Bubbles in the Coffee Cup of
| Jon Lewis’ photo-portrait of John Flaus, 1986.
(click to enlarge)
“It’s amazing what’s happened to Sydney. The tendency is to put a gloss over the memories of what it’s like. It was a horrific place to live. I hate coming back to Sydney, because I see the changes. Even the gross changes in architecture, because they are there continuously confronting you, remind me of the other kind of changes – the social changes. I really don’t want to live in Sydney anymore.”
John Flaus (born 1934) is back in Sydney for a day, being driven through the Mad Mile on the Princes Highway. (1) Now probably best known for his participation in an eternally legendary program on Melbourne radio (3RRR) titled Film Buffs Forecast – but also as an actor, teacher and writer – his origins are in Sydney, where he lived until the age of 37 (he’s now 52.) A colourful raconteur, John tells a fascinating story of the Sydney he once knew – it could be called a cultural geography, alive to the officially unwritten significance and resonance of its places, people, events, streets.
“That house – at one time you had living there a chap called The Skull [neo-Nazi Ross May], plus the bloke [Denis Michael Rohan] who later blew up the Al-Aqsa Mosque at Tel Aviv [in 1969], as well as the guy [Laszlo Toth] who smashed the Pietà [in 1972]. Some house – the conversations that must have gone on over that dinner table!”
“I used to live around here. Take, for instance, the Maxine Cabaret. That was the site of pitch battles between Americans and Australians during the Second World War. Afterwards there were gangland killings. Did you know that Underwood St. used to hold the record for the most number of killings of any street in Australia? And look at it now – it’s so goddamn neat!”
“When I was a kid, I was on the proverbial Bondi tram and I saw a guy get on, a survivor of the Razor Gangs. The Razor Gang Wars were fought right across into East Sydney, down to Woolloomolooo and through to Surry Hills. The gangs would meet sometimes in the street, sometimes in Centennial Park, and they’d just carve each other up. This man on the tram carried the special mark of the informer: they’d opened his face up down the side and under, a big “L”. The seam had been repatched …”
All of John’s life and work has been involved with the dynamism and volatility of given situations, of different places and the conditions they impose. He’s fascinated by the games that can be played, the risks that can be dared, the limits that can be pushed. He is as committed to spontaneity and passion as he is to analysis and intellectualism – “I try to let my irrational impulses run me”.
Many people have stories about the bizarre place or circumstance where they first publicly encountered John. My own story happened at a science-fiction convention circa 1975. The mind of this tender young SF fan was well and truly boggled at the lateral slides and associations that John (seated at the main speakers’ table) made between pulp movies, high Romantic literature and psycho-cultural theories of human sexuality. At an SF convention? Yet it was this very excess that John embodied and performed which helped send me off down new and strange paths of thought and experience. John has always been a cultural troublemaker; and he’s strayed, now and then, over to the wild side of things.
“I went to Mexico in 1975 to be part of a film crew covering the International Women’s Year conference. It’s the only time I’ve ever left the country. Mexico City is a big town, and nobody knows how many people live there. The number of picture theatres is incredible. They’ve got theatres named after directors like Chaplin, Kubrick, Buñuel – even a cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa. I saw in the paper that the Theatre of Light was screening two films, The Hideous Transformation [this could be La Horripilante bestia humana, René Cardona, 1972] and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids [Umberto Lenzi, 1972]. They sounded pretty good! I asked our Mexican driver, Julio, about this Theatre of Light. ‘I wouldn’t go there’, he advised. ‘There have been killings in that theatre’. I replied: ‘But these killings are only between people who know each other. I’d be pretty safe, wouldn’t I?’ But Julio still wouldn’t take me. I quizzed him: is it far away? No. Expensive? No – about 20 cents. 20 cents to see two first-release movies? Well, when you go there and pay your money, they give you a candle, because there are no lights in the theatre. And there are boxes or bricks – you can take your choice of either. Why? There are no seats in the theatre. And also they give you a stick. What’s that for? To beat the rats off with … I gotta confess my courage gave way at that point, and I never saw The Hideous Transformation and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids.”
Criminality, danger, the underside … John’s attraction to these facets of the world bespeaks a recognition of, and immersion in, a society riven by fascinating contradictions. He talks about being born into a family where such dynamic contradictions were visible from the outset: “People with middle-class values but on working-class incomes – it’s that real squeeze. They believed all that bourgeois stuff, but they couldn’t afford to live it. As a child, I perceived that contradiction in my parents. I think it was a help to my particular kind of liberation.”
John’s remarkable assortment of jobs – prison psychologist at Long Bay Jail, public servant at Sydney Town Hall, Conciliation Officer at the Department of Labour and Industry, milk crater, farm hand, correspondence course worker – familiarised him with other kinds and levels of social contradiction.
“When I worked as a prison psychologist in the 1950s, the standard defence, if you were up on robbery or assault charge, was to say that a man had made a homosexual advance to you. And, for quite a few years, magistrates and judges used to be conned by that. You’d be let off with a very light prison sentence – because the man you bashed was homosexual. But, eventually, the authorities woke up that, if one accepted the defence of all these guys who were up for armed robbery, beating and assault, then an enormous proportion of the male population in Australia was made up of guys who were forever making homosexual advances!”
“When I was young, I had this romantic notion about prison society being comprised of bandits – people who hadn’t accepted normal society, and had found an alternative. Of course, a couple of years of mixing with them, and you realise that they are as straight and as bound by convention as anyone else. There are no bandits in Australia – unless they’re black.”
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, John was closely involved with the scene now dimly and mythically remembered as the Sydney Push. But whereas the Push were essentially libertarians, John formed alliances with the anarchists. In fact, the process of his personal politicisation had begun much earlier.
“I was an
anarchist by instinct long before I was an anarchist by conviction. I believe
all of us are, and that our anarchic impulses continually recur in our lives.
When I was 18, I went into court and objected to doing military service. It was
just like in the movies. This bloke on the prosecution asks me, ‘What would you
do if you saw an Asiatic attacking your mother?’ – remember, this is 1953. I
said, ‘l’d try to stop him’. He said, ‘What if the only way was to kill him?’ I
said, ‘I’d kill him.’ He said. ‘Well, that’s what a soldier does, so why are you
objecting to being a soldier?’ I said, ‘Now, wait a minute. You asked me what I’d
do, what decision I’d take on my own initiative. If I’m a soldier, someone else
takes the initiatives for me, and that’s an entirely different thing.’ This
went on for an hour; at one point, they tried to ascertain whether there were
any religious grounds on which I wouldn’t be a soldier. I said, ‘No, it seems
to me the best soldiers get religion’ – and that didn’t go down too well,
either. It was only years later that I met anarchists and found out how much I
had in common with them.”
“My kind of anarchism – philosophical anarchism – is to do with the
liberation of the self rather than toppling governments. To me, toppling
governments is the long end-process of the liberation of the individual. An
anarchist must respect the individual and, to that extent, I’m never going to
be a martyr to a cause. That’s inconsistent with anarchism, because there isn’t
anything bigger than yourself. If you are to free yourself, then you must help
to free others around you at the same time – it’s pointIess to be free if no
one else is – but the idea of spending a lifetime on the barricades seems to me
to be ridiculous.”
“There was a lot of common ground between the libertarians and the
anarchists, but also a central difference which is wonderfully dramatised in
the film Dark Times [Margarethe von Trotta, 1981]: the conflict between the radical and the
reformist. The libertarians were opposed to reform. To them, you had to live in
a state of permanent protest; any reform movement was a way of consolidating
the existing system. But the anarchists’ response to that was: well, you’ve
only got one life, there isn’t another one, and there are some things happening
to us now that are hurting like hell. If reform is the way to improve things,
then we’re going to be reformers. If it gives us personally more freedom now,
we’ll do it.”
“There was a loose communion of libertarians and anarchists. Nobody owed
anything to anybody else – you gave something to help a person out if you felt
like it, and if you had it yourself. You borrowed, you paid it back when you
could; things were circulating. I know that’s all been destroyed now, there’s
very little left. But it was still pretty active in the ‘60s.”
Somewhere in the middle of all this, John became a self-made scholar and
passionate fan of cinema, a cinephile – at a time when there were no magazines
or institutions at all to support it. He didn’t come to the cinema, as many do
today, through reading – “It was the movies themselves, every time, that hit
me”. John recounts two formative, revelatory moments in his moviegoing life.
“In 1958 I was a real movie snob. I’d go to the movies and leave at half
time [i.e., before the lower-budget “second feature”]. But one day I got trapped
at the Woollahra Hoyts. I had gone along to see The Roots of Heaven, because it came from a good novel [by Romain
Gary] and was directed by John Huston. But they put the support on first, a
Western called The Last of the Fast Guns [directed by George Sherman]. I thought: ‘Oh bugger, I’ll have to sit and watch
this thing’. It starred Jock Mahoney who, to me, was that ex-stuntman who’d
come out to Australia to make a film called The
Kangaroo Kid [Lesley Selander, 1950], which everybody had laughed at. I
just knew this Western was going to be a joke. But something happened. The film
held me, it was interesting. Why did it work? There was nothing special about
the story, the characterisation, the cinematography. But I realised that I
suddenly understood the concept of genre – I saw through the form. And, in a genre picture, although none of its parts
are exceptional, they exist in an exceptional harmony.”
“The second moviegoing experience which made an enormous difference was
Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I
Know About Her  in the late ‘60s. It was incredible – like suddenly
understanding how your native language goes together. You know the scene I
mean: the close-up of the coffee cup. That’s the title of my collected film
reviews, which I hope to finish one day – Bubbles
in a Coffee Cup.”
Although a scholar (in the truest sense) and a cinephile (in the deepest way), John is anything but a narrow specialist. He could well be describing himself and his relation to film (or culture in general) when he speaks of a mentor, Bill Maidment [1924-2005], from his university days: “You name him a work, and he can put it into a rhetorical context, a generic context, a historical context; just one work, and he’ll take you out through rings and rings of references through the centuries, so that you can see the links. Or he’ll take a text and work on just a couple of sentences. It’s both micro– and macro-scholarship, and it’s all original.”
When I first met John face-to face around the Melbourne film scene of the late ‘70s – barely four or five years out from that nerdy SF conference – he was at a loose end, and drinking heavily (the massed grog bottles outside his front door in Richmond – the suburb where I also lived at the time – were something to behold). He had been more or less rejected by the academic institutions of film study that were burgeoning at the time – initiatives that, in fact, owed a lot to his longstanding contribution across many, diverse venues of public communication, from film training courses to classes of Adult and Workers’ Education. “The academy regarded me as out-of-date because I hadn’t got on the semiotics bandwagon. To me, semiotics was fascinating and useful – but always a means to an end, a tool to get at something. I didn’t quote it chapter and verse, I just used it sometimes and disregarded it at other times.” (Indeed, the first intellectual stoush between John & I occurred after he had heard me – I was 20 at the time – waxing semiotically about a Hitchcock film on 3RRR!) John’s legendary solo stints on public radio also brought him into uneasy relations with management: “They kept throwing this thing at me about an hour of airtime being too long for a single voice to sustain”.
But, in 1982, a happy accident took place – one which was to indelibly form the ongoing character of what became the Film Buffs Forecast. (2) “There was little gadfly who used to ring me up every week when I was on air, saying ‘Hey, look, you got the date wrong on East of Eden, it was 1954 not 1953’, stuff like that. So I rang him up and said: ‘How about you coming on the show with me?’ It was a survival act – with two voices, the station would bump us up to an hour. Eventually, we gouged out two hours.” John didn’t know the half of what was coming. The Flaus/Harris combo soon sparked. Their on-air chemistry is based on an impeccable mixture of buffy (as in film buff) erudition and excruciating oneupmanship. “Paul works utterly from gut feeling – he’s got that quick mind which makes brilliantly surprising associations.”
Around the same time, John was also becoming more visible as an actor. He had already made a splash in major or minor roles in films including Wronsky (Ian Pringle, 1979), Yackety Yack (Dave Jones, 1974), Newsfront (Philip Noyce, 1978) and, especially, Queensland (John Ruane, 1976), a naturalistic character-part based, in part, on John’s memories of his father. Now he has become a pleasantly recurring fixture in many independent and student productions, as well as the occasional radio commercial or television program such as the mini-series Palace of Dreams (1985). Strangely, John has been playing a lot of priests lately – for instance, in John Hughes’ Traps (1985 – also featuring another film-scene luminary, Lesley Stern). “Originally I was a tough guy, one of those morose Australians forever grabbing someone by the shirtfront or knocking them down. I was playing cops and robbers and truck drivers and farmers, all those dirty hands, blue-collar things. And then these priests started coming out of the woodwork. A fine thing for an ex-Catholic boy like me – I think I’ve now played seven or eight of them.”
On radio, John retains a broad Aussie larrikinism. “It’s a deliberate strategy. I use that rough Australian on the radio to send out a signal to the kids from the Western suburbs of Melbourne, where they don’t have a single hardtop cinema. I know they listen – teachers have done surveys amongst their kids, and it comes up their favourite show. If those Western suburbs kids are listening and they hear some ‘sophisticated’ concept presented in the kind of language they hear when they go to do the shopping down the street, then what it’s doing (I hope) is telling them that a fresh idea – something that might have one jawcracker term in it somewhere – is not inaccessible to them. That socio-linguistic barriers don’t stop you from thinking analytically about something you enjoy.”
John also has a poetry show on 3RRR. “People stop me in Brunswick St. in Fitzroy, hand me poems – I don’t even know who some of them are. But I read out everything I get. One poem which I read was a ‘Hymn to Norm Gallagher’ [a leader of the Builders Labourers Federation union].”
John and Paul do a written capsule-review version of their Forecast for The Age newspaper in Melbourne. As usual, John fights every inch of the way with the shifting givens of space restrictions, editorial preferences, and the usual entertainment vs. art assumptions. He is more geared to polemics and strategies, slipping past the censorious institution whatever he can (as Frank Moorhouse hilariously detailed, of an earlier era in John’s life, in the 1980 memoir Days of Wine and Rage), than to rigidly evaluative point-scoring of the best and worst.
Yet, the inevitable question arises: away from the necessary double-talk of polemics, what would be John Flaus’ Desert Island film selection?
“It’s impossible for me to select just one title from the work of the very greatest directors. Godard, von Sternberg, Ozu – they’re the people who really knew movies. But the best film of any kind I’ve seen anywhere is Humphrey Jennings’ short Listen to Britain (1942). And the best feature film is Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961). Other titles? The top 10 or 12 might include: Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Jean-Pierre Melvilles’s Le samoürai (1967), Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass (1971), Paul Winkler’s Brick Wall (1975), Frank Capra’s War Comes to America (1942-1945), Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959), Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941) and John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln (1939).”
The lightning-mixes of avant-garde and Hollywood, classical and modernist, or popular and underground in that list provide a salutary emblem of John’s method in all things. He reaches back through many centuries of philosophical musing to find the dynamic duality that best suits and pleases him. “It always comes down to the same thing: the function of art is to both instruct and delight, to provide both sense and comfort.” Is it any wonder that John Flaus, like Jean-Luc Godard, can see the universe in the bubbles of a coffee cup?
Postscript: As of 2019, John is 85 and still visible – he scored a striking close-up in his sole scene of the TV series The Leftovers (Season 3, 2017), for instance. In 2014, I was called upon to provide 800 appreciative words on John for a French anthology with an international focus on Cinémas libertaires – it includes some quotations from the above piece. Also in 2014, Adrian Danks & Bruce Hodsdon assembled a fine dossier of tributes to Flaus (on his 80th birthday) in Senses of Cinema, no. 72 (October), including reprints of some of his best articles.
2. Film Buffs Forecast, at this point of its colourful on-again/off-again history (John exited as co-presenter many moons ago), is now run by Paul Harris as a regular podcast, with many remarkable interviews and in-depth segments: https://filmbuffs.libsyn.com/. back