Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Seventies Cinema Revival: Walkabout (1971)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Seventies Cinema Revival: Walkabout (1971)

by Tony Dayoub

As I tweeted earlier this week (you may follow me on Twitter here, if you wish), Walkabout is very difficult for me to approach critically because of the personal significance it holds for me. This is the first film I remember ever seeing, a strange one to be sure. With its sexual subtext and copious nudity, it is not a film I would expect my parents would have exposed me to before, say, the typical Walt Disney cartoon. Yet, it was a different time, and my parents were liberal for even that era, the mid-seventies. How else could I explain the clear memory of Jenny Agutter's nude swim in an edenic oasis located somewhere in the Australian outback?

The truth is despite director Nicolas Roeg's familiarity with cinematic eroticism (Don't Look Now inarguably features the most erotic sex scene in film history), Walkabout's prevailing mood is very different, one which for obvious reasons I couldn't put my finger on as a child yet immediately recognize in each subsequent viewing throughout my life—bittersweet nostalgia. Roeg, cinematographer of such films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), photographs Walkabout himself, telling the story in his distinctive nonlinear, cut-up style of montage, the closest evocation of stream of consciousness in mainstream film outside of David Lynch's work. Its story of a boy (Luc Roeg, credited as Lucien John) and a girl (Agutter) stranded in the desert and finding assistance from an aborigine (David Gulpilil, credited as Gumpilil) has barely 30 minutes of dialogue. It gets its point across fairly easily though, all the more impressive since this is Roeg's directorial debut (if you don't count his contributions to Donald Cammell's Performance); the point being the girl's coming of age which finds its metaphorical parallel in Australia's own entrance into maturity.

Walkabout hinges on the young girl played by Agutter (Logan's Run), who is English both offscreen and on, of importance because of Australia's beginnings as a British colony. Left to fend for herself and her brother in much the same way the early colonists were, she finds an unusual serenity and inner resolve that serve her well for some time. When their will to survive starts to falter they encounter an indigenous boy, roughly at the same stage of adolescence as she. In him, she and her brother find a willing partner in their quest to return to civilization. While far from home, she becomes comfortable enough to indulge a mutual sexual attraction with the aborigine, romping unclothed in a remote spring. But despite the implied physical intimacy, the girl is unwilling to open herself up to actually communicate with the boy, leaving that to her much younger brother.

This is one of the indications she cannot overcome the social indoctrination which classifies the native as lesser than her. The inequality becomes more overt the closer they get to civilization, where she starts asserting herself as the dominant, ordering the young indigenous man to fetch her water at one point. A tragic occurrence—which portends the heartbreaking civil rights struggle for Australia's own indigenous population—ends the group's blissful adventure. The film ends with a now married Agutter tuning out as her husband drones on about his career to recall the lost innocence of that moment when she, her brother, and the aborigine spent time together at the desert oasis.

It is difficult to discuss any interpretation of Walkabout without being incredibly reductive. The new Blu-ray by Criterion works off a new 35mm print which really enhances the ineffable atmosphere of the film's mystical sojourn through the ruddy-colored desert. This in turn detaches the viewer from the inherent erotic complications arising from peering into the mating rituals of the two young characters, and instead foregrounds its psychodynamic aspects.

It also works to highlight the film's naturalistic documentary-like look at Australia's terrain and wildlife (Walkabout is a stylistic forerunner to Terrence Malick's oeuvre), emphasizing the country's alienness and tieing it into what it must have felt like for the early English settlers—they make a cameo of sorts in a hallucigenic mirage where their ghosts ride camels over the now dessicated corpses of the animals. This haunting foreshadowing of death, found in other instances during the film, perpetuates the cyclical inevitability found in nature and in the young girl's slowly dwindling adolescence, a stage from which she only emerges once she leaves the outback behind.

It is conceivable that my initial encounter with Walkabout was a rare opportunity to view it from the same perspective as the girl's younger brother, conscious of some of the events on only a superficial level, yet appreciating other moments with a deeper, instinctual understanding. Criterion's Blu-ray affords me the chance to see it again from the vantage point of Agutter's character at the conclusion of the film—older, wiser, with a wistfulness for a simpler time.


CMrok93 said...

Although I saw this film many years ago, it's message remains etched on my memory: Modern man's inability to survive in nature without the help of aboriginal people who, in turn, cannot survive in our denaturalized world. Even more meaningful today, Walkabout symbolizes domesticated man's destruction of life's essence.

Tony Dayoub said...

You summed it up pretty nicely, CMrok93. Thanks for commenting, and welcome to the site.