Wake in Fright

(Ted Kotcheff, Australia/USA, 1971)


Breaking Badland


A French visitor to Australia, not too long ago, looked across its terrain and pointedly asked: “What is more difficult to show, cinematically, than this nothingness?” His question, as it happens, had already been answered, over twenty years previously, in the opening shot of a film that he had not seen (although it did have a commercial run back home in France): Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright.


Silence at first, and later only a lone, electric violin on the soundtrack. No people as far as the camera eye can see – and it sees a long way, in deep focus. A 360 degree panning shot, to ensure that no possible sign of life exists here. Just a dry, flat land under a burning sun – the outback, to use the alternative title of the 1961 novel by Australian writer Kenneth Cook from which the film is derived. Out back of what, exactly? Civilisation, history, progress. Wake in Fright is situated in an Australia that is less a wilderness than a pure void.


The plot is simple, episodic, and draws upon moods and imagery already well established by 1971 in the annals of modern Australian literature (Patrick White) and art (Sidney Nolan). John (Gary Bond) is a teacher who would prefer to be working in the big city, but has ended up in the desolate town of Tiboonda. His students, in the opening scene, spanning a large age range, have the same slack-jawed, rather moronic look that Martin Scorsese (an avowed fan of Wake in Fright) shamelessly gives to a gaggle of New Zealanders at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). It’s holiday time, just beginning. But John’s holiday – he dreams, falling asleep on a train, of a beach where he caresses the breasts of his girlfriend with a beer bottle – swiftly turns into an escalating catastrophe.


Stranded in Bundanyabba – The Yabba, for short – John hangs out in a pub which, with its claustrophobic, all-male clientele of hard-hats and officers of various sorts, resembles nothing so much a scene from Cruising (with the added irony that Bond, who utters cryptic lines about being a “bondage slave” in this scene, was, in real life, openly gay). But homosexuality is only one of the many things repressed in the Australia of Wake in Fright (basic human compassion is another) – and those repressed, emotional energies inevitably emerge in other, perverted ways under the hot sun and amidst the ever-buzzing flies. (No wonder both the book and film are so often compared to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.)


From an illicit gambling den (most social institutions in the film operate in the shadow-zone between legality and illegality) to a savage kangaroo hunt, John is thrown deeper in a spiral he cannot escape – a little like the anti-hero of Bernardo Bertolucci’s contemporaneous Jorge Luis Borges adaptation, The Spider’s Stratagem (1970). John is unable to comprehend the unspoken rules that govern this strange world; as Agustín Zarzosa has suggested,”Virtually all of the male characters John meets at the Yabba offer him a beer. They do not seem to ask for anything in exchange: what is implicitly expected in return is that he weaken his resistance to the Yabba and that he become a Yabba-man”.


Along the way, the only companion John can find who even half shares his doubts or cynicism about this vulgar environment is “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasance in fine form) – but the Doc is, ultimately, just as immersed in the process of self-destruction and denial as everybody else, as he makes blindingly clear when, shouting unintelligibly, he drunkenly smashes a chair against a wall as others around him engage in hand-to-hand combat.

There is a beguiling multiculturalism “out back” of Wake in Fright. It was an Australian-American co-production that seems, in its sensibility, profoundly British, like several of its main actors – yet was directed by a Canadian. The complex cultural connections and echoes between and across these various nations form a strong network that supports the film well. In Britain in 1963, Joseph Losey (in exile from America) worked on a plan to adapt Cook’s book; he spoke at the time – just as he would, later, with reference to another Australian project, Patrick White’s Voss – of the accursed emptiness of the country, and the horrific bad manners of its grotesque, middle class inhabitants.

American reactions to Australia – especially the mythic Australia defined less by its metropolitan cities than its “wide open spaces” – tend more to awe than disgust, a sort of “pop sublimity” that can easily tip into touristic kitsch. Australian filmmakers, for their part, have been only too happy to portray visiting Americans as uncouth, marauding imperialists – and they were topped at that game only by Dušan Makavejev in The Coca-Cola Kid (1985).

Kotcheff as director appears to have somehow absorbed a mixture of all these viewpoints: cinematographic fondness for a spectacular landscape mixes with horror and opprobrium at what happens inside it – but also with a certain degree of identification, since Canada, too, knows what it is like vainly toil in the shadow of Big Brother USA.


Wind back to that opening shot. Kotcheff’s eye for landscape grasped the immediate peculiarities of Australia, but also connected it to the terrain of the American Western – less the land of John Ford, in this case, than of Monte Hellman’s films of the 1960s, The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1967). A haunted, menacing place suggesting a vacuous, existential abyss. The people who find themselves stuck there go crazy, regress to an animalistic state.


The few signs of civilised society that dot the panorama – a church, a school which is a single room, a pub – are fragile hold-outs against general entropy. This is not very far, in terms of atmosphere and meaning, from the New Mexico consecrated more recently in the television series Breaking Bad (2008-2013), with its mixture of arid, rocky deserts and doomed little pockets of suburbia.


Breaking Bad, too, frequently ignites our collective memories of the Western genre – albeit warped through the many historic revisions and subversions of that classic form since 1960. Likewise, the bleak “Australian Western” that is Wake in Fright seems to partake in that early ‘70s, trans-national moment in cinema that also produced the beautiful but disquieting landscape studies in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) – a film which inspired more than one commentator to subsequently label Australia itself an inscrutable badland, crossed by violence, frustrated energies, and natural beauty twisted into its grotesque opposite.


In the breaking badland dramatised by Kotcheff and screenwriter Evan Jones (who wrote three films for Losey, and later several scripts in Australia), there is no backstory, no prior history for the characters worth more than a few image-flashes. The story starts where it starts, just as we see it on screen, and dives straight down to Hell. This, too, corresponds to a particular vision or mythology of Australia – especially belonging to those who view it from beyond its borders.


In an intriguing 1994 article, Cahiers du cinéma critic Serge Grünberg – the David Cronenberg specialist who did that ruminating on the Great Australian Nothingness which I cited above – proposed a compact distillation of the nation and its character. The “Australian neurosis”, according to Grünberg, is a combination of “a fascination with violence that never takes place; vast empty spaces, and the ultimate moral of every story: that all roads lead nowhere.”


For Kotcheff, again sharing in a prevalent ‘70s mood, such neurosis also suggests a new, jagged, very modern aesthetic – a mode of experimentation possible even within the constraints of commercial, narrative film. Characters need only be vividly outlined (their deep psychologies are of no concern); cause-and-effect story connections can proceed elliptically; the physical terrain can be constituted in a succession of fragmented ruins and ultra-dark spaces. It was an aesthetic Kotcheff would use again, and ingeniously so, for instance in his terrifying exposé of religious cults and their brainwashing techniques, Split Image (1982).


Within the specific context of Australian folklore, however, this notion of the void – both wide open and terrifying in its possibilities – is often associated with the experience of post-war immigration: this is the land where traumatic histories (from Europe and elsewhere) could be swiftly repressed, and family life, business ventures and community networks built anew. Australia as the collective blank slate, zero point, or terra nullius … except that this last term inadvertently exposes the terrible truth that it tries to hide: namely, that the land which the whites settled was not empty at all, but fully inhabited and known by indigenous peoples, who had to be ousted from their natural sovereignty by any means, whether seemingly benign or outrightly genocidal.


Wake in Fright, in 1971, could only gesture towards that other, colonial history, in the glance that John casts across the train seats to an Aboriginal man humming to himself in the solitude as the ever-boozed whites spark up another, slurred sing-along …


The credits of Wake in Fright mark a fascinating crossroads between the past and future of Australian film/media culture. Chips Rafferty’s presence recalls an earlier, glorious period of national production in the 1930s and ‘40s. Behind the Australian component of its production and financing was middle-of-the-road TV celebrity Bobby Limb, star of musical variety shows in the ‘60s – whose no-less recognisable wife, Dawn Lake, appears in the cast. John Meillon, who bookends the film, was another stalwart actor beloved of Australian cinema and TV.


Looking forward, the film showcases the first role for Australian icon Jack Thompson, who has since worked with everyone from John Woo and Clint Eastwood to Baz Luhrmann and Nagisa Oshima. And its editor, Anthony Buckley, would go on to be a renowned producer and all-round mover-shaker in the burgeoning Australian cinema industry – as well as, eventually, the key individual responsible for tracking down and rescuing the film’s negative (used in its restoration), which was located in a shipping container in Pittsburgh and marked “For Destruction”.


It is a difficult part of the legacy of national cinema for Australians that the much-vaunted “revival” or “renaissance” of filmmaking in the 1970s may have eventually been carried by such homegrown product as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which has wielded an influence on many subsequent filmmakers including Sofia Coppola and Lucile Hadzihalilovic – but that renaissance was effectively kicked off, four years earlier, with two remarkable films directed by non-Australians, namely Wake in Fright and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, both released in the same year of 1971.


These films came at the end of a scattered, sometimes shameful history of features made by visitors – even heavyweights like Fred Zinnemann (The Sundowners, 1960) and Michael Powell (They’re a Weird Mob, 1966) – and usually financed from beyond the nation’s shores. Australian viewers and commentators of the time – particularly if they shared a proudly nationalist temperament – had to deal with the decidedly mixed bag left in their laps by such movies: yes, they showed Australian places, told Australian stories, and included some of our best actors (such as Rafferty or Mellion).


But Australians were not yet in full command of these films; they seem compromised, forced, too distant in their outlook. Australia was being rendered, weirdly to local eyes, as something colourful and exotic; and imperial powers like UK and USA were “outsourcing” in our general direction. Was this the sort of attention we wanted – was it how we wished our “national projection” (in Jean-Michel Frodon’s phrase) to be handled?


Wake in Fright and Walkabout drove a wedge into the melancholic Australian thinking on these issues from the 1950s and ‘60s. Yes, they too made Australia into a strange, barren, exotic place. But they each, in their own way, seemed to penetrate to an essential, poetic truth. Australian cinephiles – separating themselves from the strict agenda of cultural nationalism – had to admit that the “outsider’s vision”, at least in these cases, was keen, well wrought and passionate.


This is the viewpoint recalled and, again today, persuasively justified by Tina Kaufman (longtime editor of Australia’s left-leaning, independent cinema magazine Filmnews) in her superb 2010 book on Wake in Fright: even if the film was not entirely “ours”, it strongly resonated with the heady combination of national pride and counter-cultural questioning that marked the progressive artistic and political milieux of Australia throughout the ‘60s. It truly registered a new tone for Australian cinema.


Grünberg in Cahiers evoked, with a lordly air, the “violence that never takes place” in Australia, and its “bush culture neither truly civilised nor truly savage – where, it must be said, absolutely nothing happens.” Again, a viewing of Wake in Fright might well have altered his opinion. Yes, there is certainly the emptiness, the roads to nowhere, the cosmic despair in Kotcheff’s indelible vision. But there is also a dark, explosive energy, no matter how misdirected; things do, indeed, happen. Kotcheff found himself fascinated by the contradictions of Australian life, and he explored, to the bitter end, his own ambivalence toward it. This fascination and ambivalence found their form in a vivid, eternally haunting film.


A final note. The general dystopia projected by Wake in Fright seems to capture, well before its time, the mood of the current situation in 21st century Australia, where government decisions regarding refugees, the treatment of the indigenous population, and the arts (to name only a few flashpoints) march ever backward, into a gloomy and dangerous murk.


As I myself was born Australian, I incline to this viewpoint. Then again, I meet people all over the world who relate to Wake in Fright directly, immediately, even without much prior knowledge of its cultural and historical backdrop. Zarzosa discusses the role of “sunglasses, money and beer” in the film as universal elements, not local ones. My friends in Spain tell me that the film is, in fact, “very Spanish”, and that it can be closely related to an early Carlos Saura movie, The Hunt (1966).


The Decline of Western Civilisation, it would seem, is a hot topic almost everywhere.

© Adrian Martin February 2014/August 2016

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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