Tuesday 29 May 2018

We Don't Go Back #81: Wake in Fright (1971)

This is a weird feeling. I'm in the home stretch with We Don't Go Back the book, and this is the third from last of the essays that will be in the book, this the amazing 1971 Australian folk horror Wake in Fright (AKA Outback). After that, any new essays will not be in the We Don't Go Back book, and that is a weird feeling. As ever, expect the plot to be comprehensively spoiled, and if animal cruelty upsets you, look away now. 

We remember.
In parts of Wake in Fright, the cinematography and soundtrack are deliberately pitched to evoke the Western: the baking sun, the dusty concourse, the jangly rhythms of the score. But it's a feint, since Wake in Fright is in no way like a Western. And Ted Kotcheff’s unsettling drama is full of feint, full of ways you think it'll go one way, and wind up going another.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is a teacher in a tiny outback community. He winds up school for the Christmas (Summer) holidays, and gets on the train for Sydney. As he waits, he converses with the local barkeep, Charlie (John Meillon, also seen in The Cars that Ate Paris and Walkabout), and it becomes apparent that Grant despises it here. We'll find out – and this is the only backstory we get – that Grant's teaching degree was paid for by the state on the condition that he be posted wherever he's needed, and Tiboonda is where he wound up. He resents this, and resents the people of the outback, hates them for what he sees as their stupidity and boorishness.

Everything that Grant despises about the Outback is on show in Bundanyabba, colloquially “the Yabba”, the somewhat bigger town where Grant has to stop for a couple of days before he can get his train to Sydney. But everyone is so friendly. It's almost sinister how friendly everyone is. When everyone in the bar stands up to pay homage to an ANZAC memorial, everyone saying the words, you think there's something weird here, something wrong.
Also, I'm an alcoholic.
You think it's going to go a certain way.

The local policeman, Jock (Chips Rafferty) who insists on buying him drinks, introduces Grant to a local gambling ring, and then to inebriate medical practitioner Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), who calls Grant out on his snobbery in a matter-of-fact, friendly fashion.
Grant: I'm bored with it. The aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are.
Doc: It's death to farm out here. It's worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?
Grant decides to play the game.

And you think, the locals have got this man slightly drunk, and they're getting him to join in on the gambling, and the obvious way this is going to pan out is that the locals let the newcomer win a bit and then bilk him for everything he's worth.

And he does win a bit. But he can't get through the crowd to get his winnings. He turns away, assuming he's been conned… and someone calls him back to make sure he gets his fair share.

And then he wins. And he wins some more. And it looks like he's going to win big, just one more toss. And this is the one where you think, he's going to lose everything. And he wins. And there he is, happy as Larry, heading back to his hotel room, wads of cash in his pockets, and it's only then, when he's getting his stuff out, that he finds his textbooks, and realises that he's still going to have to go back to Tiboonda next term. But if he could pay off his debt to the state…

So he heads back and lays down his big wad of winnings and everything else he has on the two-up flip of a coin. And then he loses. And then things go badly.

And it's his fault. And this is important, because while the townsfolk that John Grant meets aren't really nice people the way that “nice” people understand the term, they are honest people.

Washed up with nowhere to go, Grant, penniless, winds up at the mercy of the Yabba’s townsfolk. In another folk horror narrative, they'd be embroiling him in a sinister, pagan conspiracy, or preparing him for another fall. But this is what they do: they treat him like a friend.

So, when he's invited back to the home of Tim Hynes’ (Al Thomas), and meets Tim's boozy mates Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle), and Doc as well, he's included. He's a mate. And then he winds up talking to Tim's grown up daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay, see also The Exorcism) while the others do men stuff:
Dick: What's the matter with him? Rather talk to a woman than drink!
Tim: School teacher.
Dick: Oh.
And then Janette takes him outside, her no-nonsense intent to just have a quick shag in the brush, only he's too drunk and he has to throw up and she dabs his face and just gives him a look of mild disappointment, more than anything.
Just take the wildest guess what happens next.
And over and over again, it's those little moments the film has that convince you that these people are, in their own way, being kind. So they're being genuinely friendly when they drag him along for their booze-fuelled weekend and get him joining in with a bloody, explicitly portrayed kangaroo hunt,  archive footage of a real kangaroo hunt seamlessly intercut with the film, so that while the filmmakers could honestly say that no kangaroos were harmed in the making of this film, you still see kangaroos, actual kangaroos, getting shot up.

For most of the film, the only occasions when  anyone actually behaves towards Grant with hostility is when he refuses their offer of a drink. Because he's from a world where when someone buys you a drink, you have to buy one for them. They expect nothing back except company and good will. Offering someone a beer is a phatic gesture for these people, a sign of tribal solidarity. Accepting is the friendly thing to do. And the problem is of course that if you're not careful, you end up consuming a hell of a lot of beer.

These men are his mates. And mates look out for each other. Even when they're beating seven bells out of each other.

And when you consume a hell of a lot of beer and you have very little else to do because you're in the Outback, you might as well fight and muck about and shoot up road signs that say “DO NOT SHOOT THIS ROAD SIGN” and do impromptu ultimate fighting with kangaroos, because you're in the outback, and maybe even have sex with one of the guys because you very nearly threw up over the one woman who wanted a go.
And now, you have to fight a 'roo to the death.
And it is easy both to romanticise these people and to deride them as monsters, and many people do both of these things at once to the poor in pretty much every developed country. But the fact is, what really makes these people different from anyone else? Have they really entered a degenerate state because they're far away from the city, in an isolated, dilapidated outback town? Doc has it, I think, in an inebriated rant, no less true for its sozzled character:
Doc: I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Affectability... progress... are vanities spawned by fear. A vanity spawned by fear. The aim of what you call civilisation is a man in a smoking jacket, whiskey and soda, pressing a bottom... button, to destroy a planet a billion miles away, kill a billion people he's never seen.

No one makes Grant do anything. No one forces him into a single bad decision. It was his decision to lose the money and the locals played fair with him. He laughs and whoops with the rest of them when they're running down kangaroos. When he tells Janette he wants to go to England, and she asks him if he's got a girl back home, and he says yes, and she looks at the picture, and she says, would you take her back with you, he says yes, she knows he's lying. And it's because she knows he's lying that she leads him out for that ill-fated tumble in the bushes, and we know he's lying because literally the only thing we the audience know about his relationship with his girlfriend is that he fantasises about her breasts.
Everything that keeps him from leaving.

What I've read about Wake in Fright tends to concentrate on Grant's descent, but what's he really descending to? In fact, for all the things he does, even the terrible, bloody things, all he's doing is what he had the potential to do anyway. Here in the UK, the ritual of the Saturday night bender, where we go out with our mates, get wasted, vomit, wind up in a bed we don't recognise, do things we regret, that's a thing we do. And it's pagan, a release valve, an escape of pressure. We have always done this stuff. The only difference between the Lost Weekend and the dance of the maenads is at least the ancients called a spade a spade and a pagan ritual a pagan ritual.

And for all that Grant reaches a state of suicidal despair at the end of the film, when he fails to leave the Yabba – and through nothing more than a simple miscommunication – we see him at the end of his crazed, alcohol-fuelled holiday a better man, more in touch with his fellows.

And that's a frightening thing, the idea that maybe we might sometimes need to go into the Outback and be bestial.

My Patreon supporters got to see this last week! To support my work and read early, please consider donating. No donation too small.