DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Wake In Fright

Saturday, 19 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Wake In Fright

Wake in Fright – also known as: Outback (1971) Dir. Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Al Thomas, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle and Sylvia Kay


Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

It seems unthinkable in this day and age of film preservation and restoration that a motion picture classic made – not during the silent period of the early 20th century, but in 1971, a Cannes Palme D’Or nominee no less, and often cited (along with Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout” from the same year) as the beginning of Australia’s revitalization as a filmmaking force – was one week away from having all of its original negative elements destroyed. After a two-year search all over the world at his own expense, the film’s editor Anthony Buckley finally discovered the elements in the bowels of the CBS vaults in Pittsburgh (no less) in a pile of items marked to be “junked” (industry parlance for “destroyed”) and, I reiterate, ONE WEEK from the date he found them.

Because of his Herculean efforts as well as the frame-by-frame restoration by the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia and Deluxe Labs, Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright” (released outside of Australia as “Outback”) has a new lease on life – to shock and mesmerize audiences all over the world. Screened at Cannes in May of 2009 (only one of two features ever to be screened on two separate occasions at Cannes) and in a special presentation featuring Kotcheff in a personal dialogue on the film at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, “Wake in Fright” stands as one of the most powerful explorations of male savagery in the context of a topography that seems as rugged and barren as the surface of the Moon. In a world of Samuel Fuller and Sam Peckinpah, Kotcheff’s brilliant film holds its own.

I first saw the movie when I was about 13 or 14 years old as “Outback” during a late night showing on the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) when, during this time, Canadian content guidelines allowed for the broadcast of ANY film that came from Britain’s Commonwealth to meet said guidelines. (Because of this, we saw some really fine movies and TV series during the 60s and 70s.) It was a movie that completely bewildered and obsessed me. Even a full frame standard telecine transfer did not detract from its strangeness, its terrible and terrifying beauty and its depiction of a world so foreign to my own, yet seeming to be imbued with a quality that suggested to me, even then, that what I was seeing was the stuff of life itself. For over thirty years I looked and waited, seemingly in vain, to see it again. To think I almost didn’t have that opportunity because of the aforementioned disappearance and death sentence is now, after seeing it again much older and (hopefully) wiser (on a big screen in a pristine, lovingly restored 35mm print), makes me feel like I have been witness to a miracle.

And what a miracle this movie is! Kotcheff, the Canadian born, raised and trained director (trained via and not unlike Norman Jewison, within the legendary CBC television drama department of the late 50s and early 60s), has made his fair share of good pictures – most notably the Berlin Golden Bear Award winner “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”, the droll “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” and the first and best Rambo picture “First Blood” – but nothing in his canon comes close to the mind boggling perfection of “Wake in Fright”.

Stunningly photographed by Brian West, the picture opens on one spot of the desolation that is the outback of Australia and the camera proceeds to do a slow 360 degree turn – shocking us with the reality that the land is the same whichever direction one looks and that it seems to go on forever. Into this environment we’re introduced to the impeccably groomed and fussily attired schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) who is about to leave the two-building rail town for a much-needed vacation to Sydney. Grant describes his position as being enslaved to the Ministry of Education as they have required all new teachers to post a one-thousand-dollar bond to ensure they serve their entire first term in the most desolate postings imaginable. During a stopover in the bleak mining town of Bundanyabba, Grant meets Jock (played by legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty), an amiable policeman who plies him with beer and gets him into a card game where he loses all of his money. Stranded, perpetually drunk and eventually and brain-numbingly hung-over, Grant is hosted by a motley crew of locals (several hard drinking macho men and one extremely horny single female) who proceed to take him into the very heart of the Australian darkness. Grant is practically force-fed steady supplies of beer, seduced by the lonely woman (which is scuttled when he pukes while trying to penetrate her), taken on a mad, drunken and vicious kangaroo hunt and finally locked in a sweaty, smelly and almost violently homoerotic coupling with the mad alcoholic doctor Tydon (a malevolent Donald Pleasance).

At first, we are shown a passive observer, but as the film progresses, he regresses to the same savage state as the men he initially holds his nose up to and he decidedly and actively engages in acts so barbaric that he is forced to confront his inner demons to the point where he is sickened to the point of contemplating suicide.

Not unlike the world of playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee, we find ourselves in the realm of alcohol-fueled depravity and game playing. Like any respectable Walpurgisnacht, booze is sloshed into empty cups with abandon and full cups are drained greedily, but these pagans who celebrate ARE the tortured spirits walking amongst the living and any bonfires they create seemed to be aimed squarely at themselves. Furthermore, the movie presents a “Paradise Lost” situation where depravity is merely presented and much like John Milton’s “hero”, Grant makes a conscious choice to immerse himself in the foul macho shenanigans like a pig in shit.

This is one daring, nasty piece of work and without question, the movie Kotcheff will ultimately be best remembered for. He not only elicits fine performances from a stellar cast, but his mise-en-scene is pretty much perfect. It’s also no coincidence that he is Canadian and perhaps the perfect director outside of Australia to have tackled this story so rooted in that nation’s pathology. Given that the vast majority of Canada’s population resides within 100 kms along the Canadian and U.S. border, the rest of this vast country north of the 49th parallel is not unlike the world of the Australian outback. (To all non-Canadians: just think of a land populated by SCTV’s hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie – seemingly benign, but below the simpleton surface, a roiling, frustrated, angry, bitter nation of moose-hunting psychopaths.)

As well, it is no surprise that it was Anthony Buckley, the editor of the film, who searched high and low for the lost negative elements, since the cutting in this picture has few equals. For the most part, things are delivered at a steady, unobtrusive pace, but when we’re in the territory of dreams or overtly physical action, the editing veers from measured to positively Eisensteinian. At times, the action borders on the hypnotic, while at other points, it’s as jarring and disturbing as the images and action engaged in by the characters.

This action, as designed by director Kotcheff, is expertly blocked. His shot choices are impeccable and most importantly, he seems perfectly at home in capturing the claustrophobic nature of both barren exteriors and interiors – where the only way to break free is to rage against the dying of the light that has, for the characters who populate this world, become life itself.

This picture rages, alright! It’s one hell of a ride and we’re all the better for it.

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