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[DVDVRMC] WAKE IN FRIGHT (Kotcheff, 1971)


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“It’s a friendly place. Nobody worries who you are, where you’re from. If you’re a good bloke, you’re all right. You know what I mean?”

 

So, if I'd remembered to post a countdown thread, I'd have included the following warning:

 

WARNING: If you don't want to see kangaroos get killed, don't watch this film. Because some kangaroos totally get killed. The footage of the kangaroo slaughter comes from a kangaroo hunt, so it wasn't set up for this particular film, and would have happened anyway. If that makes things more palatable, so be it.

 

WAKE IN FRIGHT has been described (perhaps hyperbolically) as one of the most important films of Australian cinema. No idea if it is, mind you, but it's pretty fucking cool, and the negatives were almost lost for all time:

 

 


Parents should never have to bury their young, and artists should never outlive their greatest works. Fortunately for Canadian director Ted Kotcheff, his masterpiece, the 1971 dramatic thriller Wake in Fright, survives despite a near-death experience. The negatives of his critically lauded but financially disappointing film received an incineration death sentence decades after copies of it disappeared and everyone involved in its production lost track of it. Saved by the efforts of a devoted few, and given the Cannes Film Festival's "Cannes Classic" title by department head (and longtime fan) Martin Scorsese, the story of a man discovering his inner beast in the wild Australian Outback has finally received the recognition that it deserves.

 

Read all about it!

 

So is WAKE IN FRIGHT a horror, or a very black comedy? It's hard to say. Certainly it's a horror for John Grant, the effete schoolteacher who gets stuck in that shit-hole, Bundanyabba, after losing all of his money in the world's dumbest game of chance. And all "the Yabba" has to offer is astonishing heat, some good ol' boys, and tons of beer.

 

WAKE IN FRIGHT's horror, and comedy, comes from its intense focus on out-of-control, working-class masculinity. "The Yabba" is a hellish place, where you either farm, work in the mines, or go boomer hunting, and each of those things pays poorly and will likely kill you. To survive, you spend most of your free time drunk. You and your mates form strong, homosocial bonds, with barely a woman in sight. And what's held up as truly masculine is all the stereotypical nonsense, like drinking and fighting.

 

So, Grant gets stuck in the Yabba, and his horror is the horror of both not fitting in and fitting in. Not to fit in is to be a pussy or a fag, while fitting in is to be a chauvinistic asshole. It's really lose-lose. And so, predictably, Grant aims for fitting in, as best he can, and his journey into mateship is a journey into hell, capped off with a nightmarish kangaroo hunt that works as a kind of twisted coming of age ritual for outback manhood. It's a horrifying experience for Grant, and so perhaps it should be a horrifying experience for the audience as well (when the film was screened at Cannes, this scene resulted in a lot of walkouts). Following that, Doc Tydon (the amazingly amazing Donald Pleasance) gets freaky with Grant, which is hardly surprising, given the homoeroticism (and plain ol' homosexuality) at the root of any sort of social system that so thoroughly valorizes masculinity. 

 

Which is not to say that the men of the Yabba are evil--they've just got nothing else to do.

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