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David Stratton, before the crisis in arts journalism

Film and television documentaries about Australian artists are not all that common, though recently we’ve had quite a few. In April and May ABC Arts rolled out a five-part series, Creatives, exploring established and emerging Australian talent, including an excellent insight into the craft of the great editor Jill Bilcock. Currently a visually splashy feature unpacking the inimitable Brett Whiteley (entitled Whiteley) is playing in Australian cinemas, as is an estate-approved Heath Ledger documentary, I Am Heath Ledger.

More works examining the processes and ideologies of Aussie artists are in the mail, including a feature-length study of Bilcock (Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible) and another of cartoonist Michael Leunig, Leunig: A Tale in 16 Parts.

You can count in this discussion the upcoming three part miniseries David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema, which premieres on ABC TV June 6. The beloved patriarch of Australian film reviewing reflects on his “love affair with this country and its cinema”, connecting the stories of his life with discussion of a wide range of classics and the people who made them. Titles explored in the first episode include Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, Crocodile Dundee and Shine.

Director Sally Aitken groups the episodes thematically, kicking off with ‘game changers’. Each goes into Stratton’s anecdotes and, at times, quite poignant reflections on his life: where he was, mentally or otherwise, for example, when he first saw the film in question, and how he personally relates to its narrative and/or characters. It’s an interesting mode of analysis: equal parts about the person and the text, and always with a view to forging connections between them.

If documentaries about Australian artists are rare – or rare-ish – documentaries about Australian arts critics are practically unheard of. Stratton’s show arrives during a deeply troubling time for arts criticism in Australia, current fears for its future triggered by Fairfax’s recent decision to hack into its budget for arts journalism and arts criticism. Stratton’s long-time television co-host, Margaret Pomeranz, lent support for the #FairGoFairfax movement, saying in a campaign video: “The Fairfax masthead has been a bastion of arts coverage in this country, and the thought of abandoning that is just appalling.”

Indeed. Whatever mistakes Fairfax management have made over the years, recruiting bad arts writers (be it critics or journalists) is certainly not one of them. All ongoing contributors, as far as I can see, write to a very high standard.

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Many PHDs could be devoted to contemplating the value of arts criticism, from encouragement of critical thinking to the exposure a review or article can give emerging artists. These artists find themselves, more often than ever before, competing against multinational companies and vying for space in exhibition and distribution systems (for film, TV, literature, theatre etc) dominated and gamed by the big guns.

Just about everybody buys or rents films or TV shows, just as almost everybody buys or rents a property to live in. Through its Domain website, Fairfax has managed to make a profit out of the latter. Is upper management suggesting it is impossible to do the same with the arts? Or that quality arts criticism/journalism isn’t a massive drawing card for paying subscribers? Of course not. The company’s decision to hack into its arts coverage, therefore, given everything Australian culture stands to lose, seems reckless.

There is a point, reading back on it now, where this article detours from writing about Stories of Australian Cinema to Fairfax and arts criticism. This is because, while watching Aitken and Stratton’s program, one thing the host said jumped out at me. “I still review movies today,” reflected Stratton in the first episode, “but I remember a time when I didn’t know such careers existed”. It is now more a question of to what extent, looking ahead, these careers will exist at all.

Arts journalism and arts criticism won’t be disappearing overnight. But on the recent Fairfax news, the lyrics of Dem Bones come to mind, in the sense that everything is connected. The general public know David Stratton as the man who beamed into their lounge rooms and talked about films every week. Fewer people are aware that he wrote extensively for Variety (and still writes, today, for The Australian) contributing, he estimates, 1000 reviews across 21 years. For Variety alone, factoring a few weeks a year off, that averages out to around one review a week, every week, for over two decades.

Which is to say: critics we love, such as Stratton, don’t fall off trees and nor does their work exist in a vacuum. Their voices are developed (generally in multiple mediums) for years if not decades.

The fate of arts critics and arts journalists appears, at least for now, to be tied to the fate of journalism, which anybody can tell you is in dire straits. If it feels as if every publication you read these days is begging you for money, it’s because they are. The future is uncertain and the stakes are high. But, so long as our publications still exist, hope remains.

…AND THIS ARTICLE WAS PAID FOR WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT MORE HERE 

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