Australia’s cultural cringe: The chokehold of our nation’s artistic pursuit

As it stands today, Australian cinema isn’t that of global prominence, but it hasn’t always been that way. The 70s through mid-80s saw a booming Australian New Wave, one of gravitas and individuality.

Until the New Wave, Australia previously only ventured into the realm of comedies, usually with ourselves as the butt of all jokes. That is until 1971.

Although the output of films during this era contained a selection of over-looked gems – some even worthy of masterpiece-status – the impact they had on us, the target audience, was minimal compared to markets such as China, which thrives on its own, almost completely autonomous productions.

So why don’t Australians watch Australian films?

We don’t find the same problem in championing Australian musicians. In fact, Australian artists are revered, regularly touring the country, headlining large-scale festivals, and being played on national radio stations.

Yet Australia’s filmmakers face a different landscape.

Melbourne critic and social commentator A. A. Phillips first coined the term “cultural cringe” in an essay of the same name after returning home from World War II.

The term was borne out of feelings of inferiority experienced by intellectuals – particularly those in the arts – during the 1950s, relating to their talent and perceived legitimacy by the public.

Phillips also put forward the idea that sport is the only accepted export where Australians can excel on a global scale. It’s this notion that place local athletes or sports stars on a pedestal while those pursuing intellectual pathways are considered to have a second-rate talent.

Over generations we have been subtly socially conditioned to “cringe” at those with independent and intellectual pursuits, while putting our mates who can kick a football and scull a beer on a pedestal.

It’s exactly this concept that is explored in the relentless Australian Cinema masterpiece Wake in Fright, released in 1971, which was almost single-handedly responsible for ushering in the New Wave that followed.

Directed by Canadian-Bulgarian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright is a relentless look into one man’s descent into madness in a rural Australian town.

The film’s story is simple but its themes combined with its mastery of artistry took this film to the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 and earned Kotcheff a nomination for the Palme d’Or (the highest achievement in world cinema) for direction.

Yet the film has remained almost unheard of to this day.

Since Wake in Fright, Kotcheff has gone on to direct movies including First Blood (1982) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1988), proving himself as a talented filmmaker. So why has his earlier masterpiece been overlooked by the Australian audience he sought to depict?

It may be simply down Kotcheff’s direct approach in addressing the ideas behind cultural cringe.

The story follows a British school teacher John Grant – played by Gary Bond – who after finishing the semester becomes stuck in the fictionalised ‘Yabba’ en route to Sydney. 

Looking to kill time during his one-night stopover in the Yabba, Grant meets the rest of the cast and quickly feels threatened by his apparent otherness.

To compensate, he begins drinking and gambling following insistent peer pressure from the local police sheriff. As the beers pile up, the characters become more insisting.

From here, the film never lets up, with Grant steadily losing any intellectual sanity he has left. The locals and their fixation with beer and gambling, wither his individuality away until he has become one with the sweaty, thirsty and savage pack.

When asked what it is about the Yabba he doesn’t like, Grant replies, “I’m just bored with it. The aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as them.”

It’s through his ability to see Australia with fresh eyes that Kotcheff was able to put forward a vision of pure hell.

The hypnotic, sweltering heatwaves of the outback that lull you into a mirage-like state of hypnosis; the alcoholism that has been associated with Australian culture for decades; the pack mentality of meeting an outsider deemed inferior; and our past of hunting and violence, are all themes that the film explores.

All of these factors at play amount to an incredibly powerful piece of art, rather than anything derogatory or ill-minded.

Art is an actualisation of culture and history, and when these components are ignored, the end result can feel like a manufactured creation, an artificial means to an end, with the audience unable to relate their humanity to a product.

As previously noted, this film was the subject of worldwide academic praise, so why was it a box-office failure in the very country it depicts?

Could it be that audiences wrote the film off due to collective cultural cringe at who we are as a culture, interpreting the film as tasteless or harmful in its intent?

But it can be argued that the film represents our culture accurately, albeit stretching the ideas creatively in service of a horror-like fairy tale; a warning, if you will.

As with American history, our outback runs many parallels with The West.

Both are places of ancient mystery and beauty, too powerful to comprehend with mere words; places of rebirth for those brave enough to venture out; of miscommunication between those within it.

These are themes that American filmmakers explored heavily throughout the 60s and 70s.  Through their art they were able to connect and communicate these messages to a forever-growing audience, creating a place of acceptance where new ideas are a constant.

Australia’s cultural cringe once categorised artists who were worthy of progressing our culture as inferior. By mislabeling their intentions as an effort to bring us down, we effectively silenced the voices trying to propel us forward.

Wake in Fright was ahead of its time in addressing some of the core ideas behind cultural cringe.  In doing so in the 70s, an era dominated by comedies and satires, this may have been a double-edged sword.

But today there’s no excuse. It’s high time we face who we are and what our culture is.

Only once we tackle what it means to be Australian can we begin to champion the artists and intellectuals within. Without a cultural playbook of themes and ideas to pluck from, we will stay stagnant, like a kangaroo caught in headlights.

The genius of Kotcheff’s work was confirmed upon its Australian release, when it was thought to be ‘too uncomfortably direct and uncompromising for audiences’.

After all, at an early screening, a man stood up and shouted, “that’s not us!”, to which Jack Thompson, who plays a local of Yabba in the film, yelled back, “sit down, mate. It is us.”

Image by Luke Saunders