Flausfilm: Something to Be

by Adrian Martin

(2009, 99 mins, dir: Peter Tammer)

When I watch Peter Tammer’s Flausfilm (2009), I do the splits as a spectator. One part of me has known and interacted with its subject, film critic-teacher-actor John Flaus (born 1934), since I was a teenager in the 1970s. Another part of me tries (somewhat futilely) to view and evaluate the film as someone who has never known, barely heard of, Flaus before – who comes to its documentation cold, innocent. This split-position will inevitably be mirrored in the notes that follow.

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It’s 1975, and I am a shy, 15-year-old kid attending a science fiction convention in Melbourne. I was right on the cusp of pivoting, in my adolescent obsessions, from voraciously reading SF to seriously watching cinema (I am still working through that second obsession). A specific site clinches this transition: the shop Space Age Books run by Merv Binns (1934-2020) which – as the stickers on the back of my teenage purchases still attest – stocked rich holdings in both fields; all my early film books came from there.

I had no idea what to expect at this SF “Aussiecon”. And it turned out to be an odd mix, nothing like what the thoroughly commercialised world of fandom would turn such gatherings into post-Star Wars in the later ‘70s. In ’75, SF love was a mixture of geeky displays, serious fanzines (Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary, to which I dutifully subscribed), amateur theatrics, literary criticism (by the likes of the redoubtable George Turner), an overseas superstar (Ursula K. Le Guin – perhaps my first exposure to feminism!), and … John Flaus.

I hold a vivid memory of the long, digressive talk that John gave that day – and I recently verified the accuracy of my recollection by checking the transcription of his speech in the Metro magazine archive (available by subscription only). John didn’t say much, directly, about SF in either its literary or cinematic manifestations. Instead, he mainly spoke about the tradition of English-language Romantic poetry, complete with substantial passages of recitation. What my fellow nerds in the crowd made of that, I’ll never know. But I was mesmerised.

I didn’t have much of an idea in my head, back then, of what a stereotyped University Professor should sound like – but I could sense that John was nothing like that type. He was an incredible combination of fabulous erudition and an immediate, streetwise, ‘common touch’ – and I was instantly impressed by this montage of styles. In particular, a ripple of shock went through the crowd when John advanced his theory that certain descriptions of landscape found in these Romantic verses represented “the poet’s exploration of a woman’s cunt”. That’s an insight which an impressionable 15-year-old boy doesn’t forget in a hurry.




Now it’s late 1976 or early ’77. I have enrolled as a prospective student at Melbourne State College, an institution devoted to training teachers. (I figured I needed to obtain some kind of wage-earning profession … until my full-on cinema-obsession led me to drop out with mostly failed grades by the end of the second year.) The Film Studies teacher there, Tom Ryan (who would lure the failed me, still a teenager, back as a teacher), organised a pre-first-semester ‘film camp’, a bunch of screenings and activities at some rural spot, in which the Guest of Honour was … John Flaus. Still a very shy kid, I packed my bag (thanks, Mum!) and headed off to the departure spot … only to discover that I had miscalculated, and missed the bus! My first encounter manqué with Flaus! I remember, come March ‘77, melancholically looking over the program of those merry days, and studying the list of films John had been invited to comment on: among them were Jack Arnold’s SF/horror films.

Another event I missed, or simply didn’t know about: the Casey Robinson seminar of 1977. This esteemed Hollywood screenwriter of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s (who had engineered a strange career rebirth Down Under with Scobie Malone [1975]) found himself confronted by intense, semio-psychoanalytic-ideological ‘readings’ of his work by Barbara Creed, Sam Rohdie, Bill Routt … Bemused, Casey took to the podium for his final remarks upon the event: “I am not used to such theatrical … sorry, I mean theoretical approaches to movies”. That was for sure.

I know this because, in 1982, now with my very own desk (and abominably low pay) at Melbourne State College, I found the audiocassette recordings (long junked since, no doubt) of the entire conference. And one session that never made into the special issue of The Australian Journal of Screen Theory (no. 4, 1978) which Tom edited, but was caught on tape, was Flaus’ contribution – ex tempore, without notes, like every talk I have ever heard him give.

Unlike the other speakers who concentrated on the essential melodramas Now, Voyager! (1942) and The Old Maid (1939) or Fritz Lang’s urban thriller While the City Sleeps (1956), Flaus jumped on a vaguely noir movie that probably few at the event had even seen: This Woman is Dangerous (Felix E. Feist, 1952) starring Joan Crawford. (It took me a couple of decades to track it down, myself.) And I recall the urgency of Flaus’ point in minutely redescribing some moments from this film: immediately, in a single gesture, with a simple line, the film was able to generate a patterned, stylised, ritualistic, mythologically-informed contact with its target audience. And back then in the early ‘50s, John was a paying part of that audience – just as he was when he was disgusted by On the Waterfront (1954), or profoundly moved by Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956).

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Flausfilm: the contracted title comes about because it is the answer to a cryptic crossword clue – a crossword devised by Flaus himself. This becomes a narrating, structuring device that organises the film, as words like Action, Average and Therapist introduce its sections. The montage, by Tammer and editor Kit Guyatt, then proceeds by Eisensteinian association: it juxtaposes clips from films and advertisements that Flaus has acted in; candid footage (shot by Tammer, mostly between 1987 and 1992) of Flaus doing voice-over jobs or packing up (a painful process!) one home in order to move into another with his partner, Natalie de Maccus; and segments from movies that Flaus analyses, especially in a pedagogical ‘Videocrit’ series that somebody should unearth, in full, from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) library vaults – these clips include Manpower (Raoul Walsh, 1941), It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950) and Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948).

Flausfilm: Flaus and film. A film about Flaus. But also: Flaus is the film. And even: Flaus is film! It’s a fitting rubric for a project that, in conventional documentary terms, adds nothing to its account beyond what we see and hear, and whatever sense we can make of the section headings and editing juxtapositions. (In this, it connects to Tammer’s masterpiece, Journey to the End of Night [1982].) Whoever John converses with (such as Paul Harris, during a taping of a Film Buffs Broadcast on 3RRR) goes unidentified; the same with the various student films (some of which look truly weird!) that Flaus appeared in, or the more substantial entries in Aussie film history in which he took major roles, including Queensland (John Ruane, 1976), Blood Money (Chris Fitchett, 1980) and the immortal Yackety Yack (1974) by Dave or D.B. Jones (died 2018).

Don’t look for a list of all this stuff in the final credits: it’s not there. All filmic materials are absorbed into the body and mind of Flaus alone! It was the same process in his stage forays: it was fascinating to watch him ‘fuse’ with a tape-recorded playback (of his own voice) in Lawrence Strangio’s La Mama production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in 2002.

I’m not saying much here about the kind(s) of cinema that John has championed; that’s a task for another time. But I did appear often on Film Buffs Forecast, especially their end-of year, Christmas specials – once, thanks to the booze generously flowing into paper cups in the corridor, I was completely drunk – and I recall one of John’s finest on-air lines during one of these shindigs. I, at some point, started castigating the films of Peter Greenaway; John instantly got excited and joined in the abuse. In fact, he said: “You hold him down, while I kick him in the guts!” Bear in mind that John, in a slightly more literary frame of mind, had once defined the œuvre of Greenaway as: “Films that don’t like people, for people who don’t like films”. And there’s something in that …

The oldest video footage in Flausfilm seems to stretch back to 1984: some jokey event in which Flaus allowed his beard to be shaved off in public, recorded on multiple media – like in a scene of John Huston, barraged from all sides, in Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (reconstructed 2018). When an ‘84 interviewer asks Flaus what this particular ritual is all about, he first (rather redundantly) asks: “Is this for the archive?”. Flausfilm has become that archive, probably the only one we are ever likely to have.

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Since Senses of Cinema didn’t ask me to contribute a tribute-recollection to its splendid Flaus 80th birthday dossier of 2014 – John pointedly asked me about that absence, suspecting I had snubbed him – I’m scattering bits of what I would have written there, here. Ten years later, on his 90th birthday.

1980: my first in-the-flesh Flaus encounter. I had heard him speak – at film events, on the radio – quite a lot by then. But we did not start out on a good footing. John had grumpily slagged me off on 3RRR after hearing a discussion (on the same station) between myself and Lesley Stern (1950-2021) about Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), tied to a public event at RMIT: more semio-psychoanalytic-ideological-speak, particularly from me (Lesley was already moving on from that Camera Obscura/Screen-dominated phase of her life).

John was at a delicate crossroads in his life right then, as I soon came to appreciate. After being a prime radical of Australian film culture in the countercultural ‘60s and ‘70s (Flausfilm shows him, from those years, laying into some toffy ‘literary’ type whom I can’t identify, although I do believe it’s Barrett Hodsdon also standing in the cinephile circle), he bristled at being ‘eclipsed’ on the scene by a wave of hardline academic theory from which (as he often insisted) he took what he saw as useful, but felt no compunction to cite “chapter and verse”. And – as the piles of empty bottles outside his home in Richmond, not far from where I lived with my folks, gave ample evidence – he was drinking heavily then, and not earning much beyond occasional, freelance scraps. (The only subsequent time I ever saw a comparable state of depression in John was, paradoxically, about 25 years later, at the moment he was receiving ‘lifetime tributes’ from various organisations; as far as he was concerned, this was just a way of ‘putting him out to pasture’ and shutting him up prematurely.)

In 1980 (age 20), however, I was the snotty, chapter-and-verse kid that John, instinctively, disliked. But I somehow managed to connect with him (on the streets of Richmond!), and got to see the chaotic hovel in which he lived: books falling off shelves, stacks of newspapers everywhere (from which – Flausfilm gives a glimpse into this – he hoped to extract the Secret History of Australia), Beta videotapes, multiple TV sets (he watched, and tried to record from, several at once, as we also see in Flausfilm). It was in this setting that I got to know him. And in that time, he explained to me precisely what I had experienced on that day when I was 15: John’s politique, as a public figure, was to talk a little highbrow when (for example) he addressed groups of prisoners in jail, to give them a sense they could aspire to something above their allotted place in the social system; and, conversely, to talk a little lowbrow whenever there were academics in the room, in order to remind them that there’s life going on outside of the universities. A beautiful lesson in rhetoric.


By 1986, when I was living in Sydney and had the opportunity to write a magazine profile of Flaus (who was passing through, revisiting spots where he had once lived) – the complete text of that profile is reconstituted here – his life situation had completely turned around. The post-‘70s ‘academy’ never really clasped him to its bosom, but he did have teaching gigs here and there – one that we see in Flausfilm, in some makeshift classroom, involves a combination of acting skills and basic filmmaking ‘coverage’ (Flaus’ ‘three set-ups, no zooming’ exercise). His heroic book project (never completed) of the Film Buffs Forecast – rating every movie he saw on TV according to an arcane Flausian code – had, at least, turned into a very popular weekly radio program. And, above all, he had fallen, completely by happenstance, into a reasonably constant and lucrative career as an actor: starting with cameos in student films, he ended up with roles in many big-budget films and TV series, as well as occasional roles in theatre.

Voice-over for advertising companies became his specialty (he was the ‘voice of the State Bank’ on radio, for instance), and there was something fitting about this: like Jean Douchet in France or João Bénard da Costa in Portugal, Flaus was, above all, a critic whose destiny was to express himself orally, more than in writing. Which isn’t to say that someone, somehow, shouldn’t try to properly gather, in a decent book, his scattered writings on film (various attempts at getting this happening down the decades have all crashed and burned) – including the magnificent 1992 text “Thanks for Your Heart, Bart” which I received, in new, amended or re-amended scraps, under my front door and over a two-year period, dutifully typing them into my computer and printing them out for still more changes. Among editors, Tina Kaufman (1938-2023) of Filmnews had a similar way of indulging John: even if his promised obituary for a beloved screen actor was six months late, she’d still run it!

Another somersault in time: the late 1990s. By now, John and Natalie are living in Castlemaine. He invites me to visit and give a talk at the local film club, a very popular social scene, that he has set up. I find myself speaking about Preston Sturges, literally from the pulpit of a church, to an audience of young and old humans – and their pets. Hearing John’s very generous introduction (which itself seems to run for over half an hour, digressions included), I keep flashing onto the screen memories of priests he has played (in John Hughes’ Traps [1985] and elsewhere) – alongside a parade of ‘professionals’ on both sides of the street, cops and crims, political party leaders and misfits, teachers and psychopaths.

At times, the ‘real’ Flaus pops out of the fold, always ambiguously: eventually introduced as himself in that fine game of mirrors known as Yackety Yack (which Flaus would himself review, in his subsequent journalistic column for The Age Entertainment Guide, as “bristling with more points than a Meaghan Morris essay”); or essaying, at last, the artist-intellectual role he always craved, in Love and Work (1986) by David Perry (1933-2015), which offers a shadowy autoportrait of actor and director simultaneously. Godardian, you say? In a story by Sylvia Lawson (1932-2017) published in Drusilla Modjeska’s anthology Inner Cities: Australian Women’s Memory of Place (1989), it’s hard to mistake the tone of voice attributed to one very romantic fellow who bustles through the foyer at the Sydney Film Festival and swears his undying love for the “coupla Godards” buried in the otherwise conservative programming of that late ‘60s year.

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is pure immersion, no guardrail. Via its montage, it churns up reflections on the relation between lifestyle and aesthetic sensibility, between personal values and a cultural mission. Don’t expect any chronology of Flaus’ life, or any clear map as to where he dwelt and when. No tales, here, of his participation in the historic Sydney Push; and only a passing mention of John’s very pragmatic “philosophical anarchism” (as opposed to “sentimental anarchism”, which prefers to go down in a blaze of glory). It’s not that kind of documentary.

Tammer’s focus tends to bring out other aspects of the phenomenon that is Flaus. The changing face of Aussie masculinity, for instance, spinning somewhere between outmoded macho and a sense of cool (a cool, moreover, derived mainly from movies, American or French) – you hold him down, I’ll kick him in the guts. The Australian inflection of the Working Class Hero, which (as John Lennon rightly told us) is something to be! Or that floating social class we’ve called in recent years the precariat, where John managed to survive (and mostly survive well) for most of his adult life, far from the stability granted by any fixed institution but, all the same, involved in everything going. Or the role, in Australian culture and mythology, of the ratbag, the eccentric, the larrikin and the visionary: in Flaus’ case, on a quixotic quest to find the Truth buried in a mountain of newspaper print, or to catalogue every noteworthy movie on TV (and what movie, finally, is not somehow noteworthy, even if only critically?).

Or John’s rumination – not explicitly in this film, but everywhere in his talk and writing – on the existential relation between personal self (however one is to find and constitute that) and social role (the game of necessary masks and compromises with the system – which was OK, in his view, if it allowed the self the space, time and opportunity to pursue its true interests). He saw that philosophy illuminated best in, not the writings of Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre, but the films of Josef von Sternberg. I remember, at the Australian Screen Studies Association conference of 1982, John’s passionate defence of Sternberg’s monumental significance in 20th century art – in a small room, during a bad timeslot, to a small, devoted fan base … but also (to John’s wild surprise) including the Big Guest from France, Raymond Bellour, who bothered to show up early in the morning especially for this (he didn’t attend my talk, though). I was standing there when Raymond graciously approached John at the end of the session and declared: “I couldn’t really follow your Australian English very well … but I do agree with you: Sternberg is really great!”

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A final memory on this occasion. In 2009, I was asked by Alex Strang, DVD producer at the Australian company Madman, to accompany John on a few joint audio commentaries. My role, principally, was to prompt John, and somehow (ahem) ‘keep him on track’ as the film unfolded on a screen in front of us. The best of these affairs was for the aforementioned There’s Always Tomorrow by Sirk. The recording went well; probably all done in a single, 84-minute take. At the end of it, I could finally take a breath to relax – and it was only then I realised that John, rigid in front of the microphone, was in a very emotional state, trembling and on the verge of tears. I had never seen him so vulnerable as this. I tentatively inquired: What’s the matter, John? “I’ve waited 55 years for the opportunity to say everything I feel and think about this movie”, he softly replied. “And we just did it.”



Flausfilm screens on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in Melbourne, at Thornbury Picture House, as part of the Unknown Pleasures series. Book tickets here.



Adrian Martin is a film and arts critic who lives in Malgrat de Mar, Spain. His website is at http://adrianmartinfilmcritic.com/

Published Apr 4, 2024. © Adrian Martin, 2 April 2024