Wake in Fright (Aus, 1971)

Watch in fright

Watch in fright

This is a literally rediscovered film; the editor, Anthony Buckley, tracked down a useable negative which led to this terrific restored digital print. And it was certainly well worth rediscovering. As a teacher, under Education Secretary Gove’s ridiculous rule, I often feel victimised however protagonist John Grant is forced to teach in the outback or pay his $1000 bond back. My predicament pales in comparison. Canadian director, Ted Kotcheff, summarises the Outback with the opening 360-degree pan so we can see he is, literally, in the middle of nowhere. As Sight & Sound put it, such overwhelming spaces entrap more than liberate. On his way to Sydney, for a holiday, Grant gets caught up in a gambling game, in the hope of clearing his debt, which is the prelude to a nightmarish weekend.

Wake in Fright flopped commercially on its original release, probably because the mirror it holds up to the machismo of the ‘loveable’ Aussie ‘larrikin’ is not flattering. As one character says of Bond: ‘Would he rather talk to a woman than drink beer?’ The character, by the way, is played by that stalwart of the Australian film industry, Jack Thompson, in his first film. Directors of the subsequent Australian ‘new wave’, however, hailed the film’s influence. If you’re interested in Australian cinema, check out the new edition of Senses of Cinema. We follow Bond on his journey where he’s confronted by his bourgeois sensibilities, similar to the narrative of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) but far more harrowing. Central to this is a kangaroo hunt that is shot as it actually happened (independently of the film it has to be said). A note at the film’s end says that the scene was included after consultation with animal welfare groups; kangaroos are now an endangered species.

The brilliant Donald Pleasance lends his malign presences as the Doc, the man who Grant might become. Pleasance’s eyes look demonic without even trying. Another Aussie icon, Chips Rafferty in his final film, plays the local cop who takes Grant under his wing when he first arrives in the ‘city’ (really a town). It’s a classic western scene, a stranger in town entering a bar but the ‘sheriff’ plies our protagonist with beer rather than warning him to behave. It’s such moments that play against expectation, later it’s the sexual tension between Grant and the daughter of another deranged character, that make the film as unsettling as it is.

It’s one of the few films to have played Cannes twice; on its release and, in 2009. If you’re after a nightmare ride or want to catch a missing movie of Australian cinema, here’s your chance.

Django Unchained (US, 2012)

Tarantino couldn't help but get in the way

Tarantino couldn’t help but get in the way

I love the western so it’s good to see one doing so well at the box office but I avoided this film in the cinema partly because of its length and partly because of Tarantino. I gave up on Inglorious Basterds after half an hour; I no longer found his knowing dialogue funny. However, this is fairly-well reigned in on Django and the set-up is terrific: Christopher Waltz’s bounty hunter aiding Jamie Foxx’s slave to become a free man. Leonard DiCaprio is superb as the southern gentleman-racist whose veneer of civilisation is so thin that he’s almost translucent. But… there is going to be a but.

There was criticism, at the time of the film’s release, of the film’s violence. I had assumed that this was to do with excess but didn’t expect to be bothered by it. After all the film’s roots are in ‘spaghetti westerns’ so violence is likely to be foregrounded. Thus when black ‘mandingo’ wrestlers fight to the death the gruesomeness is appropriate even if it has no basis in historical fact (see here). If it serves to emphasise the inhumanity of the slavers’ behaviour then it is dramatically justified.  However the ‘bloodbath’ of the shoot-outs becomes throughout the film, literally, bloodbaths; that is, there is blood spurting everywhere. On one level it’s funny in a Monty Python sort of why; however it also serves to detract from the drama that has unfolded. We are suddenly ripped from the ‘good vs evil’ battle, central to the western, and reminded we’re just watching a Tarantino film. In the end I was bored and annoyed because the representation of slavery, in the early part of the film, was so compelling. In the stylised Kill Bill volume 1 (2003) the ‘bloodbath’ was part of the aesthetics; in Django Unchained it trivialises what has gone before.

Meek’s Cutoff (US, 2010)

A woman's place

This is the first film I’ve seen by director Kelly Reichardt and shall be pursuing her other two features. It’s based on a true story of a wagon train, reduced to three in the film, that get lost as a result of their guide’s – Meek – ‘cutoff’. The slow pace of the trio’s painful progress is mirrored in the ‘slow cinema’ of Reichardt’s direction; including one immense dissolve that take so long that the train is juxtaposed with itself.

Scriptwriter Jonathan Raymond focuses upon the wives who are absolutely marginalised; their influence upon the world blinkered metaphorically by their bonnets (mirrored in Reichardt’s use of Academy ratio). Another variant on the western is the ‘indian’. Here presented as unknowable, not as being a savage as in classical Hollywood, but we are given no access to his perspective; he simply responds to whatever happens to him.

One irritant, for me, was the inconsistency of the train’s direction. Where they were going was of importance: they argue whether to go south or north; they choose the latter but are shot going south against a setting sun.

However, if you have the patience for slow cinema, and the cinematography and performances should be enough to keep you happy, catch this (revisionist?) western.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, S.Korea, 2008)

Italian western Korean style

Italian western Korean style

Undoubtedly the funniest film I’ve seen in a long time. It stars the man with the maddest hair in contemporary cinema, Song Kang-ho, and some of the best action sequences in any western. Clearly a homage to Leone’s spaghetti westerns the visual style, as you expect, is stunning but director Kim Ji-woon (also A Bittersweet Life, 2005, and A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), fills the mise en scene with fabulous detail that complements Song’s ‘hamming’ comedy. In one shoot out he wears a deep sea diver’s helmet, in another he’s on a motorbike being chased by a bounty hunter, two bandit gangs and the Japanese army.

Like Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand, 2000), Good-Bad-Weird delights in virtuoso camerawork but while I did get bored by the former, Kim’s movie never palls and I look forward to seeing it again to appreciate the tremendously fluid camera movement, and the actors’ movements in the frame. The use of colour is, like Black Tiger, utterly stunning. But what shines out in Song’s comic timing, seen also in The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003); from his furtive glance around him as if everyone is listening to him to his hapless attempt to escape where he’s asked if he’s attempting to escape (he says, ‘No,’) the guy is a comic genius.

Appaloosa (US, 2008)

Men together

Men together

It’s good to see Westerns still being made as it’s probably the most mythic of Hollywood genres; that is, the ideological machinations are so near the surface that the subtext is barely submerged. What does Ed Harris (director, star, co-scriptwriter and co-producer) make of it?

Its rather meandering narrative switches between a variety of generic tropes: the rancher vs townspeople (assuming ranching is what Jeremy Irons’ villain – Randall Bragg – does); the good sheriff against the bad guys; the chase with Indians thrown in; the eventual dismissal of the the good men of violence as corporate corruption takes hold of the town (Bragg is cosying up with the towns’ aldermen). None of these really takes hold as it’s the buddy movie (Harris and Viggo Mortensen) that dominates and the narrative disruption is created by Renee Zellweger’s floosy. Actually Zellweger’s character is more well-drawn than the term suggests; her attraction to the ‘top man’ is shown to be driven by fear.

If the film sounds a bit of a mish-mash then that’s what it is. Shoot-outs are included but the parts are greater than the whole: Dean Semler’s cinematography captures the bright blue sky, and browns of the land, beautifully; Harris’ direction uses the widescreen well; the leads’ performances are appropriately taciturn.

SPOILER: What is it speaking ideologically? Like many examples of the genre, it is misogynist; Harris’ Virgil Cole’s attraction to Zellweger’s Allison French threatens to demasculate him (he has to choose material for curtains) and his relationship with Mortensen’s Everett Hitch (as usual, the characters’ names in Westerns are great) cannot continue with her around. In its mangling of tropes Appaloosa is a very (post?)modern Western but its sexual politics are similar to those of the classics.

Into the Wild (US, 2007)

Lost in the wilderness

Add a ‘coming of age’ (or not, in this case) movie to a western and road movie with an arthouse aesthetic where the beauty of the image has portentous echoes, then you might get Into the Wild. It’s true story of Chris McCandless who rejects his family, and their bourgeois aspirations, to do the American thing: find yourself in the wilderness. There’s terrific direction from Penn where the portentous imagery (extreme slow motion in a rigged up outside shower) allows audience to see beauty in the everyday – something that cinema is very good at – and so reflects McCandless’ attempts to find a role in his life.

Even if McCandless was rejecting bourgeois values, the family is rooted at the heart of the film. Not just McCandless’ family, but the ruptured families he encounters, most movingly in Hal Holbrooke’s ‘lonely old man’.

I reckon Penn is a ‘must-see’ whether he’s in front or behind the camera; I rate this film as good as The Assassination of Billy the Kid…, hitherto my favourite film of 2007.

Matewan (US, 1987)

Brilliant recreation of the miners’ strike in 1920s West Virginia. If, maybe, the bad guys veer toward caricature, Sayles brilliantly makes a ‘Red’ the hero. Sayles regulars (Cooper & McDonnell) give their usual fabulous performances (didn’t realise Will Oldham played the preacher kid). Must be seen. (DVD, 3) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093509/