Monday, November 26, 2018

Remembering Nicolas Roeg (1928 - 2018): Walkabout (1971)

Before director Nicolas Roeg gave the world one of the finest and most disturbing horror films ever made, Don't Look Now, in 1973, he crafted an equally brilliant but very different film set in the Australian Outback, 1971's Walkabout.  

Based loosely on a 1959 adventure novel by James Vance Marshall, Walkabout amply displays the director's unfettered, prodigious talent for crafting symbolic visuals. Roeg's considerable efforts here remind the engaged viewer that film -- in the final analysis -- is truly a visual art form. 

To wit, Walkabout is a film consisting of very little dialogue, and the shooting script was reportedly just fourteen pages long.  And yet there isn't a moment of "emptiness" to be found anywhere in Walkabout.  Rather, through the repeating motif of cross-cuts, director Roeg encourages audiences to consider a story about innocence, and perhaps more specifically, the death of innocence.

With the Outback serving as both a backdrop and character in the film's narrative, and by marshaling a voice-over poem at just the right moment (from Alfred Edward Housman's 1896 work "A Shropshire Lad,") Roeg crafts an immensely emotional film; one that will deeply affect you for days after a screening.  This is even more the case now, since Roeg's director's cut is featured on the blu ray edition rather than the original theatrical release (which trimmed much of the film's full frontal nudity).

When Walkabout was released in 1971, Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars but sheepishly discouraged reading too much into the film's overwhelming symbolism.   Other critics have generally been more willing to engage the film on its own terms.  Writing in The San Francisco Chronicle, critic Edward Guthmann (in 1997) wrote that Walkabout is a "a film that's part anthem to the primitive world and part rebuke to the dull, overinsulated selfishness of contemporary man." 

Dominated by dazzling photography, gorgeous images and a lush John Barry score, Walkabout ably serves up a side-by-side comparison between disparate worlds: city life in modern Adelaide (though it looks like Sydney) and the wild, untamed life of the Outback. 

Unexpectedly, the crueler, more savage  and difficult world, according to the film, is that of the modern and "civilized" man. In the desert, at least, you can understand your enemies.

"I don't suppose it matters which way we go..."

In Walkabout, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her pre-adolescent brother (Lucien John) are transported out into the desert by their emotionally-distant father, a "structural geologist."  While the girl prepares a picnic in the desert and the boy plays with a toy airplane, the father -- seen rifling through work papers -- unexpectedly snaps.  Taking out a gun, he begins shooting at his own children.

The girl and the boy escape the surprising homicide attempt, and only the girl witnesses her father kill himself.  While their Volkswagen burns in the desert, the forsaken girl and boy begin a long, lonely trek through the desert, hoping to find their way home. 

This 1970s equivalent of Hansel & Gretel, the boy and girl, walk for days until coming upon a miraculous oasis: a small pond and a fruit-bearing tree.  After a few days, however, they have used it  all up and the slice of paradise becomes a haven for serpents; for snakes.

Soon, the girl and boy encounter an Aborigine teenager (David Gulpilil) on a "walkabout," a rite of passage in which young men trace the heritage of their ancestors on the land. 

This kindly Aborigine leads the boy and girl through the desert safely, provides for their survival needs (by kangaroo hunting and fishing...) and teaches them his ways.  The white boy even picks up his language.  After a time, these three youngsters cohere like a true family, and the Aborigine develops an unspoken -- and forbidden -- romantic love for the girl.

After some time in the desert, the Aborigine young man gets the lost youngsters to an abandoned farm, another safe haven for this "family" to play house. But when the lovestruck Aborigine launches into a courtship dance before the English girl, she coolly and silently rejects him. 

The next day, the girl and the boy find out exactly what that rejection has meant to their generous friend, and then head on...down the road, in hopes of returning to civilization.

Some years later, the grown girl -- now a bored housewife in Sydney -- tunes out her dullard husband's vacuous talk of office politics and remembers those long-gone days in the Outback; her days with the Aborigine boy and her brother... 

A final voice over ends the film on a melancholy and wistful note.  "That is the land of lost content/I see it shining plain/The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again."

"Every man, every woman, is a star."

As noted above, Walkabout is a comparison of disparate worlds. To achieve that comparison, Nicolas Roeg uses a variety of visual symbols in Walkabout to suggest the corruption -- or at least strangeness -- of the so-called "civilized world."

Early in the film, for example, we see Agutter's character setting-up a blanket and picnic lunch out in harsh desert; clearly a misguided attempt to tame the unspoiled Earth. While she imposes mankind's sense of order on the desert, the film cross-cuts to views of lizards and other inhabitants, going about their business, oblivious to her attempts.

In the same scene, the girl's father goes crazy after Roeg cuts to insert shots of work papers: seemingly endless alphabetical lists of minerals and sheets of byzantine maps. The visual implication set up by the editing is that the father's madness is caused by his job; that the pressure (represented by his work papers) makes him irrevocably snap. The civilized world has made him deranged.

This critique of civilization recurs throughout the film.  For instance, as mentioned above, the boy and the girl find an oasis of life in the desert -- water and food -- and without thought of consequences, use it up in a matter of days.  When they leave, the land is dry; the fruit is stale and only snakes inhabit the tree. 

It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that this image is a veiled reference to the Garden of Eden parable; and the idea of man expelled from paradise

Perhaps more plainly, the destruction of the desert oasis and its resources is referenced late in the film when the boy and the girl come across a similar setting, writ large: a virtually abandoned mining town. 

The town is now nothing but a scrap heap, a garbage junk in the middle of the Outback.  Everything of value has been taken from it (as was the case at the desert oasis) and man has left behind only his garbage and detritus; mountains of twisted steel and rubber.

Another scene, mid-way through the film, also deliberately critiques modern man.  The Aborigine, the boy and the girl come in close proximity to a plantation where a white man is exploiting the local Aborigine youth to create cheap plaster statues of kangaroos and the like.  Again, the idea here is one of taking a resource (in this case, a human resource) and using it for self-interest; to line one's own pockets.

Later in the film, Gulpilil's character spies  white hunters shooting game near the abandoned farm.  We see an animal die in slow motion, struck by bullets.  The sight of this deeply upsets the Aborigine, a hunter himself.  And the reason, I suspect is that the hunters have evidenced no respect for their quarry.  Their technology (their guns and their jeeps) gives them an unfair advantage over the land, and a distance from their behavior.  Skill does not come into the picture. 

By contrast, the Aborigine boy hunts to provide for his new family; and and does not kill more than the family can eat.  He survives based on his skill; not based on the technology he possesses. To express this point, Roeg again crosscuts between images of the Aborigine boy cutting up a kangaroo and images of a city butcher chopping up meat in his store.  The idea implicit here, again, is that one culture is interested in survival, the other in commerce; in making money off the land

Eventually, even the heroic Aborigine boy played by Gulpilil is contextualized as a resource to be used up.  He rescues the boy and the girl, even leading them safely to a highway and a home of sorts.  But when he seeks a deeper meaning -- an emotional connection with the English girl -- she shuts him down.  She ignores him.  He has crossed a barrier she will not tread across and she essentially ignores him and spurns him for it.  Her attitude, now that  personal survival safety has been established, seems to be "what have you done for me lately?" 

Only in the film's last scene, do we see an older, reflective woman consider the Aborigine boy; and what he meant in her life; and what he gave to  her.  She imagines a scene right out of Paradise: the three wanderers in the desert frolicking in the water; on a rock.  It is an image of lost innocence, and it is the image we leave on in Walkabout.

In toto, the image of civilized man in Walkabout is not at all positive.  He is a creature who uses the land, rather than living off it in harmony, and he is obsessed with things that -- in the context of the desert -- have no significant meaning (consider the read weather balloons set loose in the wild by a group of horny European scientists in one scene...what purpose do they serve?).

Roeg's point isn't so much that we should all live in the wild and hunt for our own food.  The point is that in the vast desert, commerce, alphabetical lists of minerals, weather balloons and society's rules concerning miscegenation serve no useful or meaningful purpose.  Rather, torn from their context in city life, they actually go against nature, even human nature.

Although it is uncomfortable to write about this in our morally judgmental society today -- especially given that both Jenny Agutter's and David Gulpilil's characters are minors in Walkabout -- the plain fact of the matter is that as the film plays out, the Aborigine boy and the English girl become very much aware of each other's sexuality.  An attraction forms, and in this environment who can say it would be wrong for them to act on it?  They are, essentially, the only inhabitants of this vast desert, and also the mother and father figure in the ad hoc family.

Gulpilil's character -- a man of nature -- understands that this is a relationship that could and should happen, given the circumstances. 

But returned to modern civilization (and bred to that civilization), Agutter's character cannot make the same leap.  Instead, she denies any feeling she might have for the Aborigine boy and falls back on the "etiquette" of her culture.  Early in Walkabout we see her practicing etiquette lessons while listening to a program on the radio; and that's the very world the English girl retreats to at film's end.

One of the best sequences in Walkabout (and one trimmed upon theatrical release) finds Roeg  again cross-cutting, this time between the Aborigine boy hunting with the English boy, and Agutter's young girl swimming sensuously in a desert pool, nude.  The feeling evoked here is of total freedom and innocence; of doing what comes naturally to survive. Of just living --and enjoying life -- in such an unforgiving, chaotic terrain.

Walkabout suggests that living off a harsh, natural land is tough work.  You have scorpions, ants, dehydration and other challenges to overcome.  You have to find water and hunt for your supper.  But I believe the film's ultimate point is that there is nothing harsher and more difficult than living a life that goes against your very nature

I submit that's the unhappy destination where Agutter's character finds herself at film's end.  A caged bird in an antiseptic high-rise apartment building, with only her memories of freedom to sustain her.  Certainly, the wistful nature of the final voice over suggests the idea of a paradise lost.

Walkabout's ending diagrams the death of innocence.  Gulpilil's character has learned that he cannot adapt  to the strange rules of  modern "civilization."  And in that coda -- set years after his demise - Agutter's sense of hopelessness is tangible.  It reflects, purposefully, the little boy's sense of defeat early in the film, upon reckoning with the unending desert, one stretching to unknown horizons.

"We're lost, aren't we?"

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