Nicholas Roeg’s directorial debut Walkabout (1971) is one of those films that one could justifiably write either briefly or at great length about. The script, an adaptation of James Vance Marshall’s novel, was rumored to have been between 14 and 60 pages and can be effectively summarized in three sentences. After their father (John Meillon) commits suicide during a trip to the Australian outback, a young woman (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s son) face the harsh, foreign, environment alone. While struggling to find their way back to Sydney, they meet a young Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) who helps them survive by hunting and providing water. As the trio gets closer and closer to civilization, their relationships to one another begin to shift, producing life-altering consequences.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot the film. That said, given Nic Roeg’s previous background as a famous cinematographer (The Masque of the Read Death, Fahrenheit 451, Petulia, and Performance, which he also served as co-director of), you can guess how he plumped up a short screenplay into 100 minutes of screen time. Walkabout is a visual, poetic experience; it can be considered what some film theorists and historians would classify as “pure cinema.” Essentially, the philosophy of most filmmakers practicing pure cinema is that narrative is not the primary defining characteristic of the cinema. Rather, film is defined by its medium specific properties: the ability to capture motion photo realistically and the ability to combine separate shots and sequences into a visceral experience. These manipulations of these formal techniques, while sometimes abstract, can push the spectator to an emotional reaction.
Walkabout is full of such images: long shots of the sun setting over the outback, ants crawling out of sand dunes, a lush, muddy oasis with drinkable water. Watching the film on Blu-Ray, my experience was reminiscent of watching both Planet Earth (2006) and Baraka (1992) on an HDTV. It is, without a doubt, a sensual, awe-inspiring experience, which also makes it a difficult film to write about. Criticism is often practiced as a form in which an individual attempts to write objectively about a subjective experience. How, given that limitation, can you describe the emotions an image or combination of images affected you? Odds are, you’ll sound like Rutger Hauer talking about moon beams and tears in the rain; it may sound beautiful but your audience has little to relate to.
Fortunately for me (as a critic) and you (as a potential viewer), there’s more to Walkabout than pure cinema. [Note to readers: I’m not against pure cinema; I just generally can’t handle it for more than thirty minutes and I find it difficult to write about.] The plot may be minimal and the film may primarily define itself visually but those two factors intersect to provide the film with a multi-layered subtext. First, as Roger Ebert has noted in his Great Movies essay, the film is about the difficulty of communication between two separate cultures. Secondly, you can read the film and its devastating conclusion as a tale about modernization’s effects on native culture. What types of struggles must an immigrant/colonized subject face when they are integrated into an industrialized society? Third, you can read the film as a love story between the young Aborigine boy on his walkabout (a coming of age ritual in which a boy fends for himself and, if he returns, is declared a man) and a white woman who is attracted to him, but unable to relate to him.
I don’t want to spend too much time pushing one interpretation over another. Walkabout is a curious film in that I can imagine that subsequent viewings will force me to test other interpretations that I have originally dismissed. This will no doubt be maddening to some viewers and, particularly in contrast to how films are paced contemporarily, incredibly boring to others. Roeg’s film is both sensual with regard to the pure cinema approach but it is also intellectual, as the cross-cutting of the images produces mental stimulation that would have made Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein proud. This said, I did have a minor criticism, specifically with regard to a weather balloon scene that has little relationship to the rest of the story and feels dated. Other than that, Roeg’s eye for images and his cast (particularly Gulpilil, who spun his debut here into a career as playing “the other”) makes for an incredible experience if you have the patience for it.
Roeg is an underappreciated filmmaker in my humble opinion. His audacity to produce films that are primarily visual and secondarily narrative seems to be both his blessing and his curse. Performance (1970), the film he shot and co-directed with Donald Cammell prior to Walkabout, is the story of a gangster in hiding (James Fox) who shacks up in a safe house owned by an eccentric musician (Mick Jagger—-yes, you read that correctly). The film, like many art films of the 60s and 70s, deals with the struggle for identity (see also Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and many of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni). While the theme is not unfamiliar to cinemagoers today, as many contemporary films such as Fight Club (1999) and Up in the Air (2009) ask similar questions, Roeg’s contemplatively visual approach can feel simplistic and, consequentially, slow. For instance, my favorite film of his, Don’t Look Now (1973), produces psychological horror like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980): via deliberate pacing and foreboding images.
These are formal characteristics that I fear Generation Y has lost the ability to appreciate. In the age of iPods and YouTube, we have begun to veer from the feature to the short (or, as one colleague once noted to me, the album to the single). Unfortunately yes, this equally applies to me (I have to consciously make the decision to listen to an album all the way through rather than to “shuffle.”). Now, this isn’t necessarily the death of culture. After all, cinema and filmmakers developed thanks to the short film and there are amazing examples of the form (Pixar shorts, Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, etc.). However, as is the case when we witness the evolution of any medium, we must keep in mind both its history and what sacrifices come with new developments. My message to Generation Y? You gave James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) a chance; you enjoyed its lush imagery and, perhaps, its conflict between technology and nature. Walkabout may not be 3D and it may not be an action film, but it can scratch those other itches.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.