You can thank Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 film, Freaks, for what follows, which is certainly one of the most vivid circus-centric narratives I know. The important thing about Browning’s unfairly maligned movie is where the director puts our sympathies – we are never in any doubt – and likewise the age-old question it asks as to the difference between men and ‘monsters’. I’m not going to say much more about the short story that follows, except to say it was written for The Kick-About No.53, and inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a clown performing with his black pig, and also this: The Greatest Showman it is not.
The last edition of The Kick-About marked our second birthday and two year’s of fortnightly creative challenges encouraging artists of all stripes to make new work in a short time. As such, it was something of a three-ringed circus, an eclectic, celebratory showcase with a little bit of something for everyone. How appropriate then our first prompt of the new Kick-About year should focus our attention on the circus paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. ‘Roll up, roll up!’
“I was instantly drawn to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s line drawings that he produced much earlier in his career, and felt perhaps there was a way to capture the immediacy, simplicity and instinctiveness of those sketches with the modern digital tools I typically use. Channelling the spirit of an earlier Kick-About, Herzog’s Dancing Chicken, which also evoked manic movement and energy, I just applied the same techniques but attempted to reduce it down even more. I think there is an entire series to be made of these at some point!”
“I was about eight (late fifties) when, on a Saturday afternoon, the treat was a trip to the circus that had arrived in town. It was traditional in every way, clowns, band, ringmaster, plumed horses and glamorous riders, acrobats, contortionist, flying trapeze, performing chimps, lions and tamers, tigers and camels. My great Uncle Arthur was a forward agent for circuses, and I believe he supplied some free tickets. By that time, he had taken over a zoo and kept chimps and a lion called Sultan, amongst others animals. The zoo, and an accompanying Archery Stall, was in Ramsgate on the far end of the sea front, and at the time, part of the complex of amusements known as ‘Merrie England’ (later ‘Pleasurama’). I doubt if it was that merrie or pleasurable for the animals. Welfare and safety concerns were soon to radically change the idea of circus and zoos. For me, this Kick-About is about nostalgia, and the memory of Merrie England, the circus and zoo, and great Uncle Arthur…”
“Toulouse: What a great prompt. We don’t see a lot of his work down here but his use of colour certainly has burnt into my mind. I was a bit short of time, though I think I got the essence of what I was after – would benefit from actually being painted. I saw a man dangling from ropes cleaning an old brick building with a high pressure water hose – bit like an acrobat – with an audience at the stop lights. I was thinking of the figure with the ropes pressing around him and experimented with photographing a pillow tied up with string – not wanting to throw the images out, I put them in the background building’s windows (who knows what goes on in the buildings we walk past every day!) I kind of turned the image from day to night and took the photos to use as spotlights behind the dangling man. Anyway fodder for a later project perhaps.”
“A circus immediately brings to mind clowns, a disguise that has always seemed a bit creepy to me. But it also reminded me of a book of photos taken by Matthew Rolston of some of the ventriloquist dummies in the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Haunting and aware, I’ve always wanted to try to capture some of the sentience of the photos in a drawing. And so I did, randomly opening the book to four different faces. One of the essays in the book says they are meant “to suggest life”, but any supposedly “inanimate” object so entwined with a human life is alive. Any child can tell you that. They may have been separated from their humans, but these faces remember them. Here’s a link to Roston’s photos.”
“Initially, I had the idea of loading up an old battered and broken blue iPhone that I didn’t expect to turn on, from which to rip some photographs from a circus I attended with friends, the circus standing tall on the iconic Rochester hill where I went to uni. Amazingly, the phone turned on with its red battery charging symbol loading through the cracked pixelated screen. The joy on my face when I held the tiny phone in my comically large hands… However in my many attempts to get all those photos off this ancient iPhone, technology somehow fucked me over and devastatingly wiped every single photo from the phone, including all the photos I wanted to use for this week’s prompt!
I ended up sitting and sulking on the idea for a while and contemplated coming up with something completely different, but stubbornly I didn’t want to, and I did have a handful of those very photos from that iPhone stored on my laptop that I never deleted. So instead of being a moody little shit, I decided to try and make something from them by duplicating the original photos and using previous creations and random photos laid on top to attempt to create some new compositions exploring the light, energy and disorientating weirdness of a circus. I guess with the recent anniversary of the Kick-About, in some ways it can seem poetic to use a bunch of outpourings from previous Kick-Abouts to create something completely new.”
“You can thank Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 film, Freaks, for what follows, ladies and gents, which is certainly one of the most vivid circus-centric narratives I know. The important thing about Browning’s unfairly maligned movie is where the director puts our sympathies – we are never in any doubt – and likewise the age-old question it asks as to the difference between men and ‘monsters’. I’m not going to say much more about the short story that follows, except to say it was inspired first and foremost by Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a clown performing with his black pig, and also this: The Greatest Showman it is not…”
Sometimes, it has felt as if my brain is too old or too stupid or simply too preoccupied with other more important things to even think about undertaking another creative brief ‘for the sake of it’. If I’m thinking this, the guy who sets the Kick-About prompts each fortnight, I’m pretty sure some of the regular kick-abouters have thought it too. Lives get busy. Lives get glum. Interest and energy wanes. The mood passes. Art is fart.
And yet, all that being true, now I’ve gathered here together a year’s worth of new work in a single place, I am reminded of the intrinsic value of ‘making stuff’ and of the power of community. There is little doubt, were it not for the examples set by all the other artists in The Kick-About, I wouldn’t have followed through on these various creative enquiries of my own. It’s quite unlikely I would have started them, and I certainly wouldn’t have finished them, finding a bunch of reasonable excuses to get on with more pressing stuff, or stuff I didn’t need to think about quite as much, or the stuff of watching television and eating bars of cheap chocolate on the sofa. But as it happens, I’ve inflated latex gloves with water to produce wobbling horrors, made moonscapes out of bags of flour, photographed tin-toy chickens obsessively, made short films, written a story about a woman with nasturtium seed for a head, encased a bunch of stuff in ice, and the list goes on – and largely because I wasn’t alone in my endeavours. Somewhere in New York, Kerfe was suspending paper fish inside a litter bin, and somewhere out in Brisbane, James was populating a primordial forest with bare chested brutes; meanwhile, Charly was crocheting a hat of fantastical proportions, Tom was configuring Saul Bass-inspired spirals out of code in Yokohama, and Gary was fashioning a Christmas tree out of hand-foraged willow and meticulous strips of calligraphic paper!
What I particularly enjoy, it seems, is the license to shape-shift in terms of creative work; the Kick-About encourages me to diversify, to jump about a bit. That said, there are obvious preoccupations – a love of in-camera transformations, what we might call ‘analogue magic’, and a preoccupation with the darker side of the human imagination. I blame the Pan Book of Horror and all those brave, strange, mean films of the 1970s.
‘Jumping about a bit’ can be confusing, so I decided to get my ‘art-house’ in order a bit by re-organising my personal website. It might not make a scrap of sense thematically, but at least it’s nice and tidy, right?
Thanks again to all the Kick-Abouters: we’ve been living through some strange rootless times, and your company and creativity has done much to keep my feet on the ground and my imagination a good deal higher up! Onwards…
Welcome to this anniversary edition of The Kick-About, marking two years of creative activity undertaken by an international community of artists… which, when you put it like that sounds very impressive indeed! While those of us who participate in these fortnightly challenges might not regard ourselves as grandly as all that, this is my opportunity to thank everyone for their continuing creativity and companionship over this last year. I also want to reflect on the very real and demonstrable benefits of ‘kicking about’ together: yes, it’s another thing we have to think about, and yes, things don’t always run smoothly or go to plan, but ‘making work’ is always a magical act, and life-affirming too. Thanks again to everyone in the KA community for your boundless imagination and sticking power. Look at what we did!
“What I found the most gratifying about The Kick-About this year was that, for the first time in ages for me personally, it felt like I could take any small idea that I had and bring it to some form of a conclusion without feeling like there was a whole load of mental and skill barriers in the way.
One of the most satisfying projects out of all the ones I produced was the animated short film inspired by Marie Menken for The Kick-About #34. After a very long time of not really making any moving image it felt quite rewarding to just let go and make something with the same kind of ‘just do it and see what happens’ attitude that always felt so inspiring to me as a creative, but perhaps, over the years, got lost in the shuffle of life and other such boring things! These days, just producing work and art is anything but boring for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing what else might become a makeshift goalpost in the park with all the other fellow Kick-Abouters in the future.”
“I had not heard of Brian Rutenberg (Kick-About No. 32) and the first impression was ‘Wow! Very powerful!’ So I spent quite a bit of time ‘deconstructing’ his technique. The apparent abstract nature is, of course, in reality highly stylised landscapes. If you put aside the idiosyncratic drawing style they are quite simple compositions. The cleverness for me is the use of colour; he has substituted primary or secondary colours for tone on most of the pieces, enhancing the abstract qualities. The texture and randomness is the product of palette knife work – that said, given the size of the canvases, it was more likely a large trowel! A lot of my work is marine in subject, so for the first piece I took an image of reflections on water and upped the colour values and worked largely with a palette knife. I think you can still just about make out it is meant to be liquid. For the other piece, I chose a lake surrounded by trees and threw away the tonal values, replacing them with primary colour. I failed to match the stylisation of Rutenberg, but I think they are just about going in the right direction.”
“The prompt could hardly have been more suited to me and my natural inclinations. It’s inky and leafy and Australian. What strikes me most is the combination of the loosest of ink splatters with far more careful and detailed patterning. I was going to explore some inkiness yesterday (Yep! Last minute again!) to see where an observation of Mungkuri’s work (Kick-About No.37) might take me, especially with regard to the use of white ink patterning over the top of the looser ink layers. But before I could begin something happened… Our bees swarmed! Later, I had a bit of a go at my inky exploration of Peter Mungkuri’s plant drawings, but my mind was full of bees. And joy. So it became an illustration of Hugo and me, arms uplifted to the swarming bees.”
For the Kick-About No. 41 ‘La Ville’ ~ “I used one of my daughter’s photos of an event when Lady Gaga walked down the red carpet, which I firstly painted in watercolour and then recreated it in the style of ?? (You can see why I nearly failed my Art O’ level!) Anyway, I enjoyed creating art in this way and using such zingy colours!”
From The Kick-About No. 51“Print them out and colour in your very own folk art postcards. I used google to translate the English titles into Ukrainian, so apologies for any grammatical errors.”
“Of the prompts I participated in, I think my personal favourite was Kick-About Number 31, Lotte Reiniger. The traditional form of silhouettes and stop-frame animation was more hands-on than my other prompt responses. Less abstracted. And less rooted in technology, which was an invigorating change.
Cutting things out of paper for craft projects is something I’d been doing since I was little, much like Lotte did, so I ran with the nostalgia. Plus, the rudimentary camera setup resulted in an animation with some wonky charm that I quite like!”
“For the second year anniversary post I’ve chosen a little film I made for Kick-About #28. The prompt that week was the garden created by Derek Jarman on the shingle spit of Dungeness. Derek started making the garden during a period of personal crisis, shortly after he had been diagnosed HIV+ in 1986. Back then there was no treatment available for HIV and it was fatal in almost all cases. The garden was a tremendous act of creativity and of defiance in the face of a terminal diagnosis, not least because he built it in one of the most unlikely places in the country, the arid, salty shingle of Dunegness, directly in front of a nuclear power station. And, despite his failing health, the garden provided the backdrop to one of the most dynamic and prolific periods in his life; he crammed in more living and working into those last few years before his death in 1994 than most do in a whole lifetime.
I used the words that close his book, At Your Own Risk, writing them in wax crayon, before brushing some black ink over them. The resist technique didn’t work very well and the words aren’t very legible, so here they are:
‘I am tired tonight. My eyes are out of focus, my body droops under the weight of the day, but as I leave you Queer lads let me leave you singing. I had to write of a sad time as a witness – not to cloud your smiles – please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. As the shadows close in, the starts came out. I am in love.’
As he wrote those words in the early 1990s, he foresaw a better future for the world. Sadly, I’m not sure if this has come to pass, at least not yet. The crisis of AIDS in Derek Jarman’s time has been resolved across most of the world, but the climate crisis and war in Europe threaten chaos on an even greater scale. I wonder what he would make of the world today? I confess I’m pessimistic about what lies ahead for humanity, but Derek’s life provides a kind of blueprint to at least try and deal with the terrible state we’re in; speak out, respond, fight, create, work, and make a little garden to face down the dark forces.”
“I love abstract paintings (Kick-About No.32) particularly as I know what a challenge they can be for composition and colour, light and movement. In my work I also strive to keep the first creative impetus with its full emotional strength before it becomes too cerebral. So this is one of my abstract painting that deals with space, macrocosm and microcosm. Thank you Phil and all the extraordinary artists who make this creative experience so special.”
The Kick-About No. 30:“It was so hard to choose. But I decided to go with the Fundus Photography. The photos themselves are magical, and I feel the watercolors I did inspired by them are some of the best I did all year. They are still hanging in my office, almost the first things I put up when I moved, and every day I enjoy looking at them.”
“I’m choosing my short story, Nasturtiums, to include in this anniversary edition for two reasons: the first being that, at first glance, Sheila Legge’s Phantom of Surrealism (Kick-About No.36) left me scratching my head and worrying at the efficacy of my imagination. My second reason for sharing it is because, once I’d stopped worrying, this short story arrived with surprising ease, and for all its inherent strangeness, felt, in some way, inevitable.”
(I wanted to offer up a little birthday bonus with this edition of the Kick-About, so with the assistance of voice artist, Catherine Bradley, I’m happy to present a little audio-book adaptation of Nasturtiums. Enjoy!)
“My favourite kick about this year has got to be the Stezaker prompt (The Kick-About No. 47) I loved the challenge of creating two parallel stories and then putting them together as one piece. Having said that, the Louis Baldwin took me to new areas of finding and stitching and Splendor Solis gave a rare opportunity to become immersed into a drawing over a long period of time. I just enjoy them all!”
“May 2021 – KA #30 Fundus Photography – has to be the right choice at the right time, with May approaching and a garden offering seemingly endless delights of colour. A reawakening of the senses and added energy by way of summer approaching seems a timely reminder to exploit the daylight hours, be observant, and delight in making use of such inspiration.”
“I have enjoyed so many of our KA prompts this past year, it is difficult to choose a favourite. But I have opted for Kickabout #30 “Fundus Photography”, because I found my “Alien skies” and the poem “Forward, Hover, Focus, Click” flowed so readily and so smoothly that I revelled in the process and now, all these months later, I can still look on the work and be happy. It is very rare for equal pleasure to be found in conception, execution and retrospection (for me, anyway!) so I cherish this!”
“I have decided to choose a recent response for the two year anniversary, which is the prompt of contemporary textile artist – Louise Baldwin (The Kick-About No.48). The outpouring of photography was completely transfixing, utterly intoxicating, but also very unpredictable. It was one of those times where something awoke in me and the tunnel vision of this bizarre creative pursuit was exhilarating – especially because the uncertainty of dumping all those household ingredients into a jar and photographing the bubbling frothy results is a practice I certainly wouldn’t have even attempted if it wasn’t for The Kick-About. But it is one byproduct that the Kick-About can and does unlock, as I do think being an artist means experimenting, breaking the status quo and playing to see what can flourish. So thank you all for the art, the making, and the doing, and helping me to produce things I would never have dreamed of, and thank you Phil for always curating our pursuits into a post I always look forward to.”
“So good to be a part of the KA and see all your fabulous work over the last year – lots to be inspired by and challenged to undertake! Personally I got an enormous amount out of the Sheila Legge challenge (KA 36 – Phantom Of Surrealism). I felt a bit aimless at the start but once my mind began wondering about, while trying to recreate Sheila’s surrealist mask, I zeroed in on the parallel stresses between her era and ours – big scary times. That’s when my image took an environmental posture and I cobbled together imagery to represent power and disaster. I also added ground charcoal textures and hand writing to my photographic images and broke up the framing of the image with staggered photo stripes in the background. It was one of those surprising outcomes that seem to happen so effortlessly its almost as if someone else was giving me a hand. I was also happy that the flower head felt a bit Covidish. Looking forward to the next KA.”
“As many have written over this past year, our lives have become perhaps a tad too much like a De Chirico or Hopper painting. The empty, beguilling landscapes feel a little too familiar for comfort, but nonetheless, these sorts of spaces are my stomping ground. The unease of architectural space has always been an inspiration in my work, and so here are a few strange tableaus inspired by De Chirico’s The Song of Love(Kick-About No. 27).”
“This piece started life as a digital painting, in the style of Rutenberg’s paintings (Kick-About No.32). The more I’ve gotten into his work over the last few years, and as I’ve listened to him speak about his work and process, I’ve absorbed a lot of his wisdom and theory. Painting in Photoshop, from some recent photos I took on holiday in Somerset, I realised that without all the elements of thick oil paint, walnut oil, textured canvas and the monumental scale, this just wasn’t going to cut it. The sense of depth and light depicted in Brian’s work always astounds me, so I took the idea of his interplay of horizontals and verticals into ZBrush. I used the original digital painting to create the colour on the 3D. I made a rough approximation of the artist himself, just as a homage to a bit of a hero of mine, then created a tangle of intersecting forms. I encased this in a glass box to contain this in a 3D space, something the artist conveys so well on his canvases. A departure from my comfort zone on this one, another lesson learned from Rutenberg himself.”
“After a bit of pondering I have chosen the Matisse Kick About (No.38) for the anniversary of this last year’s offerings. I really liked Phil Cooper’s introduction about Matisse and his joy of playing with scissors as an exuberant response to nature. The fact he made these cut outs in later life reminded me of where I am in my own life and the joy I found doing these cut outs and playing with colour, shape and movement. I think I will be going back to them as they have been left out on the desk asking for more from me…”
“I love the shapes Gabo created – the magic of straight lines working together to create curves, and curves working together to create depth and movement. I started playing around with some yarn and metal shapes, and found myself thinking about the shadows these artifacts could create, with the right backdrop and well placed lights. I’m really pleased with the results.”
“In my other creative endeavours I recently came across the peculiar visual effects that can occur when you layer up uneven lines in a 2D or 3D space. In some cases this effect could be seen as undesirable but I very much enjoy the various patterns it generates at different levels of magnification and how it creates multiple levels of texture and visual interest.”
“The prompt brought to mind some small shibori fabric samples I had that I meant to embroider on. I had planned to do several, but time shrinking as it seems to do so well lately, I only got one done. I did, however, manage 5 Japanese style poems to go with the 5 photos attached.”
threads and circles
1 to be a thread held on the wings of birds soaring through vast light-filled air
2 layers merge separate become something else
3 stillness waits to expand beyond what is here
4 particles of light that remain uncaught—a song you can almost hear
5 tethered to itself or maybe nothing at all– just an idea
“I have loved Gabo since I was 15 when I started experimenting with sculpture. I was already interested in light, movement and transparencies and I found traditional sculpture taught at my art school wonderful but not quite my cup of tea, until I discovered Gabo. His work has all those ingredients and an amazing dynamic strength. I was never much for the rounded shapes but I resonate with the way he uses them because they are so powerful and not soft or indecisive. So here is my attempt to create growth in delicacy through my fused glass sculpture.”
“Many of my friends know that I do a lot of arts and crafts and they often give me bits and pieces and say “Can you make some use of this?” Well this is one of those times when the answer is “Yes!” In fact I’m not quite sure what this material actually is. It seems like a stiff and thick type of felt but the difference is I discovered that unlike ordinary felt, if you cut and twist this it will hold its shape beautifully. So I cut and twisted some long strips and twisted them around a central thread and hung my construction in a sunlit window. Next I played around with some recycled ring pulls that I had been saving. Naum Gabo was a trail blazer – I wonder what ideas he would have come up with if he had the resources of today?”
“I love Naum Gabo and I know how much my work has been influenced by him and also that period in time when so many exciting new ideas were being put forward, both in the arts and philosophy. The transparency of the material and desire to stretch the boundaries of them is fascinating. In these times, I am working with cardboard and have been for the past twelve years, turning it backwards into and an organic form of light and transparency in opposition to its mechanical machined square frame. For this kick about my inspiration came initially from the spiral and then I returned to my collection of pods!“
“I fell into looking at the brother, Antoine Pevsner, as his drawings and paintings triggered a desire to deconstruct older still-life paintings with an interest in achieving more spatially ambiguous subject matter and a hope to add more to dynamic composition. A mix of palette knife and brushwork helped counter habits being formed whilst a painting evolves. An enjoyable KA.”
“The following photographs were produced by stringing nylon wire between the legs of a console table pushed up against one long wall in our kitchen, and then using the torch on my knackered old iPhone to produce some high-points of reflection on some wires, and to cast some shadows too. Something expansive and landscape-like got started in these images, and I’m adding these experiments to my list entitled ‘One day, I’ll do this all again on a MUCH bigger scale.’
“Naum Gabo_Linear Construction Number 2 – such a hopeful outlook to art. I used to love string art as a kid, all those rigid lines. On a recent walk I took photos of the rather drab grey and fairly ugly Story Bridge here in Brisbane and drew it in illustrator in a formal fashion in orange. I thought of adding buildings behind or portions of cars but the bridge turned out so complicated I just added a bit of white cloud – a portion of low quality iPhone photo, but I think it worked and it broke up the rigid picture framing a little. It was nice to spend time concentrating on all those bright orange shapes and not on the world as it is.“
And for our next creative run-around together, our prompt is the celebrated Ukrainian folk-artist, Maria Prymachenko.
“In the previous chapter we were immersed in scenes of devastation and horror, but things take a surprising turn in Chapter 20. We encounter a couple of the strangest characters in the book and we’re treated to some of the worst jokes ever heard. It’s quite a contrast!As many of the scenes in Chimera have been quite dark in many respects, I’ve taken the opportunity to illustrate something lighter in tone. It’s not often I get the chance to paint a blow-up flamingo, and I wasn’t going to let the chance pass me by. There’s a tube of bubblegum-pink that’s been gathering dust in my paintbox for years, but it’s time has come!” Phil Cooper, Spring 2022
It’s here, the penultimate episode of Chimera Book 1! I anticipate anyone who has listened to the last 19 chapters may be in urgent need of a recap. For others unfamiliar with my continuing collaboration with Dan Snelgrove to turn the first of my children’s adventures into an audio book, it might be a case of ‘Chimera what now?!’ Short version is Dan and I embarked on this project all the way back in October 2020, and with but one more episode to produce to complete Kyp Finnegan’s first adventure in the strange and dangerous realm of lost properties, we’re nearly there! If you go here, you can begin at the beginning, and if you go here, you can catch up on the events of the last chapter; and for a quick recap of the final moments of Chapter 19, see below.
Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake In Fright is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
As a self-styled horror-snob, I spend most of my time experiencing disappointment at much of the current fare. My sensibilities around what is horrifying are actually pretty strict, and my ability to suspend disbelief has waned. I’m no fan of excessive violence, or the spectacular aesthetics of ‘gorenography’, or the supernatural, as it relates to cobwebs and castles, and their canonical creatures. I love dread, which is a heavier feeling than suspense, and nothing to do with people walking around in houses with the lights off.
Dread is the feeling a really good horror film puts you through, and leaves you with. A good horror film clings to your clothes. I remember watching the first Final Destination movie in some big old London cinema – a fine, fun film and easily quaffed – and then, for days afterwards, found myself imperilled by every scaffolding tower and passing car, and later, in the privacy of my bathroom, by every pair of vanity scissors. One of the few dud-notes in that particular movie is when they visualise the ‘angel of death’ as a sort of shadow or blemish – we surely didn’t need that – but a good horror film should accomplish this same thing; a ‘reaching out’ to imprint on our lived realities.
Wake In Fright achieves this for me, and then some, even though Kotcheff’s film is not a horror film at first glance, and while the world of its story is full-bodied antipodean, its dreadfulness feels native, a nightmare cut from Phil-shaped cloth.
Nothing about the film’s slim plot suggests it should resonate so personally: an enervated school teacher, teaching in the parched environs of the back of beyond, sets out on a trip to Sydney, where he plans to spend his two week Christmas vacation with his girlfriend. The teacher alights at Bundanyabba, the mining town from where he’s due to catch his flight to the big city, and with time to kill before he leaves in the morning, he goes for a beer in one of ‘The Yabba’s pubs. What ensues is not your usual The Hills Have Eyes fare, in which a more obviously educated and ‘city-fied’ character is pitched tooth-and-nail against the atavistic savagery of the local population. What Wake In Fright shares with that film, and likewise with Deliverance, Straw Dogs and Duel, is what it tells us about the fragility of civilisation and the frailties of manhood.
Rather like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, whose own largely nightmarish adventure begins with the consumption of a potion with powers of reduction, John Grant’s trip down the rabbit hole begins with a single beer, bought for him by the Yabba’s local policeman, Jock Crawford.
Crawford is an imposing character. Grant, who is as pretty as Peter O’Toole, is presented altogether differently. The interior of the pub is unambiguously confrontational; working men drinking together, Grant moving between them, an outsider, as in an unfamiliar face, but different too in terms of class and the sensuality of his features. The pub is rammed, but Crawford singles him out once, and insists on buying Grant a beer, then watches him drink it. This scene reminds of me of the ways in which boys at school would have to smear new shoes, blooding them if you like, finding their shine insufferable. This scene is about class, but it’s also about homoeroticism – and not the good kind. Crawford is drawn to Grant because he is too handsome, and in this way, in this context, unmanly, and so the noticing of him is unmanning. Grant produces a visual tension in this place, his contrast with the other men obvious. He is a tall poppy, or should that be pansy, and here comes Crawford, the alpha, to buy him a beer and supervise its consumption, to see if Grant is ‘man enough’ after all; to see if he is ‘one of us.’
Even at this early point in the film, I feel the grip of claustrophobia. I think about my teenage years, and all the beers I’ve accepted when I haven’t wanted one, accepting one because I know it would say something about me if I didn’t, those alarm bells ringing at Real Men HQ.
Peer pressure isn’t one of those phrases that necessarily fills us with horror. We perhaps think of it as more of a nudging influence, more likely to result in us buying something we don’t want, or taking up smoking, getting an ill-advised tattoo, or accepting a beer in order to fit in. This is likely why Wake In Fright isn’t marketed as a horror movie, in which the malign influence at work is group think, but were we undecided what Kotchek thinks about the benumbing effects of cultural homogeneity, the director soon makes his feelings clearer still: suddenly, a siren goes off, and every man stops drinking to observe a collective act of remembrance for Australia’s world war one soldiers. The ritual is presented as sinister and dehumanising, a moment of mass zombification. Twitchy and bewildered, Grant falls in line accordingly, coerced into strict observance by the ubiquity of everyone else’s behaviour.
I feel the same way about this moment in Wake In Fright as I do about the last night of the proms, or clapping like seals to to show our appreciation for nurses in lieu of paying them. I feel the same way about Come On Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Baggy Trousers by Madness, or rather the way both songs transformed the dance floors of my youth into temporary ‘no-go’ areas, because this was the music mobs of straight men felt able to dance to without breaking whatever rule had otherwise kept them glued to the bar. Grant’s discomfort mirrors mine around the wearing of remembrance poppies. It’s not the act of respect-giving or the imaginative act of empathy that gives me pause, but rather the panoptical coercion of having to present as respectful. Wake In Fright presents its own ritual of remembrance similarly, not as an opportunity for the individual to imagine the lives and losses of soldiers, but as an opportunity to fall in line. When I watched Wake In Fright most recently, this particular scene made me think of Conservative politicians sneaking union jacks into their every television appearance, and weighing in on what national museums can say or do about their statues. Kotchek presents nationalistic obedience as innately sinister – because, innately, it always is.
Wake In Fright is a fish out of water film, wherein the fish is middle-class and metrosexualised, and the parched environs of The Yabba are working-class and and hyper-masculine. Some of the film’s other othering effects are more common-and-garden. The Yabba itself is presented as intrinsically surreal and solipsistic, as any new place might be expected to feel to the outsider, its various customs abstruse and its inhabitants odd and unknowable. We’re treated to a short, terrifying shot of Father Christmas; an old man gawps vacantly, and the woman on the reception desk of Grant’s hotel is as rude and flat as a wax mannequin, albeit one who is melting in the heat, dipping her fingers in water and applying it to her face in a gesture striking us immediately as breaking some public/private wall. She may as well have her fingers dipping below the elastic line of her knickers.
But John Grant’s long day’s journey into night truly begins when he involves himself in raucous game of gambling back in the shadows of another drinking establishment-come-restaurant, the rules of which are simple; money is won and lost on the tossing of coins marked with a cross. This is another scene that captures brilliantly the strangeness of male culture, for even though the mood of the game is raucous, and opportunities for theft are rife, some long-established, if unspoken, gentlemen’s agreement keeps everyone in abeyance. From the outside, the game comes off as feral and unregulated, but their are decencies being afforded here and a rule of law maintained. More tripwires for the unwary and the unmanly, I think, as I watch the school teacher make all the wrong choices, losing all his money on the flip of painted pennies. At one point, the camera treats us to a single shot of the hot white spotlight illuminating the gaming arena; I’m always reminded of that other antipodean film about civilised folk ill-prepared for the brutal environment in which they find themselves lost; in Nick Roeg’s Walkabout, the close-ups of the blazing sun are treated similarly, the heat whining mosquito-like on the soundtrack.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too childish, too unsophisticated, too queer, but when, come the morning after his disastrous dalliance with this big boy’s game of pennies, John Grant is next shown lying completely naked on his hotel bed, I’m always shocked by the spectacle of it. I think to myself, ‘Oh grow up, Phil! It’s just another man’s arse’, but then I think to myself, ‘But why this shot and why now?’ After all, there are any number of ways to play this same scene, any number of ways to communicate how this character has been stripped of his costume of respectability. Ultimately, I can’t help feeling as if this man’s body is being displayed, not least because he’s got that vintage porn star’s tan, which further objectifies his bum cheeks by lighting them up for all to see. I don’t know if I’m supposed to find this moment titillating? The truth is I do. Then I get to thinking, if I’m a bit confronted by this other man’s prone nakedness, what about all the red-bloodied straight men in the audience? How discomforting for them, how unwelcome. After all, real men are not supposed to look upon each other’s bodies in this way (even thought the history of popular cinema is a the history of male flesh presented as spectacle: Tarzan, all those sword and sandal epics, Stallone, etc). I’ll concede there is a long and noble tradition of academic types dressing up their erotic pleasure as subjects for great seriousness and meaningful debate, but anyway I’m going to argue this one scene is key to understanding what is really going on in Wake In Fright.
That John Grant has a sexy, metropolitan girlfriend waiting for him in Sydney is the reason he embarks on his journey to the Yabba in the first place. Interestingly, the girlfriend never exists in the film as a contemporaneous character; she is a picture in his wallet, and what might be a memory of a day at the beach, in which boobs and beer are twinned. For this viewer at least, there is something hyperreal and processed about this memory, like we’re watching an advert instead. Nothing about this moment is particularly convincing, and what it really reminds me of is the way I would thumb my way through those discarded pornographic magazines that somehow found their way into school from railway sidings. I’d want something about these scenarios to strike me as convincing, or as credible, but they never would, just as this moment of heightened heterosexuality in Grant’s imagination feels freighted with artifice and overly self-consciousness.
The women of Wake In Fright are either mythically sexual, as in the case of Grant’s girlfried, or waxen and disembodied, as in the instance of the hotel receptionist; or, in the case of the character of Janette Hynes, an off-centred hybrid of both.
After Grant accepts a beer from Janette’s father, a gnomish, unpleasant man who, like every other male character in the film, bullies Grant into accepting ‘another beer’, the teacher ends up returning to this other man’s home. Grant is now broke, his options limited, and this should feel like a moment of Samaritan-style kindness. That instead it feels Faustian is another example of the Wake In Fright‘s special peril. In this film, hospitality is always coercive, where someone buying you a drink is a spider wrapping you in silk.
Janette, meanwhile, is bored and expressionless, largely invisible to the men around her. In addition to inviting Grant into his house, Janette’s father is visited by two local working men, miners both, thick-set, thicker-headed, and ‘out out’ on an all-day binge of relentless beer-drinking. With their hairy chests and brawny bodies, Dick and Joe are cocks-of-the-walk, but they are as disinterested in Janette as her father, and so she turns her attention to the beautiful stranger, and little wonder. Grant engages her in conversation. He is attentive and discursive. He is sensitive.
Their decision to continue their more intimate conversation outside, away from the boorish interactions of the menfolk, results in the decision they should have sex. Nothing about their particular chemistry makes this seem inevitable, although it is obvious from the outset that they will. The sex they go on to have is awful. As Janette readies herself for ravishment, with a squirming fervour speaking to agonies of loneliness, Grant rolls off her and vomits up his guts. I suppose we are to make from this no more than Grant is ‘too drunk to fuck’, but I can’t help read this disastrous encounter as him rejecting something he cannot stomach. In this moment, I am flashed backwards to what is phony-seeming about his imaginary girlfriend. It returns me to the way Grant’s naked body was served up so gratuitously. Not so much ‘too drunk to fuck’, I think, but too closeted.
It is with the arrival of Doc (played to sweaty perfection by Donald Pleasence), that Grant’s evening deteriorates further, with Grant waking up to find himself at Doc’s tin shack, where Pleasence seeks to assuage the teacher’s roaring hangover with a frying pan brimming with minced kangaroo.
Doc makes for strange and stressful company, off-kilter, yapping, a disgraced doctor and alcoholic, living out on the edge of civilisation and broiling greasily beneath the heel of the sun. As he follows Grant about in his yard, invading the other man’s space, watching his guest urinate, Doc produces an energy at once hard to pin down, but also completely recognisable – to anyone, that is, who has ever felt themselves alone in the company of someone with whom some kind of sexual contact is on the cards. The push-me-pull-you between these two characters reminds me of moments from my own adolescent life, those fraught, taut episodes in which a male school friend has come around to the house, to watch a video maybe, and we’re alone on either end of the settee, and something is off because something is on. I recall a gardening job one sweltering day, moving bags of shingle into the back garden of an unlovely terraced house in an unlovely town. I had someone helping me, an acquaintance really, and not even that, but off came our shirts, the two of us sweating and stinking, our bodies close and getting closer as the job wore on miserably. Resting again, the two of us talking, making jokes, the other guy suddenly put his shirt back on, some membrane between us thinning or spoiling, my eyes dipping perhaps, slipping.
The sexual tension between Grant and Doc is not of this delicious kind, humming sweetly like a chiming fork. It’s all the sour notes instead. There’s a grimace to it, a squalor, an incipient abuse of power, and it’s only going to get worse, and it does.
In common with other films of the 1970s and early 80s, Wake In Fright‘s notoriety originates from the fine line it walks between fact and fiction. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) sets itself up as a real historical event; Cannibal Holocaust (1980) includes images of animals being butchered. Snuff (1975) is entirely fictional, but wants you to think otherwise, while Faces of Death (1978) does include footage of fatal accidents. Wake in Fright is nothing like these grubbier examples, but it does include a protracted kangeroo hunt, in which actual footage of the shooting and killing of kangaroos is mixed with staged elements.
Grant’s initiation into bona fide masculine culture, which began with all those glasses of beer he didn’t want, continues apace as he joins Doc, Dick and Joe on a kangaroo hunt. In a scene of blatant homoeroticism (while in no way being homoerotic), we’re treated to the spectacle of the hunters castrating kangaroos, the scrotums of which are of commensurate size and heft as those of the men themselves. While watching Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, in which a cowboy castrates a bull with his bare hands, I was reminded of these scenes from Kotcheff’s film; of the way in which these men rush to touch the impressively large and hairy gonads of another powerful male, but only as a prelude to destroying them.
In pure cinematic terms, Wake In Fright‘s kangaroo hunt is transformed into expressionistic flashes and tableaux by the swinging light of the hunter’s searchlight, which they use to mesmerise their marsupial quarry. Not content with shooting them, one of the hunters goes hand-to-hand with a kangaroo in an absurdist facsimile of a street-side brawl. Grant is required to make his kill too, to be bloodied, to pass, and while we’re shown the teacher gurning happily, pissed, shooting guns, accepted finally, we know very well he is spiralling into the abyss, monstered by his masculinity and the price of performing it to the satisfaction of his peers.
After the hunt, Doc, Dick, Joe and Grant find their way to some out-of-the-way pub marooned on the edge of a great sea of scrub and nothing. There is more drinking to be done, and I watch this moment with a growing sensation of asphyxiation, imagining my own secret scream if I were likewise trapped in this nightmare of consumption. I’m reminded always of those tableaux glimpsed in airport terminals, groups of men already getting into their first pints, preloading their stag-dos. Maybe I’m just envious of their stamina? Maybe I’m as boring as I sound? Maybe I’m afraid, if I were to start drinking at 7am in an airport pub, I too might find myself covered in blood, a pair of kangaroo’s testicles cooling in the palm of my hand.
Not content with drinking themselves into oblivion, Dick and Joe wrestle each other, rolling about in the dust, their arms about each other, their constricted faces mere centimetres apart. It is impossible to not superimpose the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates from Ken Russell’s Women In Love. It seems the kangaroo hunt was foreplay, but with no sanctioned means of discharging their inflamed libidos, Dick and Joe fall to the ground in each other’s arms. I recall here the anecdote from the set of Russell’s film, wherein Reed and Bates went their separate ways before their scene together, in order to ‘sort themselves out’, so guarding against the horror of any conspicuous displays of arousal. I recollect a moment in my own life, back when I was a sixth former, an outbreak of ‘bundling’ sweeping the common room that saw the young men in my friendship group (myself included) falling to rough and tumble, our bodies knotting together against the thin leatherette cushions of the common room furniture. As Dick and Joe wrestle in the dust, I can’t help think, ‘Oh, just fuck why don’t you?’, which I suspect was a sentiment not too far from the minds of some of the girls in that same sixth form common room, looking on at our plain-sight sublimation of wanks and other kindnesses with small knowing shakes of their heads.
Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence’s character falls into an existential monologue about the barbarity of humankind (like we need reminding, given what we’ve been sitting through) and Grant, a stranger to himself but more recognisable now to everyone else, falls finally into unconsciousness. As the other men continue to fight, Doc smashes up the bar, flinging chairs and howling. It seems the only way this night will end for these men will be in other acts of terrible violence, and so it does, in a fashion.
Grant’s night ‘out with the boys’ concludes with him back at Doc’s shack, where the two men engage in some horseplay of their own. More drink is consumed, only this time the imagery is urophiliac, the two men messing themselves with amber liquid, splashing it around, wetting together like two farmyard animals. Then Grant’s shirt is off, and Doc is leering and laughing and touching and grappling, and while the specificity of the act that takes place between them is left to our imaginations, we know very well something did.
On waking – in fright, we presume – Grant dresses quickly. We’re treated to a shot of Doc wearing his gruesomely stained vest as a tube-dress, I guess because the director wants us in little doubt as to how blurred things have become for the film’s protagonist – or unblurred, arguably, as the painful light of day reveals the more abject realities of sexual desire. This final violence is an interesting one, not least because it inspires Grant to try and murder Doc with a shotgun. It is problematic to suggest the worst thing imaginable is a homosexual act, which is to fall in-step with Steve McQueen’s Shame, where we are encouraged to believe that film’s protagonist is only truly morally bankrupted after we see him being done unto in a gay club. I’ll argue instead, for a closeted man trying to ‘pass’, a homosexual act is likely the worst thing imaginable, and so the final violence here is enacted against Grant’s image of himself.
In his 1919 essay on the uncanny, Freud identifies déjà vu as one of the phenomena likely to elicit this special category of unease. In one of Wake In Fright‘s finest episodes of dread, Grant, desperate, begs a lift back to the big city from a truck driver, whose vehicle has the word Sydney emblazoned on it. Grant climbs on board and sleeps, but when he next wakes, the truck driver announcing, ‘We’re here,’ Grant discovers, to his disbelief and horror, the truck driver has driven him all the way back to the Yabba.
What is most unsettling about déjà vu is the creeping feeling we are doomed to repeat something, that instead of our lives building towards knowledge, new wisdom and growth, we are otherwise trapped in a particular setting or state of mind. What is most unsettling about Wake In Fright, a film not short on such moments, is how it ends: with a series of shots mirroring the opening of the film, as we see Grant returning to Tiboonda, his dust bowl home with its dust bowl school. Given the nature of his adventure, the way it peeled him from his skin and stripped him bare and quivering, you might presume Grant irrevocably changed. You might think it quite impossible for this man to go back to his old life, knowing what he knows and having done what he’s done, but Wake In Fright proves otherwise. Apparently, it is possible to fall, beer-first, into the dark heart of masculinity, to be made over into the semblance of acceptable male norms via alcohol and terrible violence, to be shown, in no uncertain terms, the barbarism of gender norms and their cultural presentations, and then, this short time later, just pat yourself back into shape and continue pretending. If you read this film as being about the agonies of a terminally closeted man, Wake In Fright is frightful indeed.
For this week’s rummage through the archives of ‘stuff wot I’ve done’, it’s an airing for another of those sad little songs written all the way back in the early-mid 2000s, when I was licking wounds of one sort or another. I can just about recall the melody for the chorus (a few lines of it anyway), but other than that, only the words remain, and also the feelings that gave rise to them.
I admit I’ve got some cheek and I admit I’ve got some nerve now wanting your attention after so successful a body-swerve after insisting it was over. after insisting on meaning it after announcing plain and simple, our so called-love, I’m leaving it and it’s not that I regret one word or would reverse the hands of time or contest my intuition or that common sense of mine but there’s something gone awry in our story, though still true details inadmissable because I needed to hate you so forgive me this confession. I’m not re-attaching strings when I tell you, like a thirst I just miss the little things
‘cos you were also a warmth, you were a sound in my head and you were the way particular words got said you were the smell of the soap on the palms of my hands that bemused concentration whenever I told you my plans you were pub-smoke, you were cinnamon on our one christmas eve that distraught little boy when I said I would leave you were the hand leaving mine, you put these breaks in my heart our sum sure wasn’t great, but I still love you in parts
I won’t come knocking on your door, won’t be waking you from sleep won’t be finding how to justify now some ill-advised repeat won’t make believe I was passing or stand before you wet from the rain won’t forget the whys and the reasons, won’t waste more breath trying to explain and it’s not that I’m not torn or sometimes mourn those days with you but how to even tell you and keep my promise true? I know I’m better off this way because I’m stronger now and free how I had to hurt you back this once to finally stop us from hurting me so forgive me my confusion and any grief it welcomes in when I tell you, like a thirst I just miss the little things
the point on me is lost of my simultaneous default of now confessing joy when it’s not a ploy and i’m content with our result when the way things are still suits me and I’m as pleased as punch I had my say I lie awake less, my bed emptied, no longer rueing our worst of days but it’s not that i’m at rest, I am, at best, a man who knows a little less now about love-stories, about the way they’re supposed to go but I do know you deserve somehow more now than what got said neither crumbs or guilty gifts but the truth of it instead so understand me, this annotation, around you i’m not running rings when I tell you like a thirst, I just miss the little things
“I’m calling this ‘ROOM FOR SALE’ making homage to Philip Guston’s titled work ‘Room’, and Kandinsky’s colouration of sound. I considered the vacated domestic space and its dynamism. Although Dulux helps erase hand-me-down occupant existence, a persistent association with the past can linger, creating at times a lively sensation, a bit like a stage set just after the performance. I wonder if we’d be more fluid and poetically connected without redecorating? (This KA reminds me of Charly’s KA#7 prompt ‘Ennui’ by Sickert).” Oil paint on primed paper 75cm x 55cm
“When I was exploring this prompt, I came across another quote from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which got stuck in my head and wouldn’t be shifted. It was this: ‘Words … are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’ on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream.’ The following poem needs more work, certainly some polishing, but such as it is, I share it with you.”
“The prompt this week coincided with my first visit in a long time back to the U.K. to visit mum. She still lives in the Victorian town house where I grew up and, despite having left when I was 18, which is now nearly 30 years ago, it still feels like the family home, the place where we gather together when we can. Dad passed away a few years ago, but the house is full of memories of him. Looking around the old home, there are traces of all of us; gifts we gave each other, things brought back from holidays, family heirlooms, antiques, and things bought for pennies in junk shops. Each object has its own associations, memories of people and places and of particular moments in our shared histories. I’ve photographed a small fraction of them, taking them out of their usual environment of the windowsill or mantelpiece where they have become so familiar. I’ve enjoyed handling them, feeling the vibrations of their stories resonate again down through the years to the present moment. They still feel very alive and the memories they stir up so vivid and poignant.”
“So lovely to see the continuation of everyones amazing creative work over the past few Kick-Abouts… I have spent a lot of time inside these four walls lately, and I have brought the trees with me. The outside is so close to me here in both directions, even though I live in the centre of a city. It’s as if the walls no longer exist, except perhaps in winter, when the shutters are closed early and the fire is lit. Yet the wood of the shutters are my trees in winter and the wind is my music. It is already lit throughout now with sunshine as I write this, and I feel its true self. The outside is also the inside and I am the bird perched high on the hill, ready to fly off. Curiously the work I have been doing feels appropriate. I am inside the tree.”
“I found Gaston Bachelard’s words very inspiring – along with a recent chat with Phil G. I too wanted to capture that feeling of space feeling occupied, by showing the wondrous shedding of life of which lived-in spaces have an abundance – especially in the depths of where you don’t look. I live in an old Victorian house, and me being a hairy bastard I have so much copious scatterings of hair matted into carpets you could make a toupée. Pictured here are clumps of my hair, with the usual sprinklings of dust, dead skin cells and other oddities that life and space deposit”
“I started thinking about all the little bits and bobs we leave around and began taking snaps of stuff my dear husband covers all surfaces in, but I was getting maudlin and decided not to go there – so I went to the wider outdoors as an inhabited space. Of course this has to go to colonial occupation and my lovely country being a form of home invasion. I’m currently listening to an audio book – ‘Salt’ by Bruce Pascoe, who talks about all the environmental changes that his ancestors made to the land but explorers thought were the natural environmental state of the land. I saw this KA as an opportunity for a white male to give support to the indigenous custodians of this land. I thought it needed to be positive – it’s just simple. Emphasis on ‘our’ treaty.”
“If you looked around my house you would see that I heartily agree with Monsieur Bachelard’s sentiments. I have a very ecclectic assortment of objects, which give my place the ‘lived in’ look. I decided to wander around and sketch some of my favourite either useful or beautiful items. Firstly my sewing machine – very essential to me, together with my daylight angle poise lamp. Then, although books are not so necessary these days, I am still intrigued to peruse through a bookshelf and see what people are passionate about. It’s the same with cushions. They not only brighten a dull corner but you can tell a lot about someone’s style with a cushion – mine have a tendency to be patchwork! There are also three very ancient teddy bears. One is the same age as me and is wearing my first knitted jumper and hand-sewn trousers. Next a couple of mirrors. One is fancy and belonged to my parents, and the other an art deco copy, which I found in an antique shop and luckily just managed to squeeze enough money to buy. Strangely, I love my set of saucepans which when hung from the ceiling give the ‘country kitchen’ look and finally there is the old grandfather clock. It was made between 1740 -91 and the family rumour is that my great great grandpa lost all his possessions on a bet and the only thing he had left was the clock. He brought it to London and started a business as a Law Stationer. So although my house does not have a trendy minimalist look, I cannot imagine living without the things that have stood the test of time and have so many memories.”
And for our next excursion into thinking and making, the work of photographer, John Stezaker… have fun!