Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reconsidered: Wake In Fright

(What I'd like to do in my Reconsidered posts is take a more in-depth look at films that I think have something to offer beyond the text. A solidly composed horror film is a wonderful thing, but a solidly composed horror film that keeps me thinking about it for days afterward is an even more wonderful thing and a joy forever. I'll be writing with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the basic plot and characters, so needless to say, all kinds of spoilers ahoy.)

Normally I come up with a Reconsidered post as I'm writing something up - thinking about things that wouldn't work in an unspoiled post, but that bear mentioning or closer examination. In this case, the whole idea hit me, months later, all at once out of nowhere.

Well, not quite out of nowhere. Basically, the thought process started with me thinking about a short story (well, the beginnings of a short story) I wrote ages ago about a man who takes a vacation from his middle-management job. He's one of those guys who hasn't grown up yet, still tries to party like he did when he was twenty years younger. He goes to some resort town, and his first night there, he gets so wasted that he blacks out. When he comes to, he's neatly dressed, everything's in its place, and his hotel room smells of bleach. It isn't until he checks his digital camera that he discovers that during the night, he brought a woman back to his room and had sex with her. After which he tortured, murdered, and dismembered her. In his blackout state, he did all of this and cleaned up after himself.

Yeah, creepy, ooohhhhhh, whatever. My problem at the time was that I couldn't figure out why he did it, how he did it, or how to get him out of that room. More recently, I'd watched a pretty disturbing documentary on the drug scopolamine, and it gave me some ideas of things I could do to flesh out the story.

Still awake? Cool. So that whole thing got me thinking about my fondness for this sort of story - somebody loses a fair amount of time, and by the end of their journey to figure out what happened, they're an entirely different person from the one they were. Bonus points if the person has to discover this through some record of what happened while they were out. David Lynch's Lost Highway plays with this idea, and is one of my favorite movies. A big chunk of Srpski Film's second act is Milos discovering what he's done by looking through tapes of Vukmir's raw footage. So that got me thinking about Wake In Fright.

In Wake In Fright, John Grant goes on a bender in a small Australian Outback mining town on his way to Sydney to see his girlfriend, and the bender takes him to some low, awful places. It's a classic piece of Australian cinema, and a nice restored version of it is getting a limited release in the U.S. In mentioning this, I point out that although Wake In Fright sort of belongs to the same family of stories as Deliverance or Straw Dogs, it's more nightmarish and surreal than either of those films. And that's when the light bulb went off.

What if the events of Wake In Fright didn't actually happen?

As I think about it, the majority of the movie could very well be a nightmare that Grant has while sleeping off a blackout alcohol bender that never took him further than the bar in Tiboonda. This interpretation also suggests that Grant is probably a closeted gay man in pretty deep denial.

The movie begins with Grant finishing the school semester and having a drink at the bar downstairs from the boarding house where he lives. It's already clear just from his first scene that he hates being stuck in the Outback, and resents every second his bonded teacher status requires him to be there. Then he gets on the train to go to Sydney - to leave the Outback and get back to civilization. On his way, he has to stop in the small mining town of Bundanyabba, so as much as he's looking forward to the beach and his girlfriend (more on that later) and just not being out in the bush, he can't get there without dealing with the Outback some more. The train ride feels like a reverie, he pours himself a glass of water, watches the scenery go by, looks at the other, silent passengers, sketches of other people. It's a quiet journey until he gets to Bundanyabba.

The inhabitants of Bundanyabba are caricatures of rural Australians, all beer and gambling and mate culture and the whole nine yards. In fact, "the 'Yabba" seems (to a non-Australian like me) like every cliche about Outback life compressed into one fairly small place, and done so to a fault. The "Goofs" section for this film on IMDB lists the gambling that takes place in Grant's hotel as anachronistic, and that everyone stands for the RSL oath in the one big bar in town as inaccurate because the bar wasn't a Returned Serviceman's club. In a conventional narrative, these would be mistakes. In a nightmare, they are an economical expression of Grant's view of the Outback. These details don't matter to his subconscious, he just sees the Outback as a vast desert where coarse men drink, gamble, fight, and participate in archaic rituals.

Grant doesn't want to be around these people, but he doesn't have a choice, and so he has a few drinks, mirroring the drink he had at the bar in Tiboonda. There's nothing to do here but work and drink. He's not working, so he might as well drink. Everyone's very friendly and gregarious to him - almost intensely so. It's friendliness and hospitality as aggression, drawn shrill and warped in a funhouse mirror. Everyone he talks to is willing to buy him a drink or some food, and somehow underneath what should be perceived as friendliness and common courtesy, there's a constant hum of hostility, which makes sense if you resent being there in the first place. He's kind of an asshole, and responding to kindness as if it's hostility is an asshole thing to do. We're seeing the Outback through Grant's eyes, or at least his subconscious.

Things don't really go from bad to worse until Grant decides to drop some money on a game of two-up. This is him hoping for a way out of the Outback. Money is what's keeping him in the Outback - if he quits his job, he forfeits his bond, and that's not money he can afford to lose. Acquiring a life-changing amount of money through the operation of chance is a classic fantasy for people dissatisfied with their current circumstances, and of course he wins his first bet, He is so close to paying out his bond after his first bet, but loses everything on his second. His way out is right in front of him, but it keeps being taken away. He is left with no choice but to embrace the hopelessness of his situation. He is stuck in the Outback, he is never getting out.

This is the point in the movie where shit starts getting dark as Grant begins his slide into depravity, mostly enabled by "Doc" Tydon, a disgraced, alcoholic physician who ekes out an existence in Bundanyabba mostly off the charity of others. Tydon could easily represent Grant's feared future - a man of learning and culture, stuck forever in the Outback, reduced to a drunken shell of what he was. He was once a better person than he is now, and this is why he seems to be (initially) the closest thing Grant has to a friend - the doctor is him. As things go lower and lower, Grant (and the doctor) become more and more bestial - this is how he imagines life in the Outback is, just an endless cycle of drinking, gambling, kangaroo killing, falling down and wrestling each other like animals, and by the end of Grant's binge, he (like everyone else involved) is practically bestial and his recollections verge on hallucination - logic and conventional narrative breaks down into the stuff of nightmares.

And this is the point where it became apparent to me that John Grant could also be a closeted gay man - he seems to hate himself as much as his surroundings, his girlfriend is only ever glimpsed either as a distant woman running through the surf or leaning wordlessly over John. These are vague impressions, not specific memories of a woman with whom you've spent enough time to be involved. Who's to say she isn't a fiction, sketched out just enough for Grant to fool his employers and anyone who asks? There appears to be exactly one woman in Bundanyabba, and she barely talks, and although she's apparently sexually available to all the men, she has to take the lead with Grant, still resulting in barely anything resembling physical contact. The whole encounter is very vague and awkward and furtive, as if poorly imagined from speculation about what sex with a woman would be like, rather than experience. Grant wants, on some level, to feel something for her, to feel desire for a woman, but he's not only unable to act on those desires, but doesn't even seem to know how to start.

In contrast to the sequence with the woman, we have the way "Doc" Tydon rapes Grant during their booze-fueled blackout - Grant wakes up with no pants on, and the doctor is just wearing a nightshirt. Everything is after the fact, but it's vivid and very specific, unlike the encounter with the woman. Grant can't even admit to himself that he is gay - the act itself is mostly erased from recollection, except for glimpsed flashes where he appears to be imagining the doctor having sex with the one woman in town, then with his girlfriend, all interleaved with what's actually happening. Maybe he's imagining himself as the doctor (his feared self intruding on his ideal self), maybe he's inserting the women into the scenario to legitimize it, but when all is said and done, he still wakes up on the floor of the doctor's shack, mostly naked, next to the doctor, in a tableau entirely too reminiscent of what it often meant to be a gay man in the 1970s, stuck in a deeply homophobic culture. These are the dreams I imagine a man in his position - in terms of his job, and his identity - has on his worst nights.

The nightmare logic of the narrative bleeds out of Grant's bender into daylight, as he attempts to leave Bundanyabba, in the ragged remains of his suit -  looking more and more like Tydon - dragging his suitcase and the rifle he acquired during his drunken night with Tydon. But even here, the truck driver who picks him up hitchhiking ends up bringing him right back to Bundanyabba, as if the town has no exit, as if Bundanyabba (and by extension what it represents) is impossible to escape. No matter how hard Grant tries, he can't leave. Finally, he returns to Tydon's hovel - comes back to who and what he is afraid he will become - sits down with the rifle and, at least initially, considers killing Tydon, (the man he is afraid he will be) before he puts the rifle in his own mouth, as if to annihilate whatever is left of himself. He puts his mouth around the barrel briefly, as if to fellate it, before recoiling in disgust. He can't face it yet.

Then, just as easily as he slipped into depravity, he rises above it, as one rises to consciousness from an especially deep and vivid dream. He gets enough money for train fare, and heads back to Tiboonda. The journey is as without motion or time as the trip out. When next we see him, he's cleaned up and returning to the boarding house bar to have a drink. The bartender looks at him with faint, weary disgust, like he's seen this before. Did he even need to leave Tiboonda to get blackout drunk and fall into the black pit of his subconscious, where everything the Outback represents is compressed into "the 'Yabba" and the sweaty, reptilian "Doc" Tydon lurks as a reminder of what he could be, or even perhaps what he already is?

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