May 14, 2010

DVD of the Week: Walkabout

By Steve Dollar

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There’s every reason to revisit Walkabout and expect it to look like a period piece. Newly reissued by Criterion, in their usual gorgeous restored high-def makeover edition, Nicolas Roeg’s first full-fledged outing as a director (after collaborating on Performance with Donald Cammell), was shot in 1968, and finally released theatrically three years later. At once packed with blunt symbolism and left open to wide interpretation by the narrative’s purposeful ambiguities, the movie’s dynamic evoked a sense of pop mysticism and social critique that was pure Sixties.

Though Roeg’s usage of consciousness-fragmenting flash forwards would be more prevalent in later films, such as Don’t Look Now and Bad Timing, Walkabout provides plenty of sensory rush in its shock-cut juxtapositions between the raw and the cooked, between visceral necessities in the Australian Outback and the processed realities of the city, between animal logic and air-conditioned nightmare.

Though far more moderate in tone and effect, it’s not out of place in a continuum that includes visionary cult items like Zabriskie Point, The Last Movie, and El Topo, or even 2001. Roeg wouldn’t contemplate outer space (and then obliquely) until The Man Who Fell to Earth a few years later, but the Outback was an ideal stage for the director’s considerable cinematographic eye. That sweeping, desolate, endless desert, with its Edenic abundance of alien fauna – lizards, bugs, rodents, furry carnivores and bounding marsupials – might as easily have been the landscape of Mars. Like Death Valley, the Andes, or those interstellar vistas for Antonioni, Hopper and Kubrick, the Australian wild serves as transcendent eye candy and natural counterpoint to the civilized world, its blasted splendor rendered in geological abstractions that aren’t merely breathtaking, but aspire to the mythopoeic primacy people dig in Stan Brakhage. Plus didgeridoos and Stockhausen. Like, trippy, man.

And I’m not ashamed to say that’s one reason I love it.

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Sure, Roeg probably forecast corny eco-emo jeremiads like Koyaanisqatsi, just as his was among the first of many films to deploy the Outback as a dramatic backdrop for American audiences (usually ones getting high at drive-ins or sipping cappuccino at arthouses), before Crocodile Dundee was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. That National Geographic vibe was more subversive though, in the same way that the film’s coming-of-age/culture clash particulars rejected any predictable arc. This isn’t a movie that really abides categorization.

On paper, at least, the plot could have worked for a certain kind of kids nature adventure movie that Disney used to make (and which made for many an elementary school and church group field trip to the theater back in the day). A teenage girl and her younger brother find themselves lost in the Outback, where they are rescued by a friendly Aboriginal boy who is on his “Walkabout,” a rite of passage in which pubescent males are dispatched, for several months, on a solo journey through the wilds. Indeed, the film is adapted from James Vance Marshall’s 1959 children’s book of the same name. Paul Ryan’s essay, which accompanies the Criterion discs, draws some distinctions of which most contemporary viewers will be unaware.

The film’s treatment of the source material is much edgier. The story is bracketed by deaths: caused by the plane crash that originally strands the children, and the virus that the Aborigine boy contracts from his new white friends. Along with screenwriter Edward Bond, Roeg takes things to a much darker place. The film opens with the unnamed geologist father of the girl (Jenny Agutter) and boy (Luc Roeg, the director's son) driving them into the Outback for a picnic. Instead of joining them, he pulls out a gun and takes aim. Failing to off his progeny, he douses the car in gasoline, sets it afire, and blows his brains out. The kids make for the desert, with no explanations offered or psychology decoded. Later, after guiding them to safety, the Aborigine boy (David Gulpilil, who's had a pretty long career since) hangs himself in a tree. The implication is that he is heartbroken when Agutter’s schoolgirl rejects his tribal courtship dance – after several instances of mutual sexual revelation. Although, as with other such moments in the film, the act also is more largely symbolic. It’s profoundly sad, not least because the boy is one king hell lizard hunter.

Sadder still seems the inevitable closing off that occurs as the adventure, with all its danger, discovery and liberation, comes to an end. (Roeg doesn’t want anyone to miss this point, closing with a few lines about those “blue remembered hills” from A.E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad as Agutter, now a bored housewife, daydreams about romping nude in a natural spring with Gulpilil and Master Roeg. Ah, sweet youth!).

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Agutter, who would become a cinematic hot crush in Logan’s Run and An American Werewolf in London, was only 16 when the movie was shot. And though essentially chaste, the scenes of her skinny dipping and otherwise exposing herself, as well as the film’s sexual tension – only made explicit in a comic sidebar moment featuring a crew of randy geologists and a bosomy colleague – still generates a transgressive buzz. (In the United Kingdom, of course, 16 is the age of consent; had Roeg managed to begin production when he first cast Agutter, the nudity would have been a no-go). In the greater context of the film, Agutter is yet another natural phenomenon for Roeg’s camera to celebrate, pitched at that intangible edge between innocence and experience, the very duality that defines the entire piece.

Maybe what’s so “period” about Walkaboutis how it now reminds us that movies used to be concerned with such themes. What it also shows us is that metaphysical, visionary ambition need not be flaky.



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Posted by ahillis at May 14, 2010 2:02 PM