Peter Galvin: Cultural Cringe, Cinema History, and Wake in Fright

April 30, 2018
A new book delves into the making of the Outback Gothic classic, Wake in Fright.

Peter Galvin is a writer and filmmaker. He has written about movies and moviemaking in most of Australia’s major newspapers and movie magazines including FilmInk and has taught cinema at the Sydney Film School, where he currently holds the role of Archivist/Librarian and In-house Filmmaker.

His first book A Long Way from Anywhere – the Story of Wake in Fright – An Australian Classic will be published early next year.

What was the impetus behind this project?

I always loved the film. When it was re-issued I wrote a long series of articles about its making (and I wrote the press kit – uncredited). Two years ago I was at a loose end and a friend suggested I return to my research and do it as a hardcover book. I had heard a lot of stories about the making of the film from around the filmmaking traps for years. I was initially disbelieving… then I started writing the book and discovered that the more outrageous things were true! So it’s a ripping yarn with lots of drama and a lot of terrific, eccentric, talented characters banging their heads together and striving to make a great film.

Since it was an Aussie co-pro with a US company there was a lot of friction and on top of that when it went into production in 1968 there was no Australian feature film industry. Meanwhile, I could have written an entire book about what happened to the crew when they went to Broken Hill in February 1970 – the film’s main location. It was like something out of a Western with the locals suspicious and the newcomers striving to find a way to fit in and come away unscathed.

Still, on another level entirely – as say, a piece of social and cultural history – the story of the making of Wake in Fright is a tremendous insight into what was happening in Australia in the late 1960s. The ‘cultural cringe’ – that feeling that we were South of the Western World (Europe/America), inadequate in terms of our thinking, our art, our lifestyle, nothing to call our own – that was a real, genuine, deeply felt emotion for a lot of people, then and not only in the arts. So it was the start of Australia re-evaluating its dreams, and itself in all the arts – but especially in film and TV.

When did you first encounter Wake in Fright and what kind of impact did it have on you?

I was in high school. It was on TV on the Bill Collins Picture Show in the ’80s. For those younger readers, Bill was this bespectacled film fan who had been on TV for decades presenting ‘classic’ films at a time when TV programmers simply did not want them on the air, because many were in B&W, and were ‘old’. But Bill had a following and the movies he showed were his choice and they drew an audience. He was famous for saying things like ‘I’m really excited tonight’, which he said almost every week. Well, Wake in Fright blew me away. I was already a huge movie fan at the time. I was probably about 16. Speaking of cultural cringe my classmates thought Aussie movies were garbage (I actually think this was received opinion since I don’t think they had actually seen any!) But still, they even liked it. Probably for the wrong reasons – like the brawling, and the gore in the kangaroo shoot. But to be honest that made an impact on me too. In those days we had a real craving for ‘realism’, if it had a whiff of fakery we hated it. Wake in Fright stank of reality

To your mind, what sets it apart from other examples of Australian cinema?

Well, it is such an interesting and thrilling co-mingling of things. What I mean by that is that it has this surface realism – it seems almost documentary like at times – and yet it has an aggressive cinematic style that’s almost hallucinatory and I think there’s a point where we enter the psyche of the main character, this outsider to this world, so what we are seeing in a way is coloured by his disdainful point of view of the Outback. But if we see the action and events in any kind of objective reality we can say ‘gee, these characters, and what they are doing isn’t so bad…he’s the one with the problem…’

So the movie has this really complex inside/outside point of view. It’s the point of view of someone who sees ordinary things as weird and certain behaviour as invasive because they are ill at ease with themselves. He’s the guy who’s found himself at the party by mistake and his attempts to fit in are awkward and the more he tries to hide himself the more his true self emerges. The movie’s dominant emotions are revulsion and horror, this makes uncomfortable viewing and why the film is often thought of as a riff on Gothic horror. Ted Kotcheff and his talented team, particularly editor Tony Buckley, found a form for the film that was poetic and immersive. There were pictures that came later like Devil’s Playground (1976) and Sunday Too Far Away (1975, which the English thought was like a doco-drama) that combined the realist and the poetic – but they were in their way very much laid out for you. Their pleasures are plenty but incidental. There’s something mysterious about Wake in Fright, even if the story is very straightforward.

Although obscure for some time, the film is now rightly regarded as a classic and is attracting an increasing amount of critical attention. What sets your book apart? What angle are you taking?

Good question. I had to ask myself that a lot in the early stages. Well, not a lot has been written about Wake in Fright. There is one good monograph but it, like so many books like it, has not reached a big audience. If you check out the famous mags in English, Sight and Sound, Film Comment, even scholarly blogs, there is very little there and what is available in terms of describing how the film came to be is a half-truth or flat-out wrong. So the job I set myself was to attempt to answer why the film never quite captured the imagination of scholars at the time (or even since) and how on earth did a small but prosperous TV company in Sydney get into the movie business and with a film the market had rejected as a prospect several times over, and they managed to get it financed when big names like Dirk Bogarde and Morris West had failed! I wanted to correct some popular assumptions too – like the still lingering belief that the film is not really an Australian production but an American project! I have settled that once and for all.

My angle is that the making of Wake in Fright tells the story of those very, very early days of the Australian feature film revival. I wanted to do what few Australian books on film have attempted – which is a group biography and these people I have selected to focus on were all directly involved in Wake in Fright, or the push to get Australian moviemaking happening after it had all stopped in the 1940s here. I like to joke that in essence, A Long Way from Anywhere is ‘the life and times of Wake in Fright‘. But the truth is, that is exactly what it is.

Do you envision the book as being accessible to the layperson or a work for extant cineastes?

Absolutely. All due respect but this is not a ‘clubbie’ book for insiders only, the already invested, the professional reader and film scholar. I assume and I hope those readers will be drawn to the material since it’s native to them. But I’ve always liked popular history. I’ve always liked those books with a sweeping view of their subject, that try to embrace the wider world while focusing on a strong story where the reader can invest in this tight group of characters all somehow linked to a central mission and yet engaged with something bigger: I mean you can find this kind of approach in books about Renaissance painters, or the spies who laid the groundwork for the D Day invasion or Mark Harris’ book about the Oscar movies of 1968! Still, I’m very interested in exploring the subtleties of film work. My job is to draw the general reader into it all and make it live for them.

What has your research process been like? What have you uncovered in your journey?

I’ve uncovered a great deal, not just some significant facts (like how the film came to the Australian producer, NLT, and why) but also a lot of fascinating biographical stuff. I mean there is one character involved with the film with a Nazi past, another was rumoured to have a CIA connection, another was a notorious cheque bouncer who was also incredibly talented and fearless in their way.

The research was traditional, I suppose: I’ve spoken to almost everyone who is still alive who worked on the film, sourced rare interviews and personal business miscellany for those that are no longer with us, read every page of the NLT archive (that’s thousands of pages), accessed archives in Oslo, Paris, Harvard, London, New York, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Cambridge for films, stills, news clippings, biographical details, and searched and found friends of the filmmakers and actors. I made a lot of phone calls and wrote thousands of emails and every one has been really generous and helpful and kind – they want this story told. And I’ve read hundreds of books about all kinds of subjects intended to help me understand Australian life in the ’60s – everything from TV news to the Australian accent, to zoology on the kangaroo, the history of Broken Hill. There’s still a lot of research to complete – there are things crucial to the story that I need to access in London and the USA and here at the ABC which is costly – which is why I’m crowdfunding.

Thinking about where the film sits in the Australia culture of the time, what does it tell us about our identity then, and the way we saw ourselves?

That’s a good question and it’s fascinating when you read the reviews because there was no critical consensus in 1971 and ’72 here, in France, in the USA, and in England. Overseas the critics – not only the highbrow ones – saw the film’s (and the novel’s) classical roots and responded to it as the Fall from Grace of an Innocent. In Australia, with one or two exceptions, it was seen as sociology and an attack – a documentary snapshot of Australian attitudes to women, to mateship, to the Outback, and how, faced with the limitations of isolation it’s impossible to lead the life of the mind and better to give into the vices of greed, violence, lust.

It’s contradictory but there was a strong push to be hard on ourselves when scrutinising the Aussie character amongst the artists and journos and commentators of the late ’60s, but when a book, or a TV show or a news report looked too hard it was considered too harsh. Most took Wake in Fright as a scathing indictment of the ‘Australian Identity’. I think that demonstrates just how self-conscious the Australian scene was then, and another example of cultural cringe (is this how we want to be seen in the world?). I mean, every artwork was a National Statement of Who We Are first and foremost. There are deep reasons for this but it diminishes the work and limits it. What interested me about the time then was that the film wasn’t discussed as ‘cinema’ here. It’s a dazzling stylised film – something that Martin Scorsese recognised at the time when he saw it Cannes in ’71. One distinguished Australian critic/academic pointed out to me that Scorsese has lifted some the editing/shots from the film. I think he might be right.

Further to that, what does it say about us now – the fact that it has been rediscovered and reappraised?

I think that we’ve moved on and ready to appraise it as a piece of cinema. When the film was re-issued nine years ago critics talked about its powerful style. Still, it was not considered a museum piece. I think the sexuality of the film (which was hardly discussed here in ’71) still resonates and the film’s treatment of mateship is seen in a more complex way. I think people now see the sensibility of the film not as an attempt to indict a lifestyle/people or entire culture…but as a rich and textured portrait of this pummelled psyche who feels trapped in this far off place, a stranger in a strange land. The claustrophobia and explosiveness of the film come out of the fact that we are trapped inside this character’s head. I’ve shown this to students who relate to it emotionally –  I mean who hasn’t felt like an outsider once in their life? The re-discovery was simply the work of Tony Buckley. It wasn’t driven by critics, or a movie company or an archive. So what Tony did changed film history. That’s not an exaggeration. The movie would have been destroyed and never restored. It was found in a waste bin hours before it was scheduled to be incinerated.

What’s your view of Kotcheff as a filmmaker, both in general and in particular on Wake in Fright? What did he bring to the project?

The view on Kotcheff is that he is not an auteur – that is, a filmmaker with an all-powerful sensibility that transforms all he touches – but a journeyman. But Kotcheff is very interesting (like many so-called journeymen). I think his work really comes alive when he can seize control of the filmmaking apparatus top to bottom. That happened to a great extent on First Blood (1982) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and these are his best films besides his very best movie, Wake in Fright. Wake in Fright was his fourth feature after two commercial failures, one middling success, and a lot of faint praise.

It’s a forgotten fact now but Kotcheff was the most important director of live TV dramatic ‘plays’ in London in the 1960s. He was that rarity – an actor’s director with a gift for lucid expressive camera work who never imposed a style on the material. He wanted to discover the style in the process. What he brought to Wake in Fright was compassion – besides an action movie feeling (in the old-school ’60s style of action movie which has nothing to do with today’s movies that have that label.) He brought an eye for the peculiar, telling detail in behaviour, in decor and atmosphere. He threw himself into first-hand research – he gambled in illegal blue-collar casinos to understand two-up, he hung out at wharfie pubs to pick up the body language and syntax of working men. Ken Cook, who wrote the original novel, hated the Outback and those people. Kotcheff comes to Australia and loved it and the Outback. So that central irony of the film – that John Grant’s ‘tormentor’s’ only want to help him and be kind to him and it is perfectly sincere really comes from Kotcheff and to a certain extent his collaboration with screenwriter Evan Jones. Cook saw cruelty in this place, and people a desire to make small the stranger, or else convert him. Kotcheff saw that turn too but wanted to penetrate that hard shell. He and Jones were both fascinated by mateship and saw it with tenderness and saw under its rough bullying violence that it was a mask in order to hide this vulnerability that was shameful and toxic and needy and necessary – all at once.

To support A Long Way From Anywhere, head over to the Australian Cultural Fund.

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