Tuesday, October 29, 2013

'Wake in Fright' (1971) directed by Ted Kotcheff

As mini-genres go, 'going bonkers in the Australian outback' is fruitful cinematic territory. Peter Weir is top dog here, the back-to-back Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave invoking a disturbing Aboriginal mysticism underlying Australian society.  These films, along with the brilliant Walkabout paint the outback as a place detached from the modern world, where time, identity and geography grow soft and malleable.  It's difficult to argue that these films romanticise the outback, yet there's definitely a sense of wonder.  Not so in Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright, a film that embraces nihilistic chaos, rejecting an Aboriginal mysticism and replacing it with violence, blood, puke and a festering lake of shitty beer.

This is the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a schoolteacher working in a dead-end dustbowl called Tiboonda.  He's thoroughly miserable: he misses his girlfriend and the relative cosmopolitanism of Sydney and wishes he could get out of Australia altogether.  When the summer holidays arrive he happily leaves Tiboonda to get back to civilisation.  First though, he must spend a night in Bundanyabba (known as "The Yabba"), before getting his connecting flight to Sydney.  

The Yabba is a wretched hive of scum and villainy.   The men of this town are in a constant state of drunken back-slapping, yelling masculinity, glugging down beer like their lives depend on it.  The Hogarthian bar scenes showcase a teeming, pulsating mass of humanity; crowded, filthy and chaotic. Floating softly in the air is a a faint aura of repressed homoeroticism as the men stickily wrestle with each other, desperate to avoid even the faintest suspicion of femininity.  This ties into a mean misogynistic streak, this is a town for men's men, the few women we encounter hardened into impassivity by a lifetime of pinches and aggressive flirting.

It's also crammed with great shots.
Our hero is a hoity toity type, looking down at the men of the Yabba like he's peering through the bars of an ape enclosure.  He tolerates everyone's gregarious friendship with a condescending bourgeois politeness.  Yet as he gets more and more soused on beer he gets sucked in, losing all his money on a coin-flipping game, trapping himself in the Yabba and finding himself sucked ever deeper into this quicksand town.

On first viewing I was struck by the intense sense of foreboding throughout the first act of the film.  I assumed the town must be hiding some Twilight Zone dark secret, something definitely connected to their colossal, neverending appetite for beer. The way they force it into Grant's hands throughout the film, cajoling him and pressuring him to down his drink and have another led me to think that there was some science fiction mind control agent in it - something mystery serum responsible for eroding his personal identity and turning him into one of the leering lads of the Yabba.

This movie has put me off beer for a while.
There's no science fiction in Wake in Fright, yet I was absolutely right about the effects of the beer.  This mind control agent had all the effects I assumed; plain, simple everyday alcohol.  I've always thought that alcohol helps reveal people's true selves; if you're an arsehole when you're drunk you're probably an arsehole all the time, just now you don't have the inhibitions to stop yourself acting that way. The beer in Wake in Fright dissolves the veneer of educated civilisation around Grant, exposing him (and perhaps all men) as barely repressed savages.  

During the first act, Wake in Fright leads you to side with Grant as he curls his lip at the town's lack of refinement and reacts with detached amusement at the behaviour around him.  This sympathy is what makes the film so terrifying. Though Grant eventually reveals himself as a monster, it's a stomach-churningly familiar monster.  We find ourselves standing in his shoes, wondering how we'd fare on this diabolical, booze-fuelled merry-go-round.  Ultimately that's the central terror of Wake in Fright: being wrenched from cosy, cultured city life, forced into a nihilistic, violent death spiral and enjoying it. 

The guide that lures him into the underworld is 'Doc' Tydon (John Pleasance).  Like Grant he's an educated man, yet where Grant sees himself as above the muc  of the Yabba, Tydon rolls around in it as happy as a pig in shit.  This is a place where is alcoholism goes unremarked, where nobody cares if he lives in a dilapidated, filthy shack on the borders of town.  If the Yabba itself is hell, then Tydon's shack is the dankest depths - you can almost feel the stink radiating off the screen.  In Pleasance's unhinged, charismatic and nakedly honest performance the film shows us the limits of masochistic debasement.

In the film's most disturbing sequence we join Grant, Tydon and two other men on a midnight kangaroo hunt.  We see kangaroo after kangaroo getting blown away; bloody puffs of tissue flying out into the night, strong legs twitching their last in the dust.  Later, we see the men hunting them with knives, slitting their throats and frenziedly stabbing them. These are real kangaroos, and this is real footage of them being shot.  The sequence feels like it's stretching off into infinity, a neverending nightmare bloodbath .

Here, Kotcheff's outback becomes an antithesis of Weir and Roeg's, enormous and chaotic yet completely devoid of any mystical veil.  Whereas the latter two's reaction to the vast open spaces was a kind of religious awe, Kotcheff sees a river of gore, screaming and gunshots - a declaration of utter nihilism that links the outback and masculinity as vicious and cruel. Somewhere that life isn't just cheap, it's worthless.  It's a depressing vision, but a tangibly honest one. No wonder Nick Cave describes it as the best film about Australia.

So it's no surprise that the Australian Board of Tourism didn't come knocking at Kotcheff's door.  After bombing on its domestic release and stealthily slipping into a few US cinemas in castrated form the film promptly sank into obscurity, becoming a notorious 'lost film'. Decades later Australian producer Anthony Buckley tracked it down, finding it in a bin in Pittsburgh a week away from incineration.  Thank god he found it, though Wake in Fright is skin-crawlingly unpleasant from start to finish it's also a powerful and ruthless dissection of masculinity - peeling off the scab of respectability and drawing out great gobs of infectious, bloody pus.

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