Scorsese’s Art of Murder

When Taxi Driver was released in 1976, the demonically violent final act had early reviewers referring to it as an exploitation film, critical shorthand for an easy couple of dollars for the young director. In an interview with Roger Ebert, director Martin Scorsese was appalled by the idea. “Jesus! I went flat broke making this film!” It’s clear that for Scorsese, violence in his films has always been deeply personal. His relationship with cinematic violence is complicated, wrapped up in moral disgust, aesthetic fascination and Catholic guilt.

At a time when just about every movie has to involve a gun in the protagonist’s hand at some point but the inclusion of blood is still hotly debated, Scorsese remains somewhat of an anomaly: a director of violence who is deeply serious about violence.

Scorsese characters often try to use violence as a cleansing agent, like the Catholic act of penance. The original draft of Taxi Driver actually had a scene featuring Travis Bickle whipping himself with a wet towel, preparing himself for the horrific slaughter to come. That Scorsese captured that slaughter at 48 frames per second, twice the industry standard, speaks volumes. In Raging Bull we watch the tormented Jake La Motta offer up his body in the ring as an almost religious sacrifice, an act of flagellation that fails to prevent the violence from bleeding over into his home life. And never have dead bodies been shot as lovingly as they were in Goodfellas. From the Cadillac to the meat truck, Scorcese’s camera glides to the piano-led outro of Layla, making sure we see the horrific repercussions of violence. It’s disturbing, sure, but there’s no debating it’s weirdly beautiful as well.

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the street,” we’re told at the start of Mean Streets. In Scorsese’s films it seems doubtful that your sins can be made up for at all, but they can at least be witnessed. In the essay The Simple Art of Murder, from which Mean Streets derived its title, Raymond Chandler wrote: “But down these mean streets a must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Scorsese’s films are touched by darkness, but when it comes to violence, he’s brazenly unafraid.

Casino is screening at The Astor Theatre on 2K 

When: Friday the 20th November 

Tickets: $16

Tarkovsky’s Elevation

The idea of the Russian Epic looms large over popular culture. Russian Epics are created by men with impossibly thick beards and drinking problems. These men are brilliant and depressed and think you should be depressed too. They create massive works that are to be respected from a distance. They are not to be enjoyed. They have been created to remind us that life is nasty, brutish and short. They do this, in part, by being exceedingly long.

It can be difficult, at the end of a punishing day, to subject yourself to further punishment in the form of pop culture. Sitting before one of these towering works can fill you with a peculiar despair that PG Wodehouse referred to as “…the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

This aura has clung to Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky as tightly and unfairly as it has to Nabakov or Dostoyevsky. But unlike their works, whose beauty and humanity unfold slowly over countless chapters, it only takes a few minutes for this fear to dissipate in a Tarkovsky film. Their stunning camerawork and sound design,  fascinated by human longing and natural beauty, evoke not so much despair as it’s opposite, what the late great Roger Ebert referred to as “elevation”.


Elevation is the feeling of warmth one feels when witnessing acts of kindness and generosity, akin to spiritual uplift or awe. Ebert explained that he always knew when he’d seen a great film because he felt “…a tingling in my spine.” Moral psychologists have studied this feeling and noticed that it’s increased when it’s shared in a large group. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt could’ve been describing the feeling of leaving a cinema after a powerful film when he explained that “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

Tarkovsky films don’t hold humanity at an intellectual distance, they attempt to reach through the screen and connect with the viewer’s deepest hopes and fears. “Relating a person to the whole world,” Tarkovsky claimed, “that is the meaning of cinema.”

Stalker, Courtesy Open Culture

The Astor Theatre has secured two ultra-rare, 35mm prints of his Soviet-era masterpieces, Solaris and Stalker, playing on the 16th and 23rd respectively. Come along and share with us an experience of great artistic generosity. Vodka is always better shared, anyway.

Solaris and Stalker will be screening at The Astor Theatre on 35mm

When: Solaris – Monday 16th November, 

Stalker – Monday 23rd November

Tickets: $12

George’s Farewell Speech – Sunday April 5th 7pm

After long term Astor staffers Steve and Jock finished up their intro, George said a few words. For anyone who missed the event, here’s a transcript of what George said and some pics of the great night, too.

Star Gate IMG_4693

Thank you Steve and Jock – without your fine efforts we could not have run The Astor, Thanks also to Tara and Andy for your invaluable services.

We think The Astor is the most amazing cinema in the world, and part of what makes it that is having the most amazing staff in the world.

End of show Closing night staff IMG_4763

Thank you to all past and present staff- you have been wonderful.

Also thank you to all our suppliers: Shimon from Tel Aviv – who has made our cakes since 1984, the same delicious cakes for all that time, and to Chandra the Bliss Ball lady, Dairy Bell who supply the key ingredient to our Choc-Ice and many others we have been trading with since 1982.

Candy bar Elliot and Edward IMG_4717

Thank you to all the film companies who have supported our somewhat unique programming style and have facilitated the many special events, including Q&A’s, new print and digital restoration re-releases.

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Most importantly thank you to our audience, without you our mission would not be fulfilled.

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We are asked many times “What makes the Astor Experience?”

Recall a scene in Jacques Tati’s wondrous Mon Oncle – a man is in a barren field with a rickety old oven making pastries with flair and relish. Groups of kids repeatedly go back to the man – a memory that will stay with them forever, not because they like pastries, but because that man made them with Soul. Soul is the essence, the same soul that Toto and Alfredo put into Cinema Paradiso’s projection room, its patrons never forgetting that experience either.

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Soul is the essence; it is what you take away as part of the memory of your experience here.

We are pleased to announce that Palace Cinemas have acquired our business and they have undertaken to maintain The Astor Experience.

Please give Palace your support, after they begin operations in this hallowed space in June.

Eve Marzy Tribute IMG_4633

Thank you for your attendance, loyalty and support over the last 32 years.

Now, as I start projecting my favourite movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey for the last time, I bid you all a fond farewell.

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The End – George Florence.


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.


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.)


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