James Robert Douglas on Wake in Fright


13 November 2014

This is an edited version of a speech James Robert Douglas gave to introduce the film Wake in Fright, at LongPlay in Fitzroy, Melbourne in June of 2014. This screening was the second of four in the series Stories in Landscape; Landscape in Stories.

Looking at some of the essays and reviews that have been written about Wake in Fright, there’s a lot of discussion about the meaning of the journey the protagonist, John Grant, undergoes. There are suggestions that he learns something – something about his own alcoholism, about his sexuality, about the essential barbarity of his own nature, about the barbarity of man. All of that may or may not be true, but there’s a simpler, and more essential concept being addressed by the film. For me, Wake in Fright is a story about voids, and about what we do to fill them. Grant and the people of Bundanyabba, the fictional Australian outback town in which the film is largely set, are, like people in general, trying to fill the voids in their lives, in their land and in their time.

The landscape is the first and perhaps most fundamental void presented in the film. The opening sequence of the film is a 360-degree pan around an Australian desert, empty except for a couple of buildings. The idea of landscape as emptiness is a very Western one, of course. The colonisation of this land, and the expropriation of it from its Indigenous inhabitants, was carried out under the principle of terra nullius, a land belonging to no-one. And implicit in this principle, as Wake in Fright suggests, is a terror of nothingness, a fear of the enormous, open landscape that Australia presents. European colonisers, who failed to appreciate that the land was already given over to a complex and delicate system of maintenance on the part of its peoples, only saw a threatening emptiness, and they set about trying to fill that space.

We see some of the fruits of this labour in the opening scenes of the film. The town of Tiboonda comprises two buildings – a schoolroom and a hotel – separated by a train line and surrounded by desert from horizon to horizon. The two buildings are hopelessly outmatched by the landscape, so much so that they are almost ridiculous. This sense of being outmatched by the country, and the fear of being complicit in this ridiculousness, is part of Grant’s psychological makeup.

A young teacher posted to the school of Tiboonda, Grant spends most of the film trying to get back to the city, and the urban spaces where the horizon is a little closer. He demonstrates obvious boredom and contempt for the children in his class and for his landlord at the hotel, and looks down his nose at the rural spaces he passes through. His attitude of superiority is unwavering as he arrives in Bundanyabba, a mid-sized town known affectionately by locals as ‘the Yabba’, where he is trapped for most of the film. Grant makes clear his distaste at the inhabitants’ parochialism, but his arrogance is an obvious mask for his fear of the void.

In Bundanyabba the activities, customs and business of the community are cast as inferior, undercut by the constant nibbling of the landscape at the edges of the town. The fear of this encroaching void is the motive for Grant’s mission in the film: to flee the landscape, flee the threatening unknown, and get back to a place where the density of humans and human constructs – buildings, industry, and ‘civilisation’ – can disguise his inherent vulnerability in the face of the expansive Australian ‘emptiness’.

But exiting this void, passing through the landscape, takes time, and time here is another sort of void to be filled. Grant and the inhabitants of Bundanyabba do this in all sorts of ways, but, as the film demonstrates, it’s really very difficult to be sure that any way is the correct one. They take part in a number of activities, not all of them wise, and some of them disastrous. There’s gambling, the pursuit of sex, violent fights, kangaroo hunting and, of course, the drinking.

Grant is seen drinking from the start of the film. He drinks after class in the pub at Tiboonda; he drinks in a brief flashback to an idyllic afternoon at a beach. But his time in the Yabba pushes this impulse to the limits. The people in the Yabba seem to drink for want of anything else to do, or perhaps because it’s simply the done thing. They drink so much that the act of drinking becomes loaded with all sorts of social meaning. It’s a medium of identification (you’re not a man, not socially accessible, unless you’re drinking). It’s an offer of hospitality, and an expression of gratitude. It is even a means of communication; it punctuates conversation. I especially love the scene where the town policeman Jock Crawford first drinks with Grant. They have a brief chat, introduce themselves, and Jock procedurally offers to buy Grant a beer. This is a customary enough introduction in Australia, but this pub etiquette is pushed to extremes in the Yabba. Jock watches and waits in expectant, menacing silence for Grant to down the beer he is holding in his hand before he will fetch the next round.

This nightmarish depiction of Australian drinking culture seems a large part of why the film was so controversial upon its release. It can be confronting to look down the barrel at this aspect of Australian society. And this culture is certainly persistent in Australia today, as I’m sure all of us here have experienced. I know that personally if I’m at a party or a bar, and I’m talking to someone and the conversation has gone dry or gone full of holes, it’s usually easier to excuse myself to go get another drink than to exit the talk in a more direct way.

When there’s a void to be filled, whether it’s a conversation or something more profound, people usually use whatever is ready to hand. This could be religion, to satisfy a void of meaning; another person, to satisfy an emotional need; or, more prosaically, an alcoholic drink, or junk food, or drugs, or whatever. People tend to take the path of least resistance, but in so doing it’s easy to forget that the path of least resistance might be a vertiginous drop, which is the kind of trip Grant finds himself on. Throughout the film he’s always trying to do the easiest thing. He’s a lazy teacher. He drinks. He tries to gamble away his debt to the government instead of working it off. He takes part in the kangaroo hunt rather than resist the social pressure. “All the little devils are proud of hell,” says one prominent character, Doc Tydon, in a key moment in the film. It’s so much easier to accept and accustom oneself to a bad situation, than to see through it, and actively move past it.

With this in mind, I don’t think that all the barbaric things that happen in this film mean that Grant is an especially barbaric person. He’s just fallible, like everyone. People tend to move toward equilibrium, socially, mentally, and industrially. In any given moment, we reach for what is present rather than what is possible, and, in fact, it’s extraordinarily difficult to choose to act on a distant possibility. This instinct is, of course, a big part of why it’s so hard to get much action on climate issues. People, and corporations, are so much more used to thinking short term.

There is some discussion about short-term decision-making being an ingrained preference in our brains, but I also wonder if this particular habit of thought is a part of, and embedded deep within, Western culture. In the West, capitalism governs our mode of existence, just as it governs that of the characters in the film, and, albeit in a different era and incarnation, that of the early colonisers. It is an extremely dynamic social mode, always rushing into empty space, filling voids as it creates new markets and extracts value.

So, it’s tempting for me to blame this mode of thinking, at last in some capacity, on the capitalist psychological construct. There are, after all, other ways of seeing things, other ways of treating the void. The Indigenous peoples of Australia, for example, had an entirely different perspective on terra nullius than the colonisers did, which just goes to show that this sort of capitalist attitude is a very idiosyncratic, partial perspective.

And indeed Wake in Fright does seem to take place in a highly subjective reality. On the train ride Grant takes out of Tiboonda he has a daydream about his girlfriend in Sydney, and the dream is spliced together with the reality of the train ride in such a way that they meld together. There are a couple of dreamlike montage sequences weaving together Grant’s recollections of things that have happened and things he’s imagining. And there’s a repeated motif of strong light sources (lamps, and torches) being shined right into Grant’s face, which is reminiscent of a bright sun, like the one that slams down on the outback at the start of the film. The heightened imagery and feverish editing in parts of Wake in Fright suggest to me that there’s reason to accept that the space of the film is in fact a mental construct, rather than a physical one.

And the basic incoherence of this space is a reflection of Grant heightened, anxious state of mind. There is a kind of confusion that comes from trying to piece together Wake in Fright’s locations. The geography of the film is quite disconnected. Apart from a scene near the beginning where a taxi is driving Grant into the centre of Bundanyabba, past the mines, I’ve always felt that there’s a kind of jump between the outback exteriors and the interiors of the pubs and home. It’s unclear where exactly Doc Tydon’s shack is in relation to the larger town, for instance (although surely a lot of this has to do with the practical fact that the interiors were not filmed on location in and around Broken Hill, as the exterior shots were, but in various sets in Sydney).

There’s one shot in particular that always stood out for me on first watching it. Without giving away too many spoilers for those who haven’t seen this film, it happens near the end, after the fever has broken, so to speak, and all the various nightmares have passed. A character stands on top of a hill, outside of a reasonably modern looking hospital, and looks out over an urban landscape, with tall buildings, green trees and developments stretching out toward the horizon. On first watch I couldn’t reconcile this urban image with the very narrow small town images and outback spaces of the earlier parts of the story. I thought that there’d been a narrative ellipse of some sort, and we were having an epilogue in Sydney or some other city. But, of course, it is Bundanyabba, only seen from a fresh perspective, an objective point of view. The town is seen at last not as a ridiculous scattering of pubs and homes in the middle of endless desert and bush, but as a decent-sized, well developed, civilised colony.

So, which version is true? Grant, in the kind of white-guy, Anglo hysteria produced by the endless vistas of Tiboonda had been unable to see Bundanyabba as anything other than an absurd veil of civilisation drawn over the desert, completely ridiculous in its tenuousness, like a little patch of moss on a huge rock cliff. He wanted to escape to an urban space like Sydney, in order to forget the threat that the emptiness of the landscape represented to him.

But thinking about it now, this final shot, the birds-eye perspective on Bundanyabba is a kind of jab at post-colonial Australian culture itself. Perhaps there’s no reason to believe – given the visual parity between this image of Bundanyabba and a bigger city like Sydney or Melbourne – that the ‘civilisation’ that a city offers, and its protection from the void of the landscape, is any less absurd. It just takes a certain state of mind to see it.