism.
The essays included in this tribute should also be seen alongside several fascinating attempts to capture something of John’s life and mercurial sensibility on film: Peter Tammer’s associative, appropriately digressive and richly textured Flausfilm (finished in 2009) and Oscar Strangio’s brief but evocative in situ portrait of John and his overflowing archive, Life on Tape (2014). It should also be regarded as a companion piece to a screening at the Melbourne Cinémathèque held in March this year which celebrated John’s contribution by showing a number of his favourite and most significant films – Brick Wall, Listen to Britain and a powerful early influence, Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)– as well as his first performance on celluloid, The American Poet’s Visit (Michael Thornhill, 1969); all, of course, were eloquently introduced by John himself. Placed alongside each other, they should provide something of a tapestry of John’s vitality and storied contribution, and a record of his epic journey through film culture.
To paraphrase a seminal essay that John wrote for Continuum in the early 1990s, and that expansively joins together his work as a film scholar and actor, “Thanks for your heart, John”.
1. “Keep the coffee hot, Hugo”, is, of course, the final, unsettling line spoken by Glenn Ford’s police inspector in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). John’s wonderful 1996 essay on the film is republished in this tribute dossier.
2. Frank Moorhouse, “An Anarchist Comes to Power”, Days of Wine and Rage, Vintage, North Sydney, 1980 [revised 2007], pp. 425-29. Originally published in the Bulletin 21 July 1973.
3. See the introduction to Adrian Martin, “Say it With Flaus”, XPress vol. 1, no. 5, August-October 1986, p. 14 (full details for source unconfirmed and original unsighted).
4. John departed from the show, which he instigated in the late 1970s, at the start of the 1990s, but Paul has continued with it up until the present day. Paul’s contribution to film culture in Australia (and particularly Melbourne) deserves its own tribute, and his dedication to the program – as well as numerous other film cultural activities such as the St Kilda Film Festival – demonstrates a necessary commitment to the long haul which I can most certainly identify with and is essential to the maintenance of screen culture. Paul is also one of the best interviewers in the country.
5. See Adrian Martin, “Incursions”, The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, Routledge, New York, 2011, pp. 58-61. This essay includes a critical discussion and appreciation of Flaus’ seminal article on Melville’s Le Samouraï and what Martin calls “mimetic” criticism.