Red Kangaroo: Wake in Fright tonight at SFIFF

by Richard von Busack

An intelligent if lofty schoolteacher (Gary Bond) arrives in a desert town that’s drunk 24 hours a day; eagerly, even hysterically befriended by the locals, including a doctor, played by Donald Pleasance, who has given up and embraced barbarism. Matters get worse right away; the funny games of the locals spiral out into random violence toward people, animals and possessions.

It’s the worse-case scenario of living in the desert—not a frontier life, but one in which the humans are devolving. As such, it’s not just a harbinger of the kind of ‘70s revenge film in which the chickens come home to roost, but the kind of movies Australia sold over seas: sci-fi tinged dramas of the apocalypse soon to come.

Any Australianaphile is alerted to tonight’s San Francisco International Film Festival screening of Wake in Fright (1971) tonight, April 26, at 9:45 at the Kabuki Theater; there’s two other screenings this week, April 30 and May 2.
Wake in Fright was released here in 1972 in an expurgated version as Outback. I’m guessing that this film’s revival is due to the scenes excerpted in Not Quite Hollywood.

There’s an expression producers use: “What can I put on the poster?” This means that any film, no matter how sophisticated, has to have some salient feature to be talked about afterward. It’s not the babble of post-modern criminal conversation that sold Reservoir Dogs, or the implicit critique of the hypocrisy of the Reagan Years in Blue Velvet: in both films, it was a severed ear that made audiences sit up and bark. And as Frako Loden notes, regarding her viewing of Wake in Fright, as seen at the Palm Springs Film Festival, what goes figuratively “on the poster” is a gratuitous, vicious slaughter of kangaroos by some drunken oafs in an outback town. Loden’s review here has some spoilers

but Loden records the disgust of the audience with these scenes.

This is for me another reminder how hard it is for someone who saw early 1970s cinema to be shocked by anything these days—it was a nihilist, anything-went cinema reflecting dread and urban decay—“Wake in Fright” is the perfect early 1970s title, because that phrase summed up the zeitgeist.

Wake in Fright is based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, an interesting character, an anti-Viet Nam war activist and a ecologist in addition to being a writer. And scriptwriter Evan Jones has a fascinating QV: a long time collaborator with Joseph Losey (Eva, The Damned aka These Are the Damned, Modesty Blaise); one can suppose a Losey/Pinter influence on these characters in which the malign, dog-eat-dog spirit is candied with disconcerting friendliness.

As an aside, one misses the hell out of Pauline Kael. Her three page review of this film published in the book Deeper Into Movies is a model of how to approach a film in which one isn’t a member of the culture it talks about. People say what they say about Kael’s blindspots and prejudices, but her interest in this film is concise and not clinical; she draws a parallel to Joseph Conrad’s work—and not necessarily the obvious parallel, to Heart of Darkness.

Kael doesn’t do what most of us would do: let the reaction to the mistreatment of ‘roos sicken us so much she can’t carry on. Though she is effected: “The red eyes of kangaroos in the glare of headlights—that’s what you take home from Outback.”

What Kael doesn’t tell you is what Not Quite Hollywood does suggest: the remarkableness of a film like Wake in Fright being made in a nation whose cinema was just beginning,  just emerging from heavy censorship: making the film was an act of serious self-criticism and bravery.

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