Monday, August 17, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Walkabout" (1971)

"Walkabout" is mostly remembered for its gorgeous photography and its tale of innocent lost British children wandering around the Australian outback with the help of an Aborigine boy. But the film begins and ends with horrifying, unjustified acts of violence that detract from its enjoyment.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the fact that people die horribly. It's that these deaths carry exactly zero psychological weight with the two English children. These traumatizing events seem to have zero impact on their psyches, only presenting challenges to their immediate physical plight. I never could reconcile the rest of the movie with these two black marks upon the film's emotional integrity.

"Our father just killed himself after trying to shoot us with a pistol? Oh my! Well, look at that gekko!"

If that comment seems flip, that's because it is. It also makes light (improperly) of director Nicolas Roeg's signature technique of crosscutting the narrative imagery with sudden environmental shots of the character's surroundings or inner thoughts. It's a startling style, which has been countlessly copied and (over)used by other filmmakers: Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, etc.

The movie is very much aligned with the Australian New Wave. Like another one of those films recently discussed here, "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "Walkabout" has a hazy, dreamlike quality that cues the audience in to the fact that they're not watching a straight, linear sort of picture.

This is underscored by John Barry's lush music, replete with his familiar swells of stringed instruments. Lacking a distinct melody, the score adds colors and shades to the cinematic experience without imposing an emotional state on the viewer.

The film was based on a novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall, though screenwriter Edward Bond changed things around significantly for the movie.

In the book the siblings are Americans whose plane crash-landed in the outback, and some of is told from the point of view of the Aborigine boy, who was on his rite of manhood journey when he stumbled across the pair. He struggled with whether to help them, since he is supposed to remain alone on his spiritual quest, but decides he cannot leave them to die. It's a fateful choice; he perishes himself after catching influenza from them, since he is not immunized.

"Walkabout" means very different things in British and Australian cultural traditions. The Aussies have expanded the meaning beyond Aboriginal customs to mean any kind of arduous journey or undertaking. For the English, it means an informal stroll or walking tour, especially by a VIP.

These gradations of meaning seem to apply to the siblings, who never seem very afraid despite often being close to death.

Jenny Agutter plays the sister, while her brother is played by none other than Roeg's own son, Luc. David Gulpilil, as the Aborigine, suffered the ignominy of having his last name misspelled in the film's credits.

None of the characters are ever named in the movie, simply referring to each other as "he" or "she" or "you." Gulpilil's character does not speak English, but he and the tyke soon figure out a basic form of communication through mime and a few Aborigine words.

Agutter and Gulpilil were both about 18 when the film was shot, though I get the sense their characters are meant to be closer to 14 or 15. This adds an extra layer of discomfort to the frequent nude scenes, which include shots of genitalia.

"Walkabout" was originally given an R rating by the MPAA, but upon appeal it was changed to GP, later known as PG.

This is pretty astonishing, considering there is also some quite graphic violence of the Aborigine performing some apparently unsimulated hunting and butchering of wild animals, with guts and gore aplenty. Not to mention the suicides that begin and end the film, with lingering shots of the bodies.

Along with "Jaws" and "Poltergeist," these films must form the trio of the hardest PG-rated flicks of all time.

While the depiction of their young bodies is mostly non-sexual, Roeg has the habit of having his camera zoom in closely on the most intimate parts of people's bodies -- breasts, anal clefts, Agutter's nethers as she repeatedly summits the surface of the pond where she's enjoying a swim.

I think he's going for an organic verisimilitude -- these are bodies in nature; deal with it -- but to 2015 sensibilities it still registers as pervy leering at underage kids.

The story is straightforward. A British businessman (John Meillon) living in Australia with his family drives his two children out to the middle of the outback for a picnic. Seemingly at random, he pulls out a pistol and starts firing at them.

The boy, who's maybe 6 years old, doesn't understand and thinks his dad is playing a game. But the sister gets them behind cover. Frustrated, the man sets his black Volkswagen Bug on fire and then shoots himself in the head. Sister refuses to let brother see the aftermath, and they begin walking away and are soon lost in the brutal hardpan.

They never discuss his death until the end of the film, and not a tear is shed for dear old dad.

From there, the movie becomes just what the title says: walking, walking, more walking, while trying to survive and make their way back to civilization.

(Of course, the smart thing to do would be to stay right where they are and wait for the black smoke of the vehicle fire to attract somebody -- which it soon does, drawing an Aboriginal family who loot the scene. They paint the man's body and hang it in a tree, which -- based on later events and a little Googling -- I take to be a cultural rite.)

Gulpilil's character helps the siblings out by showing them how to use a reed to suck water out of a dried oasis bed, and they more or less begin following him after that.

From fairly early on after their meeting, it becomes clear that the Aborigine is attracted to the girl, and she on some level returns the sentiment. She gazes intently at his beautiful lean body, charcoal-black and essentially nude except for a modesty cloth wrapped over his loins.

Later, while resting at an abandoned settlement, he catches her in a state of undress that causes her distress. It's a bit unclear why, since he already would have seen her nude on several occasions during their journey. (Indeed, the final image of the film is her character, years later, wistfully recalling the three of them skinny-dipping together.)

He misinterprets her intentions and begins a traditional mating dance. She, unfamiliar with such things, think he's just acting strangely and lets the ritual go one for hours without any response, which he takes as rejection, leading to tragic results.

Roeg himself dubbed "Walkabout" "a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability." Roger Ebert opined that the movie was about "the mystery of communication," something I think underscored by my paragraph above.

Perhaps it's a bit of many things. Some movies are mysteries to their audiences, while others are mysterious even to themselves. I think "Walkabout" falls into that latter category.

It's a film of wondrous craftsmanship that is content to just exist in itself without trying to impose a grand 'meaning of it all.' In doing so, though, it presents characters who do not behave as real humans would. As such, they remain lovely cardboard cutouts -- they catch the light beautifully, but cast little shadow.

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