August 2010

Arts & Letters

Theatre of operations

By Luke Davies
Richard Linklater’s ‘Me and Orson Welles’ and Nadia Tass’s ‘Matching Jack’

If you are looking for signs of the apocalypse, you need look no further than High School Musical, the film franchise that began life as a Disney Channel telemovie in 2006. The first film was the most-watched movie on American television in 2006 and its soundtrack became the best-selling album of that year. The TV premiere of High School Musical 2 (2007) was watched by more than double the 2006 audience. Disney then gave High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008) a cinema rather than television release, and it has grossed a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide. At least 300 million viewers have seen these films; for now, this probably exhausts the world’s supply of white, corn-fed teenagers. A kind of un-ironic version of Glee, High School Musical is, for those of us who are not teenagers, simply excruciating. It now also exists in the form of High School Musical: The Ice Tour. An endeavour this stupendously syrupy can surely only be the work of that great trickster, the Antichrist.

At the centre of the films is Zac Efron, a fine-featured teenager (now a young man) whose anodyne prettiness has caused millions of girls to fall in love with him. In the films – astonishing in their banality and no fun to watch, even as camp cultural curios – Efron doesn’t so much act as glide, coiffed and choreographed, from clip to clip. His appeal seems to lie in his po-faced innocence and sincerity: he epitomises the if-only-more-boyfriends-could-be-like-him syndrome, for teenage girls for whom the concept of sexual robustness is still not only abstract but distasteful.

In Richard Linklater’s film about Orson Welles’s famous 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Me and Orson Welles (in national release), Efron demonstrates that he can, in fact, act, and amiably enough at that. But this doesn’t entirely save proceedings; rather, Efron’s presence among a cast of more seasoned actors unsettles the balance and dilutes the film. I imagine teenage girls seeing this small, highly literate, theatre-based drama and being bewildered. Orson who? When Efron’s character, Richard Samuels, asks the Mercury’s production all-rounder, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who his predecessor in the role of Lucius was, she says: “Some kid. He had a personality problem with Orson.” “Meaning?” asks Richard. “Meaning he had a personality,” she replies. There’s the deliberate sting behind the line and the inadvertent one too.

Based in Austin, Texas, Linklater has been making mostly indie films for more than 20 years. His Slacker (1991) is a pleasant unstructured day in the life of some Austin odd bods, which did well at festivals and put the term ‘slacker’ firmly in the contemporary vernacular. Dazed and Confused (1993), whose ensemble cast included early appearances by Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Matthew McConaughey, is a charming, rambling tale of mid-1970s Texan high-school life. Linklater has directed some odd but interesting misfires – the animated Waking Life (2001) and an adaption of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (2006) – and a funny commercial film, The School of Rock (2003).

Me and Orson Welles is a departure, even from some of these earlier departures, and clearly if you know and love twentieth-century theatre the film will mean more to you than if you’re merely an Efron enthusiast. Using a restored theatre on the Isle of Man that closely resembles the now-vanished Mercury on 41st Street, Linklater has reconstructed the world in which Welles thrust his magisterial persona upon an impressed public. Drawing on a variety of sources, the film’s production design has approximated as closely as possible the tone and style of Welles’s audacious and ground-breaking re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play, including the minimalist sets, Albert Speer column lighting and fascist uniforms. (So nobody would miss the point, Welles had flyers delivered all over Manhattan that boldly proclaimed “!!JULIUS CAESAR: DEATH OF A DICTATOR!!”.)

The wonder is that Welles was 22 when he created the Mercury with the actor and producer John Houseman (played by Eddie Marsan, who was so superbly venomous in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008). Little-known British theatre actor Christian McKay is a fair bit older than 22 and is no Welles look-alike, but he inhabits something of both the man and the legend: the character is plausible in his energy, charm, ruthless self-absorption, creative acuity and bombast. “I am Orson Welles!” McKay thunders at one point. “And every single one of you stands here as an adjunct to my vision!”

At first Welles is boorish, but later we see him develop into an interesting, if sometimes manipulative, storyteller and taskmaster. We understand why his company of performers, who seem mere adoring minions at first glance, would trust and follow him. Linklater has cast so many talented actors that all this works, even in the smaller roles. Danes’s Sonja is both flighty and ambitious, and Richard will experience both first love and first dumping in the course of a lively week. James Tupper really is a Joseph Cotten look-alike; Ben Chaplin is good as George Coulouris, who plays Mark Antony in the play; and Kelly Reilly is funny as the insecure actress playing Portia whose worry about how the light falls on her face is greater than her concern for the dramatic arc of the play.

Welles treats Richard shabbily, but desperately needs him to stay in the production as opening night looms. At one point, sensing an imminent mutiny, he takes Richard aside to tell him he is a “God-created actor”. (Later, he will give Coulouris the same spiel.) “I recognised the look,” he says to Richard. “The look?” asks a bemused but intrigued Richard. “The bone-deep understanding,” replies Welles, “that your life is so utterly without meaning that simply in order to survive, you have to reinvent yourself. Because if people can’t find you, they can’t dislike you … You see, if I can be Brutus for 90 minutes tonight – I mean, really be him from the inside out – then for 90 minutes I get this miraculous reprieve from being myself. That’s what you see in every great actor’s eyes.”

It’s a small, poignant moment, both within the film – for Richard, wanting to believe – and outside it, because Efron is indeed not a great actor. At the beginning of the movie, Richard meets Gretta (Zoe Kazan), a young woman trying to get her first short story published in the New Yorker. Later he comes across her quietly mumbling to an urn in a museum and asks her what she is reciting. “Keats,” she says. “‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. How can you not think of that poem when you’re here?” Now, Richard the character would know exactly what poem she’s talking about. But Efron looks perfectly blank, gazing up at the urn, and I’m reluctant to report that at that moment it doesn’t look like he is acting at all. It’s not that he appears to be struggling; the problem is that this genial blankness – or, rather, lightness – spreads, wherever Richard ventures, and into other parts of the film. Nonetheless, the world of the theatre that Linklater depicts, particularly the lead-up to opening night, is mostly lively and witty, and the movie has a sprightly intelligence.

“Is there any way of getting your own Playstation that’s a bit less than dying?” asks one young boy of another in the leukaemia ward of a children’s hospital. Jack (Tom Russell) has been recently diagnosed and Finn (Kodi Smit-McPhee), more familiar with the ravages of the illness, is giving him the lowdown on the way things work. If you’re mostly being ignored, you’re not particularly ill. When they think you’re dying, they’ll give you the latest Playstation. It’s not exactly black humour: it’s more matter-of-fact and less sophisticated than that. But there is warmth to both the humour and the pain in Nadia Tass’s new feature, Matching Jack (in national release 19 August).

Tass has directed a number of American telemovies in the years since her last Australian feature, Amy (1998). With her husband, producer, writer and cinematographer David Parker, she made the charming films Malcolm (1986) and The Big Steal (1990). Matching Jack harks back to the simple style of those films. It is character rather than pyrotechnics that interests Tass, and this film is an exploration of character in the midst of particularly heart-rending crisis.

Well-to-do couple David (Richard Roxburgh) and Marissa Hagen (Jacinda Barrett) have the posh Melbourne house, the Jaguar and a vivacious young son. While David is away on “business” and can’t be tracked down, Marissa discovers both that Jack has leukaemia and that David is having an affair. We learn that David is in fact a terrible womaniser, and has been for the entire 13 or so years of their marriage. Life turns upside down, but they can’t let things fall apart at a time like this. The marriage will surely disintegrate, but the focus for now must be on Jack and his welfare.

Marissa, desperate, pores over old phone records and diaries and starts trying to track down David’s ex-lovers in the hope that one of them might have had a child who could be a bone marrow match for Jack. David, a world-renowned architect, seems to have specialised in heritage renovations on houses owned by beautiful blonde women. There’s a string of them going way back, and some of the film charts Marissa’s attempts to make it through a series of very awkward doorknock moments, which get, unsurprisingly, consistently negative results.

Jack begins treatment, and a shared room at the hospital becomes his home for a while. The father of roommate Finn is a zany (at first an annoyingly zany) Irishman, Connor (James Nesbitt), who seems to make a living sculpting old-fashioned ship figureheads in a Williamstown boatshed. Tass’s film universe has included an autistic bank robber who designed a getaway car that split in two, so even though the figureheads look like they couldn’t be given away in a chook raffle, it’s easy to let the improbability of Connor’s profession slide.

Scruffy, cheerful Connor turns Finn’s hospital bed into a make-believe ship, complete with a sail, and he talks continually about the new land they will be sailing to. It’s a mythical mishmash, a children’s pirate adventure and a ritualisation of Finn’s journey towards death all rolled into one. “Free us from fear / By day and by night”, runs part of one of Connor’s corny incantations. This all seems too weird at first for Marissa, who’s often on a fold-out bed on the floor beside Jack, but gradually her own fears are assuaged by the good humour and love Connor employs to prepare his son for an end by emphasising it as a beginning. Gradually, too, as her own marriage inevitably ends, she will find a beginning of sorts with Connor.

It’s moving and well-intentioned, but some of the film lacks edge. There are some overly sentimental Irish jig-influenced moments in the score that make certain scenes seem whimsical when they could have been haunting. David is the most interesting character in the film, because he’s bristly, morally complex and quite an arsehole. Roxburgh is such a fine actor that, despite us having little sympathy for his character’s plight, we are interested in his panic and denial. Roxburgh and Barrett depict well the tension of a marriage in ruins; the movie’s best scene, because it is so alive with pain, is a no-holds-barred shouting match in the kitchen.

Matching Jack undulates between the bittersweet gentleness of the children’s story and the bitter jumble of the marital implosion. Occasionally this is tonally uneven, occasionally too heart-on-sleeve, but ultimately the film works as a simple drama, modestly told, about the redemption that sprouts from loss.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: August 2010

August 2010

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