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nat_marsh_wake_in_fright

Many times, we discuss vacations in terms of “getting away from it all.” The presumption, obviously, is that we’re getting away from all of the tedious, mundane and unpleasant aspects of our daily lives: all of the annoying things like 9-5 jobs, chores, responsibilities and anonymous authority figures. People will hike deep into the woods, sail away to the middle of the ocean and climb the tallest mountains possible, all in the pursuit of “getting away from it all” and finding some internal serenity. In a day and age where we all seem to be alarmingly “plugged in” almost 24 hours/day, there’s something not only attractive but downright necessary about dialing everything back to a more simple level: just “us” and nature, our phones on silent and our brains turned off. By “getting away from it all,” we’re actually hoping to get back to ourselves, that core version that exists below the commitments of civilized society.

But what if we went so far away from polite society that we ended up in an altogether darker place? What if our quest for internal peace and discovery of the self led us not to personal evolution but to devolution? Is it possible to embrace our primitive, savage ids so much that we become nothing but flesh-sacks for volcanic, primal emotions like lust, hate, fear and the need to inflict pain? Getting away from the everyday bullshit of polite society is a noble goal but it leads to a dangerously slippery slope: once we’ve begun to accept a more primal, savage lifestyle, we automatically become at odds with the rest of the “civilized” world. As Nietzsche so eloquently put it, “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” In Ted Kotcheff’s disturbing Wake in Fright (1971), we get the distinctly perverse pleasure of witnessing someone not only stare into the abyss but get consumed and shat out the other end.

It’s Christmas vacation for bonded school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) and he eagerly closes the doors on his one-room schoolhouse in the tiny Outback town of Tiboonda, looking forward to his next six weeks of leisure. He’s heading for the bright lights of Sidney but must take a train to the small mining town of Bundanyabba in order to catch his flight. Ostensibly only in town for the evening, John takes a rather dim view of the hard-drinking, overly “friendly” locals: their earthy behavior is at decided odds with his more “civilized” big-city upbringing. As a local tells him, however, the “Yabba” is actually the best place in Australia: no one cares where you are or where you come from, as long as you’re a “good bloke”. John meets one of these “good blokes” in the person of Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), a local state trooper who proceeds to buy him one beer after the other at a local pub. When John complains that he’s hungry and would rather eat than drink, Jock thinks for a moment and does the most sensible thing: he takes John to a different bar so that he can order a steak along with the booze. “Best dollar you’ll ever spend,” Jock reckons, as he leaves John in the less than capable hands of local sawbones Doc Tydon (Donald Pleaseance).

Tydon is an amazing character, a slovenly, feral, ridiculously self-assured train-wreck who deflates the previously positive affirmations of the Yabba with the ominous declaration that “all the little devils are proud of Hell.” It’s here that John also gets introduced to the backroom gambling game of two-up, which involves betting on the flipping of a pair of coins. In a classic example of the fatal flaw, John initially scoofs at the game, before becoming intrigued, betting and winning. Unable to leave well enough alone, John continues to bet (and win), all with the hope of earning the $1000 bond necessary to buy his way out of Tiboonda and end his perceived servitude. He displays an amazing streak of luck, all the way up to the point where he loses all of his money. And, just like that, John’s one-night stay in the Yabba is about to turn into a whole lot more.

Unable to pay for his flight, John watches helplessly the next morning as it flies away overhead. He visits the local labor exchange but it’s closed: the only place that actually seems open is the bar (of course) and John drags himself there to spend his final coins on some sweet, if temporary, escape. Once there, John meets Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), another “good bloke” who buys him multiple drinks (after shouting down John’s initial protests) and takes him home to drink some more (pretty much the official past-time of the Yabba). Once there, John meets Tim’s strange daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay), who mopes around silently while John and Tim continue to drink until they pass out, at which point they’re roused by Tim’s obnoxious friends, Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) for more drunken debauchery. After Doc Tydon shows up, Janette sneaks the blotto John away for a little drunken making out session, although his contribution to things pretty much begins and ends with puking on her. When John passes out, he wakes up in the Doc’s absolutely filthy pigsty of a home, a place that looks just like the dreadful Turkish prison in Midnight Express (1978). This leads to more drinking, of course (as Tydon tells him, Yabba water is only for washing, not drinking), while leads to more debauchery which leads to an absolutely horrifying kangaroo hunt, drunken rampage and possible rape. As John gets further and further away from his former gentle “civilized” nature, he finds himself in a shadowy world where the only diversions from a brutally bleak life are drinking, fucking, killing, fighting and destroying. Will John be able to pull himself out before he’s lost forever? Or will he end up just another permanent resident of the Yabba? And, in the end, can anyone ever really leave the Yabba?

It’s quite possible for a film to be both utterly intriguing and fairly repellent and Wake in Fright is certainly both of those things. On a purely narrative level, the film makes imperfect sense, existing somewhere between a fever dream and the French New Wave. Thanks to the editing style, which helps to heighten the sense of disorientation, it’s often difficult to establish continuity or, in some cases, even establish quite what’s going on. More often than not, the film is aggressively unpleasant: ‘roo hunt notwithstanding (and we’ll address that shortly), there’s a groddy, dirty edge to everything that makes a heady stew when combined with the sense of vast, open isolation and personal fatalism. The Yabba definitely appears to be some sort of a stand-in for Purgatory (or perhaps Hell, depending on how you look at it) and any satisfaction wrung from watching poor John Grant descend into its depths is grim, indeed. It’s not so much that John is a really good guy: he seems like a perfectly average guy, which makes his destruction, somehow, more upsetting. We can cheer if a “bad guy” gets his come-uppance and smirk when an unnaturally pure “white knight” fails. When a “normal” person fails, however, especially if they fail thanks to essentially good reasons (John keeps betting because he wants to get out of Tiboonda so he can be reunited with his girlfriend in Sidney), it hits a bit closer to home. John could be any of us, under the right circumstances: his degradation and destruction could be ours.

Despite how unpleasant the film ends up being, it’s a consistently fascinating film, thanks in no small part to the exceptional cast and stellar filmmaking. Donald Pleaseance, in particular, is absolutely amazing: Doc Tydon is the id in flesh and Pleaseance doesn’t so much chew the scenery as immediately become the center of any scene he’s in. Whether standing on his head while drinking a beer, cutting the balls off a dead kangaroo, graphically describing his sex life with Janette or engaging in a little drunken, homoerotic semi-nude wrestling with John, Doc Tydon is a ferociously alive, unrepentant, hedonist. More animal than man, Tydon may actually be the Yabba, a living personification of this hard-scrabble area that grinds men into pulp in the mines and pours the remains straight into the bars. I could practically smell Tydon’s stench through the screen, thanks to Pleaseance’s firebrand performance, and that’s no small compliment.

Gary Bond is good as John Grant but there’s not a whole lot required of his character: he’s a strictly reactive force and spends more time wobbling about in a state of semi-coherence than actually developing in any given direction. While it’s easy to empathize with John, it’s difficult to truly like the guy: he’s given the opportunity to climb out of the hole on multiple occasions but always seems to choose the path of least resistance (which, of course, is usually the worst path). Unlike Tydon, John takes no pleasure in his debauchery: as such, he tends to vacillate between confusion and moral agony.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Wake in Fright is exquisitely crafted. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and shows off the vast, epic emptiness of the Outback to great effect. The opening shot, a slowly revolving wide-shot that shows us the entire, tiny emptiness of Tiboonda in one, smooth 360-degree motion, is an amazing mood setter. Equally impressive is the score, which manages to swing from lighter to oppressive on the drop of a hat: the weird, eerie “sci-fi” theramins that kick in after John loses all of his money and begins his descent are a really nice touch, as are the droning tones that inform the latter half of the score. The score is a perfect example of subtly building atmosphere and mood without resorting to overly obvious musical stingers.

Despite all of the things to recommend here, I must admit that I didn’t really care for Wake in Fright. The film left me cold, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it also left me queasy on many occasions, which is a more significant issue. One of the main reasons for this, although certainly not the only reason, is the astoundingly awful scene where Tim, Joe, Dick and the Doc take John out kangaroo hunting. I’d heard rumors about this scene, which apparently features actual footage from a real kangaroo hunt, but nothing I imagined could have prepared me for the actual film. The closest thing I can compare the hunt to would be parts of Pier Pasolini’s Salo (1977) or the disgusting animal footage in Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1985). As with those films, I will freely admit to looking away from the screen at times: there’s simply no way that anyone who loves animals (and I’m pretty much a fanatic) could watch the wholesale kangaroo butchery without dying a little inside. This is compounded with a bit (I’m assuming staged but only because I would never want to entertain the alternative) where John Grant graphically stabs a wounded baby kangaroo to death, while the guys cheer him on, hooting and hollering. Wake in Fright is not, technically speaking, a horror film but the kangaroo hunt is easily the most horrific thing that I believe I’ve seen in some 30 years of movie watching…and that says a lot.

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether to recommend Wake in Fright or not. The film will certainly not be for everyone and I can see quite a few people turning it off midway through (for better or worse, the ‘roo hunt really does draw a line in the sand). There was also much about the film that still mystifies me, including the question of what, exactly, happened between John and the Doc. As an important piece of Australia’s New Wave, Wake in Fright certainly bears discussion with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977), although I’m less fond of it than either of those films. In certain ways, parts of Wake in Fright even prefigure modern-day Aussie exports like Wolf Creek 2 (2013), which features its own variation on the kangaroo slaughter. Australia has always had a vibrant and fascinating film industry and astute viewers could do worse than rummage through their 1970’s back catalog. That being said, Wake in Fright is pretty strong stuff and I can’t honestly see myself revisiting it anytime soon. The Yabba might be an interesting place to visit but I sure as hell don’t wanna live there.

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