Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, our serious film-viewing landscape was the main campus cinema, Sydney University’s Union Theatre, later the Footbridge; then the fleapits, the adult education centres, and the fringes of university programmes where the study of cinema was being allowed in, slowly, marginally and grudgingly. In those spaces John Flaus provoked and taught us all – tramping round barefoot in that old greatcoat, which he said was his costume of allegiance to the provisional Irish Republican Army; often trailing his four kids, or a string of female acolytes. (Perhaps I exaggerate.) Some of us turned into more or less respectable film academics, and he was one himself for a while, fitting in to various systems pretty uncomfortably: the university, the film training school, the newspaper. Making his exit from this role and that, he cared little for money and less for status; what often appalled him was that people looking for careers in the new departments had no real love for cinema. Today the nostalgic celebrity hounds (vide Howard Jacobson and Brilliant Creatures) wouldn’t get a crumb from him. He was and is an avowed anarchist intellectual; often a crusader for popular culture as against all sorts of elitism, he is gifted with the kind of laser perception which cuts through the categorical boundaries in literature, cinema, culture at large. It’s done with earnest, obsessive, longwinded argument; it’s also done with unsinkable Irish laughter.
In the postwar decades, middleclass society discovered European cinema; I had high-minded, left-leaning schoolteachers who thought Hollywood was the opium of the people, and so grew up thinking cinema was French, almost by definition. For the benefit of a particular local tribe, John and his cohort argued for the claims of popular genres: the classicism of Ford’s and Hawks’ Westerns, the moral complexities in Hitchcock, the visionary magic of von Sternberg, and the vitality of the B-lists in both gunplay and Western. I remember one spectacularly argumentative weekend, organised (I think) by the WEA: we gathered to discuss that breakthrough book of 1969, Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Flaus had some fun with structural anthropology, and the rest of us tried to get our heads around semiotics. A few years later, I had the pleasure of telling Peter Wollen, at Northwestern University, that we’d done this.
In the midst of all those arguments, there was that night when, in truly riveted astonishment at the Union Theatre, we watched Godard’s 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her). (Decades on from viewing that particular masterwork, no one ever forgets the coffee-cup sequence, the way the swirl of foam becomes the galaxy, with the hypnotic voiceover delivering the burdens of living and belonging.) After the screening I came down one side of the stairway, John and his troop of fans and followers on the other. After our years of argument, we turned to each other at the bottom and (as I remember it) said together: That is the greatest film of the 1960s.
The people around us fell about laughing, because we weren’t famous for agreeing. I might be caricaturing here, but that’s how I remember it. And the arguments with John have always been shot through with laughter. Looking at his vivid bit-part as Sallay the camel-man in John Curran’s Tracks, the film from Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir, you can get the gleam of it, the irrepressible good humour as he delivers grim strictures on dealing with wild bull-camels.
And around that time there was another, intensely serious moment: we saw the brief, indispensable essay by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Jean Cayrol: Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog), showing Auschwitz in 1955, with grass growing on the tram tracks, and old film of the extermination camps, the heaps of human bones, and more terribly, the still-living skeletons. John said: That is the greatest film ever made.
It’s late in his day now, as in mine. I remember him giving himself only to the age of 58, and I also remember him protesting that he couldn’t breathe the air more than five miles from the Sydney GPO. Now he’s 80, still performing in many modes, and he lives in Castlemaine, Victoria, where he says he’s never tired of looking at those vast back-country landscapes. Why not? Those too are cinema.