Thursday, August 20, 2009

Film Festival Wrap Up#4

Listening to: PJ Harvey - Stories from the city, stories from the sea

Wake In Fright (1970)

I admittedly didn't know the story of this 'Lost Australian Classic', but the premise sounded interesting. Cultured, educated man finds himself trapped in the cultural wasteland of a small town in the Australian outback. It plays out like a more extreme, apocalyptically booze drenched version of 'Groundhog Day', twenty something years earlier and with more epic scenery, in vivid technicolour.

The opening shot establishes the tone perfectly. A long slow 360 degree pan over a two building settlement in the desert. The buildings are a Pub/Hotel and a one room schoolhouse, between them a railway line stretching to a barren horizon in both directions.

There is no greenery, no shade, no flinching at showing how bleak the desert can be. The central character is the teacher at the schoolhouse. Bonded to pay for his education, he isn't there by choice, and plans to travel to Sydney to spend Christmas with his girlfriend. On the way he must overnight in the mining town of Bundanyabba (played by the mining town of Broken Hill. Yes, that Broken Hill). Befriended by the local cop, he stumbles on a way to pay off his bond, which ultimately fails and leaves him penniless and stranded in the 'Yabba. Initially horrified by the binge drinking, brawling and hard partying nature of the town, the film follows his attempts to maintain his principles and not descend into the madness around him. While making the point that the landscape is not the only desert to be found here, it is also rubbed home that there is a beast to be unleashed within even the most cultured soul.

It's interesting not only for the plot, but for the film itself. While ostensibly a work of fiction, at times it is hard to tell. Released only six years before I was born, I enjoyed a lot of the period details. And while Australia and New Zealand are ultimately very different cultures, there are some recognisable shared references in the movie, particularly in the depiction of the male oriented booze culture of the sixties and seventies (there are only three female characters in the movie, two not particularly flattering and the third only a photograph to be idolised from a distance).

Alcohol is as much a character in this movie as any of the actors. No-one in 'yabba drinks for fun. They drink because everybody else does, and there is nothing else to do. The bar stays open long after its legal closing hour, which doesn't matter because the cops are inside chopping down the drinks with the rest of the punters. Beer is not sipped or savoured here; it is drained in one pull from a small glass, which is immediately replaced or refilled. Empties are lined up along the bar and filled en-masse from a hose for industrialised drinking. No one cares about the flavour. I had heard about this behaviour in relation to a recent part of New Zealand history known as the Six O'clock Swill, but never seen what it looked like in real life. The bar scenes were filmed on location, and feel more documentary than fiction (also documentary feeling are the Two up gaming scenes where our protagonist loses all his money). One of the best lines in the film belongs to the town's alcoholic doctor. In Sydney his alcoholism was a liability, but out here it just means he blends in with the crowd.

Drinking and partying is exercised without restraint until the participants are unconscious, from the drink or from the brawling. And when they awake they pick up where they left off. The Teacher tries to stay aloof at first, but is steadily corrupted by the environment (or the environment just exposes his high minded pretension, which ever you prefer), eventually abandoning himself to the alcoholic orgy and brutality. In a moment of clarity he realises what is happening to him and the rest of the film centres around his increasingly desperate and futile attempts to escape both the town and the culture.

Its not a film for the faint hearted, and still relevant in the context of the continued prevalence of binge drinking in particular in New Zealand. While having a lot to say, it is never preachy, and is remarkably undated for its age. Well worth seeing

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