Walkabout (1971, Nicolas Roeg)

I probably put off watching this for so long because I’d written down years ago that I’d already seen it, in the dark days of the pre-blog era. No recollection of any scenes while watching, so that must’ve been in error. Based on a novel, though I wonder how much of the original writing is left after Roeg got through with it. Roeg’s first movie with a solo directing credit. Jenny Agutter (“the girl”) went on to star in An American Werewolf in London and Child’s Play 2, Nic Roeg’s son Luc (“white boy”) is now a producer, worked on Spider and We Need to Talk About Kevin, and David Gulpilil, only 18 when this came out, became the most reliable Aboriginal actor from The Last Wave to Ten Canoes.

The kids are on a picnic with their father, when he starts shooting at them then torches the car and kills himself. Hardly fazed, the kids walk off into the wasteland. But we know from Man Who Fell To Earth and Insignificance that human emotion isn’t Roeg’s strong suit, so we focus on the visuals and editing, which are amazing and strange. For instance, mid-film there’s a page-turn transition giving the brief impression that the whole thing is a storybook. And in the middle of a cross-fade, one of the two overlapping scenes cuts to a different shot – you don’t do that!

Plenty of wildlife. Cool lizards, parakeets, cockatoos, hawks and things I don’t even know what they’re called. But it’s not a good movie to watch just for the pretty wildlife, unless you’re prepared to see David G. spear some kangaroos.

All sorts of extras on the Criterion release, which I need to get sometime. Meanwhile I’ve got P. Ryan’s essay from the website:

Toward the film’s end, it is the turn of the young aborigine to display, by means of a sexually charged ritual dance directed at the girl. The girl’s fearful rejection of him leads to another major change from the novel. There, the native boy dies from a virus to which he would not have been exposed if not for his encounter with these outsiders; in the film, the young man takes his own life. A film with two suicides and a delicately sensual nude scene was never destined for the label of “children’s classic,” and yet one can sense that Roeg has trust in the reaction of an adolescent audience, for he is speaking the truth of adolescence to us all.

Not that I’m a brilliant postcolonial scholar over here, but I saw more to David’s death than sexual rejection. When he finds the stupid white kids, they’re desperate and dehydrated. He shows them how to find food and water, leads them on a days-long hike to the place where he thinks the girl is asking to be led. She just wants her own civilization, but he bypasses roads and houses, leaving them to an abandoned farmhouse. Once there, she stops acting as his equal or follower, goes inside and cleans up, leans out the window with a bucket asking him for water, which he fetches. Now she’s in her element, and his role is to be her servant. Then a few scenes contrasting his traditional hunting methods with the shooting massacre of a rifle-toting white man – with jarring freezes and reverse photography. The mating dance seems like he’s defensively embracing his traditions and manhood, too late.

Afterwards one of the great endings, Petulia-reminiscent, as she’s back in her high apartment listening to some man talk about boring business, having a flashback to when she swam naked and free with a stranger in the outback. More from Ryan:

Much has been written about the “fragmented” style that Roeg has employed in so many of his films — Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bad Timing all play with linear narrative, setting subtle traps for the viewer and commanding our close attention. In Walkabout, this style serves to enhance the sense of memory that pervades the film. All coming-of-age stories are fundamentally memory stories, rooted in recollections of a time of great intensity, of growing, of puzzling, of understanding. We look back at that stage in our life and find memories of the pain we felt and the pain we inflicted, unthinkingly, because we did not understand ourselves and our burgeoning relationship to a new, strange adult world. The strangeness of that world for the girl in Walkabout is deepened by the landscape; for the aboriginal boy, it is deepened by his encounter with people for whom his lifelong training has ill prepared him.

“The happy highways where I went and cannot come again” – the closing poem is also the source of the phrase Blue Remembered Hills. And as Roeg borrowed, so was he borrowed from – one kid saying “I don’t suppose it matters which way we go” was used in the Books song Be Good To Them Always.

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