Monthly Archives: July 2012

Classic Ellis: Jonathan Hardy, Actor, 1997

It’s been a brum week overall. My close friends Ken Branagh and Emma Thompson broke up, and so did their star-crossed equivalents Kym Wilson and Jeremy Sims (my erstwhile Palm Beach neighbours), mere days before their triumphant opening night of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

I went to this in the company of the Premier who explained the jokes to me. Derived from the intermittent entrances in Hamlet of Shakespeare’s nervous understudies for Abbott and Costello – or Downer and Costello perhaps – its theme, the Premier patiently explained, is that you barely have time to discover which gig you are in and which role you should be playing before you are in your grave. Peter Collins, for instance, on weekends believes he is an admiral, the Premier said, and Phillip Adams that he is both the father of his country and an ancient Egyptian corpse. Reality is eluding both of them and neither of them is young.

How true this is, I thought that night as I packed my bags and flew south to serve Kim Beazley and my country by composing coarse descriptions of John Howard. (Yesterday’s feather duster. Like a dead match on a window sill, dreaming it once was fire.) I mean, I wanted to be a Seventh Day Adventist parson once. And a fighter pilot in the coming World War against the Commies. And David McNicoll’s son-in-law. And the next Orson Welles. Lord, Lord, we know who we are, as the late Ophelia of Denmark noted before she topped herself, but we know not what we may be.

Of course, this is all that Shakespeare is ever up to and it was shrewd of Stoppard to have picked it up. We are assigned a role to which we are unsuited, and we fearfully attempt to play it and come unstuck. Brutus, the philosopher, is a poor demagogue and generalissimo. Hamlet, the anarchic student, a poor assassin and palace revolutionary. Coriolanus, the good army general, a poor grassroots politician. Viola, a girl, a poor boy. Bottom, an adequate knockabout busker, a poor consort to the Queen of the Fairies. And so on. O.J. Simpson, a charismatic and stirring grid-iron player but an ill-tempered cuckold. John Howard, I suppose, an adequate suburban solicitor but a poor national saviour.

Give us this day our daily mask, as Jeremy as Guildenstern said on the night that established him as the next Bell or Branagh. Or even Welles perhaps, the irreverent young pup.

Or the next Jonathan Hardy.

Hardy dominated the show of course, as the actor-manager of the players who do The Murder of Gonzago so tellingly at Hamlet’s request before being cast out unpaid and slung into the castle cesspool. Gilbraltar-still and wearily sonorous, self-regretful and self-mocking, he seemed a thousand years old, a wandering Jew of the acting profession who has seen it all and found no human perversion, in spotlight or darkness, tavern yard or palace ballroom, that any longer surprises him. His mesmerising pallid stillness and lordly ursine corpulence (the product not of self-indulgence but of his second, more dodgy heart transplant) and the smallest trickle of real blood from his high and haughty nose gave an eerie monumentality to his presence that put one in mind of Ralph Richardson in his formidable age or Frank Thring on his fourteenth rough riesling, and made one feel privileged, that opening night, to be his witness.

Or made me feel that, anyway. Hardy is that Australian commonplace, an undercelebrated great man. Teacher, director, singer, screenwriter (and Oscar nominee for Breaker Morant) playwright, mime, enthuser (and for his first burl at Shakespeare, Jeremy’s voice coach), aficionado of Duende and brilliant conversationalist, he has come with genius out of so many manholes, tap dancing and waving a straw hat, that he is barely known at all. And attention, serious attention should be paid to such a man. This week, on stage in his artistic prime, and serene as the world’s last autumn, and impressive as Big Ben, important and radiant, he can be seen.

Observe him if you can, oh ye of little resonance, and learn from him, and from Jeremy, while you’re up, and his amazing team.

And go out more often, all of you. History is happening all around you, you bastards, and you are looking away.

If The Cap Fits: Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria.

In many ways a superb film, Hysteria shows us Victorian England, or the stitched-up bourgeois side of it, as well as Desperate Romantics did the bohemian side: the mannerly snobbery, the smug medical ignorance; the unhidden contempt for the grimy infected poor; and, in the upper-middle-classes, ‘hysteria’, a nervous, longing, distracted condition in women Dr Dalrymple (played by Jonathan Pryce with bearded luminous calm) corrects by stimulating the vulvas of rich widows and neglected wives, a ‘cure’, I learned with interest from Wikipedia, since Graeco-Roman times.

Pining for his late wife Melodia, he does not think of his hour-long dabbles in female genitalia as any kind of adultery; nor could he conceive of his daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), a decorous doll-like amateur phrenologist, pianist and hostess, as a patient. His other daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) however, is a different kettle of cunnilingus. She is wild in her ideas, a Socialist, a nurse of the disadvantaged, a teacher of slum children, a prosyletiser of community centres with ex-whores ‘retraining’ as chamber maids. She wants female suffrage, good Lord. The penalty for ‘hysteria’ on her scale is, or could be, hysterectomy.

Into these three thwarted lives blunders Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a hand-washing doctor with big, brave new ideas in his head: that germs cause disease, that dirt brings infection, that it is wrong to punish the urban poor with amputation for the filth they grew up in, or with whoredom their lack of schooling. Sacked thrice in a year for trying to save grim brutish lives with cleanliness, he fetches up dismayed as Dr Dalrymple’s apprentice masturbator, and his house guest too, and falls in love, like a fool, with the gorgeous phrenologist.

Many, many satisfied dowagers leave the surgery delighted by his ministrations; he dunks his hand-cramps in ice water and, flexing it, woos Emily in an autumn park, and she agrees to an ‘arrangement’. It almost certainly does not include premarital clitoral stimulation.

Charlotte, meanwhile, is causing family trouble. She will not cease her tempestuous, radical ministry to the poor; she needs money; her father refuses it; she slams some doors and soldiers on, crusading, yelling, doing good works. And then, in a twist worthy of Dickens, her father buys up her community centre and closes it. Protesting about this at Emily and Mortimer’s engagement party, she is dragged out by a constable, whom she injures, and she goes on trial for ‘hysteria’, whose cure is…hysterectomy.

Somewhere in here the vibrator has been invented. Mortimer’s guardian Edward St John-Smythe ( Rupert Everett), an aristocratic tinkerer and proud flaunter of the third phone connection in London, after a few explosions finds a way to replace poor Mortimer’s injured fingers with tireless mechanised round-the-clock wanking. Market forces soon bypass Dalrymple, and the device, in its many incarnations, the first like a feather duster, goes straight into the private bedrooms of the richer sort; including, in an almost inevitable close-up, Queen Victoria.

The performances are wonderful, the writing (by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer from a storyline by Howard Gersler) Shavian, the direction accomplished, and costuming and interior decorations to die for. But…

It loses me in the last quarter-furlong. Charlotte is rescued from genital butchering by Mortimer declaiming her beauty and wisdom at her trial, his dildo-fortune retrieves her community centre, women get the vote and orgasms go ballistic across the planet as the good Lord intended. But…

I decided after forty years of My Word and two years of QI and the ceaseless oeuvre of Richard Curtis that the English are a dirty-minded people. I don’t mind that, of course, it comes with cold weather and a grafittist’s tendency that from Chaucer to the Amises and the Pythons absorbed their inner energies. But…

The invention of the dildo? Is this (forgive me) climax enough? I’m not sure it is.

See it nonetheless. It is Merchant Ivory’s fieriest fruit thus far. It is witty, sexy, and surprising, and very, very left wing. It puts Marxist teachings across as plainly as The Simpsons. But…

It may be the title is a flaw. It bears with it the luggage it speaks of: centuries of blaming women for what was, in truth, men’s fault. Strange Device, it might have been called. Insertions. To Love Again.

It is very, very good. Go see it.

But do not go alone.

Better Than Shakespeare (11)

The film A Royal Affair, which I saw for the second time last night.

Among historic films it is the best I have seen, but I should emphasise there are perhaps fifty thousand I have missed.

About the European Enlightenment, a mad king, a royal virgin bride, a greedy ancien regime, a Lancelot-Guinevere adultery, an obsession with Shakespeare, the curing of smallpox, the end of censorship, the early years of  ‘spin’, the beginning of Danish orphanages, the arrival of hygeine in a profession once known in Europe as ‘leechcraft’, a palace coup, a Queen deprived of her children, an obsessed country doctor much like Fred Hollows (a drunk, a womaniser, a contentious essayist, a dangerous, inspiring adventurer) with a single grand idea that altered the world, it may be the best film ever made. It is certainly the most important.

Of Shakespeare’s work only Hamlet is better.

Nothing else is.

Discuss.

(See it first, though, or you will be banned for life.)

Brough Justice In South Queensland Awaited

(Published Independent Australia)

The Slipper saga continues and will today abort another promising scenario when LNP hard-heads give Brough the pink slipper and the dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

For Brough is unfortunately guilty of treason; or so I am told. He has conspired in wartime, or he seems to have, against the third highest official in the land after the Queen and Quentin Bryce and would in another time have been shot for it; and, talented though he be (above Abbott and Hockey and on a par with Turnbull), the LNP can no longer afford the foul mess growing around him.

And around James Ashby too: who seems, like Iago, to have led his commanding general into error, in wartime also, treasonously also, and sought either to depose or blackmail him, conspiring with his enemies, and thieving, like Bradley Manning, documents he had no right to see. Manoeuvres more befitting Neil Armfield’s Belvoir Theatre have been played out before an abashed and gobsmacked nation; a bisexual marriage exposed and children and step-children shamed; a conniving insect like Mosca at large in Canberra’s corridors; and, should Ashby go to gaol, a further splenetic tussle for preselections between the Small L and the Cane Toad LNP.

It exposes, too, the dirty tricks that since the Pauline Hanson false charges have been Tony Abbott’s stock-in-trade. You slime a man, like Slipper, or like Thomson, you swear that Parliament has been stained by him, you move no confidence in him and you leave the chamber in disgust. It was what was done in other fields of endeavour to Andrew Symonds and Shane Warne and Andrew Johns and Dawn Fraser; and Mark McInnes, of course. You use acts that are not crimes to ensure a dismissal or a prolonged suspension; you act ‘outside the law’ to gain your political ends.

Or, if need be, you break the law. You push the boats back; disobeying the law of the sea; you send home Tamil refugees to execution against the UN’s orders; you send in the army to look up little girls’ anuses if they are black, but not if they are white; something Mal Brough approved, incidentally; or ordered. What an ugly bunch they are.

It is not certain, however, that gay bashing of the Slipper sort works as well for the Liberals as it used to do. It is now known that a Liberal Prime Minister, Billy McMahon, was gay; a Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Neil Brown, was gay; Abbott was privy to a ‘homosexual culture’ according to his biographer at St Barnabas’s; his sister is gay; his Manager of Opposition Business looks like he is.

And sympathy has moved towards Slipper, another troubled gay Liberal, in the past eight weeks, since his ‘standing down’.

And we will see, this afternoon, how far.

Classic Ellis: September 11, 2003

It could well be the wrong day to be saying this but I think the War On Terror is a bit of a beat-up.

More people have died by snake and spider bite in the last year than by terrorist atrocity. Far more people have died by drowning in backyard swimming pools and big surfs. More people, I guess, while ski-ing, white-water rafting, abseiling and parachuting.

The number killed by Terror – two hundred and two in Bali, a hundred and twenty-one in the Moscow Theatre, about a hundred and twenty in shootings and suicide bombings in Israel, about two hundred including the UN workers, the American soldiers, the British soldiers, the Shi’ite clerics and the international journos in Iraq, plus fifty more, maybe, in Afghanistan and the Solomons, and thirteen by the Washington sniper – total, when you add in Miscellaneous, about seven hundred and fifty. This is much less than the hundred and fifty thousand who die each year in road accidents in the United States alone. Or the thirty thousand who die by gunfire, mostly self-inflicted, each year in the US alone. Or the eighteen thousand odd who die each year in Australia alone from smoking cigarettes.

No-one is proposing to spend a hundred and fifty billion on a war on these things, these fatal follies that traumatise each year two million families probably when you add in the road accidents and smoking deaths of Europe, Africa and Asia. Yet this is the sum Bush wants to spend in Iraq, that frontline of the War On Terror, which has traumatised only seven hundred and fifty families or, if you add in the wounded, three thousand families. Far less than the twenty thousand civilians killed or wounded by Shock And Awe and the forty thousand (probably) Iraqi soldiers killed or wounded in this war and the two hundred thousand in the last one.

(Please note that Shock And Awe is not, and never was, and never could be, Terrorism. Although both expressions have the same meaning – to terrify, to make afraid – the two ideas must never be confused. One is just, the other evil. If you mix them up the terror figures go up dramatically. Especially if you include the fearful children of Hamas leaders ‘targeted’ for ‘killing’, and the fearful innocents in the block of flats bulldozed because an unsuitable person lived in it for a couple of days.)

Why, then, spend so much cash on so small a problem? The British spent nowhere near as much, not even a thousandth as much, on chasing the IRA although they were blowing up London and Birmingham and Belfast all through the nineteen seventies. (My wife and I lived there in some of the years of the IRA Terror and we, like most Londoners, simply got on with our lives.) In present money values the Americans only spent twice as much per day (I’m told by CNN) on World War II.

Why spend so much on anything? Why run up and down shrieking like fools? Why go into the biggest deficit in human history?

Just asking.

The reason may be, I’m told, that America’s biggest export industry, bigger even than Hollywood, is weapons. And you can’t sell weapons if there’s no threat of war. So you have to have a war, a conventional war now and then, to show the weapons off, and sell them to your mates in the US government. The bunker-buster. The MOAB. The gigantic helicopter gunship which ‘targets’ with precision rockets Uday and Qusay. If there’s no conventional war to be had – against a stealthy mobile enemy, for instance, one armed with business-class tickets and paper cutters – you make one up. You nominate a country, and call it the frontline of the War On Terror and bomb it to hell. And in order to minimise US deaths, which can cost your government votes, you arm and gird your soldiers to the teeth. You build tanks as big as bungalows, planes invisible to radar, bombs that do all the thinking for you. And such things cost billions.

And the hundreds of billions you might have spent on road accident prevention, say, or curing smoking, or solacing people who want to blow their brains out, or ending Third World Debt, isn’t there any more. It all went on a War On Terror, on a menace that kills less people than backyard pools and big surfs. Or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Or deaths on stress-test machines. Or high speed car chases.

It was hundreds of billions utterly wasted.

On a beat-up.

And it’s a pity.

Certain Housekeeping Matters (10): Death To Duthie And All Who Sail In Her

I am banning Fedallah from any performance of Shakespeare In Italy in this millennium and also, I think, the entire Board of the Adelaide Film Festival Film Fund who have refused even one dollar for it even though it will make, as a film, tens of millions world-wide and could have opened next year’s Festival.

I was on this Board for ten years and contributed to its glory by writing Mike Rann’s speeches launching it and persuading Judy Davis to accept a prize and Woody Allen, skyped, to speak amusingly of his fear of her one opening night.

In that time they gave Rolf De Heer a hundred thousand dollars to make Dr Plonk despite my crie de coeur ‘Whom, in the past twenty years, has Rolf made laugh?’ and lost every penny on it, the only silent feature film in a hundred and twenty years without a love story, for some reason, and people falling down manholes a lot.

We are making the Shakespeare film anyway, spending my wife’s dead mother’s BHP shares and the Adelaide Film Festival can’t have it. Fuck them. It employs ten fine Adelaide actors including the next Crowe Jordan Fraser-Trumbull and the next Streep Lucy Slattery and the King of the Primates and the Oscar-worthy Shakespeare clone Wayne Anthoney. John Bell, Bob Carr, Chris Schacht, Mike Rann, Judy Nunn, Bruce Beresford and John Ralston Saul have praised the script and the Stratfordists at last have an explanation of the Lost Years and the Italian plays and actresses interested in Shakespeare have at last, in that genre, an adequate romantic lead role.

You think I am deluded but I ask you to come see it. Twenty-two dollars. August 9 to 25. Holden Street.

See you there.

Lines For Albo (24)

‘So Barry O’Farrell is now proposing to save each New South Wales taxpayer eight cents a week by kicking cripples it seems. It’s as good a summary of  Liberal Party philosophy as I’ve heard. Save eight cents a week and kick a cripple. What a scumbag. What a fool.’

Classic Ellis: Obama, Our Better Angel, 2011

Wednesday

Our sniper’s eye view of him, very thin, surprisingly tall and a little stooped and melancholy below us in the courtyard and then smiling and waving upward as we watched from the Minister’s window and he got in the car and smiled and waved upward again from behind black bullet-proof glass, was all we saw of him in on that first day, a long time ago it seems already, now that he’s gone.

Three hours before that we’d seen the firing guns and heard a second later the shattering noise as the smoke obliterated Parliament House and a misty thin rain listlessly drizzled. We were standing among 2,000 other patchwork eccentrics on what I whispered to Joel was the Grassy Knoll, watching the soldiers distantly parade and the brass band play unheard and the big black cars foregather and wondering which one was the always attendant ambulance and which the official ice cream van, and whom in Christ’s name the fighter jets roaring overhead imagined they were protecting him from - Gundagai scuds, I suppose.

There was a giant airborne plastic marijuana joint floating above us and a Legalise Marijuana banner flapping and what seemed the world’s oldest Nimbin hippy (grey stubble, brown horse’s tail) portentously declaring Obama was “a serious marihuana user when young” and beseeching him to make it legal now and do commercials for it, in his studio perhaps in Byron Bay. Joel showed him his ‘Obama in ’08′ tattoo and he was very impressed and photographed it.

Eventually the barriers went down and we laboured up the hill and got into Parliament House and were escorted by a big, strapping girl down corridors past phalanx after phalanx of American coppers all sworn, I guess, to take a bullet for him, and up the stairs and hung round Shorten’s increasingly crowded office drinking beer and eating crisps with a goodly number of the Right and their wives who preferred champagne. The office girls were very keen on the Visitor and one of them said, “If Barack asked me for any reason to go to Bali with him, I’d say to my boyfriend, if I’m not back in two years, it’s over.”

Chloe Shorten, watching the television, likewise envied her mother the GG’s lingering handshake with him on the airfield and tartly noted that “she’s worn three different colours in an hour”. She herself then changed her dress three times in the toilet, preparatory to the dinner, undecided.

Joel and I sat on the floor and watched the press conference on television while everyone above us voluminously ignored it, talking of other, more pressing factional matters. On screen the Prime Minister seemed awed, overcome and choking with emotion as she introduced him but we were afterwards told that Obama had run up the stairs, a cheery athletic habit of his, and she had obediently run after him, with shorter legs in higher heels, trying to keep up with him, and ended gasping and stumbling and began her effusive introduction before she’d caught her breath.

And then he spoke, and was very impressive. Not just because he was announcing a new Cold War on China but because of what someone called his “luminous professionalism”, pushing through jet-lag and ceremonial gunfire and bugle blowing and flesh-pressing that handsome forceful tranquillity and self-mockery that formed his particular magnetism, that quality of leadership which, in my phrase, “both excites and relaxes you”. For watching him we knew we were in good hands, although he proposed troop-movements as menacing to the Chinese as 2,000 crack Chinese troops ‘rotating’ through Port Moresby and doing ‘exercises’ on Lord Howe would be to us.

We watched the president get into his car and took our cross-hair shots and the invitees went downstairs and we drank more beer. And so it went. It was noted that Kamahl had got his long-sought invitation to the dinner through Shorten’s intervention, it seemed, after anguished beseechments from the Liberal Senator John Williams, so the two Nat King Cole impersonators - one musical, one political - would soon meet and speak of their similar diasporic origins (Tamil, Malaysia; American, Indonesia) and sing Old Man River in duet if they had a mind to. I’d warned Kamahl that his having sung at a benefit for John Howard who had called Obama a ‘friend of terrorists’ might prove an impediment to his latest high-vaulting social ascension, but there he was, in the room, as always.

John McTernan joined us, and we talked for a while. He was an Adelaide Thinker In Residence, a Gordon Brown backroomer and the original, some said, of the smaller explosive Scotsman in In The Loop and The Thick Of It, and Julia’s media advisor now. I asked him if he had ever, in fact, attacked and destroyed office machinery and he said, ‘only when I was angry.’ Joel asked him if Gillard Labor could win, and he said, ‘There’s a narrow path to victory if we can stay on it. Outright victory. But it’s very, very narrow, and it’s the only one.’ He then started texting absorbedly and we watched the Dinner.

Abbott was very good, recounting how the word ‘Liberal’ meant something different in America and his hosts there forbade him contact with any Republicans and intriduced him only to elderly, clapped-out Communists. Obama did not again attack Vegemite, though he mentioned it, and instead admiringly listed cerain beguiling Australianisms, according special praise to ‘earbashing’, which he sore he would popularise in Washington.

Soon there was no-one but Joel and me in the room — illegally, since we had to be accompanied at all times — and we watched again from the sniper’s window the esteemed visitor in more darkness now get into his car unwaving and drive away. I suggested I throw my mobile phone at him and see if they machine-gunned us for it in the usual hyperbolic American over-reaction, but Joel said I was drunk, and we should drink some more, comrade, elsewhere.

We went down empty corridors unaccompanied until a mortified Australian security guard begged us to leave the building now or he’d have to arrest and torture us and he wanted to get home.

We got a lift in the carpark to a pub called the Realm, where Paul Howes, allowing himself a single Obama-like once-a-day cigarette in the tiny designated area, spiritedly averred I was wrong about Gillard and ‘she’s the one, mate, she’s the one’. I asked when he was giving his big China-bagging speech and he said ‘tomorrow’; an Obama-Gillard-Howes conspiracy, clearly, to repudiate all Chinese debt and bomb them back to the Stone Age.

I had another beer and shared a good pizza with Joel and some young staffers, whom I told that Barack on Saturday would have been in office for as many days as John F. Kennedy and hoped this did not forebode in Bali, an address in the past of other terrorists, a similar quietus.

Across the world Greece abandoned, as it tends to now and then, its invention democracy and put in its place a Committee of Public Safety of economists and the like, men determined to punish the poor for the sins of the rich. And so it went. And so, in a far distant motel in a big family room, to bed.

Thursday

We sat in the Reps front entrance for two hours waiting for someone to answer our calls, nursing two big black bags that might have contained bombs while MPs went by, before we were asked why we’d been there so long. Tony Abbott came in and greeted me and I said he’d given a good speech and he brightened a bit. He looked haggard, scaly, dead-beat and scared, and said in explanation it was “month-long flu” and a need for two weeks off “which of course my present job doesn’t afford”. In Opposition you only have words, and you have to keep “pushing them out”. He was limping still and I urged on him again my Mona Vale chiropractor, and he was in sufficient pain to say he’d go this time, and asked his phone number. I wish him well for some reason, but not victory of course, though ‘well’ can mean nothing else. It’s strange.

From a balcony above the downstairs marble entrance to the Reps we waited and waited and waited for Obama, finally, to saunter almost invisibly in through the door 10 minutes late, not looking up, moved perhaps by his time at the War Memorial. One of the crowd around us was a Julia Gillard clone, same hairdo, same profile, with a hint of madness in her baleful cassowary expression.

We’d got in at last at nine and been escorted to Aussie’s and queued with Windsor, Oakeshott, Plibersek, Smith and Brown in a very long time for tepid bacon and eggs and coffee and grew old awaiting their sluggish preparation. As always it was lovely to be there, among mild famous faces inconvenienced like us by slow service, tiny tables and abrasive propinquity, and warming to all of them, even Eric Abetz, because of it. It was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome: we’re all in this together, comrades, comrades in battle, awaiting Aussie’s eventually excellent coffee, and watching on an always silent screen Obama hugging a schoolgirl, an act which normally in the ACT would lose him his position, consensual though it be, and put him in prison, awaiting trial.

The speeches occurred, and the handshakes and smiles, and the historic shift of world strategies that signalled the end of America’s power, which we watched on Shorten’s television. I tweaked a speech for him at a conference that afternoon of Financial Planners in Surfers Paradise, a segue he did not relish. Obama gave a speech as good as Kennedy’s inaugural and we all agreed it was “not his best”, though its naming of the battles we and America fought in freedom’s cause, or a simulacrum of freedom’s cause, moved me, and I am old, to the edge of tears.

And he visited some schoolkids and flew away. And we ate good beef in the canteen with Viv, and drove tediously for six hours, through abominable traffic, to Mona Vale.

On the way we discussed Obama’s principal difficulty: that he spoke so well and looked so like a stained-glass saint that his voters mistook him for a benign interplanetary visitor like Michael Rennie in The Day The Earth Stood Still, there to set the planet right, using supernatural powers. And when he proved only human, and sometimes mistaken, and sometimes legislatively impotent, he became in their minds a Fallen Angel, felled by the kryptonite of corrupt American democracy, the imperfections of the real world, a world in which a man of his high rhetoric and high- vaulting ideals did not belong, however craftily he tried to fit in.

And so it went.

I dropped Joel off at his car, drove home to Palm Beach, watched The Slap and started writing.

Classic Ellis: The Silence of David Hicks, 2008

There are former members of the Third Reich who guarded Jews in Belsen and walk unpoliced around South Australia today; unlike David Hicks. There are former warriors of Imperial Japan who beat, starved and beheaded Australian POWs, availed themselves of Comfort Women and would, if asked, have gone on suicide missions for the Emperor, who visit Sydney unsupervised today; unlike David Hicks. There are former American GIs who slaughtered Vietnamese villagers after raping some of them who can stay out after midnight in any Australian city; unlike David Hicks.

David Hicks, it seems, is different, another kettle of evil entirely. He’s so different that, despite his fame, his voice has never been broadcast. He’s so different he can’t (unlike, say, Albert Speer) write of the experience that made him famous. He can’t badmouth his torturers. He can’t stay overnight with a girlfriend at an address unknown to police. He can’t (for instance) go fishing for week with his son, after seven years apart from him, unless he reports three times in that week in person to local police.

What has he done to deserve this? Why has he been so singled out for cruel and unusual punishment? There are many answers to this.

His voice, for instance, has never been broadcast because it’s a broad Australian voice. And if that voice were heard he’d be humanised by it. He’d be soon thought by other Australians to be no more wicked than, say, Shane Warne, that other blond larrikin Aussie short-arse who’s paid his dues; and that would never do. He might even prove, if heard and seen, to be as charming as his father. And that would never do.

His voice if heard might embarrass John Howard, and that would never do. Or George Bush. Or Donald Rumsfeld. And though this is a reprehensible reason for his unended silencing there is some logic to it. But why is he not let to write about his life, as any human being in world history previously could do? Because of a new law, it turns out, one that says you can’t profit from your account of a life of crime.

This should mean that Chopper must give his book earnings back, and so must his publisher. So must every other author who’s written of Martin Bryant or Ronald Ryan or the Wanda Beach murders or Ned Kelly. So must Anthony Beevor, who’s described in detail the crimes of the Third Reich; and Don de Lillo who wrote a fine book about Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s if this new law is in any way real.

But it’s not, of course. It exists, as in Kafka’s The Trial, because David Hicks is different, and must be punished when no-one else is.

He’s so different he’s the first citizen of a liberal democracy unable to complain about being tortured. He’s so different he can’t sue America for his torment, humiliation, sleeplessness, nakedness, drenching, for being forbidden to see the evidence against him, or talk on the phone to his children, or read more than one book a month, or talk face to face to another prisoner for months on end. He can’t sue for any of that, or write about it, or make money from talking about it.
David Hicks is different, you see. There’s never been anyone like him. Or not in a functioning democracy. In a Soviet Gulag, certainly. In the Tower of London, certainly. Under The Spanish Inquistion, certainly. But not lately, not here.

And observing his uniqueness leads to awful conclusions. Let’s carefully look at what they are.

One is that many, many laws passed since Magna Carta have been overturned, or made conditional, or provisional, or arguable, in order to make David Hicks, and David Hicks alone, more uncomfortable.

The law that says you can join an army of a recognised country defending itself from invaders. The law that says you can’t suffer execution if you haven’t murdered anyone, or funded or assisted his murder. The law that says you can’t be imprisoned for years without being charged with a crime. The law that says you can’t be ill-treated while awaiting the day of your charging, or trial.

The law that says you can’t be found guilty because of a confession made ‘under duress’. The law that says you may talk about your imprisonment after it’s over because you’ve paid by then your ‘debt to society’. The law that says you can write, if you like, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch or If This Is A Man and publish it.
The law that says you can sue a Minister of the Crown for calling you a ‘trained killer’ before your trial, thus unfairly prejudicing the jury, sue him for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

But David Hicks is different; and these old laws, and these old legal conventions do not apply to him. He’s so bad he’s beyond all laws we know, and he’s lucky he wasn’t hanged.
What he did - and it’s too dreadful even to contemplate - was meet Osama bin Laden twenty times and form a good opinion of him; to train with an insurgent army, the same one the fictional hero Rambo trained with; to become a Muslim and advertise in letters some of his new beliefs; to guard a tank for an afternoon; and worst of all to go back to get his passport in the hope of escaping a war that scared him and going home to Australia. Because of this last thing he was kidnapped by some roving tribal thugs and sold to the Americans for three thousand dollars, and the Gates of Hell then breathed on him.

How iniquitous he is. Are there any other people who have done like heinous things that we can compare him to?
Well, Traudl Junge met Hitler hundreds of times while typing for him, and was never punished for this, and was allowed to live unpoliced Surfers Paradise for five years. Davey Crockett trained with an insurgent army and is now thought a hero. Cassius Clay became a Muslim, changed his name to

Muhammad Ali and refused to serve in the American army and praised the Viet Cong, and yet was permitted to light the torch at the Atlanta Olympics. And Bill Clinton took his passport to England to get escape a war that scared him, in Vietnam, and he was elected President.

But David Hicks is different; apparently. So different we have to gag him for a year and watch him like a hawk lest he conspire with other Muslim fanatics to blow up Uluru, or the Crown Casino, or Centrepoint Tower, or otherwise aid fanatical sedition.

Why is he so different? Why do we think so badly of him?
Well … he’s inadvertently become, I think, the focus of the new anti-Semitism, as the Howardite Australians practise it. By the same thought-process Hitler used to make marriage to a Jew a gaolable offence, the Howardite Australians (not you or I, comrade) have made conversion to Islam an unspeakable iniquity. But they’ve hidden the word ‘Islam’ beneath another word, a word without meaning, ‘terrorism’.

So if you married an Arab or embraced his creed you were thereafter thought iniquitous, abominable, unforgiveable, and if you did it publicly enough (as Hicks did through his published letters), you were flung in gaol for terrorism. And tortured. And called a killer by your Prime Minister and threatened with life, or death, in prison. And made a pariah once you were let go.

The Arabs are a Semitic people and our tendency now, since 9/11, is to treat them as the Germans did the Jews after the Reichstag fire; that is, anti-semitically: to randomly kill them, and lock them up without reason, and release them reluctantly, if at all, after years of torture. And anyone who joins their cause are treated like white Americans who ‘turned Indian’ as turncoats, heathens, traitors, betrayers of the tribe.
Thus David Hicks by embracing Islam and talking now and then to Bin Laden (much as George Bush talked to Bin Laden’s brother dozens of times, in the course of their business dealings) let down the side, and must therefore be unspeakably punished. He has been soiled, irrevocably. He has sinned, abominably. He must undergo unspecified penalties, which may continue forever.

Is this, one may ask, a just and decent way to treat a man already tortured, sent half-mad, and locked up for half of his adult life? I myself don’t think so. I might be wrong.
But I think we’ve treated David Hicks very badly. We’ve niggerised him. We’ve lynched him in our minds because of new laws and new procedures beyond the pale of civilised life. We’re calling him a ‘convicted terrorist supporter’ because of new laws and procedures that may be struck down as wrong, illegal, insufferable in a year or two. And we’ve done this although he wasn’t convicted; he ‘confessed’, after being told that his six years of torment might otherwise be twenty, to a crime that wasn’t a crime but a retrospective crime. That is not ‘convicted’. It’s extorted. That is not a confession. It’s the fearful blithering of a man in mortal pain.

And anyone in a Che Guevara T-shirt, let’s face it, is a terrorist supporter. And any rock star who once sang happy birthday to Nelson Mandela when he turned seventy in gaol is a terrorist supporter. Anyone who liked the movie Michael Collins and paid to see it is a terrorist supporter. Or The Patriot. Or The Battle of Algiers. Or V For Vendetta. Or The Adventures of Robin Hood.

I’d be really surprised if David Hicks was ever a danger to anybody who wasn’t already shooting at him. He seems okay to me. I’d let him baby-sit my grandchildren. I’d go bushwalking with him. I’ll buy him and his dad and step-mum lunch at any Adelaide restaurant of their choice just to hear what he sounds like and what, after all this, he believes.
I might be terribly wrong but I think he’s a decent, wayward, ordinary man who has become, through ill-luck, buoyant energy, bad timing and George Bush’s particular post-alcoholic God-bothering neuroses, Australia’s Dreyfus.
And I see no evil in him. Who does any more? Let him who loves Guantanamo cast the first stone.

I wish him a happy new year, long life, good books, warm friends, green pastures, and many sweet horse-riding summers with his children.

Welcome home.

Rudd Redux, No Way (32)

A young friend of mine who works for a Minister tells me there is a lot of sense in a Rudd return and it will not lead to members resigning their seats and bringing down the government. He says it is the only thing to do. A third leader in six years would look too much like New South Wales and result in disaster. We have to go back to the original one. To Rudd. To Kevin ’07.

I tell him he is wrong. In the sixties there were four Prime Ministers (Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton) in two years and nine months and the last one retained office, narrowly, at the next election. There were three Prime Ministers (Lyons, Page, Menzies) in a month in 1939 and the latter narrowly retained office in 1940. There were four Liberal leaders (Howard, Nelson, Turnbull, Abbott) in two years flat and the latter, Abbott, is now leading in the polls. But no. The young fool has taken on board a new theology unconnected with anything that is real and that is that.

I told him that in Queensland there were two leaders in seventeen years and the greatest electoral wipeout in the Party’s history. In 1983 in Canberra two leaders in five weeks and the greatest victory. I told him in New South Wales it wasn’t leadership change but the American accent of the leader and the privatisation of the one thing everyone didn’t want privatised were the crucial factors and Rees would have won if left alone.

But no; he’s bought the package, and Rudd is coming back.

What a stupid, stupid idea.

If he does Clive Palmer with his boundless millions will keep running ads in which Crean, Roxon and Howes bag Rudd in vision and a deep voice asks, ‘What REALLY happened at Scores? None of us know. But THIS girl knows’, and a pixillated strumpet recalls his nose in her cleavage, and the rest of it.

The man they threw out after two years as Prime Minister. Why do they trust him now?

There are candidates for Prime Minister — Albo, Clare, Carr, Crean, Combet, Plibersek, Roxon, Shorten, to put them in alphabetical order, or Beazley, Beattie, Bracks, Gallop, Hawke, Rann, Rees and Wedderburn if he were found a seat — who would do better in an election than Gillard and be less risky than Rudd. Polls should be done asking who would go well against Abbott and the results looked at. It’s not that hard to work out what to do. A little numerate imagination is needed, not much more.

Rudd is the panic button, and he looks like the panic button.

Why not just count the numbers? Out there? Among the people?

They will show, I’m sure, Labor on 48 under any other leader.

And we can win from there.

Classic Ellis: At Home With Julia, 2011

Although it was episode three that pretty much worked, unlike the others, partly because of its many vivid characters (Keating, Abbott, Rudd, Julie Bishop) and tender emotional line (he thinks they’re getting engaged; she has misheard what he said, and is fixing him a government job), it was at its end that I realised what the trouble was.

The dog ‘Bill Shorten’ had peed on Julia’s leg, and she was bent over, her big bum towards the audience, cleaning up a urine puddle alone in the Lodge, and sighing a bit, and I realised we were in a genre, or a stab at a genre, that hadn’t previously existed.

For it wasn’t a situation comedy, like Spin City or Just Shoot Me or Frasier, since characters in that genre are always fictional. And it wasn’t a satirical comedy, like Yes, Minister or The Thick Of It or In The Loop or Dave, because characters in that genre are always fictional. It wasn’t a long-run political drama, like The West Wing or House Of Cards, because it had goofy jokes, and because people in that genre are fictional too. It wasn’t historical drama, like Rome or Deadwood or The Borgias, because its events didn’t parallel what really happened, or could have happened. The Prime Minister is not the Lodge’s cook. She never drives a car. She doesn’t have a pet dog. She doesn’t have sex in her office, which is full of people.

Nor did it resemble the original inspiration for it, the various Wharf Revue sketches in which Gillard, Rudd and Keating danced and sang in recapitulations of The Sound Of Music and The Wizard Of Oz, or Howard, Janette, Costello and Abbott revisited Downfall, the Hitler-bunker film. It had none of their cartoon-like Bugs Bunnyish levity, though some of Biggins’s much-loved Keating trickled into it; trickled down, you might say.

Nor was it like Max Gillies’s famed stage monologues, of Howard, Hawke, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and me. It had none of the suspenseful, gob-smacked pleasure of theatre performance, happening in the flesh before your eyes, and the recognisable tics of the victims paraded and illuminated and celebrated.

Nor was it like Mike Carlton’s radio sketches, those aural 60-second comic strips of recent events. Nor like a Patrick Cook column, nor a Bill Leak cartoon, nor a Paul Keating interview, crackling with one-liners.

It had no precedent, and that was the trouble.

What it did was try to impose a concept like I Love Lucy, or Kath And Kim, on the sitting Prime Minister and her live-in lover without any heed of the way they actually behave and amuse themselves. The Thick Of It, for instance, was a show that reproduced the political backroom, which I served in for 16 years, with startling accuracy and penetrating, foul-mouthed hilarity. Yes, Minister, for instance, Bob Hawke once told me, was ‘spot on’. Each series showed that verisimilitude was no hindrance to well-written comedy.

Why, then, pretend that this Prime Minister’s life is other than as it is? There are assistants harassing her at every turn. She has a chief of staff, a media manager, a chef, a butler, a driver, a ministry, a worried deputy, distracting hourly crises, an unremitting work schedule, and soldiers’ funerals to attend. She has doorstops to rehearse, big speeches to learn, Question Time to get through, and prepare for. She is busy.

So what is all this retirement village idleness we see her and the First Bloke in? In what chapter of the universe does it reside? Why call her Julia Gillard, and him Tim Mathieson, at all? Why not call her Jane Billings and him Tom Matthews?

There then arises the question of the privacy of Tim, a separated husband, with children elsewhere, living in a sort of gilded adultery with a nation’s embattled ruler, underemployed and constitutionally anomalous. Does he deserve to have demeaning untruths, however cuddlesome they at first seem, told about him too, as if he were also a public figure? I doubt it. A line, somehow, to do with the limits of the genre has been crossed, crossed, as Philip Ruddock might say, inappropriately.

Let us imagine a series about Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans and the difficulties of their adultery, humanistically portrayed and, as in this show, comically diminished. Leaders of different parties, meeting in motels, discussing national policy while undressing… A line would be crossed here too, wouldn’t it? It might work as a drama series made in 2025, but not as a comedy; never.

I myself have been portrayed satirically, by Gillies, Gerry Connolly, Drew Forsythe and Robin Ramsey, as an untidy, lecherous, opinionated, gravy-spattered, highfalutin buffoon, always at a very respectable level of intellectual attack, and I’ve winced but never minded it; returned as a rule to the theatre and seen it again.

If, however, my wife had been in the sketch, or venomously adverted to by ‘Bob Ellis’ the fabricated stage figure, she, I think, because she is a less public figure, would have been rightly upset, and so would I, her partner for 45 years, and our children.

This, then, roughly equates to the present, uneasy situation of Tim Mathieson, seen as National Headlice Awareness Coordinator in episode three when he is hoping to announce his engagement to Julia. I’m not sure he deserved this, although I laughed a good bit at his forlorn comeuppance, as did, I guess, the nation, unfairly in both instances.

And, yes, I admired Phil Lloyd’s performance. He has turned a meek, Graeme Blundellish fish-out-of-water bumbler into a somehow dignified and somehow admirable human being. I admired all the performances, the Rudd, the Keating, the gay disdainful assistant in the jewellery store, Amanda’s additional cross-eyed drunken turn as Julie Bishop…

This brings us to Amanda herself, the effective auteur, who has played a Marilyn Monroe I co-wrote in a staged reading so well that the audience sat up amazed. She may be the best revue actress in this hemisphere, in this millennium, and she may also, I think, when all the evidence is in, prove to be the best Australian actress of the generation between Judy Davis and Mia Wasikowska. She could have been a recording star (she can be both Sutherland and Streisand), or an Oscar-worthy movie star had she had the sort of management, and the sort of luck, Australians rarely get on this side of the Pacific. And she may be these things yet. And her Julia is an astonishing personal transmogrification, an inhaling of the actual person, and has been so for four years now; but…

But she mistook her ability to improvise monologues in the style of the Prime Minister, and to answer Fran Kelly in her conversation style, for the ability, and few have it, to write series comedy. She could have done a sketch show, with Tim and Julia and Kevin and Wayne in one segment, Tony and Malcolm and Joe and Julie in another, Albo and the independents in another, Laurie Oakes and Paul Kelly and Michelle Grattan in another in a manner not unlike Little Britain, and with it repeatedly delighted an audience long accustomed to Fast Forward and The Comedy Company and Rubbery Figures, and easily prevailed on the excellence of the impersonations and some sharp joke writing, as well as her own.

But this… no, it was too hard a task. You cannot rewrite the rules of representational television satire in this way.

And it’s a pity.

The ratings will be huge, of course.

But it’s a pity.

Certain Housekeeping Matters (9)

I will be for two more weeks directing Shakespeare In Italy in Adelaide and may be neglectful of my respondents and indeed world events until opening night on August 9 at the Holden Street Theatre in Hindmarsh. Jordan Fraser-Trumble as the young Shakespeare and Lucy Slattery as his Dark Lady Julia Ascombe are as good as Crowe and Streep, and Bruce Venables — the King of the Primates — superb as Sir Henry Drummond, privateer, and Wayne Anthoney as Pope Sixtus V in a play with music that may become a repertory standard and soon adorn the schedules of the RSC and Stratford, Ontario but not, alas, the Bell Shakespeare Company whose Board thwarted Bell’s desire to put it on.

It is the first stage play I have directed since 1957 and it shows I have been wrong to wait around for others to do my dramas or even read them. About seventy-eight unmade ones await my attention, and I must choose carefully in the time I have left. Our new theatre company, The Wooden O Players, its theme ‘the Elizabethan tendency’, derives from conversations about spoken English and Shakespearean theatre that I, Wayne Anthoney, Ed Pegge and Richard Potter have been having for thirty years and it, too, is long overdue. In our seventies we have come at last, old fools, to the Rabbi Hillel formulation, ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’ and finally got on with it. Tennesse Williams (who, at my age, had two days to live) once wrote, ‘Make voyages; attempt them’, and I quoted this in The Things We Did Last Summer on the day he died in 1983 not realising how urgent it was, even then. We live and learn I guess or die ignorant, and so it goes.

I urge anyone interested to invest in the film we are making of it which will cost very little — in five figures, we estimate — and make tens of millions.

Anyone who thinks these musings deluded or self-indulgent I invite to the play or, next year, the film, which will open, with any luck the Adelaide Film Festival.

(Rabbi Hillel was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, who spoke his language, and a clear inspiration of Jesus of Nazareth, a once-popular Middle Eastern zealot and miracle-worker who was influential for a while, and worth further study.)

And so it goes.

Classic Ellis: The Mouse in the Room, December 2010

(From The Drum/Unleashed)

I might be wrong. But it seems to me on going to press that Assange has altered the way the world functions, and the alteration he has caused is as great, or almost as great, as Gutenberg’s in 1439, when a new idea could reach 10 million people in a year or so, and couldn’t be easily stifled thereafter.

Assange has shown the nakedness of emperors and their feet of clay, and the tides they can’t turn back merely by barking at them.

Secrecy and power have always walked hand in hand, and shared a bed and a lavatory. The idea of a ‘State Secret’, or a file marked ‘Top Secret’ affirms this, as did in other times the King’s Seal on a document that couldn’t be opened, or a computer password now. John Ralston Saul said in Voltaire’s Bastards that all power structures require a secret language: Latin for the Catholic Church for a thousand years, Cardinal Richelieu’s intricate bureaucratic formulations after that. And lately, of course, un-hackable computer evidence of what people really think.

Secrecy gives you the power to threaten. If the tools that make an atomic bomb and instructions on how to build one are available in only one country, that country has power. If the tools and instructions are everywhere, it has no power. If the site of the D-Day landings is not known, the invader is very threatening. If it is known, less so. And, at the most ordinary level, if a policeman knows where you live he has power to threaten you. If he does not, he has less power. If he has a sample of your DNA, a lot of power.

And so it is, and so it goes, that the Americans are now panicked because the world now knows, or soon will know, what they’re thinking and what their strategies are, who they regard as dangerous, who they would like to bomb back to the Stone Age, whether they plan to pay their debts back to China, or nuke them instead, and so on. And this knowledge can’t be stifled or withdrawn. It can’t be made secret again.

And the world has changed. Now we know the Burma colonels are building an H-bomb we can’t afford to ignore them. We have to deal with them now, in a way that makes sense. Now we know the Saudis are funding many, many terrorists and have been for years, we know America’s War on Terror is a joke. Now we know we are not winning Afghanistan for sure, we can probably sneak out of it.

Power depends on a ruler’s assertion, a ruler’s word, being believed. He must say with credibility that we’re ‘making progress’ in Afghanistan (no-one says we’re winning any more) for us to stay there. That belief in his assertion depends on him having a body of secrets to draw from, spin, rearrange and, if need be, falsify.

He cannot do that now. Because Assange may, tomorrow, say what is really so.

‘You see these dictators on their pedestals,’ Winston Churchill growled in 1936, ‘surrounded by the tanks of their armies, and the truncheons of their police. A mouse, a little tiny mouse, of thought, comes into the room, and even the mightiest… potentates… tremble.’ Assange today is that mouse of thought, in a thousand throne rooms at once, and the mightiest of the earth are trembling, and bellowing for his head.

What can they do now? Well, not very much. The countries they would invade have been warned. The potentates they deride have been scalded, and want payback. Their failed wars will be ended sooner. Those they tortured can sue. The victims of poisoned meadows or carcinogenic broadcast electric towers can exact reparation. The international criminality of bankers can result, as occurred with Enron, in CEOs doing hundreds of years in the slammer.

It’s a remarkable upheaval of the very ground power sits on. It’s like the Peasants’ Revolt, but much bigger.

For look you, look you, and hear me out. No-one can plausibly threaten harm, or great harm, any more. Not when their own position is undermined, and honeycombed, with revelations of their power’s feebleness.

“Things falls apart,” Yeats said in The Second Coming, “the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned; /The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity…Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

This is what Assange, perhaps, has unleashed (what a good word that is). I hesitate to add ‘good on him’ but I note how enormous is the damage to the Great World he has done.

It may be revealed, for instance, that Bush and Rumsfeld intervened in December 2001 when Bin Laden was surrounded by British troops in Bora Bora and told them to let him go. It may turn out they did this because they didn’t want the ‘mission accomplished’ in Afghanistan, they wanted years of war there, and opium and oil pipelines and funding for their friends the Northern Alliance and kickbacks from the various gangsters surnamed Karzai. It may turn out they will go to gaol for this, and the Bush administration become ‘the time of which we must not speak’ and the Republican Party crumble and the Fox News jocks, as accomplices, go to gaol too.

Or there may be some perfectly reasonable explanation why Bin Laden escaped, and why the Saudis continue to fund his confederates unhindered by the USA.

It may be revealed what Israel threatened Obama with in the pre-presidential period when he would not speak of the Gaza slaughter. Or it may be no threat was made at all.

It may be (let’s say it) that Arbib’s warning to the Americans that Gillard’s coup would soon take place was after, or because, Gillard agreed to do some things the Americans want. Arbib after all supported the WMD war though Beazley did not, and the Afghan war when Rudd was going off it. Maybe he and the Yanks preferred Gillard whose ignorant fervour was unchanged, to the doubting Rudd, revealed here. Maybe her going-to-water over Climate Change was part of this, and her fervid support for Israel while it was firebombing children, her East Timor gambit, her shaming of teachers and unionists, her curious desire to cancel Assange’s passport, and so on. Or there may be no truth in these wanton hypotheses at all. We will soon know, either way.

But whatever is revealed by Assange hereafter has a fair chance of being true. And if it is true, then power, all over, will dwindle.

The mouse is in the room, and the potentates are trembling.

The Innocence Of Julian Assange (9): After Four Corners

As I’ve been saying for a while the girls were caught in a maelstrom and though initially ashamed of themselves are probably being paid well now.

It was a classic Murdochist-Carl Roveist operation: when it proves your enemy has done a good thing that he might be praised for, or even a great thing he might be praised for, raise the ‘character issue’. John F. Kennedy saved the world from nuclear annihilation but hey, he transmitted non-specific urethritis to Audrey Hepburn and Angie Dickinson, slime him, bring him down. Gordon Brown saved Europe’s economy but hey, he used to shout at his staff and called an old woman ‘bigoted’, slime him, bring him down.

Julian likewise exposed the serial killing by Americans of innocent civilians and the ongoing duplicity of their foreign policy but hey, he had ‘sex by surprise’ with a girl who continued to have sex with him and praised him after it, slime him, bring him own.

It is the only thing the Right can do because their basic policies (more money to the rich, more laws to assist those products that infect, injure, poison or kill people, like handguns, uranium and cigarettes) are so unattractive that they cannot be pitched or successfully sold in any working democracy. So the idea that ‘Leftists’ are villains becomes their war-cry, their anthem, their daily astonished headline. Julian Assange porked a girl who was half-asleep and he should be killed for it. Feminists believe this now, and so it goes.

Policies don’t matter anymore, only private behaviour does. Charles said ‘tampon’ once, so he should not be King. Fergie has a big bum so should not be any more Duchess of Cornwall. Paul Keating touched the Queen lightly on the back so should not be any longer Prime Minister. Belinda Neal said ‘Do you know who I am?’ and should resign her parliamentary seat. Bill Clinton suffered eleven blow-jobs and must be sacked as Leader of the Free World. Of course he should. Of course he should.

And it works very well. Anything negative confidently uttered will trigger a ‘headmaster-is-speaking’ response in sluggardly underinformed people, especially those not raised speaking English, so when Julie Bishop yesterday said Bob Carr was not yet a good Foreign Minister (after rescuing Schapelle, Melinda and the whales of the South China Sea) because he told a Presidential contestant how the US looked to other nations (what was he supposed to do, lie about it? and what good would that have done?) a couple of million dills believed her, and so it goes.

Murdoch is withdrawing from some of his newspapers this week but his method continues to bruise and wound all our democratic tendencies. Fewer and fewer good people want to go into politics anymore because of him.

And it’s a pity.

Lines For Albo (23)

‘It is worth noting Howard wanted Nelson Mandela hanged. I ask Tony Abbott to apologise to this good, great man on his loathesome hero’s behalf, or encourage Howard, the bigoted dill, to do so himself.’

Classic Ellis: Nifty, 1984

(From Goobye Jerusalem)

Speaking at Lionel Murphy’s funeral, Nifty said the world ‘mate’ had lately come to have sinister connotations. ‘But Lionel Murphy was my mate, and I’m proud to say that I was his.’ It was remarked at the time how differently he would have dealt with Mick and the spy story, or Mick and the Paddington Bear. ‘Are you joking?’ he would have said. ‘Fuck off. Write anything incriminating about Mick on this matter and you’ll never cross this fucking threshold again.’

He had his hates of course and one of them was my boyhood friend Chris Masters who in The Big League asserted Nifty was corrupt, as a result of which Nifty had to invent the concept (he was very good at this) of ‘standing aside’ from the Premiership while he was on trial. He told the ABC to fuck off for years after that, and was very snaky too about Mike Carlton who did husky gangsterish imitations of him, accompanied by the sound of a getaway car arriving, and departing. David Hill determined to reconcile them and brought Mike round and they drank together for a while and made it up.

The best night I had with Nifty I think was in a peculiar small cane-covered private room in a Canberra restaurant during the Labor Conference of 1984 (an event made colourful by tattooed and feathered and painted hippies up and down the stairways of the Lakeside Hotel) with Jill and Freudy and John and Jan Brown and Ramsey, my collaborator. Freudy was mountainously pissed (as I remember) and told an anecdote that at full stretch might take forty-eight seconds or so in a total of thirty-two and a half minutes and Nifty, who loved him, heard him out.

Then Nifty began to reminisce – about Balmain and his working-class brothers who still lived there and hated Balmain trendies and of his wild youth.

‘I used to be an actor, you know,’ he said. ‘I left Law School and became a professional actor. I starred in a radio soap called The Martins of Markham Street or some bloody thing and I did very well, made a bit of money. And one night I turned up at Her Majesty’s Theatre, opening night, tuxedo on, sumptuous blonde on me arm, furs all over her, cleavage down to here, and the doorman grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me round, and it was me father. “Listen,” he said, “get back to Law School.” I did too. Silliest thing I’ve done in me life.’

His ambition, he said, was to open a restaurant with a harbour view and a neon sign saying Nifty’s, with a piano bar and good food, and he’d be there every night, like Bogart in Casablanca, and pursue the art of conversation.

And he talked of better things. And then suddenly he said, ‘When I think back on my life, and what I’ve become, and I wonder what I might’ve been, I think what I might better have been is a more radical version of what I am. But in the end, in the end, in the end,’ he said very rapidly, ‘there’s only the Labor Party, isn’t there?’

The Silence Of The Williamsons (14)

No word from David yet on the Williamson Scholarship or the Williamson Foundation he promised, or said he’d consider, in January when he turned 70.

No communication in fact since Kristin said how much better a writer he was than me.

This should be tested I think.

Anyone resident in Adelaide or near it might come to Shakespeare In Italy after August 9 at the Holden Street Theatre and see if it’s better than Williamson’s Shakespeare play Dead White Males or worse, and vote to that effect after the performance, giving each play a mark out of ten. Though a collaborative work, this is balanced by Williamson’s collaborator on DWM Wayne Harrison who made him rewrite it, adding Shakespeare to it.

I’m not saying how the vote will go. But it should be considered when SII comes to Sydney seeking a venue, and David and I  and John Bell could have a charity debate about Shakespeare’s identity and achievement and which one Bell, an admirer of SII and a frequent director of Williamson, prefers.

Shakespeare In Italy: The Second Press Release

‘Our purpose was twofold,’ Bob Ellis explained in Adelaide yesterday. ‘To show how Shakespeare, the provincial sluggard, might have begun to write good plays; and to help out the RSC, Bell Shakespeare and Stratford Ontario by expanding with it the Shakespeare canon.

‘For too long they have been tarting up and dressing down and rock’n'rolling and psychedelicking and ‘modernising’ the better Shakespeare works, and blood-and-goring the lesser ones, and, even worse, putting on The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi and ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, really bad works that were written by his cheap and nasty contemporaries, just to stay in business.

‘With Shakespeare In Italy they will have another play to add to their repetoires. It is better, some say, than twenty-seven of the existing ones and gives some sense of who the author may have been and what he was up to.

‘And having done that, they might consider adding to their seasons other works of Shakespeare quality like The Crucible, A Man For All Seasons, Victory, Luther, Brief Lives, Paul, Shakespeare In Love, Anonymous, Rome and I, Claudius, and restore their lost box office fortunes that way.

‘The success of our play might also encourage some younger writers to go to work replacing those dramas — an Edward III, a Robin Hood, A King Arthur, a Henry VII, a James I — that might have been written by Shakespeare’s heirs had not Cromwell closed down the theatres in 1642.

‘This play is a start to that end.

‘If we can do it, hundreds can.’

Shakespeare In Italy, by Bob Ellis and Denny Lawrence, with music by Chris Neal, opens in the Holden Street Theatre, Hindmarsh, on Thursday, August 9 and has eighteen performances.

Solving Boat People In January 2013: The Ellis Modest Proposal

I drove south through millions of hectares of green, lush, well-watered pastoral fruitfulness thinking wow, this is the answer; here, between Goulburn and Wagga and Albury, ten thousand Hazara small farmers could rent land here and work it growing things, and all will be well. The government could spend four hundred million on the land, and they’d get that money back. Problem solved.

And it’s not that hard, really. I should submit to the government my thesis, my modest proposal, that it’s not, it’s really not that hard.

All you do is this:

(1) Take one hundred and twenty thousand fewer Japanese waiters next year.

(2) Take instead of them all the refugees now in Malaysia and Indonesia who want to come here, thus abolishing the queue. And therefore queue jumpers. And the boats they come on. And the danger our navy gets in stopping them.

(3) Admit the delayed Japanese waiters in, oh, October, 2013, instead of January, 2013.

(4) Put all the initial one hundred and twenty thousand refugees on Temporary Protection Visas for a year, suss them out, and after that either send them home or let them in. And

(5) Take twenty-five thousand refugees each year hereafter. If the numbers grow too big in ten years’ time do the same thing: delay the Japanese waiters for a further nine months. They’ll still want to come.

This would not only abolish the queue, which would mean there would be, hereafter, no, repeat no, ‘queue jumpers’; and abolish the ‘people smugglers’ business model’ and send these dreadful people broke.

It would save, in the next four years, twelve hundred lives. It would end the shame and risk of prosecution for piracy of our naval personnel; and the risk of a mutiny at sea. It would save perhaps two hundred million a year in ‘detention facilities’, the American goons who run them, and the millions in compensation we occasionally pay to the relatives of innocents we kill or drive to suicide there; three hundred million a year we could put into disaster relief or old age care.

It would, yes, put up the migrant intake by ten thousand a year, making it one hundred and ninety thousand rather than one hundred and eighty thousand. But it would give us hundreds of thousands of good people willing to work in menial jobs with family values like we used to have in the 1950s, five or six more really good test cricketers, a prospering hard-working, law-abiding minority, a revivication of at least some country towns, and a more prosperous economy, like one we got when the Germans and Ukrainians came to work on the Snowy River and the Italians swarmed into Melbourne and Adelaide and the Greeks and Vietnamese and Chinese and South Americans into Sydney. It would jump-start the building industry. It would put money in our pockets again; and theirs.

The best part about it is we take in no more migrants in 2013 than we planned to. It is three hundred million in profit and ‘a beautiful set of numbers.’ We can close down either Villawood or Baxter and retrieve our good name among the civilised nations. We were looking pretty much like racist nongs back there for a while. No room indeed.

Please consider.

Classic Ellis: The ‘Loser’, 2010

(From The Capitalism Delusion)

106

We have seen how social-democrat societies and some Communist societies kill fewer infants, nourish more children, educate more adolescents, provide more doctors and give better health care and old age care to adults and sick people and old people, than economic fundamentalist societies, and how the economic fundamentalist societies over-reward – by scores of millions a year sometimes – the unrepentant killers of the newborn, hungry and poor when a fraction of the current wages of western CEOs would cleanse the water and reduce the smoking habits and the chronic drunkenness of millions of the starving and unmedicated in Africa and the Sub-continent.

It is appropriate we should ask at this point not why the economic fundamentalists do it (they are male, proud and crazy) but why so many Western societies – the United States in particular – have accepted without caveat this greedy, punishing ethic, the code of the roving hyena, they live by.

It is to do, I think, with the skill of their propaganda.

107

In their many media and advertising campaigns they say it is the politicians who are the greedy ones, not they.

These politicians are only in it for the money.

On a mind-boggling one hundred and seventeen thousand dollars a year plus some free travel these unprincipled swine work sixteen, eighteen hours a day absorbing the woes of crazed constituents and enduring long nights of ethnic dancing because they love the money they get for it, and for no other reason, the bastards, while the selfless CEO on thirty times that amount wants only to serve the needs of his much more deserving shareholders.

They have embedded this nasty idea in the public mind with great persuasive skill through countless newspaper stories and bellicose fulminations by radio and cable-TV commentators.

And they have gone after the union movement in the same way. The union ‘bosses’ are ‘rorting the system’, they say, bleeding their fuddled membership of enormous unearned salaries for themselves and ‘kickbacks’ for their ‘cronies’, all of whom ‘care little’ for the needs of ‘ordinary working people’, and earn as much as two hundred thousand dollars a year, the unprincipled greedy swine. They have ‘their noses forever in the trough’.

In an act of propaganda brilliance, they have lately made sure that the word ‘boss’ applies only to union leaders, not the captains of industry or those in charge of gigantic money-trading corporations, who bear the much softer-sounding title CEO.

Back when they were called bosses (and were shown in cartoons as big-bellied moustachioed cigar-smoking top-hatted buffoons holding tiny shrivelled workers in their grasp) they were much more visibly evil and the term CEO, Chief Executive Officer, which suggests a quietly-spoken mild-mannered servant-of-the-public-good who never sacks anybody.

The masters of propaganda never target him – we have to pay him that much, they say, or we’d lose him to a better offer overseas. But they do go after small-time crooks whom they stalk and harass on their current affairs programmes, people who sometimes swindle widows of forty or fifty thousand dollars.

Never the twenty-one thousand nine hundred and seven dollars a CEO makes in a day and whether he deserves this, and what he gets it for.

And they’ve come up with a very useful concept.

A Big Lie, some might call it.

This is the concept of the ‘loser’.

108

Most Americans have come to believe, in part because of the films they go to and the television series they watch at home, that some people are ‘winners’ and some people are ‘losers’.

A loser is going to lose whatever the social conditions he grows up in. In Seinfeld he is George Costanza, forever testing his employers with his impertinence and losing his job, forever saying the wrong thing to the parents of his girlfriends.

In The Simpsons he is Barney, the shouting, tottering drunk. In South Park he is Kenny, who through eerie misfortune gets killed in every episode.

A loser is not always a bad person, but he is cursed by fate. The trailer trash family of Maggie Fitzgerald the heroine of Million Dollar Baby are examples of this. They cannot even steal money from their paralysed daughter (who has millions) with any efficiency.

What is to be done with losers? Well, there are ways to help them out, to turn them, with difficulty, into winners.

This often involves physical torture, which is no less than they deserve.

Rocky is put through rigorous training, including punching sides of meat, in order that he has a chance of beating Apollo Creed, the world heavyweight champion, or coming close to beating him, in an exhibition match in 1976, America’s bicentenial year. He does well, and is redeemed.

Fast Eddie Felson, a skilful pool player brought low by drink, overweening pride and sex before marriage (and some low-down hoons who break his thumbs) in The Hustler is redeemed by the girl’s suicide, ‘gets character’ he calls it, and finally, in a thirty-hour game, beats Minnesota Fats and is banned from playing high-class pool forever. Once a loser, always a loser, it seems, in his case.

The definition of loser, unfortunately, has widened since the 1970s, when it first took hold, to include most of American society.

A loser is now that man or woman who is not yet taking home a million a year, is not CEO of Time Warner or General Motors or the star, on twenty million dollars a film, of the Lethal Weapon or Die Hard franchise and is not, like Donald Trump, making squillions and saying ‘You’re fired’ to this week’s apprentice, a talented loser who like Fast Eddie Felson lacks the last few inches of the Right Stuff, of Character, and thus, found wanting, must go back to the provinces and redeem himself, if he can, in the eyes of his greedy wife and mortified old father.

By the current rigorous measurement, it seems, ninety-eight percent of Americans are losers, and they take it badly when this is indicated to them, when they are fired or fail to gain entrance to a university or a Broadway chorus line.

They buy a gun from a gun-shop and shoot many of their neighbours or fellow students crying ‘Call me a loser will you, motherfucker? You’re the one who’s losing!’

Then turn the gun on themselves.

109

The appellation works well for capitalism because it absolves the system from the need to help people out. These people are ‘unredeemable’ and those who do not succumb to drug overdoses or shoot each other dead in turf wars in the inner cities are best imprisoned for six hundred years or given a lethal injection in front of glad, vengeful witnesses on the orders of Governor Bush.

Governor Bush is a winner, you see, and the one hundred and fifty-two people he ordered killed (one a woman, the first Texas woman executed in a hundred years) were losers. And that’s the way the divinity ordained it, we can’t do a dang thing about it, just give the gosh-darn order to execute.

Winners got there, the myth continues, by hard work. They worked through the night in their twenties and so made their first million through hard, relentless, disciplined labour.

Even George Bush, the layabout, coke-sniffing, college-flunking, boozy, womanising grandson of Old Money, got there by hard work.

And Ted Turner, who inherited millions. And Rupert Murdoch, who inherited a newspaper.

It was hard work, and not family wealth, that made them winners.

And it was laziness, not family poverty, which made the other two hundred and five million Americans losers.

That’s the explanation, and we’re sticking to it.

110

This argument would be persuasive if there were not a whole lot fewer losers in other societies.

Though 2.2 million Americans are in gaol in any year, only five thousand nine hundred Swedes are. If Sweden were the same size as America this would be one hundred and ninety-eight thousand, less than a tenth of the number.

And the number of murders (a sure sign of losers protesting their fates) per year in Britain is seven hundred and thirty-seven, compared with sixteen thousand in America.

Obesity, divorce, school shootings and appearances on The Jerry Springer Show in America outscore all other societies on earth.

So is it being born a loser, or being an American citizen, that is the main, predominant factor in stuffing up one’s life?

Are Americans genetically stupider? Is that the reason?

Or is it the way they are treated?

Oakeshott, Suicide Bomber

Oakeshott’s threat to bring down the government if they do not sort themselves out no doubt reflects his weariness with his life, and the threats that come in every week against his children. He is a possible assassination target if he stays in politics and he knows it

But it is not in fact a threat he can carry out. Bob Katter will never vote no confidence in this government and so risk his income and the time he has to build the Katter Party’s appeal. He must extend the time he has to do that as far as he can, for he is not sure he could hold his seat against, say, Clive Palmer or Barnaby Joyce in an all-out mudfight in the North for the vote of the peasants who are now worse off than ever before.

He will keep a Labor government there whoever its leader is. He is ‘Labor to the back teeth’ as he says in his book and hates the Newman Tendency with a socialist passion that would surprise you.

So Labor is safe I think for fourteen more months.

And the leadership joust can begin.

The Colorado Shooting

No new lessons are to be learned from the Colorado shooting. It is well known now that the fear of death in males kicks in at 25 and this young fool is 24. It is well known that no-one under 30 should be given an assault weapon or a handgun, and no male of any age a gun of any kind outside of a shooting range or a combat operation. It is well known throughout the civilised world that Americans are a pack of wackos, and Bruce Willis movies are an incitement to massacre and there are far too many of them.

The most important fact of the present matter and murder however is that the young man was being thrown out of his course and thereby labelled by society a Loser and he took the usual recourse that people so labelled at a sensitive age too often take: an act of self-obliteration that can also be murderous if sleep does not come soon enough and weapons are handy.

I will put up an old essay of mine on the concept of the Loser. It is the principal driving-force of American life, and it’s a pity.

Classic Ellis: Ken Branagh, February 1995

Ken Branagh had had another lousy fortnight. (LA, London, Paris and Sydney in nine groggy days) and his smile when I met him (cocktails, Greater Union, jet lag, a harbourside roof) was a tad forced. He was nice to me nonetheless, pleased that my ten-year-old son had liked Henry V and full of cautious praise for its author, an Englishman of a certain local repute. And he is an unexpected pleasure to look at, a beautiful man, like a Michelangelo archangel in designer stubble.

He came and he went, having survived without imploding intimate dialogues that began, ‘Did you find our projection facilities to your satisfaction, er, Kenneth?’ and was later seen on a film set in deep fraternal colloquy with Dennis Whitburn, the dread fate of many unwarned blow-ins who thereafter learn fast.

I’d like to have said a bit more to him (though less, of course, than Dennis), like, mind how you go, have a nice life, don’t care too much, keep working on the stage. He’s a stupendous talent of possibly Wellsian portent and the barracuda pool he’s just dived into is deeply anxious that he be power-munched down to his wishbone with vigour and swiftness and his spreading bloodstains flushed away lest his chromosomes prove infectious.

This is a quaint and torrid way of saying that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a good film (though that’s not the point) and if Jane Campion, say, had been its writer-director it would have been hailed as a masterpiece of resuscitated nineteenth-century femino-Gothic sensibility (which it is) by fools too frightened to say aught else, and any faults it might seem to have are those of Mary Shelley, and how well and how tactfully Ms Campion has worked around them.

But they’re not saying any of that, no way, because the word is out and the fix is in – and Branagh is in the cross-hairs of an industry that is always gangsterly and murderous in the face of many-tentacled talent, as Von Stoheim, Chaplin, Renoir, Preston Sturges, Welles and, lately, Woody Allen found. These arty bastards, you see, who write and direct and act, all at Academy Award level, put honest tradesmen like us and Ray Stark out of work. Because they can do everything they don’t need anyone to mediate and the true trade of Hollywood is not making things but mediating, mediating between septumless brain-dead egomaniacs and Caligula, their agent. In such a crazed metropolis a mild-mannered, punctual, economical, profit-making and Oscar-smelling Proteus like Branagh is as welcome as a breeze from Three Miles Island. He has to be stopped. He will be. If this film works he may be fucking unstoppable!

So the word went out, Frankenstein is a turkey, pass it on. He has to be stopped! Frankenstein DOA, Frankenstein is neck deep in doo-doo, so the millions who therefore never see it will believe that’s what it is. That’s how it works. Fashions are confidently declared and the film journalists leap like a chorus line into appropriate, sneering posture, ta-daa. And competing homo-erotic rubbish like Interview with the Vampire minces past without a dissenting murmur because, well, it comes from the system, doesn’t it, and Branagh is not part of the system, and he must be bloodily expunged.

It’s just possible he was set up, the way Puttnam was, Sir Puttnam sorry (hello David), to slaughter himself and, expiring, bleed all over a canvas far too titanic for a mere puny Englishman, as Puttnam with Columbia and later Hugh Hudson with Revolution did, but it’s also (yes) possible he (yes) misjudged the public mood for patched faces and ripped hearts held high above the butchered bosoms of brides on wedding nights of the full moon and for this, maybe, he should be chidden but not for accurately making Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein which was what he set out to do and then with tireless British precision and Irish brio did. Casting Helen Bonham Carter as the aforesaid mutilee was a needlessly Brit-fond foolishness perhaps when a young Pfeiffer or a Meg Ryan maybe was more the go (in horror movies, for preference, butcher blondes), but this is not the point. The point is that a company town that exalted Reds, and Rocky, and L.A. Story, and Dances with Wolves because their actor-managers were their own dull kind of tapdancing mover and shaker, and cast out Chaplin, Von Stroheim, Welles and Allen and Sturges because they appeared arty and mutinous and self-willed and, well, talented, is not a town whose judgments we should cretinously mimic, ever. Just see the movie and yourself decide, okay? The foremost talent of the English-speaking cinema may not have absolutely stuffed up, you never know. You never know.

It’s too late now, I guess. What sheep you are entirely.

Fixing Syria (1): The Next Hundred Years

Syria will not be fixed in my lifetime, and millions will die of it before Assad leaves the scene. The comparison is with Franco who from 1939 to 1976 ruled with malign religious ferocity a turbulent, fractured, freedom-seeking agnostic insurgency while Britain, France and America looked the other way.

It is Russia and China looking the other way now, and the slaughter will go on.

It is amazing that America failed to offer a deal: sanctuary in Las Vegas with a swarm of his courtiers after a peaceful handover to secular nominee. But no: they wanted, and the ICC wanted, not just his head but his meek and mannerly acceptance of his own beheading.

They did not guess that this might seem to him an inconvenience, and he would use every weapon the West and the Russians had sold him to keep his head and his neck on his shoulders; as would you or I.

And tens of thousands will die this calendar year, including hundreds of Syria’s finest political intellects, because of this failure to find that diplomatic necessity, that diplomatic fundamental, a way out for both sides.

The next three months will be as violent as those preceding the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Israel will nuke Iran, Russia massacre Chechnya, China ‘crack down’ on its Muslim dissidents, the Taliban massacre those Hazaras that did not get on boats, and Assad continue his Holocaust, because Obama cannot move against any of them in a run-up to a tight election and they know it.

Thus it was in 1956 that the USSR invaded Hungary and ‘cracked down’ on Poland and East Germany, and Britain, France and Israel bombed and invaded Egypt, know Eisenhower was sick and Nixon, Acting President, dare not move in an election year against them. And thus it was that Israel bombed Gaza to smithereens three weeks before Obama was inaugurated and was theoretically powerless and so was Bush, the ‘lame duck’, to do anything about it.

These democratic interims are useful to the tyrants. They are what we used to call windows of opportunity, and much evil steps through them.

And it’s a pity.

Classic Ellis: Stone Revisited

Stone, with a few caveats, is a big unexpected success. Pre-dating by five years its bedfellow Mad Max, it gives us not just a preview of what the Australian film industry – raw, action-packed, nork-flashing and unafraid – might have become, but a time capsule of the talent then spilling out of it. Bill Hunter, the barman, seems a pale nonentity; Terry Bader, the garage mechanic, a superstar; Hugh Keayes-Byrne, the operatic bully, the next Oliver Reed; Drew Forsythe, quite remarkable as a shy teenager warily refusing Hugh’s tongue-kiss, a potential Michael York; Rebecca Giblin the next Susannah York; Helen Morse the next Jean Simmons; the lead Ken Shorter, somewhere between the next Malcolm McDowell and the next Tommy Steele. Other faces out of Mad Max – Vince Gill, Roger Ward – crowd the frames, and one finds oneself wondering what went wrong and why they were not all eventual superstars like Mel. The costumed prissification that followed Picnic at Hanging Rock, probably, and the tax-dodge banalities of 10BA. And it’s a pity.

Stone is the surname of the undercover cop (Shorter) whom the Gravediggers permit to ride along with them while he searches for their serial assassin, who beheads one of them with a wire across the road (I was pleased to the furry face in the rolling helmet was the producer, David Hannay) or snipes at them accurately from high angles. Stone is a long-haired, pure-hearted fellow. He refuses cannabis, alcohol and all offered sex from the frequently naked molls around him, succumbing to just one kiss and is beaten near to death for it by Undertaker, her bloke (Sandy Harbutt); but, like an anthropologist among Nuigini savages, comes to like the Gravediggers and their Homeric, heroic, violent, wandering lifestyle – much of the movie being a study of how they steep themselves in the codes they live by: the fealty, the fidelity (a girl can say to a bloke it’s over, but must never cheat on him) and the roaring Arthurian-quest they vroom down streets in, skidding round corners and getting up on one wheel, similar to that of Easy Rider and Romper Stomper.

The urban vistas, often twilight, by Graham Lind, the cinematographer, are amazingly beautiful. The editing by Ian Barry is terrific. The costume design by Helen Morse and Margaret Ure and the bike stunts by Peter Armstrong and others are very good indeed. Most of the acting is very fine, with outstanding walk-ons by Garry McDonald and Susan Lloyd.

But…the dialogue is no good (Sandy Harbutt and Michael Robinson), and, though not fatal, it hurts. Great actors have agonies with long expository lines that a half day with John Dingwall or David Williamson would have sorted, and it hurts.

Nonetheless, it is a success, the storyline true-hearted and well-structured, the research honest and unstinted. The Gravediggers are minor terrorists but also a tribe and they have a right, we feel – like the Tauregs, like the Apaches and the Aruntas – to be on earth, roaring down its highways and punching each other out in pubs.

Sandy Harbutt’s direction is wonderful, and his management of the violent scenes as good as, say, Scorsese. And it would have seemed a toss-up then as to whether he or George Miller would have become a world figure. Sandy lived off the film for about two decades (it was always in a drive-in somewhere in South America, selling out) and he got, perhaps, a bit lazy. He had for years in development an Alex Buzo adaptation of The Drums of Mer (to be produced and directed by and to star himself) and he lost Helen Morse, and may have lost heart. And it’s a pity.

Ken Shorter, for a long time a local star, did well in England in the RSC and Morse, affrighted by Far East, left film for good and played Coward and Tennessee Williams a lot in Perth, Newcastle and similar places, on stage. Bill Hunter leapt out of apparent mediocrity in this film to Newsfront four years later and the perpetual national affection he persisted in for forty years. But…

I’m not saying the film had a curse on it. But it was a false dawn in some ways. It proved an Australian genre – the bikie western, or the highway western – that could, in Sandy’s hands, have become a world-conqueror in a modest way that George Miller refused to stay in, getting more and more like science fiction.

It had honesty, and honour, and modesty. And it looks thrillingly good now. Frame by frame, fight by fight, gunfight and bike crash and ride after ride into urban sunsets, it is a great inspirer of young movie makers then and now. And well worth rediscovering, about twice a year.

Classic Ellis: The Boys, March 1998

Little that we know – or imagine we know – of the fibro suburbs and the chronically jobless or the lure of drink or the wordless despair of working-class lives without aim or fulfilment or flavour or destination will prepare us for the fierce and punishing impact – like the smash of a heavy spanner to the bridge of the nose – of The Boys, a film by Gordon Graham, Stephen Sewell, Rowan Woods, Robert Connolly and John Maynard that derives from events that led to the pack-rape, stabbing and ghastly decapitation of the nurse and sometime beauty queen Anita Cobby, by three sourhearted brothers with time on their hands and a grudge or two against the universe. For it is, as in Mike Leigh’s films, the thing itself: you think this is how it must have been.

Gordon Graham wrote the play about ten years ago, and I saw it at the time. Much has changed, but precious little of its bruised and desolate heart. The essential conundrum, how could something as basic and unremarkable and potentially admirable as brotherly fellow-feeling lead to such an end, baits and mocks us as before. It’s a film that goes home with you and sits by your bed looking at you accusingly when you turn off the light, and is down in the kitchen with you in the morning, smirking over the Cornflakes.

At the film’s beginning, Brett Sprague returns home from a year in the slammer to find his grimy-fibro family in disorder. His younger brother Stevie has a teenage girlfriend, Nola, up the duff and living in. His older brother Glenn has moved out with his girlfriend Jackie, and his mother Sandra (shades of Hamlet) has taken up with Abo, a Maori drifter. His own girlfriend Michelle, moreover, treats him with a mixture of sexual energy and ball-busting scorn.

Like the late Prince of Denmark, Brett is displeased by the changes in his once ordered kingdom. He is, we gather, a control freak – a bit like (perhaps) Paul Keating, whose background, verbal skills and contemptuous know-it-all curve of the mouth he probably shares. He wants things back the way they were. He wants, moreover, some level of homicidal revenge on the bottleshop owner (the always marvellous Peter Hehir) who not only put him in gaol but sliced his belly with a carving knife.

As played by David Wenham, Brett’s mixture of suppuration, scar tissue, tenderness, flammable menace, beer-sucking silence, lazy arrogance and bloodymindedness adds up to the best and deepest and fullest etching of such a man on film since, I guess, M. Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. As in all great characters in world drama (Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, Willy Loman, Jimmy Porter) you are seeing him, although he is very familiar, up there for the first time. Every move he makes is both unexpected and, within his toey tempestuous character, inevitable. The scene where, caught short with unwelcome impotence and fiddling fruitlessly in his trousers, he reacts to Michelle’s taunt ‘You took it up the arse, didn’t you?’ with murderous roaring violence, is one of the most frightening (and understandable from both perspectives) I’ve ever seen.

As Michelle the ever-surprising Toni Collette is feisty, horny, contemptuous, foul-mouthed and unrecognisable; and working class to his painted fingertips. So too is Lyn Curran as Sandra, the weary life-worn mum; nothing humans surprises her any more, nothing promised brings her hope; a fearful grimy forgiveness of expected evil is all her lot; a collaboration with the worst. As Glenn and Stevie, the sons who follow, like wary disciples, Brett’s lordly hunger for sacrificial blood, John Polson (the smarter, more salvageable one) and Anthony Hayes (the dumber, more passive and wreckable one) add volumes of doomed goodness to the tragedy. If only, we feel, they had lived by a beach, and so been able each morning to wrestle the battering surf, or cleanse their egos on a bucking windsurfer, to booze less and gripe less, and get the dirty water off their chests with athletic challenge and the odd guitar solo, none of it would have happened, not the worst of it anyway. Anna Lise as the fearful dim pregnant Nola is equally good, and near definitive, and as Jackie, the spiky restless fiancee begging Glenn to break with his toxic brothers and drive off down the road with her, Jeanette Cronin, long a favourite actress of mine, communicates more than most Oscar laureates and has us in tears.

I’m sure its long rehearsals helped, and its testing pre-history as a play in several versions. The young director Rowan Wood has, however, maddeninly achieve a kind of lasting masterpiece yet failed his primary audience by omitting the murder itself, or any hint of the murder (a few frantic blurred free-frames were all that was needed), and smugly waiting the critics’ echoing applause in the empty cinema – depending on the local audience’s pre-knowlege of the Cobby pack-rape and decapitation (it will not be as widely remembered in, say, Somalia) to fill the maddening silence at the end. He is a towering fool to do this, and he or his masters should fixt it. They would do as well to leave the murder out of Othello, having worked up so gravely and tenderly to it, for the good and solid reason that the rape-murder failed in Blackrock. So, your morons, did the film.

It is nonetheless (and I may be wrong in my surly caveat) our film of the year – one that like Angel Baby opens up to us a moral universe, and a chapter of the battered heart, that we did not believe could ever engage our sympathies. See it just for the performances, if you need a reason, Wenham’s and Polson’s in particular, as the Lucifer and Gabriel of Australia’s wounded underworld. See it fast. It may be gone very soon.

The Silence Of The Williamsons (13): The Shakespeare Comparison

I see no evidence of David’s promised Williamson Scholarship or Williamson Foundation financed by the millions he made by displacing better playwrights from their rightful place in Australian theatre. He promised in January we would see it in mid-year but it seems he has other priorities, always, than a reasonable level of gratitude to a nation that has with its tax dollars so over-rewarded and absurdly acclaimed him.

As to the vexed question, raised in these columns by Kristin, of whether I am a third-rate playwright compared with him, I ask those interested to see Shakespeare In Italy after August 9. Already said to be better than most of Shakespeare, it cannot of course compare with Dog’s Head Bay or David’s colloquialised King Lear.

But it may be in the league.

Accept Your Strangling Joyfully, Girl, Be Happy: John Bell’s Duchess Of Malfi

The Duchess Of Malfi was beautifully directed, acted, designed and lit, and, losing about seven characters, edited, and compelling as a chamber-tragedy, the equivalent of what Ingmar Bergman called a ‘fugue’. Lucy Bell was astonishing and Matthew Moore as Antonio, her steward and secret love, even better I think, as she batters him with love-play (as Olivia never did Malvolio) until he warily and loyally (somehow) succumbs.

Her two malign brothers The Cardinal (David Whitney) and The Judge (Sean O’Shea) who prefer to plot her murder rather than the incest which is clearly on their minds, give world-standard performances and Ben Wood, a big, chunky blond beast born to play Kim Beazley as the roving peasant-assassin and soliloquising-interlocutor Bosola is even better than that: Oscar-worthy, Laurence Olivier Award standard, nothing less, given his mangled lines and his character’s Laocoon-wrestling conscience, nothing less than remarkable. The set, the lighting, the direction by Bell, the cast-shrinking adaptation by Hugh Colman and Ailsa Piper very good indeed I suppose and the applause huge and genuine … but …

The script, the script, my masters, makes no sense. The Duchess gives herself up joyfully to death by strangulation, fondling the rope and flirting with her murderer, while her infant son, always unseen, snores peacefully in an adjacent room and she does not ask, she does not even ask, if he will be killed too, and dismembered and hung up in the cupboard like her lover Antonio. No woman on earth, including Lindy Chamberlain, has ever behaved in this way in my belief. Women care for their children, and want them to live, bargain for their lives. And she does not.

And why her brothers want to kill her (or, in The Judge’s case, kill her and fuck her corpse) is not made plain, and, since it is a true story, should have been easy to discover.

Webster (who, Eliot said in a poem, ‘saw the skull beneath the skin’) was a macabre sadist not always in his perfect mind and was rightly seen torturing rats in Shakespeare In Love, and he has given us I suppose the Psycho of its day, with an always inevitable murder suspensefully, broodily nearing for an hour or so. But its heavings and and squitterings and lumberings into subShakespearian blank verse always fail to ignite the mind for more than a millisecond in my view and always fall back into a hump-backed limping shambles and it is to be wondered why Shakespeare In Italy, a better play, was rejected by Bell Shakespeare (not Bell himself, who really liked it, but his Board) and this accepted.

It nonetheless on the dog-danced-at-all principle, works and works well, it purges with pity and terror as a drama should, and it should be seen.

At the 6.30 Tuesday perhaps, the one I saw, after which you like me can drink yourself to oblivion thinking of Syria.

A Note On Child Abuse

It has lately been said that parents who allow their children to become obese are guilty of child abuse, and their children should be taken away from them.

This may be so. But it raises the question of why more obvious activities are not listed in this new Cromwellian, or do I mean Malvolian, order.

Like making a child swim in a pool each morning until he is of Olympic standard. Staring at the bottom of the pool for three hours a day three hundred days a year instead of playing with friends or using Facebook or reading Harry Potter.

This is almost the worst thing you can do to a child, because of the loneliness, and the sense of failure it brings at the end of life to tens of millions of young adults, probably, who do not, after all that, become champions.

Or telling them they will burn in Hell for a billion years if they masturbate or blaspheme. Or betrothing them at nine to an older man they must marry at thirteen, as the Amish, certain Muslims, tribal Africans and breakaway Mormons do.

Some sporting activities are crueller than others. Cricket, hockey, tennis, scrabble, Monopoly, chess, Diplomacy are fine. Rugby League can kill you. Diving into swimming pools can kill you. Gymnastics can kill you. Long distance running, as a good book says, is a desolating loneliness. Baseball has about it a suddenness of outcome that must be, game by game, traumatic. Coming second in the Spelling Bee in America can drive you, at ten, to suicide.

So many sporting activities involve, literally, the verbal abuse of children, that the whole subject should be looked at, I think, in this light. Is telling a child he is ‘useless’, as I was once, child abuse? Is being in the cadets and shouted at by an adult sarmajor, child abuse? It has to be.

It is a weird world where you can abort a child but not feed him hamburgers.

But I’m getting used to it. At seventy, not even the beheading for adultery of the wife of a man with three other wives, all replaceable, surprises me any more.

And so it goes.

The Road To Damascus (1): Iraq, The Last Missionary War

Syria is turning into the Spain of our time. Assad has the weapons, and will keep using them on on his people till there are no dissidents left and he will go like Franco unpunished for the next thirty years. Obama could take him out with a drone missile strike and he won’t, and it’s a pity. The United Nations could offer him a secure compound outside Las Vegas or Mecca or St Petersburg or Shanghai and they won’t, and it’s a pity. And the daily killing of heroes will continue, and their wives and brothers and children, the Messiah, maybe, if one believes that sort of thing, among them.

And it’s a pity.

And it’s worth saying this, I think: That Iraq was the last of the ‘missionary wars’ of the American Century and there will be no more. By leading a ‘coalition’ of twenty-eight Christian nations against a secular Muslim one (so secular that Saddam had a Christian deputy, Tariq Aziz, a friend of the Pope, still awaiting execution) America lost for the West all moral authority in the Arab world, and ended forever an era when the Arab world and the Third World yearned for the Disneyland illusion of what might be called ‘free-range capitalism’; which, after the Meltdown, and the punishing of Spain and Ireland and Greece, is seen to be a moral shambles, advancing the rich and punishing the poor without reason or purpose or end or even arithmetic, so seen by the Arab world and their kissing cousins in India and Pakistan and Malaysia and Indonesia and Nuigini and the Katter North of Australia. Missionary capitalism is over, and it will not be missed.

And the killing continues. We have seen on the road to Damascus the enormity of what we have wrought, and there is no forgiveness, and no way back.

Iraq left the ‘democratic’ West with not a leg to stand on. An unprovoked ‘Shock And Awe’ campaign of ongoing massacre that took out the electricity and killed tens of thousands of newborn children in their humidicribs and hundreds of thousands more in the No Fly Zone starvations and the air-strikes and the civil wars, fought street by street, that followed, and drove into exile (in Syria, mostly) three million more in an Arab Holocaust, an Arab massacre of the innocents, that will be remembered as long as the first three Crusades.

And no-one wants us in their countries anymore. We have armed a man as detestable as Assad and they remember. And though we may now attempt to disown him, they remember.

Syria is the greatest moral defeat for the ‘liberal democracies’ since Franco took Madrid. And it’s a pity.

It is to be remembered that Howard encouraged Blair to go to war in Iraq without the United Nations and he did. And Bush would not have gone in without Blair. And the net result is an unnecessary civil war of increasing malign ferocity that will go on for a century.

This is what missionary wars do.

And we Australians are always in them, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Shakespeare In Italy, The Press Release

‘I believe De Vere wrote all the sonnets of Shakespeare and most of the better plays,’ Bob Ellis said in Palm Beach yesterday. ‘The evidence is too overwhelming. And so does my collaborator, Denny Lawrence.

‘But we also thought the Stratford Man’s case is not implausible; and we asked ourselves: how might he have become, from such dim beginnings, so regally educated in the world’s ways, and the manners of courtiers and kings, by the age of 30 when Richard III came out, and how did he know so much about Italy? And we came up with this hypothetical.

‘He disappears from Stratford at age 20 after the twins, Hamnet and Judith, are born. He turns up in London, as a jobbing actor and rewrite man, in about 1589 when he is 26. He was almost certainly raised a secret Catholic in Warwickshire, a hive of priest-holes.

‘He sets thirteen plays in Italy and none in Virginia, Moscow, Prague, Morocco, Madagascar or Tokyo.

‘This argues that he must have spent some time in Italy, the details of buildings and small town names and canals are so exact, between 1584 and 1589. And he may, plausibly, have been recruited there as a Catholic spy — as Marlowe was recruited as an Anglican spy — by the violently anti-Tudor Pope Sixtus the Fifth, the inventor of waterboarding, and given money, as Quadrant was by the CIA, to further his sonnet-writing career and report back what he found about his aristocratic friends and the Queen.

‘It’s not that we think this is true. We are both Oxfordians and think the obvious is true. But it is our case for the Loyal Opposition.

‘It is also proof that what the Bard did is not all that remarkable. So much of what he is said to have written is quotes from North’s Plutarch, or More’s Richard III, and so much, like Cymbeline, so really bad, that one wonders sometimes what the fuss is all about.

‘The Crucible is better than thirty-one of his plays. A Man For All Seasons better than thirty-three. Malory’s Morte D’Arthur has better language. Donne wrote better poetry. Dickens’ comic scenes are better than his. Sentence by sentence, Waugh and Nabokov write better English. Stoppard has a higher level of wit. Alan Bennett is more moving when it comes to the madness of kings.

‘So we thought we would both try to best him and explain the Stratford-yokel-made-good legend. It’s better than a lot of his work, be he De Vere or Shaxper, and its female lead, Julia, better than all of his.

‘Or this is my view. August 9, and the film we then make of it, will tell.’

Classic Ellis: Reflections On The Middle East, 2003

Monday, 8th September, 2003

Overnight the spiritual leader of Hamas barely survived one of Sharon’s serial killings and Abbas the Bushite Palestinian Prime Minister resigned, ‘imperilling,’ pundits say, ‘the peace process’.

‘The peace process’? Wow. What a good thing to call it.

How right Orwell gets it always. War Is Peace. The serial assassination of opposition figures is part of ‘the peace process’. The bombing, smashing up, arrest, detention and torture of Iraqis is ‘bringing the example of peace and freedom to the Middle East’. Freedom Is Slavery. The appointment of a puppet cabinet, the censorship of two hundred newspapers, the overnight ‘privatisation’ of a quarter of the usable oil on the planet, Iraqi slavery surely, or at least Iraqi lack of choice once you realise it was oil they till now have owned, is daily touted as ‘freedom’. The wage slavery of American companies in Guatemala and Mexico is called ‘free trade’. Freedom is the freedom to starve, discuss, and the freedom to beg and mug and pray to Allah for better times, in the good old American way. Ignorance Is Strength. Well, when you know, and passionately know, fuck all about the difference between Shi’ite and Sunni, Kurd and Turk, Marsh Arab and Taureg, Coptic Christian and Chaldean Christian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic, you can be pretty strong most nights before bed about how ‘the terrorists’, that well known gang of laboratory-created Frankenstein monsters are buying A-bombs to blow up Manhattan for no good reason, in fact no reason at all. All strength is based on ignorance, the strength of those who send newborn babies and their bleeding mothers back out to sea amid national applause for instance, and all information brings weakness, or shows it.

At the heart of the American problem is this dauntless ignorance. They have a wind-up clockwork view of terrorists whom they imagine to be on a preprogrammed set course of action from which they cannot deviate. The idea that Osama Bin Laden might change his mind — from dying in a hail of bullets in Bora Bora, for instance, to disguising himself as a clean-shaven secondhand bookshop proprietor in Tijuana, for instance — is unthinkable to them because the inhuman Osama never changes his mind; he doesn’t have one, just a fanatical crazed desire to kill good people. Or the idea that Saddam in grief over his dead sons, cousins and grandson might decide to leave Tikrit and like a Holocaust survivor move on, crossing borders that are currently unpatrolled and, spending millions in unmarked US dollars, live out his years with a big-breasted Russian woman in a dacha in Uzbekistan, rereading Hemingway and catching up at last on Raymond Chandler. To Americans these people — ‘terrorists’ or ‘evil dictators’ — have the choicelessness of termites or dung beetles. They’re so predictable you can see them coming a mile off, and their baleful, Satanic evil is always immediately evident. This is why the Americans thought the Cuban people would ‘spontaneously rise up’ and overthrow Castro one year after he’d brought food and schools and literacy and barefoot doctors and land reform to its grubby, sorrowing peasantry and showed them a better life. That the Cuban people were grateful for good schools and health and literacy — and the abolition of Mafia-funded prostitution — amazed them. How could they not applaud, the way we all do, the American Way?

The greatest error in American foreign policy is the way it holds to its core belief that by killing people you intimidate their relatives. Any rapid cursory study of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, the Old Testament, the royal house of Plantagenet and the trial of O.J. Simpson (whose in-laws made millions from suing him for ‘unlawfully killing’ their luckless adulterous daughter Nicole) will show this isn’t so and, especially in countries like Iraq where families run to eleven siblings, twenty uncles, a hundred and eighty cousins, forty nephews and seven other sons revenge killings increase in possibility and so do tribal vendettas, local skirmishes, civil wars, jihads and violent soccer matches. The Irish were undaunted by the killing of their leaders for seven hundred years. The Vietnamese lost two million souls to American bombardment and village-burning and piles of ears and yet fought on. Sharon kills two Hamas leaders a month (and bulldozes their widows’ houses) but the Palestinians do not, strangely, calm down, give up, cease buying and building weapons and throwing stones and accept their current corralled persecution like reasonable people, as the policy intends.

This is because killing doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work any more, or it doesn’t work unless you kill everybody or look as if you can, like in Rwanda or Hiroshima or Auschwitz, because relatives and friends of the dead will always be stirred to grief, hatred and revenge. Killing Kennedys will not stop them from continuing to run, in their scores, for office. Killing Palestinians will not stop them from yearning down the decades in their millions for elective parliamentary salvation, a reasonable standard of living and revenge, of course, on their murderers.

It’s all so obvious that you wonder where the idea that killing helps came from. From an earlier stage of human society probably, when a single slaughtering raid on a neighbouring settlement could wipe out a whole group, a whole religion, a whole mini-nation and Final Solutions were actually possible, and you actually could solve problems by killing everyone in sight, little girls hiding under rocks, and so on. But these days when childbirth ends less fatally for women and many more infants live to be adults and many more adults live to be toothless and old and rancorous and influential there is a more numerous gene pool available, and recruitable, for hundreds of years of revenge. You could actually wipe your enemies out in those days and, like the Carthaginians or the Amalekites or the Midianites or the Neanderthals they would be heard no more.

But now you can’t, so what do you do? Well, talking to them about their needs and wants and grievances wouldn’t hurt. If they crave a better life, or freedom from religious persecution, or the cancellation of a national debt, or a country of their own, it might be cheaper to give them that, and a five billion dollar tip, than to try to kill the two hundred relatives of each young hot-eyed alcohol-free patriot you have thus far, for insufficient reasons, already killed.

I may be wrong about this. It’s just a thought. But it’s possible, it’s just possible America’s recent history of taking on very small countries and by force of arms or by threat of arms subduing them — Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Afghanistan — has deluded its leaders into thinking you can take on very big countries and by force or threat of arms subdue them. But Vietnam, North Korea, Red China, Iran, Pakistan, India, France, Germany and Russia all show this isn’t so; and Iraq, which has twenty-six million people, may be just too big to whip into line like your average Latin-American basket-case by parachuting in a few thousand grunts or squeezing them into tanks in a muddy flyblown capital and blamming away with major weaponry at anyone who doesn’t under the English for ‘stop’ or ‘go back’. It may be just too big for that. It may be thousands of miles of unpatrolled borders, and millions of households with guns in the basement, and a historic resentment as old as Nebuchadnezzar of heathen invaders who treat women and clergymen disrespectfully and chew gum and flick through copies of Penthouse. It may take more than bullets to subdue a gang like that. It may take a little more.

Better Than Shakespeare: Solomon’s Beloved

By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?

It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, not awake my love, till he please.

Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?

Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s: threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant is Israel.

They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night.

King Solomon made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon.

He made the pillars thereof of silver, the bottom thereof of gold, the covering of it of purple, the midst thereof being paved with love, for the daughters of Jerusalem.

Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.

Classic Ellis: Andrew Olle, December 1995

The astonishing news that the admired and famous broadcaster Andrew Olle was in a coma and, with two inoperable tumours of the brain, unlikely to live, affected Australia with a sense of loss which to a somewhat lesser degree resembled that of the first Kennedy murder: a young, handsome, urbane and highly intelligent man of boundless promise cut down in his prime with the best years of his life ahead of him unenjoyed. The switchboards rang all night and colleagues waited in vigil at Royal North Shore Hospital where Olle, forty-seven, lay sedated in, it was said, ‘a sweet sleep’. And the nation grieved.

Like Michael Charlton, his famed predecessor at Four Corners – the esteemed Panorama–style television programme now in its thirty-fifth year – Olle mixed in his personality an almost British dignity and a kind of telepathy with his audience. His lopsided, full-lipped smile of irregular teeth communicated volumes of ideological unease, and beneath his easy, light baritone voice lurked an always rational, humanist capacity for doubt that his audience came to share. No blustering politician ever got through his radar, or wholly survived his tactful tenacity (he was both impeccable and implacable) in seeking the truth. His own politics were a mystery to even his closest acquaintance and all sides felt the scorch of his probing gentleness. His off-screen personality, one of wary, smiling sadness, was such that he made few enemies, and politicians on all sides wept at the news of his collapse.

His own annus horribilis preceded his sudden passing. Removed from his beloved Four Corners to front the faltering 7.30 Report, he worked long nights and rose at 5 a.m. for his morning radio programme, whose climactic political dialogue with Canberra correspondent Paul Lyneham, famed for its rambunctiousness, became a national institution. Overworked and ragged of mind and irritable with technicians, he began suffering memory lapses on air whose cause no-one suspected. He was brutally removed from the still failing 7.30 Report only two weeks ago and his morning radio programme shifted to late afternoon and his friend Lyneham, also summarily sidelined, left the ABC in fury. Olle’s death, though medically unconnected with these events, was an awful climax to this period of organisational change.

His mannerly personality belied his turbulent origins. The child of a fractured marriage and a bitter custody dispute that was won, unusually, by his father, an army major, he spent miserable early years in primitive boarding schools, from several of which he was expelled, and appeared at age eleven before a Children’s Court on a charge of public vandalism. He left school in a scarred state at fifteen to work in a department store but was persuaded back to school by his probation officer, a man to whom, he later confessed, he owed a lot. His last expulsion occurred a month before his final exams, when he was found smoking tobacco at age eighteen by the nineteen-year-old housemaster of a school with high Christian standards. He joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the organisation that was to become his family substitute, as a news cadet in 1967, and briefly attempted Arts/Law part-time at the University of Queensland.

Provincial broadcast work followed in northern Queensland; a cadet stint on the trail-blazing nightly political programme This Day Tonight and the rural show Big Country, and three years on the commercial television programme Sunday, whose high quality he helped pioneer. Such was his polite devotion to truth that the dictatorial Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen refused to be interviewed by him. Returning to the ABC to front Four Corners, he clashed with the Prime Minister Bob Hawke and New South Wales Prisons Minister Michael Yabsley in incidents now legendary. Equally effective on both radio and television, he had a passionate devotion to factual accuracy that sometimes wearied his producers. The exhaustless professionalism of his chairmanship on long election nights was both admirable and disarming. ‘However it goes,’ he would say, ‘you can still rest assured that the sun will rise in the morning.’

He married young, raised three happy children, avidly followed football, gambled on horses, read many books, threw roisterous parties, kept early friends lifelong and somehow added his urbane personality to Australia’s tribal memory. Like many buffeted children he had low self-esteem, and would be of all people most astonished at the grief now engulfing his nation.

Faulkner’s Complaint

It has been pointed out to me that Faulkner, who has yet to have his first alcoholic drink, and for years taught profoundly disabled children, is both depressive and lazy. And I think there is truth in both these assertions.

He could have been Minister for Education or Foreign Affairs and has chosen instead for the last twenty months to bewail the coming death of the Labor Party. In twenty similar months after the debacle of 1996 Kim Beazley won back a million votes and nineteen seats, and ended 1998 with more votes than John Howard.

It is wrong to give up the fight. It is wrong to resign the Ministry. Faulkner could have swapped with Plibersek and become Prime Minister, or this anyway is my view, and he has such low self-esteem (a commonplace among teetotallers, and I used to be one) that he never even considered it. Bob Carr has lately shown how much a talented minister can contribute. How he can turn perceptions around. Faulkner should be back in the Cabinet, doing the good work he, six years younger than Carr, still has the time and the brains and ardour to do.

But he has chosen instead the politics of whinge.

And it’s a pity.

The NSW State Labor Conference (1): The Arithmetic, Again

The despair is palpable now and I, at last, am beginning to share it. The talented young people spoke well and passionately and poignantly from the floor as always, and good points were made and the applause was real, and the hard-nosed romantic radical energy unabated in this, Labor’s most glorious and most frustrated year since the mid-eighties.

But the joyless, upstanding and unrelenting acclamation as Gillard arrived looking gorgeous and smiling like a lighthouse, which followed a montage of Whitlam, Keating, Hawke and Curtin up on the screen doing good things and saying great things, and her speech from the Sydney Town Hall stage, which is unfurling as I write this, a speech which boasts of equally good and equally purposeful and equally worthwhile things long promised and lately delivered, a speech well spoken and really well written, occurred nonetheless at a sort of dwindling distance from present reality, as if the sound was turned off. Not even Labor is listening any more, and it’s a worry.

And the joyless standing ovation that followed showed this too. No-one registers anything much anymore. At lunch with Nathan Rees I was told he was refused entrance by a young woman who didn’t know who he was (‘Name?’ ‘Rees.’ ‘And your surname?’ ‘That is my surname.’ ‘Can I see some identification?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘This isn’t signed. You have to sign this.’ ‘Okay, I’m signing it.’ ‘No, you’ll have to get someone to identify you.’ ‘Are you actually IN the Labor Party?’ ‘Of course I am. How dare you.’) and seemed free in her mind of all modern history, and it’s a worry.

We are sleepwalking towards a cliff, and we needn’t be. We should know more than we do, and we refuse to learn it.

And it’s a worry.

One of the things we should know is the pas de deux with capitalism has ended in catastrophe and is no longer of any electoral use to Labor, or Labour, or the US Democrats or the Social Democrats of Europe, and ‘austerity’ is as popular everywhere as leprosy. So to say we should avoid ‘class war’ with Gina Rinehart, the nation’s most disliked female, is lunacy. The wickedness of the rich is as vivid now as it was in Dickens’ day, in even Hogarth’s day, and we should go after them with fire and sword and buckets of mud and tar and feathers. Rinehart gets two million dollars an hour, and if we took, each half hour, a million of that away from her and spent it on cancer research and high school orchestras the nation would cheer us to the echo.

But Labor seems fatally paralysed by good manners, and cannot say anything bad about anybody but Julian Assange.

Another thing they should know is the conference should be three days long and twice a year. As it is each significant delegate (Albo, Verity Firth, Nathan Rees) gets maybe only two minutes to speak and spends the rest of the year feeling stifled and frustrated. The purpose of gatherings like this is to give its component young people an opportunity to ‘vent’, to say their say for ten minutes and test their public speaking skills against a big, aggressive audience and see what, at the end of it, their status is, if any.

As always, the most impressive people on their feet were the unionists. Mixing experience with eloquence and a rage for justice, they commanded the space and awed the congregation as they always do.

For me this conference in this great Town Hall is like Brigadoon: the good village of legendary friends who do not age, and century after century are there singing the good old songs of justice for all.

I hope I see at least fifteen more of them.

And so it goes.

Classic Ellis: The Late Howard Rubie, June 2011

Having known him for fifty-one years and eight months now, and having not got used in these last two years to the certainty of his passing, and buffeted more than I thought when it happened, find still his goodness, his mildness, his unstinted helpfulness, his unflappable resilience, his lack of anger and what I guess might be called his vow of poverty, puzzling. He might have directed Newsfront, which he co-wrote with me and Annie, and shot it all in black and white with McGoo on camera, as was our plan, adhering more closely to the excellent original script, its New Guinea sequence, its volcano sequence, its royal visit sequence, its Bradman sequence, and he might have had a career thereafter like Noyce’s, twenty million dollars per Hollywood movie, a Tom Clancy franchise, a welter of wives, incessant acclaim, and the rest of it.

He might have directed Phar Lap, and had a career thereafter like Wincer’s, Lonesome Dove, Free Willy, and the rest of it. He might have fought back, and with other obtrusive royal projects seized the day, and shyly, meekly, amusedly on Oscar night thanked some here in this room for their encouragement and guidance and thrift. Or, having been twice betrayed on a monumental, Iscariot scale, as he was, he might have dwindled into alcohol and carping and bitterness and foyers, as so many do. But he did not. He instead got on with it. He attended to his great love sailing, and the Sydney-Hobart race. He nurtured with guile and flair and relentlessness and lights and machetes and mosquito coils and sound systems and harried elderly actors his magnificent folly the Haven Amphitheatre. He commanded like Prospero the storms to stay away. I remember John Dease in a toga, stumbling around in a high wind at eighty in winter, perplexed in the role of Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salome under Howard’s iron command. I remember twelve actors at microphones immortalising Under Mulga Wood, a work of genius improved by Howard, before, predictably, others took it from him, and he, predictably, let it go.

I puzzle at his forgiveness; and at the long hours given to projects in trouble, or in the process of stillbirth, or Christmas in the vegetation, when he might have been preening himself on the red carpets of Cannes and Venice, and on the front cover of Time magazine. It is indeed a puzzlement, as Yul Brynner might say.

I have thought about this, and I have decided that all of us, that is, all of us who are not swine, come early to a picture of what, in this life, we deserve, and are not all that comfortable with more. Howard got most, nearly all, of what he aspired to at fourteen: good books to read, the girl next door, foreign travel, physical adventure, the dawn glint of the Harbour silently running under a craft he loved like a woman, ten thousand jousts behind an Arriflex with light and time and framing and performance, the esteem of great actors, the comradely task of an unfinished script, the joy of rehearsal, the terror of opening night, the small but engulfing kingdom on earth of a theatre of his own, the pleasures of the table, good talk with friends, the extra-parental fulfilment of pupils learning the medium he knew so well, one small, classic, perfect, colloquial, Australian film, The Settlement, a beloved home he kept all his life in the great colonial sacred site that Burleigh Griffin built like a castle for those who like that sort of thing, good times, good books, good festival films, and three score years and ten of good health and a glad sun, rising.

He deserved so much more, and we know that, but it was what he was content with, easing himself through the day and night knowing well, or distantly suspecting, that he was beloved.

And rightly so. Bless you, Chaunce. Much missed. And well remembered. Our better angel. A light in our day.

McCain and Palin: Strong and Roach’s Game Change

A telemovie called Game Change with Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as McCain and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, their campaign manager, is better than The Ides of March and the best backstage-of-politics film I have thus far seen. Avoiding Sorkin heroics, Oliver Stone ‘revelations’ and Spencer Tracy gravitas, it gets the tedium, sleeplessness, panic, momentary exuberance and knuckle-white suspense of campaigning (I have watched backstage about ten campaigns) than any film since, well, The Candidate in 1976.

It o’ersteps not, in Hamlet’s nice phrase, the modesty of nature. It is as it must have been. Woody Harrelson is as good as Giamatti and Hoffman in Ides; the decent, beliefless puppeteer exhausted and wanting another life. The script, by Danny Strong from the book by Mark Halperin, is majestic in its quietude, and the direction, by Jay Roach, almost Scandinavian in its unjudgmental tenderness .

Wonderfully, Moore’s Palin is not so much dumb as massively uninformed. She thinks the Queen rules England, Saddam caused 9/11, her opponent is called ‘O’Biden’ and does not know what the Fed is. She can, however, if tenaciously coached, pronounce ‘Ahmadinejad’ and learn forty minutes of closely-reasoned rhetoric she expertly delivers in the Debate. A small-town beauty with a personal history of sulking, she, Marilyn-Monroe-like, has verbal glitches, hates history tutorials and frequently goes on strike. Managing Judy Garland in her final bi-polar months would have been easier, I think, and the benign unlustful patience of McCain, a torture-survivor, is both surprising and convincing.

But like Judy she can deliver, and the unfeigned love of provincial America, which is about fifty percent of it, is deeply disturbing. Had she been allowed to speak after McCain conceded she’d be the nominee now, and Steve Schmidt knew this, and made sure she didn’t. McCain warns her against energising the party nutters, and shows what a champion of old-world political civility he was/is.

Shrewdly, Blitzer, Hannity, Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Obama and Biden are played by themselves and Moore’s Palin (identical in any case) computer-inserted into the crowd-and-platform shots absolutely seamlessly.

The result is a new kind of American movie, both drama and documentary, with the physical resemblances and walk-on performances so exact that, as in Capote, Downfall and The Gathering Storm, you completely surrender to the fabrication with all your heart. It is almost British in its modest caution, and so quietly thrilling moment by moment that you want it never to end.

Moore will get awards for it, as Streep did for her pitch-perfect Thatcher, but Harrelson is even better as the headshaven, patient, disgusted Henry Higgins of an Eliza he can neither stir nor punish when there’s a world to win and a game to change and she won’t come into the playpen and do the work.

A marvellous film. Available, I guess, on DVD soon. For all political backroomers, a must.

The Usual Murdoch Dirty Tricks (63): Kim, Deluded, Or Very Obedient

It was wrong for Kim Williams to suggest last night that News Limited is not censored already. Rupert Murdoch censors it daily, by either direct intervention or prescribed ideological tendency. He makes sure no polls, for instance, pitting Bob Carr against Abbott are published. He favours anti-Slipper over anti-Ashby news. He minimises proofs of climate change and copiously publishes dissenters. He made all 200 of his papers except the Wellington Times propose a war on Iraq in 2003. He believes, and so do his papers, that George Bush was a better President than Barack Obama. He alleged that Hazaras on boats were the Taliban.

And Kim says News’s ‘freedom’ is threatened by government intervention, when there would be much more freedom, if the government stepped in to mitigate Murdoch’s customary lies, than there is now, when those lies prevail every morningin sebpventy oercent of tge oapers of Australia.

Murdoch has about 48,000 employees who cannot speak up without his permission unless they, coincidentally, agree with him, which all pretend to do. Much as most North Koreans agree on every topic with the hereditary monarch of the day. Much as Pravda for twenty-five years agreed with Stalin, whatever he said or did.

How can this be freedom of the press?

How can it?

I ask poor Kim to answer this question urgently.

What is he talking about?

Has he lost his mind?

Classic Ellis: Barry Humphries, 1997

Barry Humphries was late for the Premier’s lunch, but quickly, expertly delightful – standing at a distance from the paintings round the walls and correctly guessing who the artists were, works that Carr admitted ‘looting, like Goering’ from the cobwebbed basements of State galleries, launching into off-colour stories of the great and good in his genteel mischievous Edwardian way. His wife Lizzie Spender was with him, knocked out with jet lag and baying for coffee, unimpressed by my recital of her father’s lesser verse, and Helena Carr with Bob and Nicholas Pounder the mordant bookseller, imbibing his courtly salacity with an imperturbablility that verged on Restoration deadpan. He had lately played Germany, he said, in the guise of Edna Everage and shocked that prickly nation with a joke about Eva Braun, whose name had not for reasons of taste been mentioned on any German stage in the last fifty years – another first for Edna – and Saudi Arabia where a good few sallies, he said (there were none, presumably, about adulterous decapitated princesses), misfired. He seemed no older than when we last spoke five years ago, but smaller somehow and less bug-eyed, more married.

His infinite courtesy (he would never in real life cause anybody the smallest offence; he leaves that kind of unseemliness to his rowdy creatures on the stage) was unabated as ever. He mentioned, for instance, that he owed his facility in written English to Jack Brooksbank, his teacher at Melbourne Grammar, who was my wife Annie’s father (six degrees of separation), and drew me out about the fire, enumerating the irreplaceables lost forever, nodding, commiserating. He spoke of seeing Lizzie’s famed father Stephen at Melbourne University in 1949; the icon little knowing, as Barry said in a later poem, ‘that in the throng there skulked a son-in-law’.

His wispy metallic voice, a crucible of irony and tenderness, has been imitated well by only Gerry Connolly, and I told him so. He was intrigued to hear of it, for he admired, he said, what he had seen of Gerry, his take-off of Her Majesty less than other things; and then he remembered with sudden sadness not unmixed with satisfaction that Gerry’s house, too, had burnt down, and he too lost everything in the conflagration, poor fellow.

Too many fires about.

Everyone but me drank mineral water, and I was tricked by the sly Greek chef into mere light ale. The Premier was preoccupied with a line he needed, one that conjured up a military disaster, Waterloo, whatever, to use in Question Time an hour later. This task seized the mind of Humphries, who wrestled with it vainly throughout the meal. It was interesting that a line did not come immediately, glibly to his lips. He could have been shamming, of course, and, as a lifelong Liberal, sabotaging the enemy’s parliamentary arsenal.

Carr explained to Lizzie how vulgar and raucous the State House was and gave a fair review sketch of its proceedings – boo, rubbish, go bag your head. He was now being held responsible, he complained, for the many stabbings and shootings of the past day and night (the severest climaxes of lifetimes under lesser State governments over many years) and was aggravated that the only real response, these things happen, was rhetorically inadmissible.

The conversation struck pauses now and then, though no-one was ill at ease. The absorbing grace (if that’s the word) of Barry and his occasional glissandos into Edna’s famed contralto kept us properly reminded of his astonishing talent: few artists in history – apart from Dickens, certainly, and some radio stars perhaps, Hancock, Sellers, Jack Benny – can have willed so eccentric a persona into a nation’s consciousness for so long, thirty-five years now.

He spoke of returning to Melbourne to see his mother, who was in some part Edna’s model, for the purpose of introducing to her his new little son Oscar; of arriving duly at Moonee Ponds and getting no response when he knocked; of tiptoeing round the back, and seeing through the window his mother sitting opposite a portable radio and nodding vigorously. On the radio was Patrick Tennyson, an opinionated broadcaster, lambasting this oaf Barry Humphries for the disgrace he was bringing on Australia. His mother admitted him, and they sat together listening to this. ‘He’s onto you Barry,’ his mother said. Several senile callers added their agreement to the diatribe. Seizing the moment, Barry went through to the next room and, in Edna’s character, rang up Patrick Tennyson, and was immediately put through. ‘I absolute agree,’ she said, ‘with all you’ve said, and all that’s been said, about that awful Brian Humphrey, and I happen to know, for I am privy to special information, that his mother does too.’ He put down the phone and went back into the room to find his mother staring at him amazedly. Then she had a scone and recovered herself. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘I think I should meet my grandson.’

Barry is what Kenneth Tynan called a talent-snob: he believes that the talented should be rewarded and the others accorded useful employment in the service industries. When he went, for instance, with a delegation of Down Under glitterati to a festival in Sorrento for a week that included Australia’s election day in 1980, he wore everywhere a badge declaring I’m a Liberal Lover. You can take, I suppose, the boy out of Melbourne Grammar…We also quickly revert to our schoolboy selves, and our alma mater’s priorities, and it’s a worry.

He detested Pauline Hanson of course. ‘Bringing disgrace on the country,’ he said, with a very straight face. He added some stories about Australian dentists in London, ripping off the National Health with laughing gas and a massive dental atrocity known as The Australian Trench which took about twenty minutes and earned five thousand pounds out of forty-two swiftly ravaged teeth. Some of the dentists, he added with loathing and wonder, doubled as abortionists using the same surgery. ‘It depends,’ one said, ‘which way you tilt the chair.’ They had all retired young, he said, to the Gulf of Cadiz, where they were currently tippling themselves to death and chorusing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to Atlantic sunsets.

I became aware that I might not see him again; the way one does. He has always been for me, since I saw him first in 1962, the perfect example of the audience, the reader, the listener, I would most like to impress. I once wrote a piece about him, comparing him to Merlin, the keeper of a nation’s memory. He quickly had it printed in Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye.

I left early, in order to speak at Mental Health Week in the State Library next door and to my annoyance waited a full hour to be called to the lectern. But I heard another speaker, a Dr Malcolm Dent, part of whose palliative treatment is reading, and encouraging his patients to read poetry out loud. In the seminar afterwards we recited some Henry Lawson in chorus, When you and I were faithful mates all through the roaring days. His wife, deeply loved, was a quadriplegic, he said, and had been for thirty years.

I didn’t go to Humphries’ opening of the Margaret Olley exhibition. I should have. I drove home instead, chock full of memories (writing with Michael Boddy a series for Humphries, walking long hours round Darling Point at his side, seeing one of his shows five times and being thrown, at show’s end, always the gladioli ‘with the short stem’) and didn’t write a line.

You know, there are people you love, and you never see them. And there are people you can’t stand, and you see them all the time.

– Barry Humphries, The Life and Death of Sandy Stone

Well May You Ask That, Pontius Pilate: Carlos Gonzalez’s Robbed Of Truth

The premiere of Carlos Gonzalez’s film Robbed Of Truth at AFTRS last night, a very good film, became in the Q&A period after it as ugly and unpleasant an occasion as I’ve experienced since my house burned down in 1993. A Judgment At Nuremberg situation, with the war criminals on Skype awaiting interrogation, dwindled into a fifteen-person mud-wrestle-at-one-remove and it needn’t have, and the lady moderator was a bigger idiot than Bronwyn Bishop, and I’m still simmering down.

The story so far. Carlos, an Oscar-nominated Venezuelan cameraman based in LA, shot some of a film called Stolen, reviewed below, for the beautiful, tempestuous Bolivian actress-turned-auteur Violeta Ayala and her meek blond Bondi lover/producer Dan Fallshaw who resembles a heartbroken Peter Weir. It was a film about Fetim, a black Saharawi schoolteacher in in a West Sahara refugee camp, finding again at last her birth-mother, whom she had been separated from by the Moroccan Conquest when she was four, and an auntie took her away to safety on the other side of a very big wall. A quarter of a million dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money was to be spent on this first-time director, and a film on this subject, and a good deal of shooting among sandhills in a muddy, mysterious village sluggishly occurred.

A chance remark, however, mistranslated, and a couple of body-language events, misunderstood, suggested to the highly suggestible Violetta that Fetim was her auntie’s slave. Slavery persists, she decided, in the camps, and it is imposed or prolonged by the Polisario, an exact equivalent of the Fretilin, fighting for the Sahawarans’ liberty against the tyrannous Moroccans, who are currently oppressing and starving them, much as the Israelis from time to time oppress and starve the Gazans, the way such conquerors do.

More shooting occurred, and Violetta and Dan had a hairsbreadth midnight escape from death, we are told, at the hands of the fiendish Polizario, re-created on the Cronulla sandhills, then were captured, tortured, released and paid by the suddenly saintly Moroccans to fly to America and give lectures praising this dodgy verminous monarchy in rousing public events in New York. It is to be noted at this point that Morocco is a dictatorship, and the system in the camps a communitarian democracy.

Some of their film was stolen by the Moroccans, they allege, I’m not sure why. But they glued together what they could and they released it on the festival circuit, and got a lot of prizes for it, largely because of the camel-killing sequence, described below, which they paid the delighted villagers to enact on film, a festive luxury they could not, as slaves, afford, of course, and had not enjoyed for about thirty years. No releases were signed by the participants, and three young men in need of the money were flown to Mauritania and agreed that they, indeed, were slaves, though somehow able to get to Mauritania despite the shackles and whips of their masters.

Fetim, however, turned up at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival, showed by her passport and her frequent holidays in Spain that she was (allegedly) no slave, and she had a husband working in Cuba as an engineer (a person whose existence the film had suppressed, implying she was a single supporting mother), and the whole thing in her view was a pack of lies. She said that what they said she had was a mistranslation, and provided three translators who said that what she said, because of a confusion of tenses, common in that language, was the opposite of what they had said she had said. Dan would not let her speak when she stood up to do so (there is film of this in Carlos’s film, and I was there and can vouch for it), said he pitied her because the Polisario was making her tell these lies, doing so, he said, by threatening the lives of her children — one of whom is at university in Spain — and a shouting-match between me and them and Philippe Mora occurred in a bar, and Matt Peacock on The 7.30 Report formed the same view as us, that they were (probably) cons and nutters and fantasists and exploiters of some Third World people who had housed and fed and trusted them, people whom, to the best of my knowledge, they had failed to pay a penny of their quarter of a million dollars apart from the money expended on the shrieking, struggling, howling butchered camel.

None of this would be remarkable — there have been propagandists for dictatorships before and bipolar fools before and there will be again — except for the fact that some Australian documentary icons, Tom Zubrycki and Bob Connolly among them, sided with the ‘young filmmakers’ and alleged that ‘both sides of the story had not been told’, and a great wave of public feeling followed suit, in favour of this massive expenditure on this now notorious untruth.

And so it was that in this mood Carlos’s film was shown to a mixed and mutinous audience at AFTRS, and a chairperson, xxx, announced at 8.10 that we had to be out of there by 9.05 and she would interview Carlos for forty minutes and then take questions — OR STATEMENTS — from the audience and from the perspiring, embattled Dan and Violetta endlessly waiting up on skype, and then favoured us with her own heroic autobiography for a couple of minutes while we looked at our watches apprehensively.

Her redundant conversation with Carlos then took place — what is your film about, she asked him, and we had just seen it — for, amazingly, only twenty minutes, and a logjam of multidirectional fury in the audience vented garrulously all over the occasion BEFORE Dan and Violetta, screaming in their turn on skype, were allowed to talk over the chairperson, who kept yelling back at their giant images up on the screen, shut up, she said, shut up, and it got to be twenty past nine and a woman kept asking will you all please leave now and I’ve rarely had a lousier time in my life. I and Philippe and Meredith Burgmann co-starred in the film, and it would have been nice to discover how it might have gone down with an unbiased audience but this was not, alas, to be.

I will write more about this after viewing the response to it which Matt Peacock, who was I think as angry as me, is going to put on 7.30 tonight. I note that the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals have refused to screen Carlos’s film; of course they have. Why show two sides of anything? This is what our democracy is all about now: the Official Story, and no dissenters.

I hope Dan and Violetta do not henceforth have a day’s luck, and Hell has a special chapter for them, in which Gerard Henderson and Rolf Harris sing Abba favourites to them in duet for all eternity.

Classic Ellis: Stolen, 2009

In Stolen a camel is chosen, dragged bellowing toward a truck, seen travelling many miles with a quirky expression on its likeable, nose-wriggling face, then later by moonlight, shrieking and hooting, its throat cut, gushes its blood towards Mecca in accordance with the provisions of the Law. After this we see dancing and ululating veiled black women at a reunion party in which the camel, drained of its blood, is roasted and eaten in the first such feast in the village in 30 years.

This sequence was made possible by Violeta Ayala, the co-director, giving the hungry villagers the price of the camel, something they otherwise could never have afforded, and suggesting they enact for the cameras this ugly, disturbing, highly cinematic ritual.

Why do we see this? The film is supposedly about the persistence of slavery in the refugee camps of the Saharawi people in sand-swept Algeria. Why show this? We do not usually see headless, flapping, blood-spurting turkeys before Thanksgiving dinners in Hollywood films. Why do this? Why show it? Why cause it to happen, as the director in her narration admits she did?

I got into a loud fight with her and her co-director, saw in video interviews what the film’s subjects thought of it, interviewed one of them myself (with, admittedly the help of a Polizari lawyer, Kamal Fadel, who is also the attache for East Timor), and became pretty depressed that this film exists, and has been premiered, and I’ll tell you why.

It’s because we see and are told almost nothing of this culture that slaughters a camel once in 30 years and practises, allegedly, slavery. We do not know how they feed themselves or school themselves, what creed they practise, what church or mosque they attend, how their economy works, who they marry, how many spouses they have, what age they marry, if girls can choose their spouse, how often they pray, how their economy works, what sort of health care they get (good, I later learned, and totally free), if they can vote in elections, if they are semi-fascist or semi-communist or communitarian, and so on.

We are not even told that the central character, Fetim, has a husband, Baba, who works in Spain, has an engineering degree from Cuba and sends her money from Spain. She is presented as a single mother and (it is rumoured) a slave.

Baba and Fetim attended the film’s world premiere and showed their passports to the audience and said the whole family holiday frequently together in Spain unharassed by the Polizario, and how can this be?

Slaves with passports? What is this? Slaves flying Qantas and staying unpoliced with Meredith Burgmann, the former President of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, in Glebe?

“There’s no reason slaves can’t fly overseas”, said Dan Fallshaw, the co-auteur. “Slavery is a state of mind.”

“Slavery can be mental”, Violeta Ayala said. “I never said Fetim is a slave”, Dan said. “Other people in the film do.”

A slave with a husband travelling Qantas and lodged with an eminent Labor politician? “I never said she was a slave”, Dan said.”The film shows us the facts. The audience can make up its mind.”

But no-one is shown shackled in the film. No-one is shown being spoken to harshly. No-one is shown being humiliated in any way. The only person (and he is treated as a person) who is humiliated in the film is the camel, whom the directors paid the villagers to humiliate and murder in front of the camera.

Murder is my word; I withdraw it; murder is unfair.

Why did they do this? Was it to show they were bad people, capable of not only ritually killing a camel but even, possibly, slavery?

In the Nazi film The Eternal Jew laughing rabbis cut a cow’s throat and the blood gushes copiously and they laugh some more - gaily, wickedly, unpleasantly. Is this the same propaganda trick? I doubt it.

The young Bondi couple that made this film seem too naïve, too unprepared for the great world for that.

For if indeed the people they show on screen are slaves, they have endangered their lives - by showing their faces and alleging they collude in a monstrous illegality that could see their owners gaoled or incite them persecutors into honour-killing them for letting it out.

If they are not slaves they will have brought shame on their community with this blood-libel, this heinous falsehood and their community will shun them hereafter. Or am I wrong?

But the on-screen Saharawi are saying in interview after interview that they did not say this, they did not say they were slaves, and their words were manipulated or falsified. And their words in the film are being deciphered by a man from Al-Jazeera and a man from the UN to see if they match the subtitles.

If the spoken and printed word do not conform (one apparently says not ‘Fetim is a slave’ but ‘Violeta wants us to say Fetim is a slave’), a lot of slander will have occurred, and the publishers of it, whoever they are, will be liable, I imagine, for a good deal of negotiated retribution. And so will the forgers of the subtitles, whoever they are.

Will Dan and Violeta go to jail? Probably not. Should they? I’m not sure.

If they had made a film saying cannibalism persisted in certain Maori encampments in New Zealand, and this published rumour was false, they would have committed (I think) no less grave a crime. And I’m not sure any apology would have allayed it.

There may be other explanations for what has thus far occurred at this Sydney Film Festival (the organisers refused to screen Fetim’s friends’ and allies’ 15-minute rebuttal though they had 30 hours before the festival finished to check it out and do so), a film about slavery in which no slavery is seen.

But none of them will recover, I fear, the $230,000 or so (which could I imagine buy back a whole lot of slaves) of government money spent thus far on this ill-informed, ill-evidenced and arguably addled rumination.

Or am I wrong?

The Usual Murdoch Dirty Tricks (62): Exportable Safety For Brown, Heathen People

It’s amazing what nonsense Murdoch, and Murdochism, has taught us to believe. We are lately told that a journey that has any danger in it must not be embarked upon, and we must ‘stop the boats’ to prevent that happening.

But every car journey has risk to it, and fifteen hundred Australians die of that risk every year, and fifteen thousand are crippled, blinded, disfigured or made stupider than they were and become a burden on their relatives, a greater figure in one year than all the boat people victims put together. But there is no ‘stop the cars’ campaign, no arresting and imprisoning of anyone over the speed limit until they are ‘processed’ into becoming safe drivers.

We know a fair proportion of those who attempt to win the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race drown in the attempt, but every year we wave them off, whatever the weather. And no ‘stop the yachts’ campaign, despite hundreds of shipwrecks, has yet occurred.

We know full well that a sixteen year old puffing on his/her first cigarette is beginning a process that may kill him/her in his/her fifty-fifth year but we do not catch them, imprison them and bully them out of the habit before it is too late. Seventeen thousand of them die in middle age every year in Australia and yet we do not make illegal the selling of these lethal, addictive poisons, and that is very strange.

We know that many men murder their wives and their ex-wives yet we do not stop people marrying young, or out of their culture, or into Scientology or Shi-ite or Amish fundamentamentalism, or into those Hindu cults where bride-burning is frequent and a matter of family honour, and brothers murder their sisters for losing their virginity or kissing a foreigner or having a cup of coffee with him. We do not arrest those brides and young women and take them away for their own safety when logically we should.

We know that going into the army can result in death or gang rape yet we do not arrest and imprison young people who try to do it.

We know that entering the Catholic Church or staying in it can result in rape, madness and suicide yet their is no ‘stop the priests’ campaign. We think people have right to harm themselves in this way if they choose to and we let them get on with it.

So what are we talking about?

Do we really want, primarily, boat people not to risk their lives or do we just want them back in Afghanistan risking their lives — and their children’s lives — in another way, out of our sight and our mind?

When we see young women being killed in a public square for adultery in that country it’s hard to see why we’re saying anyone should stay there and they’re not ‘genuine refugees’ for wanting their daughters to grow up here, not there?

What are we really doing?

What?

Is it Murdoch’s will, or are we really as evil as it seems we are?

I invite discussion of this.

Olmert, War Criminal, Gets Three Years

Ehud Olmert got three years for corrupt behaviour this morning but not even an hour, not even ten minutes, not even one minute, not even one minute of community service, for killing two hundred children, some with phosphorous bombs on kindergartens, in the short war with Gaza in January 2009.

He should be extradited to The Hague and charged with war crimes there. These would include bombing to smithereens a civilisation that had no defensive weapons, starving the survivors and preventing reporters from talking to them, and killing thirteen hundred people who had done him and his country no harm.

His crimes that month are even worse when it is considered that he had already resigned as Prime Minister when he did it — he was already up on corruption charges — and was waiting out the compulsory time before the next election. For a man so placed to have warmaking powers is an awesome strangeness possible only in Israel.

Does anyone disagree with this?

I require discussion.

Better Than Shakespeare (10): A Comparison With Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman’s best twenty-one films are better than Shakespeare’s worst twenty-one plays, and only a fool would deny that. Some of them are better than some of Shakespeare’s best thirty-two plays. Here is the list.

Summer With Monika. Sawdust And Tinsel. A Lesson In Love. Smiles Of A Summer Night. The Seventh Seal. Wild Strawberries. So Close To Life. The Magician. The Virgin Spring. Through A Glass Darkly. Winter Light. Persona. Hour Of The Wolf. Shame. The Rite. Cries And Whispers. Face To Face. The Serpent’s Egg. Fanny And Alexander. The Best Intentions. Faithless.

Shakespeare’s worst twenty-one are, probably:

Timon Of Athens. A Comedy Of Errors. Henry VIII. Edward III. King John. Cymbeline. Pericles, Prince Of Tyre. The Yorkshire Tragedy. Love’s Labour’s Lost. A Winter’s Tale. Troilus And Cressida. Measure For Measure. Coriolanus. Antony And Cleopatra. The Tragedie Of Sir Thomas More. Two Gentlemen Of Verona. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3. Titus Andronicus. The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Each of Bergman’s films is better than each of these, with the possible exception of So Close To Life. It is probable also that Smiles Of A Summer Night is better than As You Like It, The Seventh Seal than Macbeth, Sawdust And Tinsel than Much Ado About Nothing, Wild Strawberries than The Tempest, Through A Glass Darkly than Richard II … and, yes, there’s Hamlet and Lear and Richard III and Romeo And Juliet he didn’t overtake but on average, overall, he’s probably the better dramatist.

And there you are.

And it’s blasphemy to say so, is it?

Why?

The Usual Murdoch Dirty Tricks (61): Tuesday’s Newspoll, Decrypted

O’Shannessy’s new rules of engagement, no polling on Sunday night, plus his old dirty tricks, ringing only home phones on school holidays and not identifying the Katter Party or correctly distributing its likely preferences, or counting a million ‘Undecideds’ or four hundred thousand ‘Refused’s, have with difficulty achieved Rupert Murdoch’s desire, a 56-44 margin for Abbott’s coalition.

Properly looked at, the margin is actually 52-48; and if Clare, Carr, Swan or Shorten were Prime Minister, it would be 52-48 the other way. Abbott’s embracement of piracy and page 68 of the Duffy book will soon finish him, Turnbull will be back, and Labor will change leaders, and it’s hard to see who the new leader will be. Clare, the most electable, will be seen as too inexperienced, and Crean, the most experienced, as too repellent, Carr in the wrong House, Shorten too closely allied with Gillard and too ambitious, Rudd too crazy, Combet too dull, Smith too invisible (compared with, say, Carr), Plibersek the wrong gender, Swan overworn and undereloquent, Burke too Catholic, Bowen too like a questing mole, and none of them able easily to beat Turnbull.

It would help if Newspoll were honest.

Or if they did a poll on Clare versus Abbott, Carr versus Abbott, Shorten versus Abbott and then Turnbull and so on.

Does Shorten’s front-page appearance in the Monthly mean he’s a contender now? Hard to say, and I know him. Hard to say. I suspect he’s massively undecided.

Something is brewing though, and I’m sure no-one, including the principals, knows how it will go.

Those who think I’m unfair when I say O’Shannessy cheats I would ask why Newspoll needs a CEO. The numbers are what they are. What is a CEO for, then, if not to tweak them?

How does he earn his money?

Abbott Vs Christ (1): Tony Gamely Chooses Hellfire

Good people stay in refugee camps till their children are dead or criminalised. Bad people try to get them out of there, to a new life and a good school.

This is the Tony Abbott position, along with piracy to keep them from that good school. Kidnapping these children on the high seas and dumping them back in Indonesia, or near it.

Bishop Power on Fran Kelly a few minutes ago said this was wrong. A Catholic like Abbott, he said the future Prime Minister’s attitude was not Christian and Jesus, a refugee himself when fleeing Herod’s persecution into Egypt, illegally perhaps, had a different view. The parable of the good Samaritan shows that people not of your faith can be good people, and they are good people if they help a stranger in need. He also said, in Matthew 25:

Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepare for the Devil and his angels:

For I was an hungred and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it not to me.

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

It is a big step for Tony Abbott to choose hellfire eternal over being good to a needy stranger but it is a choice he has made. He must now I think renounce his faith as he renounced Craig’s vote, or run, run, run like a rabbit from the Cathedral, the way he does, whenever that lesson is read, or loving his neighbour is commended from the pulpit, to his ongoing disgust.

He is in such a moral mess, a mess of his own making, that I fear for his health. Piracy, in order to keep children from a good school in Australia, and it is not only sinful in the rulings if any faith, but a breach of international law occasioning arrest and trial at the Hague.

What a piece of filth you have, my dear old friend, become.

And it’s a pity.

The Last Of Edna

I saw Humphries first in 1962, fifty years ago to the week, probably, in the Macquarie Auditorium, and have missed perhaps three of his shows since then. We lived up the road from each other once, for about six months, and saw each other regularly for a while. I remember taking six different girls to one of his shows, in the Elizabethan, I think, and he threw a gladioli at me, saying ‘Here’s yours, Bob, the one with the short stem.’ I’ve spent time backstage with him, drinking champagne while he did not, and at book launchings and gallery openings and a lunch or two. And my wife’s father Jack Brooksbank taught him English style, a gift he was grateful for, at Melbourne Grammar and a pencil sketch he made of him in 1951 he gave to her ten years ago.

And I’ve always thought of him as a visitor from a better dimension generously spending with a lesser order of beings time he could more usefully spend reordering the universe, a feeling those watching Q&A a month ago shared, I think…

And to think this was his last show was upsetting, in the way that Olivier’s last big role on stage, in The Party, which I saw, was upsetting. He is not our Shakespeare but he is our Dickens, a travelling performer of his greatest hits, wrenching tears from his audience amid gales of laughter (in this case Sandy Stone’s little dead daughter June, after which he and Beryl chose to have no more children) and persecuting his audience with his knowledge of their deepest shames (wall colours, hair styles) and most intimate evasions. One he invited onto the stage proved ‘unable to walk’ and Edna, quick as a flash, asked her sternly, ‘And how did you get here? Try, woman, try. Stand up! There could be a miracle!’

Sir Les, a celebrity chef now, again extends the metaphors for sex by about thirty new additions. His brother Gerard, a pederastic priest in an ankle bracelet which rings and flashes when he feels desire, attempts to assault, and pray for, and group hug the various glamorous young people strewn around the stage. Sandy speaks of the drugged humiliations of Beryl, his widow, in her nursing home where she is picking up modern slang (‘Hi, you guys’). And Edna has been through an ashram, has learnt to love herself (‘in fact I adore myself!’), and to disinherit her tattooed and face-studded daughter and her worthless gay son Kenny, and has acquired a Balinese toy-boy fifty years her junior.

And all’s well: the hilarity unbounded, the envelope pushed, as always, the cellophane broken, the waves upon waves of delicious moral shock, the intricate puns, better even than Milligan’s (‘You’re looking at my penis, aren’t you? Well, let me introduce you, here he is, ladies and gentlemen’ pointing at his pianist), as great in his power to outrage correctness as Auberon Waugh, or Patrick Cook, or Jonathan Swifet….

But it’s over. And it’s unbelievable. Three more weeks, or less, and it’s gone.

It can’t be experienced in reproductive television, it is theatre at its most stirring, most transient and soul-embracing. It is like a great unrepeatable football final or a Sutherland mad scene or Paul Simon live with Africans. One of those irreplaceable privileges we have as human beings. And it’s going. And it’s a pity.

Some think that Barry’s politics (Tory, elitist, British, talent-snobbish, borderline homophobic) matter, but they do not. Shakespeare was a monarchist elitist priest-hole Catholic woman-scorning spreader of fatal syphilis, but these things do not matter as much as they should. I have often written that, among Australians, Barry is the only one I can with confidence in any turn of the fashion in any millennium I have been in call a genius, and I do that now.

What a night. I’ll get to the Wednesday matinee if I can. I urge the readership to do likewise. They will be uplifted into their better selves as they never were by religion.

They will understand the meaning of sublime.

Lines For Albo (13)

‘Nuremberg says you can’t obey the orders of an idiot, and Tony Abbott has been told this by the Navy. He would have been told the same thing by Yudhoyono too, had he deigned to have the conversation.

‘But Tony hates hearing the bad news, so he avoided the conversation with Yudhoyono, and he’s never going to have it. He’s just going to push ahead with his fool policy and hope there’s a Navy captain out there somewhere who’s just as cowardly as him.

‘What a goose. What a fantastist. What a cringeing, cowardly, body-building, eye-avoiding creepy little man. What a goose.’

Better Than Shakespeare (9)

Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone sketch in Eat, Pray, Laugh.