Walkabout

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #10: Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout.

It is prob­a­bly just me, but it seems like the 1970s were filled with films fea­tur­ing nu­bile and naked young Australian women in Edenic set­tings. Walkabout is one of those films. I could put a full frontal pic­ture of Jenny Agutter’s char­ac­ter here, but in­stead here is a pic­ture of her fa­ther com­mit­ting sui­cide.

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While the nu­dity is in­ter­est­ing from a cer­tain point of view [and we’ll get back to that, oh yes we will] the film isn’t re­ally as shal­low as it has some­times been billed. [Check out the ex­ploita­tive play­bills which use black-man-fuck­ing-a-white-girl-jun­gle-prim­i­tivism to tit­il­late, as an ex­am­ple.]

Essentially, the ten­sion of the movie re­volves around growth into a so­ci­ety, learn­ing to adopt the roles and rules par­tic­u­lar to each one. Although the young Aborigine man and the young Aussie girl are as far apart so­cially as they can be, they are both pro­gress­ing through their own cul­ture-speci­fic lim­i­nal phase. Successful com­ple­tion in­di­cates adult­hood. We’ll get back to that as well.

The plot: Daddy takes his kids out on Holiday to the de­sert, tries to kill them, and then kills him­self. The Nubile Young Middle-class White Woman in her Short-skirted Schoolgirl out­fit takes her Little Brother into the Desert. They al­most die from Exposure un­til they meet the Nearly-Naked Young Black Man [an in­ter­est­ing pa­per could be writ­ten about the sig­nif­i­cance of the or­der of ad­jec­tives used to mod­ify hu­man-ref­er­ent nouns] who is Wise in the Ways of Nature and agrees to Take Them Home. Essentially it is merely a mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the ba­sic nar­ra­tive struc­ture: Two men set across a val­ley, have many ad­ven­tures, and re­turn home safely.

There are two main things that I should write about. The first is the cul­ture gap be­tween the Aborigine and the girl. To do this, I will start with the lit­tle boy, who makes a rel­a­tively ef­fec­tive bridge be­tween the two, he can com­mu­ni­cate with ei­ther of them and also serves to in­di­cate that the lim­i­nal phase is some­thing that is only en­tered at a cer­tain age and un­der cer­tain con­di­tions. The girl is by turns ad­mirable and an­noy­ing. Despite her ig­no­rance of the out­back, she is de­ter­mined to save her brother and her­self, and is well pre­pared to keep them mo­ti­vated. Once the black boy shows up, she be­comes com­pletely use­less, ex­pect­ing him to do all the work. This prob­a­bly stems both from a racial dis­dain and a cul­tur­ally in­stilled de­pen­dence on a strong male fig­ure. She is con­stantly wash­ing her clothes and try­ing to make her­self re­main as pretty as pos­si­ble, as if she weren’t in the mid­dle of the feck­ing wilder­ness. This prob­a­bly helps keep her spir­its up, but it def­i­nitely shows how alien she is in her sur­round­ings.

The Aborigine, on the other hand, is on walk­a­bout: his six month jour­ney to man­hood, where he must use his skill to sur­vive. He is ex­tremely well-suited to his en­vi­ron­ment, so well-pre­pared in fact, that he can sup­port two free-load­ing white folks and not even slow down. He would be a man al­ready, if only he would ac­knowl­edge it.

The sec­ond is­sue con­cerns the rite of pas­sage it­self. The Aborigine feels that he needs to have sex in or­der to truly be a man and com­plete his lim­i­nal phase. The girl sorta wants to pork him, but doesn’t be­cause she’s a Proper White Girl and he’s a Primitive Black Man. Her re­pres­sion and pas­siv­ity seem to be part-and-parcel with the Western rite of pas­sage. What rite of pas­sage, you say? Exactly. For us it is such a drawn out af­fair and vir­tu­ally stripped of rit­ual sig­nif­i­cance. When are you an adult? Oh, when you get your li­cense, or when you can vote, or when you can drink. There is no de­fined time and af­fir­ma­tion of adult­hood.

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This is where the film flexes its mus­cles. The fa­ther com­mit­ted sui­cide and at­tempted to kill his own chil­dren be­cause he was adult by age, but not ma­tu­rity. His so­ci­ety did not ad­e­quately pre­pare him for its de­mands or af­firm his po­si­tion within it. Bereft of mean­ing and lack­ing vested man­hood, sui­cide is his es­cape. The Aborigine boy com­mitts sui­cide be­cause, af­ter weeks of prov­ing his skill at pro­vid­ing a liv­ing for the girl and her brother, abil­i­ties that would have earned him the re­spect and love of just about any Aborigine girl, his last, beau­ti­ful and overt sex­ual ad­vances are cal­lously re­jected by the girl. His sui­cide is both the re­sult of heart­break and a com­plete and fi­nal dis­dain of every­thing he [and his cul­ture] holds dear.

The girl, years later, liv­ing in the same apart­ment she grew up in and fully a part of the cul­ture she yearned for while lost in the out­back, now wishes she had re­mained with the Aborigine boy.

So the movie seems to be a pretty scathing cri­tique of Western cul­tural cal­lous­ness. [And I haven’t even men­tioned a few rather strange in­ter­ludes in­volv­ing weather bal­loons, plas­ter kan­ga­roos, and “big game” hunt­ing] It doesn’t of­fer the Aborigine lifestyle as a bet­ter choice, but it does seem to in­sin­u­ate that even a life where the next meal is a thing of un­cer­tainty is bet­ter than the rage or hope­less­ness en­gen­dered by a life with­out know­ing one’s place in the world.

Criterion Essay by Roger Ebert
The Criterion Contraption’s re­view.

3 thoughts on “Walkabout

  1. I like read­ing your re­views. They make me want to break out of my smug Cedar Lee mode and into some re­ally great films. P.S. I was go­ing to in­tro­duce my­self to you at Inside-Outside, but cell phone drama pre­cluded me from stay­ing for the read­ings.

  2. Shalom Adam,

    This book is on my sec­ond tier of in­flu­en­tial tales I read as a teenager. I still have my copy of Marshall’s book on my shelf.

    When I de­cided to turn my back on my ca­reer as a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor I de­scribed my shift as go­ing walk­a­bout. The tra­di­tion says six months. Mine has gone nearly ten years.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

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