Nov 30, 2016

Wake in Fright

It has always been a dream scenario of mine to have some of the most effete, uptight, and culturally intolerant leftist pansies, social justice warrior dorks, and other mental cripples to be forced to spend a week or so in the company of highly hospitable hardworking and hard-drinking rednecks, as it would probably be very beneficial to their mental health and help to demystify their grand delusions in regard to their supposed enemies and how the world works as a whole. Thankfully, the classic Australian artsploitation drama-thriller Wake in Fright (1971) aka Outback directed by Bulgarian-Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Uncommon Valor) features a somewhat similar scenario in its delightfully daunting depiction of a pretentious, uptight, and exceedingly effete school teacher portrayed by real-life gay boy Gary Bond—an English actor of Welsh extraction that died of AIDS on 12 October 1995 at the age of 55, exactly one month after his boyfriend Jeremy Brett's death—that finds himself descending into complete and utter moral depravity and mental derangement after being stranded in a proudly blue collar mining town located in the hellishly hot and arid Australian Outback. A cinematic work that some native Australians somewhat rightly argued exploited their people and culture, Kotcheff’s fourth feature is a rare cinematic work that manages to be made of equal doses of both art and trash in the best sort of way imaginable. Despite its fairly distinct and organic regional setting, the film is also a rare film that features a rather realistic and uniquely unsentimental yet nonetheless empathetic depiction of the white working-class (as director Kotcheff has noted in various interviews, he and his crew more or less lived like the locals throughout the film's production). Indeed, while I have never been to Australia, the characters in the film were in many ways shockingly familiar to me in terms of their aggressive hospitality, exaggerated extroversion, hardcore dipsomania, playful fighting and wrestling, and strong zest for life despite living fairly meager existences due to my personal experiences with the working-class whites I grew up with. In fact, when I first saw the film, I was shocked by how much similar these characters were to some of my real-friends who degenerated into hardcore alcoholism after succumbing to a life of full-time lumpenproletariatism. Made at a time before wiggers, OxyContin, crystal meth, and tolerance towards miscegenation, Wake in Fright manages to portray the good, the bad, and the ugly of the white working-class in a manner that would actually appeal to said white working-class while, at the same time, exposing the hypocrisy, effeminacy, and overall soullessness of certain members of the sheltered bourgeois. 

 A classic cinematic work that is like the missing link between the Australian New Wave and Ozploitation (not unsurprisingly, the film has been somewhat rightly credited as belonging to both movements), Wake in Fright is like a uniquely unkosher Kafkaesque fever dream full of cheap beer and bloody kangaroos that reminds the viewer that man is an animal and being an animal is far more preferable to being a spiritually castrated cosmopolitan cocksucker that merely complains about life instead of actually living it. Arguably the greatest and most emotionally daunting ‘drinking film’ ever made aside from possibly John Huston’s underrated Malcolm Lowry adaptation Under the Volcano (1984), the film is like a coming-of-age piece depicting a 30-something-year-old wuss whose testicles never dropped and ultimately receives a most ruthless rite of passage into unadulterated manhood that includes kangaroo slaughtering and booze-fueled homo rape, among other less than polite things that do not typically involve a pansy school teacher. Adapted for the screen by Anglo-Jamaican screenwriter Evan Jones (Modesty Blaise, Funeral in Berlin) from the 1961 novel of the same name by Australian writer and documentarian Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright hardly feels like a contrived and closely scripted work as it features many real-life Aussie Wildmen as extras and in unforgettable secondary roles that add to the film's distinct charm.  Additionally, the film features seemingly nil bogus film sets and was shot in buildings and homes that reek of postcolonial decay and cultural decrepitude. Of course, the film is also (in)famous for featuring real-life nocturnal kangaroo killings despite the director being a vegetarian, but one should not expect anything less in a cinematic work that attempts to feature an accurate portrayal of Aussie rednecks who, not unlike their American counterparts, are and will forever be the only true representatives of their nation as men whose blood built that countries they live in.  Needless to say, the film does not do anything to help Australia's reputation as being the land of the semi-feral white shackle draggers, but then again it is hard not to like many of these supposed dingo-fuckers once you have seen the film. While the film does not feature any characters that are as depraved as the eponymous antihero of Dutch-Australian auteur Rolf de Heer's classic cult item Bad Boy Bubby (1993), it does feature the sort of Aussie wild men that might make illegal immigrants think twice about flooding into Australia.

 Notably, in his rather prophetic work The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History (1916), American lawyer, eugenicist, and conservationist Madison Grant wrote a century ago, “Australia and New Zealand, where the natives have been virtually exterminated by the whites, are developing into communities of pure Nordic blood and will for that reason play a large part in the future history of the Pacific. The bitter opposition of the Australians and Californians to the admission of Chinese coolies and Japanese farmers is due primarily to a blind but absolutely justified determination to keep those lands as white man’s countries.” Judging simply by Wake in Fright, one would assume that Australia has more or less the same hearty no bullshit racial stock that Grant speaks of, but of course, like all of the West, the nation has since had a deluge of undesirables and untermenschen from various third world hellholes. In Kotcheff’s film, the viewer is exposed to a fairly primitive type of Nordic stock that seems to still carry the mirthfully barbaric spirit of its Viking ancestors. Indeed, forget the absurd Hollywood stereotype of the dark-haired hero, Wake in Fright features true blue blond beasts of prey that hunt, kill, and fuck just for the instinctive thrill of it all. Undoubtedly, Nietzsche certainly describes the kangaroo hunters of the film when he describes the ancient Nordics as follows, “at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast, prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness.”  Not unlike various parts of rural America, New Zealand, and other ex-colonies, the Outback is place where archaic European instincts have the opportunity to be shamelessly exercised, or so one learns while watching Wake in Fright where a pansy ass prick is forced to come in touch with his more visceral and even murderous side after being egged on by proudly boorish men that seem to have been passed by a couple centuries worth of advancements in European civilization.

 While Wake in Fright is full of wild and reckless blond beasts, the deracinated blond Nordic protagonist John Grant (Gary Bond) is certainly no Übermensch as he is a smug yet impotent, intelligent yet weak, and cultivated yet cultureless cosmopolitan white man that is quite typical nowadays, especially in Europa. Naturally, it is only most fitting that Mr. Grant is portrayed by a cocksucking Brit as opposed to an Aussie as the character is symbolic of spiritually castrated, morally decrepit, and innately suicidal contemporary Europe, which has lost all touch with the sort of instincts that once made it great. Additionally, while John has blond hair and a typical tall Nordic physique, his eyes, which look more like they belong to a neurotic Mongolian little girl than a proud Europid man, are a clear window into his hopelessly effeminate and decadent soul. An anally retentive introvert that does everything by the book despite his disdain for authority who spends his free time drawing, reading about Plato, and hopelessly dreaming of going to the beach with his Sydney-based girlfriend, John is relatively impotent chap that gets the shock of the lifetime when he spends some quality time with a clan of working-class heroes with big balls and loudmouths. As a result of being a self-described “bonded slave of the Education Department,” John is forced against his will to teach at a tiny grade school in a small Outback hellhole named ‘Tiboonda.’ Luckily for him, John has six weeks off for Christmas break and plans to spend it with his girlfriend in Sydney. Rather unfortunately, before flying to Sydney, John makes the unwitting life-changing mistake of spending the night in a small isolated hick city named Bundanyabba (aka ‘the Yabba’) that ultimately swallows him up and violently vomits him out. 

 Not long after arriving in the Yabba, John meets a seemingly nice and gregarious local cop with a subtle sinister undercurrent named Jock Crawford (popular Aussie actor Chips Rafferty in his final acting role) at a local bar that uses his passive-aggressive charm to force the protagonist to get drunk with him to the point where he gets stupidly drunk.  While Jock is friendly with John, it is obvious that he thinks the protagonist is a pretentious and whiny little twat. Needless to say, John has a smug response when all of the patrons stop drinking and gambling at the bar to engage in a nightly “Lest We Forget” ritual in tribute to fallen Australian military men that are glorified with a fancy plague on the wall. Even in a thoroughly inebriated state, John cannot help be reveal his sense of superiority over Jock and the rest of the Yabba locals, but it is ultimately these working-class philistines that have the last laugh. Of course, little does John release that Jock is a sly fellow that, not unlike a degenerate dope dealer, is slowly but surely getting the protagonist immersed in a hermetic realm of nightmarish hick hedonism and self-destructive lowbrow decadence that eventually inspires both desperate murderous and suicidal impulses in the fairly fragile character. After begging Jock to take him to a place to eat where he buys a nice fat juicy steak, John meets a super degenerate hobo philosopher of sorts named Clarence ‘Doc’ Tydon (Donald Pleasence of Halloween (1978) fame), who passively states regarding the Yabba locals, “All the little devils are proud of hell.” When John asks Doc what he means, he reveals his strange empathy for the locals by replying, “Discontent is a luxury of the well-to-do. If you gotta live here, you might as well like it.” When John reveals his intolerance of the locals by stating, “I’m just bored with it. The aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are,” Doc ridicules his pretenses by replying, “It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. Do you want them to sing opera as well?” While John does not know it yet, he and Doc will soon become disturbingly close in a way that neither will ever forget. 

 When John foolishly loses all of his money in the “Biggest two-up game in Australia” in a desperate attempt to earn enough cash to pay off his bond as a teacher and leave the redneck Outback for good, he finds himself coming to the bitter realization that he is stranded in Yabba pandemonium indefinitely and naturally becomes a completely intolerable prick as a result. In fact, John acts like a complete dickhead to an old guy named Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) after he asks him to drink with him at a bar, but the insulted working-class hero lightens him up by buying him endless drinks, albeit not before screaming in his face that he will pay for his drinks. When Tim later takes him back to his house, John meets his lecherous debutante daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay), who carefully stares him down and eventually makes a botched attempt at fucking him only hours after first meeting him.  Unfortunately, John is incapable of even commencing coitus due to a rather embarrassing vomiting fit. At Tim’s house, John is also introduced to two handsome and muscular yet barbarically gregarious dudes named Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) who assume the protagonist is a poofter because he strangely prefers talking to Janette to drinking beer with the boys.

Despite his initial flaky behavior at Tim’s house, John eventually joins the party and ultimately gets so drunk that he is surprised to wake up the next day at 4pm in Doc’s dilapidated shack with a killer hangover that he reluctantly nurses with more booze and kangaroo meat. On top of revealing that he does not even actually own the shitty shack he lives in, Doc tells John his entire patently pathetic life-story, stating with a sort of subtly ironic pride, “Shall I satisfy your curiosity? I’m a doctor of medicine. And a tramp by temperament. I’m also an alcoholic. My disease prevented me from practicing in Sydney, but out here it’s scarcely noticeable. Certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me. I charge no fees because I’m not interested in money. Anyway, I’m unreliable. But I’m accepted socially because I’m an educated man . . . of character. I get me food from my friends. My requirements in beer. Which, with some measure of self-control, is the only alcohol I allow myself. It’s possible to live forever in the Yabba without money. As you probably noticed, some of the natives are very . . . hospitable.”  In short, Doc is a shameless social parasite of the highly educated sort that lives off of the generosity of proletarian drunks that take pride in buying another man a beer.  Naturally, Doc wants something from John, but it is something that is a bit more personal and intimate than cheap beer.

 As Doc makes quite clear, he loathes “little puritans” and states regarding Janette that she is “an interesting biological case” and that “If she were a man, she’d be in jail for rape” due to her rather sexually aggressive behavior. As a fellow outcast and virtual sexual outlaw, Doc sees Janette as a kindred spirit of sorts and is probably the only mensch in the Yabba that truly has respect for her. While he picks on him for his puritanical and anally-retentive behavior, Doc also seems to see a kindred spirit in John and he is bent on getting the protagonist to engage in increasingly degenerate and debasing activities so that he will be more like him. As a result of boasting while drunk the night before that he once “won a silver medal at school for target shooting,” John find himself going on an alcohol-fueled hunting expedition of sorts with Doc, Dick, and Joe that involves the extremely violent liquidation of half a dozen or so kangaroos. When Joe demonstrates he is a cool bad ass by ‘boxing’ and then personally slitting the throat of a large and quite pugnacious kangaroo, John feels obligated to demonstrate his seemingly nonexistent masculinity and takes on a poor animal that he himself describes as “badly wounded” and “just a baby.” Clearly uncomfortable with killing the virtually defenseless creature, John hysterically cries and punches the kangaroos while Doc and his friends laugh hysterically at his seemingly bizarre melodramatic behavior, though the protagonist eventually gets the gall to slit the poor animal’s throat. After John kills the kangaroo, Doc reveals his approval by stating to himself in an almost sinister fashion, “Well done” and then the entire group declares to the protagonist, “Now you’re one of us.”

 To celebrate their reasonably successful roo-slaughter campaign, the boys go to a local seedy bar where Dick and Joe engage in some fairly brutal play-fighting that involves blood while Doc philosophizes with a hammer and reveals he is a sort of Cioran of the Outback by aggressively proclaiming, “Progress? Vanity spawned of fear. A vanity spawned by fear. The aim of what you call civilization is a man in a smoking jacket, whisky and cider, pressing a bottom of . . . a button . . . to destroy a planet a billion miles away, kill a billion people he’s never seen.” After John passes out, Doc, Joe, and Dick get involved in a hilarious anarchic three-way brawl that more or less results in the destruction of the entire bar. Of course, Doc’s savagery does not end there, as he opts to sexually seduce John when they get back to the shack in what can probably be best described as gay redneck date rape. Needless to say, John is more than a little bit perturbed when he wakes up the next day lying next to a pantless Doc and realizes that he has just been involuntarily sodomized by a stinky old wino. 

 Naturally, John hightails it out of Doc’s shack when he realizes he is a victim of homo sodomy, but not before grabbing a rifle that was gifted to him by Dick and Joe for his senseless killing of the little kangaroo. Indeed, while roaming around downtown Yabba with the rifle in his arms and his body and clothes covered in dirt as perplexed onlookers stare at him in disbelief, John looks like a desperate derelict that has just been gang-banged by an entire motorcycle gang.  Of course, John is desperate to get out of the Yabba by any means possible, but before he does he bumps into his old cop pal Jock, who supplies him with some much needed nicotine and beer in between questioning about his dubious behavior and plans. While John manages to hitch a ride 50 miles out of town from a less than dapper toothless hick, he treats the poor guy like shit by refusing to have a drink with him and then complaining, “What’s the matter with you people, huh? You sponge on you . . . You burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child, that’s all right. But don’t have a drink with you, don’t have a flaming, bloody drink with you, that’s a criminal offense, that’s the end of the bloody world.” Ultimately, John offers a trucker his new prized rifle for a ride to Sydney, but when he finally arrives at his ostensible desire location, he realizes he is in the Yabba again as a result of a miscommunication between him and the less than sophisticated driver. Luckily, the trucker lets John keep the rifle due to the miscommunication, so the protagonist irrationally decides to use the weapon to kill Doc, as if it will somehow redeem him of being rectally reamed. Unfortunately Doc is not at the shack when he gets there, so John changes his plans slightly and turns the gun on himself in what ultimately proves to be a badly botched attempt at improvisational DIY self-slaughter.

On top of surviving the suicide attempt despite having the barrel of the gun pointed directly at his head at ultra-close-range, Jock, who is not too fond of his hometown's high suicide rate (apparently, in real-life, the Yabba had a female suicide rate that was five times the national average during the 1970s), decides to coverup said suicide attempt by writing a phony police report that John signs that declares that he shot himself by accident. When John finally recovers from his injuries and gets out of the hospital, Doc greets him and declares, “You’d think a bloke who’d won a silver medal at target shooting could hit himself in the head at a range of three inches.” In the end, the film comes full circles, with going back to Tiboonda and drinking with a local bartender-cum-slumlord named Charlie.  As to what the future holds for John, I certainly would not surprised if he degenerated into a sort of more anally retentive version of Doc and became a perennially wandering lost soul that is fueled by cheap alcohol and plagued by regrettable sexual encounters.

 While Nicholas Roeg’s first solo feature Walkabout (1971) is indubitably a seemingly immaculate flick that is to the Outback what Arnold Fanck’s Der heilige Berg (1926) aka The Holy Mountain is to the Teutonic mountain film and what Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is to the spaghetti western, Wake in Fright is arguably the single greatest and most enthralling Outback flick ever made, even if it was directed by a guy that would go on to direct such hokey Hollywood kitsch as Weekend at Bernie's (1989) and Borrowed Hearts: A Holiday Romance (1997), among other less than artistically significant cinematic works. Indeed, the film might be somewhat exploitative in its portrayal of the Outback and its seemingly forsaken inhabitants, but it certainly does not make a pathetic mockery of ‘Australian Aryan noble savage’ myth like a carelessly goofy Hollywood flick like Crocodile Dundee (1986), which incidentally seems like the sort of film Kotcheff might have directed later in his career. Despite not being nearly as big of a commercial success as his later films like Weekend at Bernie's, Kotcheff more or less confesses in the audio commentary for the Drafthouse Films DVD/Blu-ray release of the film that it is his greatest cinematic work, as well as the movie that he had the most fun working on. Kotcheff is also quite proud of the fact that Wake in Fright is one of only two films to have ever been screened twice in the entire history of the Cannes Film Festival (notably, Martin Scorsese, who originally saw the film when it had its world premiere at the festival in 1971, used his clout as the head of the Cannes Classic department to have the screened in 2009 after it underwent a much needed restoration).

Aside from being what is arguably the most endlessly entrancing, shocking, and unforgettable film about the Outback, Kotcheff’s cult classic is, aside from possibly Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), the most innately un-Christmas of Christmas films, even if it is a cinematic gift that keeps on giving in terms of sheer replay value. Somewhat surprisingly, Wake in Fright is not the only classic Australian cult flick directed by a Slavic outsider that features references to Christmas time, as Dusan Makavejev’s underrated absurdist comedy The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) features Italian-Australian actress Greta Scacchi stripping off a Santa Claus outfit so that she can fuck Eric Roberts.  While fairly different films in terms of message and emotional tone, Wake in Fright and The Coca-Cola Kid surely make for an immaculate double feature.

 In the audio commentary for Wake in Fright, auteur Kotcheff noted that the working-class Aussies that he interacted with on the film were no different than the lumpenproles he knew growing up in Ontario, Canada in terms of their proud patriarchal love of beer, fighting, fucking, and merry violence. As an American that grew up in a nice rural area just below the Mason–Dixon line yet was born a good number of decades after Kotcheff's Canadian prole buddies, I can still concur that the working-class whites that I sometimes hung out with during my early adult years are strikingly similar to the ones featured in the film, even in terms of bizarre quasi-homoerotic behavior. Indeed, aside from their tendency to fight and wrestle each while usually sweaty and shirtless, I once witnessed a fellow holding a friend’s penis while he was peeing because he was supposedly too drunk to hold it himself. Of course, Wake in Fright is in many ways a sort of degenerate modernist Männerbund movie that would highly appeal to born-again Androphiles and Jack Donovan fanboys, but arguably most importantly it demonstrates probably better than any other film why Australia is, in terms of the landscapes and eccentric people, one of the greatest places in the world to shoot movies. In fact, as mentioned in Mark Hartley’s mildly amusing doc Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008), Kotcheff’s film was probably more influential than any other cinematic work in terms of making Australians realizes that their country-cum-continent was the perfect place to create great movies. Surely, no other place could have produced such organically atmospheric cinematic works ranging from Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977) to Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend (1978) to George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) to Albie Thoms’ rarely-seen psychedelic avant-garde films like Rita and Dundi (1966) and Marinetti (1969), among seemingly countless other examples.

Thankfully, Kotcheff’s film also lacks of the sort of xenophiliac white guilt, misguided abo-philia, and anti-Anglo sentiment that is prominent in some of the films of Hebrew Philippe Mora (Swastika, Mad Dog Morgan) and Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), among countless others.  Notably, the only part of Wake in Fright that features an Australian Aborigine person is an early scene where the protagonist is depicted sitting on a train by himself just like an abo man in a symbolic scenario scene that insinuates that both characters are outsiders in mainstream white society. In its depiction of an effeminate white educator being in the same figurative boat as an Aborigine man, the scene reminded me of a quote from Ted Kaczynski's classic anti-technology text The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future (1995) in regard to why white liberals, who typically come from privileged backgrounds, have a special affinity for racial minorities, “Many leftists have an intense identification with the problems of groups that have an image of being weak (women), defeated (American Indians), repellent (homosexuals), or otherwise inferior. The leftists themselves feel that these groups are inferior. They would never admit it to themselves that they have such feelings, but it is precisely because they do see these groups as inferior that they identify with their problems. (We do not suggest that women, Indians, etc., ARE inferior; we are only making a point about leftist psychology).”  Likewise, people like the protagonist of Kotcheff’s film loathes rednecks due to feelings of inferiority in regard to strength and masculinity and not simply because they see working-class whites as insufferable philistines.  After all, protagonist John Grant developed a certain degree of much needed masculine confidence and self-esteem after hanging out with the Outback boys.

 A work that might be described as a sort of arthouse action-adventure-drama-thriller hybrid for Australian proles that has the capacity to entertain and provoke people of virtually every persuasion, Wake in Fright is certainly as timeless and endlessly enthralling as films come, especially when compared to many Australian films of the same era.  Notably, I first saw the film about four years ago when I was at an inordinately happy point of my life.  After recently rewatching the film in what is undoubtedly a low point in my life, I can say that it had an even bigger impact of me.  Indeed, suddenly I miss the redneck friends of my youth and getting drunk by a bonfire, even if I did not have much to talk about with them aside from the size of a girl's ass and the hilarity of racist jokes.  The fact that a tough, visceral, and uncompromising cinematic work like Wake in Fright was directed by a Bulgarian-Canadian filmmaker that is best known for Hollywood hack work and kosher comedies like his Mordecai Richler adaptations The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and Joshua Then and Now (1985) certainly makes the film seem all the more magical and enigmatic, as if Ted Kotcheff, not unlike protagonist John Grant, was somehow consumed by the collective unconscious of the Yabba's inhabitants while directing the film.  After all, you know a filmmaker is indubitably doing something right when he manages to make a film featuring the unsimulated slaughter of cute kangaroos that does not feel tasteless or pointlessly exploitative.  Somehow, I also suspect that Wake in Fright is more accurate in its depiction of the sort of cowboy mentality that was responsible for conquering and taming the wild west than any Hollywood western ever could be.

-Ty E

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