On holiday in a private hell -- go on, have a drink, mate
I've always wanted to delve deeper into the world of Ozploitation movies (exploitation films from Australia). I have a major fondness for Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Turkey Shoot (aka Escape 2000), and Razorback, and my interest in the genre was doubled after watching the Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood.
Which brings me to Ted Kotcheff's 1971 film Wake in Fright, heralded as both a classic Ozploitation film as well as a nearly lost gem of Australian cinema -- not quite trash, not quite art. Until 2009, it was unavailable on VHS or DVD in its native Australia. Drafthouse Films mounted a stateside theatrical re-release of Wake in Fright last year, and is now bringing the film to US audiences on Blu-ray and DVD.
So is it art? Is it trash? Does the distinction even matter anymore? Whatever it is, I watched Wake in Fright transfixed, even when appalled, shifting forward and back anxiously like I was davening to this unsettling, completely engrossing experience.
Wake in Fright
In last week's Cult Club piece on Six-String Samurai I quoted the following line from Douglas Sirk: "There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art." While it may seem lazy to re-use the quote, it just so happens that Wake in Fright is another film in which the craziness elevates the content and calls attention to its power. Psychological horror movies share a lot with melodrama since both are about heightening the inner emotional world of a person so that it hits harder on screen. Since we're dealing with a man's private hell, what we get is the darkest, ugliest stuff in a dark and lonely heart. It all happens in an Australian shithole called Bundanyabba, a place the locals in the film call "the Yabba."
And yet maybe it's not quite the shithole it seems since the film is told from John Grant's point of view. Played by Gary Bond (who looks like a young Peter O'Toole), John is a self-righteous, haughty jerk who looks down on everyone whether they deserve it or not because he's bitter. He's bonded by the Australian government to teach middle schoolers in a podunk town. At one point he jokes about being a slave rather than an educator. Still, John carries himself with air of a major intellectual. He talks up his education and quotes love poetry in a nauseating, self-fellating way to chat up a woman. With class dismissed for Christmas break, John stays in the Yabba en route to Sydney. Everyone around him is a roughneck and an oaf, and it's heightened by a key detail in John's wardrobe: he's wearing a safari jacket. He doesn't think he's in a small town, he thinks he's surrounded by dumb savages and dumber animals.
Things start to go wrong that first night in the Yabba when the local sheriff buys round after round of drinks for John. Then there's a bit of gambling involving coin flips. What was supposed to be one night in the Yabba becomes many, each spent spiraling lower and lower with the beasts around him. During this lengthy fall, kangaroos are slaughtered, values are devalued (as John might put it when sober), days are wasted in squalor, and there's rough housing to put the rednecks in Gummo to shame. Fueling this descent is a reckless, bottomless pour of alcohol, and all of it given to John by the good folk of the Yabba. What seems like hospitality uncovers a deeper wretchedness in the town and its people.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook, one thing that makes Wake in Fright work so well is what it reveals and doesn't reveal about our hero John. We learn very little about his life, but we get enough hints to keep us guessing -- a few glimpses of skin, but mostly shadows and outlines; the enticement of backstory without the whole thing. He mentions that he has a girlfriend who lives in Sydney who we only see in old photos and in a single flashback, but that's it. (This flashback of John's girlfriend is the only sensual moment in the entire film. Anything else resembling a love scene is unerotic.) Maybe their relationship ended? Maybe it's on the rocks? We know John wants to leave Australia if he could just get out of his teaching gig, but there's no greater sense of purpose. He's a prisoner who wants out who's now a prisoner of the Yabba, which may or may not be some manifestation of his deeper anxieties. Which is where, I think, Tydon (Donald Pleasence) comes in.
Tydon was a doctor, an intellectual just like John thinks he is, but now he's just one of the Yabba's many comfortable alcoholics. In between his moments of insight -- Tydon's first line, an assessment of the Yabba, is "All the little devils are very proud of hell," of which he is one of them -- are moments of creepy abandon. Pleasence is a subtle force of evil in this movie. His eyes have something scheming in them, and the way Kotcheff pieces his film together, there are many moments of uncanny dread that come just from one of Tydon's little looks. It adds a sense that everyone in the Yabba knows what's really going on. (The paranoia also creeps in from some cultish behavior, setting the unhinged, uneasy tone of the film.) Pleasance's performance reminds me what a brilliant and horribly underappreciated actor he was.
This isn't to sell Bond's performance short, since he's more than just a young O'Toole lookalike. As John gives in to his urges, Bond's performance zigs into elation and zags back into revulsion. There are urgent questions loaded into Bond's expression and carriage: "What am I doing? Why do I like doing this? Why can't I stop? What is wrong with me?" There's a kind of dark comedy underlying all the darkness, I think, which comes through in Bond's performance as well as many other touches that rest of the cast adds. But it's comedy that's pitch black, the sort of stuff that may make you ask "Why am I laughing at this? What is wrong with me?"
One of the more controversial aspects of Wake in Fright involves actual kangaroos getting maimed and killed on camera. Kotcheff and his crew weren't responsible for the brutality themselves. They instead filmed hunters in the act of killing as a means of highlighting real-life cruelties in the bush. It's effective in an unpleasant, visceral way, maybe even an unnecessary one. How much uglier can it get? Uglier still than this dose of mondo carnage. The kind of real-life cruelty Kotcheff caught on film might be too much for some people to take. (According to Wikipedia, there were at least a dozen walkouts when Wake in Fright played a special retrospective screening at Cannes in 2009; the film debuted at Cannes to rave reviews back in 1971.)
I don't know if Kotcheff is able to make the ugliness of the film's private hell match the ugliness of real-life cruelty, but he does manage to make the movie all-ugly in the best possible way: at a deeply personal level, and a deeply affecting one. This is a melodrama of the grotesque. Though difficult to watch, I actually want to watch Wake in Fright again just to see how the movie deepens and intensifies. Some nightmares can be worth revisiting, as long as they're someone else's, and as long as they're as riveting as this film.