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 Replies

  • 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.

  • 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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