On Friday, October 19th, the Nuart will be showcasing an Australian film highly regarded by no less than such film authorities as director Martin Scorsese, film critic Roger Ebert, and musician/screenwriter Nick Cave, just to name a few of its admirers. Wake in Fright originally premiered at Cannes back in '71 under the less cryptic but equally punning title Outback and earned a Palme D'Or nomination. Thought to have been lost for decades, the negative was discovered in, of all places, Pittsburgh, PA, back in '04. A "comprehensive restoration" soon followed, resulting in its inclusion at Cannes in '09 as part of guest curator Scorsese's selection. It now holds the distinction of being the second film to ever be shown twice at the festival. (In case you're wondering, the other film is Antonioni's L'avventura, which also played in '09. And somewhere there's a thesis in search of a writer drawing parallels between these two films.)
No doubt, it's been a checkered, perilous road for Wake in Fright. Not unlike its protagonist's, in fact. Set in a no man's wasteland usually reserved for post-apocalyptic mayhem, Wake in Fright is somewhat of a companion piece to 1971's other Australian Palme D'Or contender and much more celebrated film, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout. Wake in Fright is that second, unpredictable coin in a game of two-up, a simple gambling game featured in the film and dubbed "Australia's National Game" in which the object is for two coins to land on the same side. Whereas Walkabout is the predictable, clear cut work of art, Fright is the more challenging work. Instead of a bildungsroman in which a couple of sympathetic children are guided through their passage by a benevolent aborigine, we get a barely likeable British schoolteacher led to his own destruction by the locals. This is not Ozploitation, just to be clear. As directed by Canadian wild card Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, First Blood, Weekend at Bernie's(!)), however, it's more (and you'll have to excuse the reach) a transgression through Oz, as if blood, sweat and fear sullied the yellow road back home, tingeing the psychological landscape into a rusty orange.
Wake in Fright is a road movie with not much of a road and yet perhaps the ultimate pathetic fallacy as far as journeys of self-discovery are concerned. The "road," in this case the outback, mirrors the character: The more he consumes and becomes a part of the local culture, the more he's consumed by his surroundings. End of plot.
And end of praise. Much like its protagonist and despite all its metaphorical splendor, Wake in Fright is a difficult movie to, well...simply put, like. That's a sentiment that's thoughtfully evaded yet hinted at as you read between the lines of the quoted praise attached to the above three admirers. After seeing the film, it's easy to understand why there's conflict in that acclamation.
Layered over an almost poetic mise-en-scène is a demoralizing allegory about the barbarous nature of man. Point well taken. What doesn't sit so well, however, is the filmed, real-life massacre of one of Australia's national animals and how the re-insertion of such previously lost footage is some sort of cause célèbre. To be fair, there's a disclaimer at the end of the movie of how the killing was done by "professional hunters...not done expressly for the film...its survival is seriously threatened...with the approval of leading animal welfare organizations...blah blah blah." The disclaimer, however, simply seems tacked on and, quite frankly, unexpected, in light of the film's unrelenting display of male arrogance. It's as though the disclaimer was an afterthought that's awkwardly being sold to what someone realized might be a rational-thinking audience.
Even if one were to argue the sequence as purely ethnographic and therefore artistically beyond reproach the fact that it's not the actual, real-life hunters who are being depicted cancels out that argument. In contrast to (and, admittedly, to provide a more rounded picture of my own tastes) something as notorious as, say, one of my top ten favorite films of all time, Monte Hellman's Cockfighter, or something as poetic as Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, there's the fact that some of the sequences involving animals in these two other films involve actual, real-life participants--and not actors--allowing for a real examination on the nature of those events, i.e., is it being done for sport? is it being done for sustenance? out of financial necessity? etc. In Fright, we're not allowed such exploration. Instead, we're treated to actors playing a bunch of drunk bastards intercut with real scenes of kangaroos being killed. It's being done by professional hunters the disclaimer claims, but we never know why. Are some of the characters supposed to be professional hunters? After watching the film, I can't say. What I do say is show me a hard-hitting documentary on the plight of the kangaroo and I'll be moved accordingly. But don't masquerade obvious photographic opportunism as art, or even worse, as social consciousness.
If we leave out the scenes involving the massacre of kangaroos, what do we have? A lost, Australian film from the early '70s depicting a way of life that may or may not still be relevant today. So what? I suspect that there are plenty of films out there that fit that bill, especially to American eyes (when's the last time you saw any Australian film?), without needing to rely on what comes across in the narrative as merely a senseless act of brutality. Because as far as movies with the theme of men on the brink of their masculinity (and their sanity) is concerned, the cinema is littered with examples of them, from a bona fide cinematic masterpiece like Straw Dogs to a movie-of-the-week doozie like Pray for the Wildcats; or even the unofficial Mad Max "prequel" in spirit, The Chain Reaction, a sadly unseen Oz treasure also about survival in much broader, but nonetheless interesting, strokes. Ultimately, themes on masculinity enshrined in a fish out of water plot supplemented with scenes of real animal annihilation a masterpiece does not make, I argue. But who am I to make such arguments?
Wake in Fright will open on Friday, October 19, 2012, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles for a one-week engagement. Director Ted Kotcheff will be present for Q&A at the 8:15pm show on Friday, October 19, and Saturday, October 20.