There It Was:
“Here it is”. Since February 1981, David Stratton concluded his introductions to the Movie of the Week on SBS with these humble but tantalising words. But, over a thousand movies later, the “here it is” has suddenly become a “there it was”. Late in September 2003, Stratton farewelled his regular viewers with his final introduction, accompanying the aptly named Japanese film Departure.
Stratton is not leaving SBS. He will still be presenting film classics late on Sunday nights, and his position as co-host of the popular The Movie Show continues, for now. But there has been much talk lately of a change to a more mainstream programming policy across the board on SBS. In this context, Stratton’s final Movie of the Week felt ominously like the end of an era.
And what an era it has been. It is impossible to overestimate the contribution that SBS has made to Australian film culture over the past two and half decades. In many respects, SBS did the work that other organisations such as the Australian Film Institute failed to do in the years since the once-indispensable National Film Theatre collapsed.
Australia has some excellent resources, such as the National Library film collection now administered by ACMI and the touring Cinematheque program that makes extensive use of that collection. But, on the downside, the once vital art house circuit which provided the crucial link between specialist film societies and the commercial cinemas has become progressively more conservative and safe in its tastes.
For many cinephiles, SBS has provided an almost complete education in cinema past and present. Where else could one easily catch the neo-realist classics of Roberto Rossellini, action-filled masterpieces by Akira Kurosawa, the sensuous meditations of Andrei Tarkovsky or the austerely spiritual dramas of Robert Bresson?
From Jean-Luc Godard to Michelangelo Antonioni, Glauber Rocha to Dusan Makavejev, Sergei Paradjanov to Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Carl Dreyer to Theo Angelopoulos, Victor Eríce to Werner Herzog, SBS went far beyond the ‘sexy exotica’ image it likes to portray in its promotional spots – and to which, today, it is in danger of reducing itself.
Stratton, in his Movie of the Week farewell, rightfully boasted of making “quite a few discoveries”. SBS has indeed been especially good at finding and presenting special, unusual items. I wonder how many people who are currently enjoying the intense Chinese romance Springtime in a Small Town saw the radically superior 1948 original on SBS? How many literature buffs caught the remarkable series of films titled Tales of Borges with its brilliant episodes by Benoît Jacquot and Alex Cox? How many fans of the Chilean-French filmmaker Raúl Ruiz watched Our Marriage, the unnervingly surrealist parable he wrote for his wife, Valeria Sarmiento, to direct in 1984?
SBS was often, in its selections, ahead of the taste of our major film festivals as well. For instance, one sometimes looked in vain at such events for the latest works by remarkable Taiwanese filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien or Edward Yang. But SBS rolled these magnificent bodies of work out in succession – even when the pedestrian reviewers in the nation’s television guides did not know enough to even mention them, let alone trumpet their vast cultural significance.
Did some of us end up taking this constant stream of gifts offered by SBS for granted? It is my experience that, in other countries, SBS is regarded with awe and envy. Cinephiles all over the globe eagerly trade home-use-only copies of rare Abbas Kiarostami, Vitali Kanevsky or Youssef Chahine films taped from SBS. The respected American magazine Video Watchdog regularly compares the awful English subtitles on prints of foreign films to the pristine, definitive job performed by SBS subtitlers. And to viewers in other lands the useful, informative introductions provided down the years by Stratton or Margaret Pomeranz are regarded with admiration as the sign of our enlightened culture. Amazing!
Of course, back at home, every film lover has had his own, private bone of contention with the prevalent tastes of SBS programmers. For example, I would liked to have seen a focus on the post Nouvelle Vague generation of French and Belgian filmmakers, such as Jean Eustache, Jacques Rozier, Philippe Garrel and Chantal Akerman. I would have appreciated much more of Portugal’s great and prolific Manoel de Oliveira, a retrospective of India’s Ritwik Ghatak, or a glimpse into the work of Hungary’s Béla Tarr. And I would have applauded the appearance of some feature-length experimental films, not just the snappy shorts buried late night on Eat Carpet.
Yet what SBS has managed to show far outweighs in significance what it has not shown. When I look over my notebooks of jottings on all the wonderful films I have viewed on SBS, I find myself poised between two rivers – that is, Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) and Tsai Ming-liang’s The River (1997).
The former is the kind of European, humanist classic once beloved of our film festival programmers and art house distributors in the 1950s and ‘60s. The latter is an example of Asian queer cinema so confronting that it seemed to turn Stratton’s hair a little whiter as he nervously introduced it on air.
But SBS, to its eternal credit, was able to accommodate both these extremes, as well as so much that fell between them. Let’s hope this vision continues to inform the channel’s programming into the future.
Postscript 2012: After Stratton’s definitive departure from the organisation in 2004, SBS – and its cable spin-off World Movies – fell into a film-programming slump from which it has yet to recover. Just goes to show the difference that a cinephile’s touch can make …
© Adrian Martin October 2003