Friday, April 10, 2020

Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)

Watching the movie Wake in Fright nearly 40 years after its release – 1971 – brought back one good memory for me of life in the Bush. Canvas water bags. Nothing like the taste of water from those bags: sweet and earthy. One hangs on the back of a door in the shambles of a mining shack occupied by Doc Tydon, the movie’s supposed villain. Not that anyone in the movie drinks water. Heaven forbid. Instead they neck beer and, in the case of Doc Tydon, glug down whiskey in the legendary quantities typical of men on a weekend bender in the Outback. Typical, I should also emphasise, of men the world over who work in isolated areas under punishing conditions, although the pursuit of the Holy Grail of alcoholic oblivion in the Outback is undertaken with an inexorable determination, not so much blunting pain as getting their due. Cracking a few cold ones with your mates – legacy, birthright, entitlement.

The plot of Wake in Fright is as old as an outcropping west of Menindee. As old as Virgil:

The way downward is easy from Avernus.

Black Dis’s door stands open night and day.

But to retrace your steps to heaven’s air,

There is the trouble, there is the toil.

Aeneas is warned of the dangers of the Underworld by the Cumaean Sibyl. No such warning is given to Wake in Fright’s Aeneas: John Grant, a gormless young schoolteacher, circa the 1960s, fulfilling his bond to the education department with a posting in a one-room school at Tiboonda, which consists of said school, a pub and a railway siding, with mile upon mile of flat, scrubby plain stretching in every direction. Grant is full of himself, a fathead from Sydney who has a copy of Plato’s dialogues in his suitcase, quotes Omar Khayyam when he’s trying to impress, and dreams of a life in London; he wouldn’t have listened to any Sibyl. Grant descends into hell sharpish when Jock Crawford, a friendly policeman in the mining town of Bundanyabba – the movie was filmed in and around Broken Hill – takes him to a two-up game. “A nice simple-minded game,” sneers Grant, who has stopped overnight to catch a plane to Sydney for the Christmas holidays, and proceeds to lose his entire pay on the flip of two coins. Instead of six blessed weeks of golden sand, frothy waves and the company of his university girlfriend, he’s stranded in “the Yabba” with its sweltering heat, choking dust, swarming flies and back-slapping local yokels. The very definition of hell, an inferno, to John Grant, although the inhabitants think that the Yabba is “the best little town in the world” because, as a taxi driver tells Grant, “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?”

As long as you’re a good bloke. And there’s the rub. John Grant underestimates the lethality of two-up and knows nothing of the savage side of mateship, the conformity it demands. He falls in with the leprechaun-like, habitually sloshed, bowtie-wearing Tim Hynes; his daughter, Janette, who keeps a house that the Women’s Weekly would praise but who is remarkably free with her favours; Doc Tydon, self-described as “a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament, and an alcoholic”; and Dick and Joe, two hulking, leering, joshing miners. The men press cool ones on him, make good-natured if cloddish jokes, take him roo shooting in a Ford Fairlane clunker. Janette sets about seducing him, although Grant thinks he’s the one making the moves. Soon he’s soggy with booze, torn between revulsion at the full-on, unadorned masculinity of the Yabba and the desire to prove he’s one of the boys, no pantywaist. Soon he’s burping boorishly with the best of them and frenziedly shooting kangaroos caught in the beam of a spotlight mounted on the top of the Ford.

After a gory bout of roo shooting, Grant returns with Doc Tydon to his shack. Pissed as newts, they fool around, and the encounter turns sexual. The next morning, filled with self-loathing, Grant tries to leave the Yabba, only to be thwarted. He tries to blow his brains out, survives, and returns to the one-room school house, wiser only, one suspects, in that he can now accept a beer with good grace. Toil and trouble with a distinctly Australian flavour. In the trailer for the movie, a voice intones, “This is John Grant, a young, handsome, intelligent schoolteacher. This is John Grant, an ugly, sweaty, desperate animal. What happened to John Grant? The Outback happened to John Grant.”

A detour here. As is the journalistic fashion, I need to insert a list of disclosures. I grew up in the Bush. Not the Outback but in the semi-arid stuff on the edge of red-dirt country. Both sides of my family are farmers: generations of hardworking, conscientious men who could read weather patterns, coax the best from stubborn soil, and intuitively understood sustainability. They didn’t have closed minds – they were always receptive to new ideas. Men who didn’t curse the land but knew its limitations. (Let’s hear it for Australia’s primary producers, just once.) I’m no stranger to mulga and mallee, fly-blown sheep and Bathurst burr, the latter from the end of a hoe, with long days spent as a teenager chipping the bloody things out at the root. No coddling and a steady diet of mutton. I’ve been roo shooting at night. Spotlighting seemed unsporting, but I went because of that great Bush motivator: boredom. And because I had a crush on one of the boys who came with us on these expeditions: a pretty-faced jackeroo fresh out of Geelong Grammar.

There’s more. Like John Grant, my mother had aspirations to culture. She read Tolstoy, quoted Cavafy, listened to Mahler and looked down on most everyone around her. Like Janette Hynes, she appreciated men. She wouldn’t have put it in so many words, but I thought of her when Doc Tydon asks a hung-over John Grant, “What’s wrong with a woman taking a man because she feels like it?” A difficult mother for a daughter to have, much less in a rural area where there is no anonymity. As Diana Vreeland, whose jolie-laide appearance was derided by her mother, said, “Parents, you know, can be terrible.” Hardly least, I’m a recovering alcoholic. Last drink: 7 August 1982. I don’t need anyone to tell me how easy it is to descend into hell, how hard to get out.

I left home at 17 and haven’t lived in Australia for three decades. Long ago and oh so far away. I’m aware of how annoying it is when finger-wagging expats flit in for a visit and deliver pronouncements from on high. Years ago, I included a mild description of Australian drinking habits in a collection of essays, and reviewers pounced. One took exception to my description of Australian pubs having tiled floors and walls, the better to hose away vomit, spillage and ciggie butts. She saw this as evidence that I didn’t know what I was talking about because, she argued, I was unaware that Australian pubs were no longer tiled. According to her, they’d been “tastefully redecorated”.

To fill gaps in my knowledge, I watched more Australian movies in a month and read more home-grown film criticism than any sane person probably should attempt. For my sins, I even watched Australia from beginning to end. I talked with Wake in Fright’s director, Ted Kotcheff, in person and its editor, Anthony Buckley, by phone. Buckley’s heroically stubborn 13-year-long odyssey to find the original print of the movie, saving it at the eleventh hour from permanent destruction, is by now well known. (His book, Behind a Velvet Light Trap: A Filmmaker’s Journey from Cinesound to Cannes, to be published in September by Hardie Grant, has a chapter on the editing of the film.) I emailed friends in Australia for updates on Australian drinking and corralled as many of them as I could in New York to watch the movie, including a couple from my hometown who were too young to have seen it the first time around. I wanted to know whether drinking, gambling and mateship as depicted in the movie had survived into the twenty-first century. Was the movie still relevant or was it a period piece?

To be sure, the answers were anecdotal – my view from New York can only be impressionistic – but, yes, it would still seem to be relevant. Fenced in by booze buses, binge drinking continues. Gambling is endemic. Broken Hill’s well-known Mario’s Palace Hotel still has its top-floor accommodation so that jackeroos from surrounding stations can sleep off a piss-up. A relative who is a policewoman in a rural town described the regrettable effects of Jager Bombs – Red Bull mixed with Jagermeister – on young people. In the Outback, things are, if anything, worse than the 1970s because marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and methamphetamine have joined beer consumption. Doc Tydon gives Grant some benzies to get over his hangover: standard procedure to use stimulants these days. My brother, Dare Jennings, brought up the B&S balls, relatively sedate one-night affairs when we were young but now infamous marathon sessions of getting hammered, helped along by amphetamines, with participants taking time out to sleep in their hot utes. He also said that drink-driving laws meant that many now drink at home alone. In the cities, a tour of the wine districts is seen as sampling the vintages, not for what it is: getting blotto. I told Dare of the long-ago review and the tastefully redecorated pubs. His response: “Now they vomit on the carpet.”

Mateship? Alive and thriving. Interviewed on American television, Eric Bana said, “Two things have remained constant in my life, my mates and my Beast.” The Beast, of course, is an old Falcon, the same model that Mel Gibson drove in the first Mad Max movie. Drinking and mateship are intertwined in sport, emailed another friend, with after-game bashes leading to what’s seen as larrikin behaviour when in fact it’s being “a total arsehole (and often a violent one).” The excuse from coaches: the “boys” need the piss-ups because they are under a lot of pressure. The definition of a homosexual – a man who talks to women – still has currency. For example, an acquaintance from Albury told me about a young relative, a student at Wollongong University, who wrote on his Facebook page that he had been out for a big night at a club with his mates: “Didn’t go for the girls. Chicks are for fags.” The muddled, unwitting oversharing in this post also speaks to the homophobic and homoerotic element in mateship.

The differences: increasing awareness that the men cracking a few cold ones often go home and thump the wife and kids. Kangaroos are no longer shot by the thousands for American pet-meat products, with the skins used for cuddly toys. And there would be women on the other side of the bar in Wake in Fright’s all-male pub scenes, whose crowded detail could have been created by Hieronymus Bosch. Two-up, I learned, is confined mostly to Anzac Day, there being plenty of other gambling options. Drinking hours are now around the clock; no need to keep the doors closed to hide illegal activity. Air-conditioning, four-wheel drives, television and computers have changed demographics and social patterns. The busy street life in the movie is a thing of the past, with the population of many rural towns in decline. The smallest have simply emptied out, ceased to exist. On a visit to Broken Hill in the ’80s, I found the streets deserted in the late morning, except for a stream of people heading like ants to a bunker-like building, which proved to be a sealed, air-conditioned club, beer flowing and the place filled with the robot sounds – pings, chimes, blips – issuing from row upon row of elaborate poker machines. I could have been in a space pod.

My rough survey of movies about the Outback found that they fall into three categories: menacing or violent à la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; lyrical, idyllic, prelapsarian; a backdrop for heroism or nobility in the face of hardship or, in the case of Indigenous Australians, racism. Sometimes, a mixture. Occasionally, the vagaries of movie-making throw up a gem, such as the amiable Bush Mechanics, which is hard to categorise. What’s missing from nearly all the movies I watched is hard-nosed reality. Polemic and sentimentality almost always undermine the better efforts.

Everyone to whom I showed the new print found Wake in Fright confronting. I saw it back when it had its short run in Sydney, in 1971, and I’ve never forgotten it. A short run because although the movie was critically acclaimed and nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes, Australians hated it. That’s not us, they said. To me, it was searing, truthful. Made matchsticks of myths. The paradoxical emotion at its centre, suffocating dread brought on by limitless sky and plains, was why I fled the Bush. Alan Moorehead in Cooper’s Creek notes this phenomenon: “One of the fascinating things about Australia is this sense of claustrophobia in the midst of such an infinity of space.”

Moorehead was one of Australia’s finest expatriate writers. Another was Ray Mathew, a friend who died in New York in 2002. Mathew actually was “a bonded slave to the education department,” as John Grant puts it in Wake in Fright. The schoolteacher in his play A Spring Song is at first “happy as sixpence” to be in a place that is “four houses, a school and a silo”, but then he begins to feel hemmed in: “It’s too close for me, too small and too big … It turns out I need a city. You can be lonely and not lonely in the city. Here you’re on top of people: they’re never away from you. And never close, I suppose.”

Both my brother and I would own up to being driven to succeed because we felt stifled by rural life, by blue sky and paddocks. (Being treated as rubes by Sydney relatives also provided considerable impetus.) Dare phoned me a few months ago from the main street of the town where our father was hospitalised and, without even saying hello, said, “Do you think we’ll ever get over it?” He didn’t have to say what “it” was. Paradox within paradox: we inherited an ironclad work ethic from those long lines of farmers, which made our escape possible, along with their entrepreneurial cussedness; farmers are entrepreneurs without peer.

If ‘fled or ‘escape’ seem strong words, we are hardly alone in the sentiment. In a recent interview by Brook Turner for the Australian Financial Review magazine, the chef Mark Best was blunt about his loathing for where he lived as a teenager, Norseman, on the edge of the Nullabor: “The country’s so fucking boring. The attitudes, the outlook, the acceptance, the crap it delivers; that banality. Everyone thinks there’s this sort of Arcadia out there, but go ask people why everyone’s bloody killing themselves.” Best looked “aghast” just remembering Norseman. I have noticed that writers who romanticise the Outback or are able to appreciate its beauty usually didn’t grow up in it. In A Spring Song, the schoolteacher remarks to a member of the family where he is billeted that the view – silo, station, four houses – is “not a bad view”. And she replies: “I was born here: it’s not a view.”

Clearly, I’m conflicted. The part of me that doesn’t want to hear farmers condescended to or slandered or watch them treated cavalierly by state and federal governments or fall victims to giant agribusiness concerns and the part that lives on the thirty-second floor of a Manhattan apartment building will never be reconciled. The same goes for my brother, who attended Yanco Agricultural High School and now lives a stone’s throw from Tamarama Beach. No one can fault John Grant for bolting from the Bush for the beach for the Christmas holidays. Everyone headed for the coast if they could. The beach was heaven – and still is.

In Word and Images: Australian Novels into Films, Brian McFarlane convincingly argues that Wake in Fright “realises certain ugly aspects of Australian Outback life with a vigour and exactness rare to the point of uniqueness in Australian films”. He also contends that the movie has “a narrative control and visual authority which few, if any, Australian films have matched since”. In other words, no cockatoos flying from trees against a flaming sunset, accompanied by swelling chords of majestic music. McFarlane’s book was published in 1983, and it holds true today.

I’d make an even bigger claim for Wake in Fright than McFarlane does. I’d argue that it’s close to perfect in the way that F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk are perfect: nary a false step. And it’s one of those rare movies that captures the spirit of a country. Il Divo does that for Italy; Burnt by the Sun for Russia: The Burmese Harp for Japan; Waltz with Bashir for Israel; and Good Night and Good Luck for the US. They are not movies that encompass every last complexity – Wake in Fright is about white men – but by isolating one part and scrutinising it with cinematic clarity, all these movies tell a larger truth about a nation’s collective psyche, and usually one that’s hard to swallow. In the case of Wake in Fright, the truth is that underneath the vaunted easy-going surface of Australians is a deforming truculence, an ugly snarkiness. (Okay, shoot me.)

Usually I’d stay away from phrases like ‘collective psyche’ and the generalisations that trail behind them. Quests to construct a national identity are more often than not futile, producing a fata morgana that always dissolves on close examination, like the salt pans in the Outback that you’d swear were water until you get up close. Still, the genuine friendliness of Australians twinned with their genuine delight when someone comes a cropper has always intrigued me. Southern-hemisphere schadenfreude.

In The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes comes as close as anyone to the reasons for this passive-aggressive trait:

Mateship, fatalism, contempt for do-gooders and God-botherers, harsh humour, opportunism, survivors’ disdain for introspection, and an attitude to authority in which private resentment mingled with ostensible recognition were the meagre baggage of values the convicts brought with them to Australia. They also brought, if men, the phallocracy of the tavern and ken, and, if women, a kind of tough passivity, a way of seeing life without expectations.

Hughes rounds out his shrewd summation – a larruping by any other name – with James McAuley’s oft-quoted lines: “The women are hard-eyed, kindly, with nothing inside them: / The men are independent but you could not call them free.” Hughes demonstrated a fair bit of truculence and snarkiness himself during his trial in Broome and later. You can take the boy out of Australia, etcetera.

Australians are intensely uncomfortable with being served themselves straight up, neat, on the rocks. When Wake In Fright was released, Colin Bennett in the Age feared for its box-office fate for that very reason: “Is it an Australian trait, a blind spot in our character, to refuse more than most peoples to see ourselves as others see us … unless it be blatantly satirical?” We’re comfortable with Dame Edna but not with unblinking and entirely fair portrayals like the director Ted Kotcheff’s in Wake in Fright.

Kotcheff, a Canadian, was one of a small posse of foreign directors – Michael Powell, Tony Richardson, Nicolas Roeg – to come to Australia in the ’60s, and his movie was easy to dismiss because he was an outsider. Insult to injury, the onsite producer, George Willoughby, was a Norwegian-born Brit, and the cinematographer, Brian West, is British. Three of the main characters were also Brits: the role of John Grant was filled by a smooth-cheeked Gary Bond. Doc Tydon was played by Donald Pleasence, one of the best character actors ever, and he brought mesmerising physical and emotional plasticity to the role. And Janette was given her passivity and pent-up emotion by Sylvia Kay, at the time Kotcheff’s wife. The screenwriter, Evan Jones, is a Jamaican-born Brit.

The longstanding attitude toward the movie and its mongrel cast and crew was boiled down some years later by a South Australian academic Andrew Zielinski in a publication called Screen Education: “Wake in Fright was … a visitor’s parking space, a Canadian viewpoint.” He goes on to say that the movie opened “a serious cultural wound seared by the hot flame of embarrassment and guilt.” Mixed metaphors aside, Zielinski is overlooking the well-documented fact that outsiders bring a fresh eye and see details that natives take for granted. Sometimes they get it dead right – and sometimes laughably wrong. Kotcheff got it right and was able to create much more than a parking space because he is Canadian. When I talked with him, he said that when he arrived in Australia in 1969 he was asked how he could make film about a culture and a country he didn’t know. His reply: “Australia has the same colonial background, the same lack of self-confidence, the same spaces that don’t liberate but imprison. The Canadian north is very similar to outback Australia.” Australians are no longer insecure – that pendulum has swung in the other direction – but I would place bets that Australians will like the movie this time around because they can place it in the past.

Bennett saw Wake in Fright as “the strongest and most savage comment on Australia ever put on film.” But he also saw the movie as “purposely … having no finesse, few nuances or subtleties”. I’d argue the opposite. Making a movie as straightforward as Wake in Fright, to give the impression of coarseness, takes a tremendous amount of finesse. (Do you think what Charlie Chaplin did was easy? That he just clowned around?) Kotcheff knows that what’s left out is as important as what’s put in. The white space, the notes you don’t hear. We don’t see the vomit that brings the seduction scene to a halt, just Grant’s back as he retches in the bushes and Janette’s expression, her bored resignation. We don’t see Doc Tydon buggering Grant. When Doc Tydon mock-acts the killing of a kangaroo by shining the overhead light in Grant’s face and then grabbing him with a half-nelson, we know what will happen because of a small shoulder movement many scenes earlier, when Grant goes outside to pee against a junked car and Tydon follows him, trying – and succeeding – to rattle the insecure city boy with his unconventional views on women. Grant moves his shoulder slightly so that Tydon can’t see his willie – and the act is set up. In the kangaroo-shooting scenes, we don’t see the worst of it, such as the testicles being cut off or the big boomer’s throat being cut, but we come away appalled all the same.

Many Australian critics saw Wake in Fright as a nightmare or as heightened, exaggerated reality. The word “sinister” was used over and again, particularly in relation to Doc Tydon. But he’s manipulative, not sinister – there’s a world of difference between the two. Bizarrely, the town policeman, Jock Crawford, was also seen to be sinister. Chips Rafferty, born in Broken Hill, played Crawford in what would prove to be his last role, and he gave his country copper a sly stolidity, blind-eyeing when it suits him and extending hospitality to a stranger in the only way he knows how, through drinking with him, ordering him a steak and taking him to a two-up school. His intent isn’t malicious, and he’s capable of kindness, but he’s also not displeased to see the schoolteacher taken down a peg: “You clever blokes never like to stop in one spot long, do you?” John Meillon has a superb cameo part as Charlie, the sleazy publican at the Tiboonda pub – “You got snakes in your pocket, have you?” he asks Grant when the schoolteacher doesn’t pay for his beer as he is about to leave Tiboonda – and the movie finishes with a close-up of Charlie’s face, his knowing smirk, his disdain mixed with amusement. He’s expressing the same emotion as Crawford: satisfaction at seeing a city person stripped of his superiority, although in Charlie’s case, there’s no kindness. He’s not sinister; he’s just flat-out nasty.

In the Sydney Morning Herald in 1984, David Stratton looked back at Wake In Fright and wrote, “Few, if any, Australian films made since Wake in Fright have had the intelligence, the power and the fearful beauty of this masterly film.” Martha DuBose, film critic at the SMH when the movie was released, hummed, hawed and hedged. She was one of those who saw the film as “like a nightmare from which one awakes limp, drained and vaguely queasy”. She also delivered one of those backhanded compliments at which Australians excel. “Wake in Fright is not without its major flaws,” she wrote, “but these are not so bothersome as they would be in a picture with cerebral pretensions.” This doesn’t make much sense until you remember that this was a time when we all thought Last Year at Marienbad and La Notte were the ant’s pants.

No Australian critic liked the seduction scene. The episode strikes me as spot on: Grant’s clumsiness as he climbs on top of her and then lurching off to vomit; Janette wiping his face with her hanky, a gesture at which she clearly has had practice. The choicest bit occurs at the beginning of the seduction, when Grant trots out a hackneyed line from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. “The moonlight, like snow upon the desert’s dusty face,” he carols, inflecting the words with pathos to parade his sensitivity, as they look over the fence at the moon lighting up, presumably, the gigantic mullock of tailings that runs down the middle of Broken Hill. What she’s thinking is, Let’s get on with it, boyo.

When Janette and Grant return inside, the men are taking bets on when a dog will whelp. They ask her who the father of the pups might be, and Janette’s reply is as in-your-face as it gets: “She’s a slag. This little mutt, she’d try anything.” Game, set and match. A thoroughly embarrassed Grant proceeds to drink himself under the table.

Like Doc Tydon, Janette has self-knowledge in contrast to Grant’s obliviousness to either his motives or those of the people around him. My experience of watching the movie many times made me grow extremely fond of Doc and Janette. They don’t pretend, but their cynicism is mixed with compassion.

Kotcheff’s restraint is remarkable. Take the dialogue between Hynes and Dick when Grant talks with Janette. Dick asks Hynes, “What’s the matter with him? Rather talk with a woman than have a drink?” and Hynes says, “Schoolteacher.” Understood. End of discussion. I also love the many grace notes in the movie, such as when Dick, played by a virile Jack Thompson relishing his first film role, claps the air above pint-sized Tim Hynes to rib him about his height or when he stops Janette from passing by anticipating her moves, again teasing but also asserting his dominance, his alpha status. Or the snippet of conversation when Jock Crawford enters the two-up school. “How’s it going there, Jock?” a friend asks, and he says, “Not bad, Jim. How’s it going with you?” The answer: “Beauty.” Perfect.

But what truly bowls me over about Wake in Fright is how closely Ted Kotcheff and his screenwriter, Evan Jones, hewed to the Kenneth Cook novel on which the movie is based, also called Wake in Fright. And how closely Kotcheff hewed to the script. Comparing novel, script and book should be a compulsory exercise in Australian film schools. If anything was added or deleted, it was done with surgical precision and only improved the end result. Kotcheff and Evan Jones knew when to leave well enough alone, a rare skill in any endeavour.

Kenneth Cook derived his title from an old curse: “May you dream of the devil and wake in fright.” (In medieval times, farmers believed that if they dreamed of the devil, their crops would shrivel.) Cook’s novel, his first published, is short and powerful, if occasionally overwrought. A young man’s novel and a good one, based on his experiences as a journalist in Broken Hill. In a 1977 interview for Westerly with John Ryan, Cook talked about the characters: “They are all based on people I knew – they are all dead now, but the characterisations are totally libellous.” At first he called the man who was the inspiration for Doc Tydon “a very evil man”, and then backed off, saying he was “a hateful man, as distinct from an evil man”. Further along in the interview, he pondered whether the men in Wake in Fright were malign or just human: “They are utterly and completely destructive to anything of goodness or responsibility under the sun. And yet they are completely innocent. It is a grotesque mindlessness which they evince in all their actions. They seem to be able to exist in this world without any concern for the horror which is lying around them and to be happy.”

In one respect, the movie and the novel are very different. Kotcheff steps back, doesn’t judge, doesn’t go near matters of evil or innocence. In taking out the angst, he makes a movie that’s better than the book. The film contains one scene that exemplifies his approach. It isn’t in either the book or the script; Kotcheff inserted it once he got to Broken Hill and came to admire its inhabitants. The scene is what would be called in magazine and speechwriting the ‘nut’ paragraph; it signposts what’s to come. After introducing Grant to the intricacies of two-up, Jock Crawford takes him to a grubby café for a steak. He seats him opposite Doc Tydon, who opens the conversation. Noise from the two-up game is in the background: “Faaaaair go!”

TYDON: All the little devils are proud of hell.

GRANT: You mean, you don’t think the Yabba is the greatest place on earth?

TYDON: Could be worse.


TYDON: The supply of beer could run out.

GRANT: Why did you say that?

TYDON: Say what?

GRANT: About them being proud of hell.

TYDON: Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. If you’ve got to live here, then you might as well like it. Why don’t you like Crawford?

GRANT: Jock?

TYDON: The touch of his hairy hand offended you.

GRANT: I’m bored with it. The aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are.

TYDON: It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?

GRANT: And what do you do?

TYDON: I drink.

Much later, this pivotal scene is bookended by the tirade that a despairing Grant heaps on a man who has given him a lift to the next town. The schoolteacher has come to realise that alcohol, while seeming to offer relief, exacerbates the feeling of being imprisoned by monotonous terrain and blistering heat. It’s the lock on the door, the bars on the window.

MORLEY: Come and have a drink, mate.

GRANT: No thanks.

MORLEY: Come and have a drink. Only take a minute.

GRANT: I’ve given up for a while.

MORLEY: What’s wrong with you, you bastard? I just brought you 50 miles in the heat and dust. Come and drink with me!

GRANT: What’s the matter with you people? Sponge on you, burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child – that’s all right. But not have a drink with you? Don’t have a flaming bloody drink with you? That’s a criminal offence! That’s the end of the bloody world!

MORLEY: Yer mad, yer bastard.

The last line is different in the script, which reads, “You’re off your head, mate.” The substitution is infinitely better, another of the movie’s grace notes. Kotcheff said he allowed his actors to use Australian argot but not so much that the movie sags under slang.

The fellow driving the jeep was not an actor. He was Jack, a nearly toothless, illiterate, nuggetty roo hunter, the genuine article, as Jane Perlez reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. The actor who was to play Morley broke his jaw, so Kotcheff recruited Jack. Fingers were crossed that he would remember his lines. As Kotcheff called for a dozen takes under a pitiless sun, Gary Bond was falling over from exhaustion, but Jack was cheerful to the end, glad to be in a movie. Jack’s physical appearance and performance tickled me no end, as did the faces in the two-up game and the RSL club, all of them non-actors.

Maurice Singer, the associate producer, told Perlez, “This is going to be a hot movie. We could have made it some place else but you’ve got to feel the heat to get it onto the screen. We’ve got lots of dark red dirt, amazing sunsets, mirages, heat – it’s all there. For the first ten days, the temperature didn’t drop below 110 degrees.” Kotcheff ordered sterilised flies from Sydney University by the thousands and let them loose in all the interiors, which were filmed in Sydney, and brought in red dust from Broken Hill to float in the air, to the point that his friends complained that you feel you need to take a shower after watching the movie. He also asked the art director, Dennis Gentle, for only hot colours, no blues and greens, only reds, yellows and browns.

And it is all there. The heat and, yes, the claustrophobia are palpable. And the blinding light, which hits Grant as he steps out of the Tiboonda schoolhouse for his vacation and keeps hitting him in one form or the other throughout the movie. Kotcheff intended his fugue-like use of light as meaning, “You are not going to escape. You are going to have to face yourself.” David Stratton’s reference to the “fearful beauty of the movie” is as accurate a description of Wake in Fright’s physicality as I’ve read. I’d love to see this movie in an Imax theatre.

I talked with Ted Kotcheff in his office at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers. He’s 78 now, an executive producer on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, trim, energetic and a great raconteur. He acts out in dialogue scenes from his Wake in Fright experience, complete with sound effects. He laughs, really laughs, and it’s infectious. We talked for two hours, and in that time, to explain his underlying intentions in the movie, he brought up Anton Chekhov, DH Lawrence, William Blake, Louis MacNeice, Descartes, Leibniz, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Comfortably cerebral but not pretentious.

I was particularly curious about Kotcheff’s refusal to judge his characters. “I remember an Australian saying to me,” he explained, “‘You’ve come here to rubbish us.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Yes you are. You’re going to rubbish us.’ And I said, ‘I’m a filmmaker. I don’t judge. I observe and empathise.’” He went on to talk about the influence of Chekhov on his work: “He was criticised for not taking a moral stand in his story ‘The Horse Thief’, for not condemning the thief. His reply was, ‘If you need me to teach you that stealing horses is wrong, your moral structure is very creaky indeed. I’m not interested in condemning the man. I’m interested in getting inside his head. I am not the judge of my characters. I’m their best witness.’ I tell you, this still makes me shiver. It became the backbone of my own creative work. I am not going to judge people. We are all in the same existential boat.”

When John Grant is alone on the road out of the Yabba, he dumps his books, dumps Plato. “Philosophy is no good in this universe,” said Kotcheff. “That’s not true just in the Outback. Sartre calls it abandonment. Abandoned, with no god, we despair and we have to create ourselves.” That’s where Louis MacNeice came into the conversation. Kotcheff quoted a line from his poem ‘Autumn Journal’: “Good-bye now, Plato and Hegel … There ain’t no universals in this man’s town.”

“I admired the men in Broken Hill,” Kotcheff said, “but I was also moved by the predicament of women in Australian mining towns. The men outnumbered the women three to one. It was so hard on the women. They regularly committed suicide. The men are never there. They are in mines or the RSL club or the pubs.” He went on to recall doing a play in Ireland and peeking through the curtain and seeing only women in the audience. “Where are the men?” he asked. The answer: “In the pub.” The phallocracy of the tavern and ken. 

The movie took seven months from start to finish, with three months on location in Broken Hill. Because there was nothing to do in Broken Hill in the evenings, Kotcheff became addicted to two-up. “The associate producer, Maurice Singer, and I would go to the two-up school on weekend nights,” he remembered. “One night Maurice threw 28 straight pairs of heads. Twenty-eight! We cleaned them out. There were about 50 men there. Miners like Dick and Joe in the movie and hands from the sheep ranches. We won $10,000. At the end, the guy who ran the two-up school came over and said ‘Ted, I’ve locked the doors. I will let you out, keep them locked for ten minutes, but after that you’re on your own.’ We ran like hell back to the motel and hid the money. Once the exhilaration and euphoria had worn off, I felt bad. We took their whole weekly salary. We couldn’t return the money – that’s insulting. So we threw a bash. All the food you could eat and beer you could drink. Music and dancing! Men were dancing with men! It was a wonderful Dionysian scene.”

The kangaroo shooting necessarily came up. Kotcheff told me about a chilling conversation he had with two of the professional hunters. They asked him, “Where do you want us to shoot them. Kidneys, brain, heart?” “Well, what’s the difference?” replied Kotcheff. The difference: “With kidneys they die immediately. They drop. If you shoot them in the brain, they take a couple of hops. The most dramatic is when you shoot them in the heart. They leap four or five or six times and then right up into air and finally die.” Completely taken aback, Kotcheff said, “Please don’t do anything for me. Just go and do your job.”

He heaped praise on Anthony Buckley’s editing: “He’s a brilliant editor. The kinetic energy, the dynamism in the roo shooting scenes – brilliant job.” Back in London, Kotcheff screened the movie for Thom Noble, a hotshot British film editor who was dubious about an Australian’s ability to do the job. Noble’s verdict: “I wouldn’t touch a frame of it.” The sound editor, Tim Wellburn, who would go off for a week to get the exact revving noise that a Ford makes, came in for praise as well: “He was good. Great stuff.”

Kotcheff recalled a vintage example of cultural cringe. An actress – “snooty” – auditioned for the part of Janette Hynes. She had just seen Two Gentlemen Sharing and was going on about how good it was, unaware that it was Kotcheff’s work. “I directed that movie,” he said. She asked, “What are you doing here then?” “I’m making the film you’re auditioning for.” “But you don’t understand,” she said. “Only losers and third-raters come here.”

The kangaroo hunt, which sends audiences out of theatres reeling, is only eight minutes in length, carefully edited to seem much more. The carnage is powerful, stomach-turning, even more so for viewers who have never seen farm animals slaughtered, much less been hunting, which would be most Australians. However, the truly ghastly bit is not the kangaroos being pumped full of bullets even after they are dead, with the bodies jigging and jerking as if they were still alive, but the scene when John Grant decides to prove his manhood by attempting to kill a wounded kangaroo just as Joe, played by a massive Peter Whittle, has done. His specialty is grabbing a wounded kangaroo by the tail and cutting its throat from behind, a dicey thing to do with an enraged boomer because he could disembowel you. But the kangaroo Grant chooses isn’t fully grown, and he falters at the sight and the pathetic noises the poor beast is making.

JOE: What’s the matter, teacher? You scared?

GRANT: It’s only a baby. It’s badly wounded.

JOE: Have a go, you mug.

Urged on by a chorus of “Come on, Johnny! Go, Johnny!” Grant makes ineffectual grabs at the kangaroo’s tail, which provokes manic laughter from Dick and Joe. Tydon is preoccupied with his bottle of scotch.

JOE: He’s trying to dance with it. Come on, Johnny! Cut its throat, Johnny!

When Grant can’t make himself cut its throat, he starts wildly bashing the creature.

DICK: He’s trying to beat the thing to death!

Once the deed is done, slow clapping from Dick and Joe and guns fired to salute him.

JOE: You beauty! Now you’re learning!

Later at the pub, Dick and Joe start horsing around, pretending to fight. And then Dick accidentally lands a hard punch and Joe tips into homicidal rage. This scene is seen by some to be stagy, and yet the Australian men to whom I showed the movie mention it as soon as the credits finish. They’ve all experienced the moment when kidding turns serious, deadly.

My brother’s favourite scene: Grant is woken up after the first night of heavy drinking by daylight shining through the corrugated iron on his face. The ferocious hangover, the niggling light, a blowfly insistently buzzing – a rite of passage for Australian rural youth. When I told Dare I was to meet Ted Kotcheff, he asked me to thank the director for this scene, which I duly did. I also thanked Kotcheff for my favourite scene, which follows directly on from this. Grant staggers into the kitchen – he has no idea where he is, having blacked out the night before after his “little episode with Janette” – and there is bare-chested Doc Tydon swatting flies and spooning muck into his mouth from a frying pan. Later, we find out that the muck is fried boomer testicles – Tydon’s favorite kangaroo part – and it’s all Grant can do to stop gagging.

On a gramophone – the type housed in a wooden console – an LP is playing. It’s Amelita Galli-Curci singing an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto – ‘Caro Nome’ – in a thready voice: “Sweet name, you who made my heart throb for the first time, you must always remind me, the pleasures of love!” As he retrieves a bottle of beer – half-filled, flat, because he has no money and scrounges leftovers – from the fridge, Tydon exclaims expansively, “What a doll! Galli-Curci.” A little while later, still slurping up testicle mash, he says, “What a voice! She just opens her mouth and notes come flowing out.” He then retrieves some surgical scissors from his doctor’s bag and trims his beard. The scene cracks me up. It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?

The scene is not impossible. You never know where you will hear opera in the Bush. Ray Mathew told me that the writer Eric Schlunke – Stories of the Riverina – who farmed near Temora, where I was born, had his house wired so that he could hear The Marriage of Figaro wherever he was. It also brought back memories of my mother doing the ironing, an LP playing on a tiny portable pink-and-grey record player. No steam irons in those days, so she would stand at the kitchen table sprinkling clothes with water and folding them in tight bundles, the ‘Emperor’ concerto blasting. If my father came in, she made a show of lifting the needle: he was just an ignorant farmer. She eventually left him, but not to go to a cultural capital. Instead she ran off with another farmer and went to the Top End, setting up camp near Timber Creek on the Victoria River. I was working on a magazine in New York when a photographer, on finding out that I was Australian, told me about an extraordinary woman he’d met on a river bank in the Northern Territory. In the middle of nowhere, among the ghost gums, a woman who read poetry and listened to classical music. It was my mother.

Ironically, to me at least and perhaps others, I received an excellent education because of the bonding system. Attracting good teachers to country schools is much harder without it. However, while the teachers were welcome, they were never one of us. Most left at the end of their “sentence”, but a few took to the life and stayed.

Last year, an old friend from my hometown visited me. My friend and I have known each other all our lives; both our families came from the same farming hamlet. She still lives there, runs the local agricultural fair. She loves fishing, football and country music. I will watch any game with a ball and can bore you to tears about why Kris Kristofferson is a greater songwriter than Johnny Cash. An heretical position. My one regret in life is that I never saw The Highwaymen in concert. You can take the girl out of the country, etcetera.

One day at an open-air café on the Hudson River, we sat reminiscing about our school days.

“How about your mother and Mr T?” she said. Mr T was one of our primary-school teachers. A bonded slave.

“What do you mean, my mother and Mr T?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“She used to drive to the top of the road leading to the house where he was billeted and toot the horn and he’d come running.”

My jaw dropped. “You’re kidding.”

Silence while I took this in. I was thinking, Oh jeez, Mum. Really! My primary-school teacher! I decided to defend her honour. “You don’t know this for a fact. People always gossiped about her. Maybe she and Mr T were just friends. Maybe he liked Beethoven.”

My old school chum is expert at making a point by raising an eyebrow. She raised an eyebrow.

I returned to my apartment distressed, unbelievably so for something that happened – might have happened – more than 50 years ago. I called my brother. He couldn’t stop laughing. He told me that when Mum was dying, immobilised in her hospital bed, fried by chemo, she flirted like a femme fatale with the male nurses. Couldn’t help herself; that’s just the way she was. Doc Tydon and Janette Hynes would understand. Long ago and oh so far away.

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