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.

263 comments to Red Kangaroo: Wake in Fright tonight at SFIFF

  • RvB

    Thanks Joe Mader for this link–a hell of a story about how this film was almost lost–

  • Angela Ledee

    Antonio Saillant and Chris Meloni Co-Hosted a Celebration in honor of Director Ted Kotcheff at MOMA.

    Actor,  Producer and owner of Angel Light Pictures, Antonio Saillant, co-hosted the surprise 80th birthday festivities for executive producer of “Law & Order: SVU,”  Ted Kotcheff with Chris Meloni.  The Sunday, March 20, event, was also hosted by his wife, Laifun,   screened his 1971 Australian film, “Wake in Fright,” which debuted 40 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2009, “Wake in Fright” was declared a “Cannes Classic” (and was screened again as part of that year’s retrospective program). It’s one of only two movies to hold this “Cannes Classic” distinction. 

    After the screening Kotcheff held a Q & A much to the delight of the audience.  Also joining the celebration and the party afterwards held at Bice on East 54th were actors Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order SVU,  Brian Dennehy and Michael Talbott, First Blood, and many other close friends and family of the honoree. 

  • Angela Ledee

    Director Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright honored at MOMA
    A surprise private screening celebration in honor of Canadian Director Ted Kotcheff’s 80th Birthday.

    (New York, NY, March 28,2011)— The restored 1971 Australian classic Wake in Fright was screened The Sunday on March 20th at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in The Lewis B. & Dorothy Cullman Education & Research Building (The Celeste Bartos Theater) as part of a surprise private screening celebration given by his wife Laifun in honor of his 80th Birthday. 

    The event was co-hosted by Chris Meloni (Law & Order SVU) and Antonio Saillant (Angel Light Pictures).  Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU), Brian Dennehy and Michael Talbott (First Blood) and many other close friends of the honoree attended this historical event and a special reception dinner followed immediately after the screening at the restaurant Bice NY.

    Wake In Fright, released in 1971, is a sharply observed drama about a schoolteacher stranded in a hostile country town. Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, it stars Gary Bond alongside Chips Rafferty, Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson and Sylvia Kay. Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, produced by George Willoughby and written by Evan Jones.

    At the time of production, Kotcheff had directed two films, the Tiara Tahiti (1962) and Two Men Sharing (1969). After Wake In Fright, Kotcheff would continue to have a successful career as a director. His later films included The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1973), as well as the football comedy “North Dallas Forty” (1979), which he also co-wrote, Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), First Blood (1982), and Weekend at Bernie’s (1988). In the 1990s, he returned to directing for TV and the executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

    38 years after its 1971 debut, ‘in competition,’ at the Cannes Film Festival, this film was declared a Cannes Classic in 2009 and was screened again as part of the 2009 Cannes Classics retrospective program, Kotcheff holds the honor of having one of only 2 films to have ever been screened twice at Cannes.

    A landmark film in the renaissance of Australian cinema in the 70s, Wake in Fright was lost for many years and has been restored by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive and re-issued and is now considered one of the greatest Australian films of all time. The film is distributed via Madman Entertainment.

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