First published on 16 Sep 2011. Updated on 24 Oct 2011.
He was the upstart Englishman who railed against film censorship in Australia in the 60s and went on to steer the Sydney Film Festival through its formative years. She was the young producer with an unquenchable love of film. Together, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton formed one of TV’s most enduring partnerships, a critical marriage of minds that’s a quarter century old this month.
Margaret, David: At the Movies will celebrate your 25th year reviewing movies together on Wednesday 26 October. What does the episode have in store for us?
Margaret: If only we knew! I’m starting to get a little bit suspicious because no one’s telling us anything and I’m such a control freak.
David: And I literally just flew in from the Venice Film Festival. Some of us stayed till the end, unlike others who left early…
Margaret: Thank god I did! I was exhausted.
David: ...so I have no idea what’s happening.
Margaret: Except Geoffrey Rush is going to host it for us.
The Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne is getting good numbers for their Margaret and David exhibition, featuring such artefacts as your ASIO file, David. What’s in your ASIO file?
David Nothing very exciting! This goes back to the 70s when I was running the Sydney Film Festival and making a nuisance of myself over censorship issues. Also it was a time when ASIO was very suspicious about anyone who visited communist countries and I did that on a regular basis to look at the films. It was a time when a lot of great Hungarian, Czech and Polish films were being made. And so I would go to those places every year. So there’s a photograph of me coming out of the Soviet embassy in Canberra, looking very smart and carrying a briefcase.
Margaret I’d love to have an ASIO file!
David You’ve got one probably… Anything that disturbed the calm and peaceful norm back then was probably of interest to ASIO back then. And I was an alien from another country who came in and stirred things up.
Margaret People forget what a backwater we were at that time. I really couldn’t stand Australia. That conformity that we had during the 60s. I left and went to Europe and when I came back it was the 70s and there was a change in the air and the film industry was just about to start again.
David I was never planning to stay in Australia; I thought I was only going to be here for a couple of years so I thought I had nothing to lose by speaking out and saying how silly [censorship] was. Film societies in England were always exempt from censorship. So when I arrived in Australia I discovered that even at the Sydney Film Festival the films were not just edited, but hacked to pieces.
And you took the reins of the SFF at the age of 26 – and held the post for 17 years.
David I got elected to the board of the festival during the two years that I was here and I managed to get a motion passed that the festival should try to be exempt from censorship, should lobby for an R certificate for commercial releases, and thirdly to publicise censorship. Nobody knew it was happening because it was all done in secrecy. Those were the points I got the board to accept and when they did the director of the festival promptly resigned. He believed that if we stood up against the government they’d close us down.
Are you two careful to reserve your discussions about a film for the camera?
Margaret Pretty much. When the discussion happens, then it’s free-flowing and spontaneous. I try to think of angles that David hasn’t thought of. And I’m sure he tries to put me down on many occasions…
David Not put you down, just…
Margaret Oh, I think so! From a great height. [laughs]
David [Quietly] I just… make a few comments, that’s all...
Margaret, I believe you took some convincing back in 1986 to get on camera [on SBS's The Movie Show].
Margaret I was a writer/producer and I really liked that role. So my being on the show was quite accidental. It seems to have worked. I don’t know why.
You're an institution now.
Margaret It’s just length of time. We’ve become so familiar to audiences. People go “hi Margaret!” and I go “have I met you?” “No, I just watch the show!” It’s like you’re their friend. It’s really beautiful.
David Last Friday in Venice I must have been stopped about ten times in the Piazza San Marco by Australian tourists.
Margaret And I’ve been in the wilds of Vietnam and been recognised.
How would you characterise your different approaches to film criticism?
Margaret David’s the pedagogue and I’m the bum on the seat. That’s the balance of the show.
The films you agree to disagree on were the subject of your presentation at the Sydney Festival this year. Naturally, Lars von Trier came up for discussion.
David It’s strange because he actually has a lot of talent. His early films Element of Crime and Zentropa I think are very good. But I find his films deeply misogynistic. I don’t like the way he shoots them – he’s the epitome of that kind of lazy, pseudo-documentary style that I hate so much.
Margaret I think he’s a really daring, different, eccentric vulnerable filmmaker. He goes to weird places that other people don’t go to. He looks at the grandness of the human condition. Not many filmmakers want to do that these days. They want to make car chases or thrillers or sappy romcoms. Von Trier takes on big issues. I think he’s a grand filmmaker. David’s wrong!
How do you view the cinema scene in Sydney?
Margaret Sydney is a town that is lacking a Cinemateque. We’ve got to make it happen for this city, which was nominated the UNESCO City of Film. And we don’t have a cinemateque!
What about the state of Australian film in general?
David Red Dog’s a big success and it’s always good to see something as successful as that. I don’t know. There’s good and bad all the time.
Margaret There was a period when producers were not considering an audience and all those slit-your-wrist family dramas – come on!
David But some of those were very good.
Margaret I know, but we were making a few too many.
David I’d rather have some of those than–
Margaret Well, Animal Kingdom is a family drama and it’s fabulous, so I’m not against dark family dramas.
Who are the great stars to interview these days?
Margaret I interviewed Gary Oldman at the recent Venice film Festival for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and he’s funny. He’s real. The trouble with actors and directors is that they do these junkets so often that it’s truly boring for them, answering the same questions, over and over again. So when you get someone genuinely funny and real you think thank God you’re not getting the rote answers. Michael Fassbender was gorgeous too! Oh! Yes! [laughs]
David One of the interviews I did in Venice was with Madonna…
Margaret He always bags the good ones!
David …and the previous interviewer for Swiss television had asked her questions like: “How do you like Switzerland?” and “When are you coming to Switzerland again?” So when I went in and asked her something about her film I got a much more enthusiastic response.
Margaret We don’t ask them personal questions, and we don’t ask them stupid questions.
Ever been starstruck?
David My most starstuck moment was when I peed on Fellini [at the Venice Film Festival in 1966].
…thus giving your autobiography its memorable title. You’ve never done anything as embarrassing though, Margaret?
Margaret Peeing on any filmmaker? I should think not! I’ve got more decorum. [laughs] I did an interview early on with Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson. I was too worshipful and he was very scathing. And I nearly ran out of the room in tears. The only other one I’ve been [starstruck by] was Daniel Day Lewis. Because he’s so fragile a creature. And such a fine actor.
Getting back to films you disagree on: Showgirls. Who’s on the affirmative?
Margaret Excuse me. Lap dancing?
David It’s one of the great satires of the American condition.
Margaret Oh for god’s sake, it’s a wank. A middle-aged filmmaker’s wank.
David And there’s The Notebook.
Margaret It’s a guilty pleasure. Well, it’s a bit sappy.
David A bit?
Margaret Another [David likes] is Tarantino’s Death Proof. Again with lap dancing – need I say more?
At the Movies 25th Anniversary Special screens on ABC1, Thu 26 Oct, 10pm