Tuesday, January 18, 2005

#10: Walkabout

Walkabout, 1971, dir. Nicholas Roeg, screenplay by Edward Bond from a novel by James Vance Marshall. Sometimes a writer or a director will think they're making one movie but will end up making something quite different. On first viewing, Walkabout is a simple enough story: a brother and sister are stranded in the middle of the Australian outback; they meet an Aborigine boy who helps them find their way back to civilization. In fact, the surface story is all right, but it's very much of its time: the Aborigine is preternaturally good and noble, the opening scenes of civilization (set in Adelaide, I think), are mind-bogglingly stultifying, &c. &c. Guess which Aborigine is forever scarred and destroyed through his contact with Western society? But, as Roger Ebert has noted, the surface story is not what sticks with you; there are deeper things going on here which are more subtle.

Jenny Agutter plays the sister; she was probably 16 at the time of the shoot. In the commentary track, she says of her character, "the things that she requires are the things that her society has set up for her." I think that's very true and pretty insightful; society works by setting up needs and desires and then fulfilling them. If you have lived long enough to have gotten the jones for things like a house, a job, a spouse, it's pretty much impossible to imagine leaving the confines of the society that can provide those things for you. So when Jenny Agutter meets David Gulpilil, the Aborigine, she isn't really interested in him except to the extent he can get her back to the things she needs. Her younger brother (about 6) is more flexible, and doesn't yet have expectations. Jenny Agutter's characther isn't bad, or callous, or "the corrupting influence of modern society" or whatever; in fact, she behaves heroically in saving her brother. She is just profoundly uninterested in Gulpilil's society, and that proves to be his undoing. Strangely enough, the Aborigine does seem interested in the brother and sister. You can check out Ebert's essay for a more eloquent explanation of the failures of communication in this movie; suffice it to say that I think he's right, and the more I think about Walkabout, the righter I think he is.

A few notes and random observations about the movie:

In the opening scenes, Jenny Agutter serves fruit from a mixing bowl that my mom had: it's a bright red plastic bowl with a handle and a very broad spout. I think she threw it away years ago; it must have been a pretty common model at the time. I only mention this to note that household items like that are not important at all until you see one of them years later; then the tiniest, stupidest thing can spark all sorts of memories.

This is not a film to watch if you're squeamish about blood or dead animals. There are lots and lots of hunting scenes, all of them graphic. The most heavyhanded intercutting in the whole movie takes place during a scene where the Aborigine spears, dresses, and cooks a kangaroo: the whole (extremely bloody) process is intercut with a butcher cutting chops. It's a connection everyone in the theater can make without having it pounded into their heads. And it's one of the things in the movie that has dated; my first reaction was "A butcher! I've been looking all over LA for years for a good butcher!"

When Jenny Agutter first became interested in appearing with the film, it was going to be financed by Apple Corp. (the Beatles' company). As it turns out, she saw appearing in the movie as a necessary stepping stone to meeting the Beatles.

The movie was shot over four months, and they didn't do any location scouting or rehearsal, just went out to the desert and started filming. Try finding someone to produce a movie today under those terms. Furthermore, a wombat chewed through the wires on a bunch of the film equipment, and Jenny Agutter buried her 6-year-old co-star to his neck in the sand while on lunch break one day. The impression I got from her commentary was that she should probably have been better supervised.

The score is by John Barry, who you might remember from such stuck-in-your-head-forever pieces of music as the James Bond theme.

The last thing is something I've been wondering about for a while. On the commentary track, Nicholas Roeg says something really interesting about the way he uses flashbacks. He says he hates the term flashback, and when he shows something out of sequence, he's trying to literally show what's happening in the character's mind at the moment. As he puts it, "We don't think in pages of the written word, we think in images." Well, I don't think in images, and neither does my writing partner; my thought process involves a pretty literal internal monologue; I think in words. But some people do think in images; I have to work at it. I am pretty sure that thinking in words is an advantage if you're a novelist, but I wonder what's easier if you're writing a screenplay. Lawrence Kasdan's thing about screenwriting is that you should think of it in terms of watching the movie and "write what you see"; that sounds to me like the way to do it if you think in images. It's junior high school stuff to wonder what someone else's subjective thought process is like, but from what I've figured out informally, it seems to me that thinking in words is less common. I'd be curious to know what other people's experiences with this are like.


Nash said...

Hard Boiled rocks. Nuff said.

Matthew Dessem said...

It's also out of print. Any idea where I could find a copy?

Rog said...

Roeg is a pretty interesting director. I've seen Don't Look Now which I thought was really well down, if a tad slow. I have Walkabout on my short list. Btw, have you seen that book 1000 Movies To Watch Before You Die? The editors of that book have a big hardon for Roeg and have both of those and I think a couple more of his films as well.

Matthew Dessem said...


I haven't seen any other Roeg, although I now own a copy of "Bad Timing" -- the studios have this AIDs benefit DVD sale and I buy whatever criterion I can get (the studios donate them and they sell for $10 each). I'll see it sometime in the near future, probably.

Anonymous said...

I too tend to think in words. I've found some interesting ways to explore other thought processes. For instance in church, I used to always read along with the prayers in the prayer book or lectionary while the reader was reading aloud. Now, sometimes I make it a point to set my book aside and LISTEN for the sense of the words. This is a way to try replacing a visual approach with an auditory one.

So on and so on.

Matthew Dessem said...


I actually did the same thing in church back in the day; I noticed that I scan so far ahead with a text in front of me that I barely process the meaning of what I'm hearing. Same thing in classes if there are notes for the lecture; I try not to use them so I actually think about what I'm hearing.

Anonymous said...

Only in '71 could you have a sixteen year old girl AND a six year old boy in full frontal nude scenes (with an equally naked dark skinned person, no less). Can you imagine the screams of "pedophile!!!!" if somebody tried that today? Not to mention the barely veiled racist attacks that would erupt from certain conservative American media outlets. Even a hint of interracial sex seems to be too much these days.

I first saw this in a junior high English class in the 8th grade. The teachers knew full well about the nude scenes, and the violence, and everything else: this was Massachusetts, in 1988. Guess the progressive atmosphere that this film was made in hung on a lot longer in some places then in others.

(We 12 year olds loved the movie, by the way. Opinion afterwards was split as to what was the best part: The father's suicide or the Aborigine's skeleton dance.)

Matthew Dessem said...

Maybe they just figured Dukakis was so depressed about the election he'd never summon the energy to fire a teacher. But yeah, it's kind of amazing to me how far backwards community standards seem to have gone in some areas since the sixties and seventies. I don't know what I would have made of this at twelve, but I bet I would have liked it; I loved survival stories at that age.

Anonymous said...

E. L. Doctorow, one of my favorite writers, has said (I’m paraphrasing) that a book isn’t finished until somebody reads it. A text is immutable, yet no two readers have identical experiences reading it. The reader is the variable. What the reader brings to the book is an important part of the creative process. I think that a similar statement can be made about some films. Different films invite different levels of participation. Walkabout is an enigmatic film. The difference between Walkabout and a film where everything is laid out for you is the difference between being invited to simply react and being invited to participate in a creative act. In Walkabout I get to write the back story of the father’s suicide, I get to figure out why the girl is so unmoved by the suicides that bookend the film, I get to translate what the Aborigine is saying, I get to put my own spin on the ending.

Roger Ebert writes that the film is about “the mysteries of communication;” that “in the end, lives are destroyed, in one way or another, because two people could not invent a way to make their needs and dreams clear;” and that “the crucial detail is that the two teenagers never find a way to communicate, not even by using sign language.” He is right and wrong. Failures of communication abound in Walkabout. For example, the Girl draws a picture of “home” and the Aborigine thinks that what she wants is a “house.” But in the end the two teenagers do manage to communicate successfully. As in The Miracle Worker, “water” is their breakthrough word (as it is for the Boy and the Aborigine earlier in the film). Then the Girl rejects the Aborigine’s sexual overtures, although she knows perfectly well what his dance is all about. And the Aborigine knows that she knows. The Girl doesn’t anticipate the consequences of her rejection, but that’s a different matter.

The Girl’s idyllic swim is an essential scene. I’m not sure how Walkabout made much sense without it. As Jenny Agutter says in her astute commentary, if you don’t have this scene, there can be no regret at the end of the film. But it is telling that the Girl can only relate to nature in a natural way when she is alone. If there are other people around, she behaves as she is expected to behave. And this is why I read the final scene (of the Aborigine, the Girl and the Boy swimming naked together) not as a memory but as a yearning for what might have been.

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

Well said.

kmpnote said...

Hello. I am a Japanese.Your criticism is very interesting! I love this movie too. English is weak, so please to see thoughts wrote.

Ken Ballweg said...

Something critical to the inclusion of this film in the Criterion catalog is the brilliance of the photography and visual imagery. Hard to explain how novel the location was, as well as how exceptional Roeg's cinematography was at the time.

Story can be a weak part of a great film when the visuals fill in so much

Matthew Dessem said...


I need to see this film again -- at the time I saw it (nearly five years ago—good lord), I was paying more attention to structure than to visuals. I think I'm a better movie watcher now and would probably get more out of it.

MrArkadin said...

Roeg used to be a comer. I first noticed him as co-director, with Donald Cammell, of "Performance." Then came "Walkabout," which I chiefly remember for Jenny Aguter, and wanting very much to get to know her. Then his breakthrough, "Don't Look Now," which I didn't like very much -- preferring, as usual, the printed source, in this case a short story by Daphne du Maurier -- as a rather dark, dingy look at Venice and Julie Christie. I've also seen "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Bad Timing" -- the former my favorite of his films, the latter a rather serious mistake, both for Roeg and Art Garfunkel. I lost track of him after that.

John Barry wrote the scores of most of the Sean Connery Bond films, but the twangy-guitar "James Bond Theme" was written by Monty Norman.

Gerald Carpenter

gungadin said...

If you want to read the film transcript, formated as Screenplay look at:


Gladbach said...

Here's an article that might touch on the thinking in words vs. images idea...