Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wake in Fright

1971, Australia, directed by Ted Kotcheff

Restored after many years on the missing list, I could understand if many an Australian would be happy to have Wake in Fright remain under wraps more permanently: although there's a fascinating ambiguity at the heart of the film, which casts a skeptical eye on both the rugged mateship rituals of the outback and the city slicker who gets his comeuppance, there's nary a positive role model to be seen, with even the local police chief far more unsettling than reassuring. Said police chief is played by Chips Rafferty, in his final role. It's a fitting epitaph for the man who was Australia's one real home-grown movie star of the postwar years, for Ted Kotcheff's film was clearly one of the harbingers of the very different film industry that would emerge in the 1970s.

There can't be too many films that begin with a 360-degree pan, used in this instance to underline the utter emptiness of the landscape around the tiny, fictional settlement of Tiboonda, located deep in the New South Wales outback. Scale is the outback's main downside in the film's account, and that marks it out as rather different from much of what followed: while vast, the land isn't especially terrifying, and in a later sequence a city boy is able to feed himself easily enough during a lengthy foot trek. It's a far cry from a film like Picnic at Hanging Rock, or, much later, Japanese Story, where the land itself, rather than the people within it, is the primary threat. There's no doubting who we need to be cautious of here -- wild boy Jack Thompson, making his film debut, and alcoholic Donald Pleasance, seen most alarmingly in a shot where he stands on his head. The sight of a bearded, upside-down Pleasance is not a vision easily shaken.

This, then, is a headlong plunge into the excesses of white male outback Australia, and it has an anthropological feel at times, no doubt enhanced by the use of numerous non-professional extras, notably in the lengthy game of "two-up" where the schoolteacher's plans begin to go awry (Kotcheff integrates that material, shot back in Sydney, seamlessly with the exteriors filmed around Broken Hill; I had assumed, until I read an interview with the director, that they were sweaty real-life locales). There's a fascinating accumulation of detail as we encounter this alien culture -- the aggressive hospitality, the signage that reminds us the days of the "six o'clock swill" were barely in the rear-view mirror, the recognition of war dead (neatly bringing in another fine figure of Australian mythology, the digger). A genuine re-discovered treasure that is now very clearly a keystone in the development of the new Australian cinema.

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