“If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”

– Billy Wilder

A 360-degree pan is a virtuoso statement, acting to convince us that no crew are working “movie magic”. The first 360-degree pan has been commonly attributed to James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), included in the scene where Boris Karloff’s Monster is about to be burned to death. The rotation closely aligns us with the monster’s predicament, helping us to experience his reality. Today it is used in computer gaming to similar effect.

I’m on the hunt for key moments, comparing the 360-degree shots that appear in Wake in Fright and Australia. Both films exploit outback mythology. One submerges us in alcohol-soaked fisticuffs and sexual nightmares, the other skims over an adventure theme park of romantic dreaming. One was a relatively low budget classic that won high praise at Cannes. The other still hopes to return its $150 million budget, even after Tourism Australia jumped on the Baz-wagon by paying $40 million for advertisements featuring the cast at scenic locations.

Kotcheff uses a 360-degree pan to open Wake in Fright; looking out over the desert the protagonist desperately wants to escape but is ultimately trapped, enclosed by the camera’s circling movement. In the final shot the camera cranes into the sky, these two movements becoming the Alpha and Omega of our outback journey. Camera movement is made to serve the story and the hook is swallowed whole.

Australia tries to be epic like Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), but our “civil war” occurred at the Eureka Stockade. So with his silken tongue firmly planted in his luxuriously-stubbled cheek, Baz Luhrmann sets his dust-opera against a cattle-drive across the outback and the Japanese bombing of Darwin, and the “ham in the sandwiches” are the “Stolen Generation”. Baz brands his runaway steer with little care for the audience’s experience or his financier’s pockets, for in Australia we get two distinct films for the price of at least three. His trademark theatricality ranges from far-horizons to jewelled seas, Jackman’s quivering torso to Kidman’s rigid lips, and in scene after scene reality is rendered unreal.

A shot from the “Bombing of Darwin” all but circles King George (David Gulpilil) in a near-360-degree sweep. According to iloura post-production’s website, “There was nowhere to hide… so the crew, trucks, vans, road cases and even the director appeared in shot, blended with the lens flare” (1). Matte artists painstakingly hid all of this under layers of pyro elements, bluescreen soldiers and burning aeroplanes. Why Baz camouflaged himself under explosions and cannon-fire is a mystery to me. Everything’s so obviously manufactured, and we’re constantly made aware of the manufacturer.

In fact, it was common practice for the director to select elements from different takes of a single shot: the clouds in one, Boab trees in another, a flight of birds, Kidman’s walk, the dust, etc; compositing them all into a final image. Australia is a miracle soup cooked up by every visual effects house in the country.

My comparison leads me to this: one camera looks out and sees the world clearly as it is, the other looks in at its director, hidden behind fake destruction that never existed. The shot from Australia is not quite 360-degrees anyway, and if it was, Baz would’ve fiddled with it until the proverbial cows stampeded home.

Wake In Fright is a white-fella’s tale about a man with his mind set on blue sea, golden sand, bare breasts and icy beer. The establishing shot urges us to imagine the coastline we will never reach. It is a legendary film and its recent digital re-mastering has returned a treasure to the National Film and Sound Archive and Australian screens.

In the opening moments of Australia we’re told it’s a black-fella’s story about children taken from their families. In fact it’s all about Baz, and as he commercialises racial stereotyping for three hours he insists that it’s going to build a greater nation in the process. Finally, he almost takes the credit for the apology our Prime Minister promised before winning the last election.

Endnotes

  1. “Australia”, iloura: http://www.iloura.com.au/film.php?page_id=34

About The Author

Hugh Marchant is a designer and writer working in the Australian film industry. He has lectured in Media Theory at Swinburne University and worked in the Art Department on feature films, music videos and television. He has received grants for scriptwriting and is involved in developing screenplays.