Friday, March 12, 2010

That Charming Man

Jack Charles is a gay Aboriginal actor, cat burglar and heroin addict. His life is the subject of a 2008 film by Amiel Courtin-Wilson. An edited-for-TV version of that film, Bastardy, is now available to watch on ABC iView here. I suggest you do. It's fascinating, and free. I'm assuming it's available for viewing outside of Australia as there's no TV licence fee here. (Dear BBC, you are no longer my first best friend. Mean. I mean mean).

It is this film that Jack Charles, now safely housed and successfully maintained on methadone, hopes to take into schools as a cautionary tale. I doubt he'll be that successful. He makes the outlaw's life look just a tad too attractive. His infectious cheerfulness is apparent in any number of radio interviews he has given since the film came out last year. This one with Phillip Adams is fairly typical.

From the opening scene where he hits up and prepares to bed down in what appears to be a disused laundry, it is apparent that everyone loves him. People know he sleeps there. Nobody minds. 'This is what a fella lives for,' he says as he prepares his fit. 'In like Flynn,' he says as he inserts the needle and it fills with blood. It's pure porn. 'If this is harmful', he says as the rush arrives, 'bring on the hurt.' He makes it all sound so romantic.

The documentary begins some years ago. Acting jobs are rare so he finances his life with light-touch home invasions or, as he prefers to style them, 'collecting the rent.' He reasons he's 'hunter-gathering on prime Aboriginal land.' It's hard to find fault with this argument when you take into account how dreadful his early life had been. Taken from his mother as a baby and placed into a strict religious boys' home, he was regularly beaten and buggered through childhood. Then he was sent out to work at fourteen, apprenticed to a glass beveller and billeted with a white widow whom he had to call 'Mum'.

In an essay, an abridged version of which was published in The Age last November, novelist Christos Tsiolkas comments on the remarkability of his remaining 'proud and humane and generous' despite all the tragedy that has occurred in his life. These things are not atypical of an Aboriginal person of his generation and many before. The routine removal of Aboriginal children from their families went on until 1972 and the cruelty and deprivation they suffered was ruinous for most of them. To 'proud and humane and generous' I would add dignified, forgiving and wise.

Charles tells Phillip Adams that in his late teens he discovered where his real mother lived. He rushed back to tell his foster 'Mum', whom he assumed would be equally delighted. She called the police and he was placed in custody. After four months he was bailed out by his employer, the glass beveller, who was the only person who had ever shown any basic humanity towards him.

And then it all changed. Arch conservative, communist-hating politician W.C. Wentworth, who was then 'Protector of Aborigines', allocated a government grant to Jack Charles to set up the first Aboriginal theatre company. A star was launched and just as quickly self-destructed. This is the legacy of growing up without identity. This is a prodigiously talented man with absolutely no sense of purpose. The 'burgs' as he calls them are initially a means to financing the smack, but he clearly takes pride in his ability, for a while at least. Then it becomes a gruesome treadmill.

'I was glad when I did get busted', he says, 'then it would all stop and I wouldn't have to do it anymore, the burgs.' Being in jail imposed a structure on him. He doesn't speak ill of it. Quite the contrary, he says, 'I might be locked up but I'm free still, free inside.'

Less thrilled with the actor's two long incarcerations I imagine is Amiel Courtin-Wilson, whose film takes seven years to make. Still, he has no resentment, even when it is clear that the 'burg' that gets Charles put away for the last time is a raid on a mutual friend's house. 'I did do her place,' he admits when confronted, 'it's a bad trait within me.' Talk about a gentleman thief. He's like a black Genet and pocket William Burroughs rolled into one.

Courtin-Wilson is caught in the middle. The victim 'Mandy' doesn't want to press charges but she would like a favourite ring back. The retrieval is filmed. It appears that Charles snatches it back, right off the finger of the man he's sold it to. There are already eighteen warrants out for him. He gets two years. 'That's somewhat deflated me,' he remarks.

There was once a man who loved him, really loved him. But there was no penetrative sex. Charles associates that with abuse. He talks of his former lover with whimsy but not regret. 'I seem to be comfortable with being lonely,' he says.

The faithful Courtin-Wilson is waiting when Charles is released from jail. The cheeky chappy has also robbed from him before. He makes no judgement. This time Charles is determined to stay out of jail. 'I've been juggling theatre and burglary for over 30 years,' he muses, as if the two things are professionally compatible, 'but I'm too old for it now.' After spending his twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth and fiftieth birthdays in the nick, he is determined to kick that habit. And so he does. His sixtieth birthday is spent as a free man.

I can just imagine Jack Charles going into schools with this film and spreading glee rather than caution and sobriety. His is a remarkable life and one that any spirited and passionate person would have been proud to live. I'm thinking that's quite a good thing but then again, I think Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison are positive role models.