Wake In Fright

May you dream of the devil
And wake in fright

With these ominous words from an ancient curse, so begins the nightmarish outback odyssey that is Wake In Fright (1971). Based upon the 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook, Wake In Fright tells the sorry tale of school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who eagerly awaits his end-of-year vacation from the single classroom school where he is contracted. The school is located in Tiboonda, an outback dustbowl so small that to call it a town would be most charitable. For his summer holidays, John plans to travel to Sydney by way of Bundanyabba. The Yabba, as it is more commonly known, is somewhat larger than Tiboonda (which isn’t saying much), where the main activities seem to be drinking, gambling, more drinking, and more gambling. John, a well-mannered, prim and proper sort, belongs in The Yabba about as much as a hamster in a lion’s den. But no matter, John’s trip to The Yabba is merely an overnight stop en route to the salubrious beaches of Sydney – or is it? No, for if it were, this would be a very short story – and a much happier one. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong for John Grant as he finds himself staying in The Yabba longer than expected, confronted by the unsettling “hospitality” (read: passive aggression) of the locals, and very much done in by his own foolishness. But maybe John will get to Sydney after all… if the waking nightmare that is The Yabba doesn’t get him first.

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Forget about your picture postcard portrayals of Australia, because Wake In Fright is possibly the most unflattering depiction of life in this country ever committed to film. Under its entry in Leonard Maltin’s annual film guide, it is said that Wake In Fright is not likely to be endorsed by the Australian tourist commission. So one can know if the folks in the Oz tourist trade were relieved when Wake In Fright disappeared from cinemas for many years (until a restoration from a 16mm print courtesy of Jamie and Aspa at Mu-Meson, brought it back to the big screen in 2009), because if the misadventures of John Grant were viewed as widely as the adventures of Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, potential travellers Down Under would be staying away in droves. That said, if I had a short list of Australian films to recommend, particularly to visitors from overseas, Wake In Fright would be on the list.

The character John Grant is clearly an outsider looking in, so it’s only fitting that he is portrayed by a foreigner (Gary Bond was English, as is his Grant), and even more appropriate that the film was directed by another outsider, Ted Kotcheff, who is Canadian. Following on from Wake In Fright (released with the title Outback in the United States), Kotcheff stood at the helm of the American football classic North Dallas Forty (1979) and the celluloid debut for the John Rambo character, First Blood (1981). He is no stranger to crafting brutal, disturbing cinema.

It is only fair to warn potential first-time viewers that this film contains an extremely harrowing kangaroo hunt sequence (as a long-time vegan myself, I found this especially disturbing). So I can only imagine how grotesque the experience must have been for Ted Kotcheff, himself a vegetarian at the time, now a vegan, as his cameras followed one of the regular night-time kangaroo hunts through the Australian outback. Much of the footage acquired was deemed by Kotcheff himself as being far too graphic to show an audience (I shudder to think how that must look).

Even with the film as it is, Australian audiences raised on a television diet of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967-69) must have been mortified when Wake In Fright first hit cinemas in 1971. And as somebody who has read Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel upon which the film was based, yes, I can tell you the kangaroo hunt figures in the literary version, too, and it’s even more graphic than what is depicted in the film, if you can imagine (the day after reading the book, I was in a health food store and noticed tins of pet food made from slaughtered kangaroo, disturbing me to the point where I had to immediately leave the store, and I don’t disturb easily. Kenneth Cook sure could write.)

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So long as you can withstand the sheer brutality of the infamous kangaroo hunt sequence, Wake In Fright is a most rewarding exercise in existentialist cinema, one that rivals Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) for the title of grimiest, sweatiest film of all time – you can see the dust and perspiration settling on the screen. Gary Bond is superb as John Grant; with flawless verisimilitude, he portrays a man who, due to his unfavourable surroundings and circumstances, regresses from his civilised self into something more closely resembling a borderline savage.

Wake In Fright also boasts a memorable performance from Donald Pleasance as the dodgy town doctor, in addition to appearances from Chips Rafferty (his final role in a feature film) and Jack Thompson (one of his earliest). The film takes place in a “bloke’s world” – it’s one of the blokiest films you could imagine, full of fistfights, gambling, shooting and boozing. There are few females in the film, and Janette (Sylvia Kay) is portrayed with derision. This opens the door for the aforementioned aggressive male bonding rituals shown in graphic detail. There is also intimate male bonding that is only ever implied, though no less bewildering, given the circumstances.

Wake In Fright is a powerful film not only because of what it shows, but also for what it suggests.

Recent years have seen a surge of popularity for the horror genre, but if you want to see a real horror story, forget about vampires, werewolves and zombies: Wake In Fright is the real deal, all the more disconcerting because this sort of thing could and does really happen. It is indeed a rare opportunity to catch the film on the big screen, in 35mm print format, an event that no ardent cinephile should miss. And if you haven’t already done so, do read Kenneth Cooks’ novel, a short if worthwhile read to be digested in one sitting. May you dream of the devil… and wake in fright.

Written by Astor regular Mark Vanselow.

Wake in Fright screens Sunday January 25 7pm.  All tickets $14

You say eccentric, I say romantic…

What makes your favourite indie cinema different to the multiplex? Sure it’s the programming, and the prices. And a lot of other ‘stuff’. But the main thing, the big thing, is the people. Whether it’s a rep house or an art house, it’s different because the people who run it and the people who populate it are different. Some call them weirdos, nerds and eccentrics. As both an employee and an attendee of such places, I’d call us optimists, and romantics.

Despite the many reasons I think we all go to the cinema, the truth is that it’s different for all of us. Some of us just love movies. Others like the social experience. Some people happen to live nearby and others come in because it’s raining. But I still think that most of us want to feel something that the multiplex can’t and won’t abide. It might be a sense of belonging, of community. It might also just be anything other than alienated and unwanted by the world.

How we feel and who we share our experiences with is important. In the ’90s I used to go to the Lumiere with friends, but I’d visit the Trak on my own and the Astor was an experience I always shared with loved ones. My first cinema job, at the tender age of eighteen, was at the Kino (back in the Dendy days). It was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere. Sure the manager used to ask me to please not to dance on the candy bar, but a little groovin’ while ripping tickets was fine. Being honest about which films to see was encouraged and no one was admitted into the auditorium after the first fifteen minutes of photochemical film had rolled. I learnt everything I know about Pedro Almodovar over conversation and cigarettes in the foyer.

Fast forward to today and even if smoking in foyers has well and truly become a thing of the past, my favourite conversations and my film education is still taking place one or two steps away from an auditorium. Every cinema that fosters an environment that film lovers can feel is their own, and can really feel at home in, is special. And it’s something worth holding on to.

Recently the New Beverly Cinema underwent some management changes. You may have read about it on the LA Weekly blog.

Well, today things are looking less than optimistic. Today, Julia Marchese, the former face of the New Bev (and a lovely, passionate cinephile), put this up on her own blog. 

She has also shared her film Out of Print on vimeo. We had hoped to screen a 35mm film print at the theatre, once it had finished its anticipated festival run. But, given how things have turned out so far, that looks doubtful.

I don’t mind saying that watching this documentary – the first thing I did when I woke up this morning – brought tears to my eyes. And not just because I’m a romantic. But because I know the stories Marchese tells intimately. They are the stories we share here at the Astor. They are the stories that impassioned, optimistic film nerds know all too well: love, hope and disappointment.

Pleading with the studios not to junk prints, to let you book existing prints, to stop mastering crappy DCPs –  and to please for the love of God stop blaming everything on online piracy – all the while trying desperately to ensure the longevity of what you love – hopeful that a white knight landlord will share your vision without making commercially minded changes to the operation of the place – oh, these are battles we know all too well.

No one in a rep house has ever done what they do for the money, to exploit patrons. Let’s be clear: the only kind of exploitation a rep house is interested in is the kind that was once printed onto photochemical film.

But the saddest thing for me, watching Out of Print, was the painful knowledge that even when Joe Dante says film prints are important, the studios won’t listen. When it comes down to it, corporate studios and landlords aren’t romantics – they’re capitalists.

While I don’t want a cinematic life that excludes the option to see a double bill of Gremlins and Gremlins 2 on 35mm and 70mm blow-up at Christmas time, my best ideas are anti-multiplex anarchy stolen from Cecil B. Demented. Perhaps I ought to write to John Waters for more ideas…

In the interim, if you love rep, watch Out of Print and, if you live near a rep house, go see what you can while you can. We eccentrics try to stay optimistic but even the most romantic among us get downtrodden at times.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre, with love and appreciation of The New Beverly Cinema, and sisterly respect for the passion Julia Marchese and her colleagues have brought to the city of LA.

 

The stats are in – Fliks Cinema Census

Talking about online movie piracy in Australia isn’t a beloved topic. It’s not difficult to understand why when the official rhetoric is only interested in treating those who ‘illegally’ download online content as criminals. Though I’ve never personally considered watching a crappy quality torrent as equal to grand theft auto, this is what many of the anti-piracy campaigns would have you believe.

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Unlike industry execs, however, we don’t think it’s the greatest threat to the film industry – the studios are plenty capable of junking prints and jacking up consuming prices, thus removing much movie magic, all by themselves.

There are a number of stats out there that tell us about who’s engaged in piracy and why. The most recent online study has come from the people at fliks.com.au with their Cinema Census. Asking and identifying some key issues, the Fliks Cinema Census turned up the following results that really get to the heart of what we do here at the Astor:

* 62% of survey respondents said they download because legal alternatives are not available for the films they want to watch.

* 79% said cinema ticket prices were too high

* 73% said they prefer to watch films in a cinema

* 82% want mobile phones banned and 50% said people talking in cinemas was the most annoying cinema habit.

What this data reflects is exactly the same as what we experience as a cinema. Every film we screen is available to see on another format by the time we screen it. As a rep house, all our content is either available through legal home entertainment formats or illegally online. But we don’t have empty seats, and that’s because the environment and the experience of seeing a film are equally as important as the film itself. We also don’t charge $20+ for cinema tickets. High price tickets are exclusionary, making it difficult for low-income earners, students, pensioners, the unemployed and others to see films. It isn’t true that only rich people want and should get to enjoy cinema-going. Of course, we do still have to make money to keep the doors open. But there’s a balance. Currently it sits at $16 / $15 / $14.

Finally, and most significantly, it’s the experience that matters. If people prefer to watch films in a cinema it’s because the experience is unmatched by home entertainment. That has to do with a number of things that begin with picture and sound quality and the social experience of sharing something unique with others, but it’s also extends to the ideal that the cinema is free from real life distractions – including mobile phones and talking.

The stats are out. The Cinema Census website even has a pie chart. Check it out, come watch great films on our BIG screen, and please turn off your mobile phone and refrain from talking during the movie. Thanks.

Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre.

Some Clarification

It’s been a very difficult and emotional weekend as our announcement has reached far and beyond 100,000 people. We have received thousands of messages across email, twitter, Facebook, this blog, through our website and of course at the theatre itself. There has been an incredible and surmounting support for what we do here at the Astor Theatre, for that we are grateful and humbled.

A number of questions have arisen from those messages and though we do our best to reply personally to every query we receive, we feel that it might be best to address here some of what is most frequently asked.

IS THE BUILDING HERITAGE LISTED?

The building, the land, the 1929 Western Electric amplifier, original screen and original projector are registered. The details of that listing can be found in the Victorian Heritage Database.  The building is also listed on the National Trust register. This means that elements of the current building and site cannot be changed (i.e. the building cannot be demolished to put up an apartment complex).

What it does not protect, however, are other important aspects of what “The Astor” (the business inside the building) has cultivated for Melbourne cinema-goers. These include but are not limited to; the purpose (as a single screen cinema), the capacity of the auditorium, chattels, interior design, lighting, candy bar, office spaces, projection booth, etc.

Most significantly, Victorian Heritage and National Trust listings do not protect what you have come to know and love as The Astor Theatre: the entity that has created and maintained a unique cinema-going experience since 1982, under the proprietorship of George Florence. That includes but is not limited to; the unique programming, the Astor Calendar, our incredibly passionate and personable staff, Astor Choc-Ices, beloved theatre cats (Magenta, Marzipan), the very best in film and digital presentation, regular presentation of rare 35mm and 70mm film prints, masterful projection, personalised and genuine love and passion for cinema, cinema-going, film and so much more.

WHAT DOES THE LANDLORD INTEND TO DO?

This is unknown. We have not been told what the future plans are, only that they do not include us.

The following articles, that were published over the weekend, include comments from a spokesperson for Ralph Taranto, but they do not state clearly what will happen.

SBS; ‘Melbourne’s cherished cinema The Astor to close May 2015′

The Age; ‘The Astor Theatre to close in 2015′

WA Today; ‘The Astor will live as a cinema, the owner vows’

CAN WE START A FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGN?

It is not advisable at this time to begin fundraising. Though we are most certainly moved by the overwhelming response from everyone and the intense passion we all share to keep the Astor as it is, we cannot, at this time, launch a fundraising campaign.

As far as we are aware, the landlord has no intention to sell the property. We appreciate your support very much but we cannot take money unless we know that there is an option to purchase.

We hope this serves to clear up some of your many questions. We also want to thank you for your unwavering love and support of what we do and absolutely encourage you to continue to visit the theatre and celebrate what’s so great about The Astor in the coming months.

Astor Theatre: 1982-2015

It is with heavy hearts that we make this announcement.

In 2015 the Astor Theatre as you know it will close its doors.

Melbourne has seen thirty-two years of the finest repertory programming and the very best in film and now digital presentation thanks to George Florence. It has always been George’s vision that the Astor would take on a new lease of life under a not-for-profit trust so that the Astor could continue on into the future in perpetuity.

This was always the long-term plan and before St Michel’s Grammar School sold the building to Ralamar Nominees, we were led to believe that our new landlord would work together with Friends of the Astor Association to build that long and prosperous future for the programming, atmosphere and passion that the Astor has brought to Melburnians for so long. We stepped back from exercising our first option to purchase the property, based on these concept that a trust would be put in place. Unfortunately, the implementation of a trust was off the table after the contract of sale.

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Without a lease renewal, the expert repertory programming we have cultivated for a community of Melbourne moviegoers, and the ‘Astor Experience’ will come to an end. We were offered a lease that would have been financially and operationally crippling, but negotiations failed to resolve the key issues.

The Astor is so much more than just the bricks and mortar that has become Melbourne’s spiritual home for film. Without a lease renewal and without any intention to include FOTAA in future plans, the expert repertory programming we have cultivated for a community of Melbourne moviegoers will come to an end.

We do not know what the landlord has planned for the future of the building, only that we are not included in those plans.

It is no doubt as difficult to read these words, as it has been to write them. We want to take this opportunity to thank the many tens of thousands of people who have supported us over the years. We also hope you will continue to visit the Astor until our doors close, to celebrate the few final months of something so special, that has contributed to the rich film culture we have here in Melbourne. Our final months will no doubt be emotional, but they will also be some of the most special, as we put together more of the very best in film and ignite the most fantastic atmosphere to celebrate everything everyone who’s ever been here has loved so dearly about the Astor.

The Cinema Census

This blog has, since its inception, been a space that enables conversation as much as reflection. There’s one topic that we’ve repeatedly come back to: the cinemagoing experience. We’ve asked questions, offered our opinions, come to agree and disagree on the many aspects of what sitting in the dark and watching movies is all about. It’s a curious beast and one we’re always seeking to better understand. With that in mind, we recently stumbled into the good people over at the Cinema Census and thought we’d recommend that Astor patrons with a passion for all the things that take place in the dark might like to know a little more of what it’s all about.
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Earlier this week we caught up with creator Paul and got the lowdown:
Why did you decide to take a cinema census? 
Every moviegoer has an opinion about the cinema experience, and we ourselves hear -and share – many such anecdotes. Since these opinions are so inherently subjective, we’re interested to hear from as many people as possible to see what common themes emerge. And apart from our own curiosity, I’m hoping for some key findings to pass on to film distributors and exhibitors – if they make any changes after seeing the outcome, that’s almost more than we could hope for!

What is your anticipated/required/minimum survey response?
There’s no rule. But we’ve had a bit of input from Universities, and we believe 1000 respondents is a good number.

Who do you expect and who do you hope will take the survey?
I think we’ll naturally see a skew to movie lovers, those that are passionate about it and will take the three minutes to complete it. But that’s a good thing – their opinions matter most. Everyone who enters goes into the draw to win a year’s worth of free movies, so that will bring in a broader range we think.

What are your anticipated findings? 
My guess is we’ll see a genuine love of cinema going. I think we’ll see people will be watching just as much, maybe more, films on demand –  but that that’s not detracting from a night out at the movies. 
 
I anticipate being surprised too. Who knows… for instance, we’ve got questions on using phones in cinemas. Is it ok if the phone is on silent? The thought of using a phone in a cinema is sacrilege to me personally, disgusting. But who am I to say? Maybe people don’t mind. I doubt it though.

 
How will the information feed back to cinemas? 
First we’ll be releasing the findings on our site – highlighting what we think is notable. Then we will be sharing the data with basically anyone who wants it. Including cinemas and distributors of course. That’s exciting as we hope other people will find new ways of interpreting it.

I should point out that all entrants remain completely anonymous. We want truthful answers and feel that’s the best way to get them.


How can a survey like this educate the industry and improve the experience for patrons?
My hunch is that feedback is usually given to the industry on an individual basis, and typically in cases of exceptionally good or poor service. By canvassing a large group of cinema goers, we’re likely to get a different set of responses to the aforementioned typical praise or rage.
It’ll be interesting to see which aspects of the cinemagoing experience people value, and the impact of ever-increasing alternate viewing options – all valuable information for the industry that could feed into their decision-making.
We want to do this annually also, which will make it all the more interesting; being able to see shifts and patterns over time.
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Photograph courtesy of Lauren Dalton

It’s important that we keep asking these questions, even if we can’t accommodate every different approach all at the same time. Still, we don’t want to see a thousand empty seats, so make sure tell us if something is amiss!
And if you think you might be interested in letting the industry know what cinemagoing means to you and which aspects you value or even dislike the most, we recommend you take three or four minutes out of your day and complete the survey. Head here to take the Cinema Census.

Some late changes to our programming…

Putting together a quarterly calendar does mean that late changes to our programming sometimes occur. This calendar we find ourselves with two such changes. Deciding that it would be best to explain them to you, here we are, filling our very own cyber space with explanatory words.

Sunday December 8th 1.15pm

The first change is the cancellation of Sunday’s matinee session. Finding a space for special private hire events can be difficult when we program so far in advance and the general idea is that once we’ve confirmed our programming, we stick with it. Of course, like every rule, there are always exceptions. Saturday afternoons are usually an option but, short of cancelling our Lord of the Rings marathon (which we just couldn’t do!), we didn’t have too many possibilities in the early December time frame.

The 70mm film print of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that we screen once a calendar is important to our programming of course, but, as a session we screen regularly and know we can and will repeat again on our next calendar, it’s a somewhat more likely candidate when it comes to late cancellations. Changes aren’t ideal but when they do need to take place we do our best to limit the fallout! Hamlet will screen on our next quarterly calendar.

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Saturday January 25th 7.30pm

The second change is a substitution. When Alexander Payne’s latest, Nebraska (which I saw at Cannes and is very good) was slated for a Boxing Day release, January 25th was a suitable date within the repertory/second run window for us to screen it. However, with its Australian release date pushed back to February 20 (presumably so it can ride the theatrical tidal wave known as “Oscar Buzz”), we had to sub in another title. Having MUD scheduled as the ‘B-movie’ (second/support film in the double), we wanted to pick something complementary (bearing in mind that it needed to come from the same distributor as is the stipulation for all our double bills). And so, we have changed the first title to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Having just seen the film I can confirm that it’s a great fit tonally and also in terms of quality. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck give strong, moving performances in this beautiful, tragic love-story for the ages. And don’t worry, we’ll find a space for Nebraska on the next calendar too!

Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre.