Australian Arts

Don’t Look Up

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

How strange it is to be in a supposedly opened-up world, even as the Omicron variety of the virus shuts down the Western Australian border with the snap of a mousetrap. A lot of the old regulars were there for the opening of Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morissette musical. You could see Rhonda Burchmore representing the world of musical theatre and Gamble Breaux Wolfe, the most out there of the Melbourne Housewives, with her own brand of wild conservatism. All in the presence of this lavish and eloquent homage to the most remarkable singer-songwriter of the 90s and it was all happening as the full bench of the Federal Court had retired to articulate their reasons for upholding the legality, not the wisdom, of deporting the world’s number one tennis seed, Novak Djokovic. In a world of conservatism, wild or tame, does anyone doubt the extreme political expediency of the initial border control mistreatment of the Serbian unbeliever which was so indefensible that the government, represented by the extraordinarily young (but according to his peers surpassingly brilliant) barrister Christopher Tran offered itself as a model litigant conceding irregularity and fault. Yet it was the calculated blatancy and rudeness of the initial packing off of the great tennis player to the shabby hotel for unwanted refugees which paved the way for Alex Hawke’s crushing intervention which just happened to be unfolding in the context of the Morrison government’s dearth of testing facilities, rapid antigen tests, vaccines for kids, and an operational healthcare system. But never mind. Anyone willing to bill Scott Morrison as a thaumaturge, a political wonder worker, would point to the fact that support for the expulsion of Djokovic was more than 70 per cent among Labor supporters as well as Coalition.

Besides, as that master of the historical long view, Geoffrey Blainey, pointed out, Australia’s anathematising of the man who won’t be vaxxed from Belgrade looks like having a benign effect on mandatory vaccination policy with the French Open and quite possibly all the grand slams. Somehow everyone is turning a blind eye to the complicity of the Victorian government, Tennis Australia, and the federal government in encouraging the overbearing tennis protester to come here in the first place.

Anyone who roots for the arts can only sit back and wonder at Australia’s centrality to world sport which was highlighted by the way the Djokovic case riveted the attention of the world press like no other Australian story in decades. And the Australian Open is still a place of extraordinary drama with Nick Kyrgios’ antics and the passionate booing and hallooing of his fans. Perhaps he is the most attractive and devil-may-care Australian sportsman since Keith Miller — footballer, cricketer, air ace. When Miller died, Michael Parkinson, writing his obituary, told the story of Miller, during the war, flying low over Bonn just so he could get the closest view of Beethoven’s birthplace and the old interviewer from Yorkshire remarked, ‘How cool is that!’

The coolness of Australia when it comes to tennis impacts upon the greatest novel of its time, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, just as it’s mentioned in the memoirs of that eminent Palestinian literary critic, Edward Said.

It all seems a long way from the Belvoir diversity production of that great marital tempest of a play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — only Martha, the figure immemorially associated with Elizabeth Taylor, is allowed to be white — or indeed, Touching the Void, the mountaineering play with Lucy Durack as a spirit voice which has a pyrotechnical and vertiginous set, a violent sense of drama, and is on show at Melbourne’s Sumner theatre.

The admirable Maureen Wheeler, who established the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, which gives that city of isms and operators — the ancestral home of both the Liberal party and the Australian Communist party — a year-long literary festival, is trying to get the government to put more money into the arts. If we were a country whose performing arts matched its sporting achievements, we would be one of the wonders of the earth.

It’s hard to doubt, within the world of television — when we back off from scaling the heights of packed-in, live theatre (whatever heights it scales) or the maskless name-callers at the tennis, and just watch TV — that Ricky Gervais is a genius.

David Letterman, a tonight show host more influential even than Parkinson, said Gervais was the greatest comedian he had ever seen. Think of the way The Office fell on the world with its tragicomic bizarreness, the way we cringed with and for the Ricky Gervais character David Brent, with his Tony Hancock-like depths of self-hatred that found an all too easy mirror in the world. Its successor, Extras, in which famous performers conspired in their own self-mockery, was breezier but still brilliant.

And then, just recently, there’s been After Life. Gervais as the man whose wife is dead and thinks nothing much is worth the candle as he communes with her loving memory captured on camera. It has been brilliantly, bottomlessly sad and somehow, against the odds, very funny. Finally, however, it’s coming to an end and the last series in which the Gervais figure comes good is sentimental tosh, albeit sentimental tosh executed by a writer/director who is a comic and more than comic genius.

Then there’s Don’t Look Up, the film about the end of the world, which so many people hate. According to scientists, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, a meteor which will destroy all life is heading our way. Meryl Streep plays a president who is full of cynicism and vacuity. Timothée Chalamet plays a hipster boy from an evangelical background who does the trick when all you can do is pray. There is a dazzling and dumbfounding performance (which deserves all the supporting Oscars in the world) from Mark Rylance as the world’s richest man. It represents the high mathematics of mindless insipidity with absolutely confounding mildness. Don’t Look Up is a wonderful hymn to human stupidity, full of offbeat charm, which even has moments of poignancy. Both Leo and Lawrence are superb, and this is a happy nihilistic film for a disquieting time.

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