Saturday, October 5, 2013

Walkabout (The Criterion Collection) (1971)

WalkaboutA very unusual film for its time, Walkabout combines many themes in what is ostensibly a tale of survival in the Australian outback. I suppose it was a bit too racy for American audiences as Roeg focuses lovingly on a young nubile Jenny Augutter but that would be missing the point of this movie which contrasts the sterile life of a young British girl and boy with an Aborigine man-child.

The film depicts the initial bleakness of the Australian desert which the two children find themselves thrust into after the father mysteriously chooses to commit suicide, but eventually shows the immense diversity of the outback as the young Aborigine leads the lost children back to civilization. Roeg uses a variety of cinematic techniques to paste together his poetic vision, ultimately developing the sexual tension between Agutter and the Aborigine, culminating in a fateful courting ritual which Agutter appears oblivious too. However, the star of the movie is the little boy, Luc Roeg, who forms a very special bond with the Aborigine.

The film may be too much to handle for small children, but it is ideal for teenagers, as it will give them a very different experience from the run-of-the-mill teen movies that proliferate in the video stores. Don't fret over the R rating, as the nudity is fleeting and treated in a very respectful way. In Britain, the rating is 12 for young teenagers.

In Gus Van Sant's Elephant, we follow several teenagers around for half a day, with little or no dialogue, and with nothing to connect us to the characters. We watch a father drive his kid to school, drunk. We watch three girls vomit in the bathroom after eating lunch. We watch two teenagers shoot up the school, ala Columbine, all without any given reason. That film won the Golden Palm and Best Director awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Although I was not a fan of the film at all, in fact I was disgusted by it, I have learned to understand why Van Sant chose to shoot his film the way he did; little or not plot, and no back story for the characters, and little audience interaction with the characters.

Walkabout is somewhat similar to the style that Van Sant used in Elephant, and reportadley also in his films Gerry and Last Days, but it was done over 30 years prior. Its a beautiful film, told quite simply, over the course of an unkwown number of days. We get to know the characters, but not through back story, or by seeing them in their daily lives. The only thing we know about either one of them (the 14 year old girl and her six or seven year old brother) is that they are English living in Australia, and both attend prep-school...and even this is an assumption based on their language and uniforms, not on anything the film really tells us.

The story, as told in every review, is about how the two are mystreriously brought to the outback by their father, who then tries to kill them, and then kills himself. They are close to death as they wander through the desert, until a young Aborigine boy of 16 sees them and essentially rescues them.

One reviewer complains that nothing happens. I disagree, plenty happens. Its random, as is nature, and nature is where these characters exist in this film. Not alot is explained to us, nor do I think we are supposed to figure alot out. We are supposed to watch, and see things as the characters see them. I loved the way the film juxtapozed the Aborigine with the civilized world. There is a harsh, yet amazing scene, where the Aborigine has killed a kangaroo and is cutting it up. The scene is intercut with scenes of a butcher hacking up meat in his butcher shop. Although it seems random at first, when viewed in the rest of the film, it fits in perfectly in the movie's method of comparing the similarites, despite the obvious differences, between the two cultures.

As Roger Ebert pointed out in his The Great Movies II, communication is also a major subject of study in this film--meaning, there hardly is any. The boy is somehow able to get through to the Aborigine, but the girl maintains her distance, probably by choice. She was brought up upper-class, and no doubt that is the lifestyle she enjoys. The Aborigine is no better. He speaks his language throughout the film, as if the two English could understand him. It doens't matter to him that they can't. Neither side is innocent of close-mindedness in this respect.

There is also a certain sexual under-tone in this film. Some reviewers regarded the nudity as non-sexual. For the most part, I'd agree. However, the scene that was orignally cut from this film and restored in the lated 90s, is highly sexual. While the Aborigine boy is out hunting, displaying his brutish masculinity, the girl is swimming naked in an oasis. The scene is not sexual as most American audiences know it. There is never a loving embrace between the two, and it hardly seems that she is at all attracted to him. Also, she does not watch him hunt. Yet to deny the sexual urges of either character throughout the film, displayed mostly in this scene (there is some evidence of it scattered througout, also) would mean that you've put up blinders. True, no sex occurs, but the girls beautiful body is fully displayed at the same time as the young-man's raw masculitnity. This is contrast to the nudity at the films very end, which is playful, but not in the least bit sexual. Its a fine line, and the film's director has walked in well, without losing his balance.

This was a beautiful film, and I'd love to see it again. I urge the viewer not to expect much on story. There is a plot--the white kids want to get home and the Aborigine helps them find it--but that is not the key focus. The plot is the means to an end. That end being a study of cultural differences, done in a very intellegent, patient, and much more interesting way than I've ever seen.

Buy Walkabout (The Criterion Collection) (1971) Now

I saw this soon after it came out, and as an adolescent was utterly mesmerized by the story. With very little dialogue and virtually nothing explained, it was a profound experience of shocking loss, disorientation in a deadly yet beautiful environment, and finding one's way back. Accustomed to the pat formats of hollywood, I had never seen anything like it: little resolution, reflection, or overt lessons. Yet it stimulated a great dialogue with my father, who had insisted that I accompany him to it in the face of my adolescent unwillingness. Though I have not seen it since 1972, its images stuck with me as if in a dream.

Now, nearly 40 years later, I bought it for my daughter, to nurture her interest in anthropology. I am happy to say that she was swept into it in the same way, wondering what it meant and wanting to learn more. What better success could there be for a film experience than that?

The story begins in a normal city in AUstralia. A father takes his children to the outback for a picnic, and without explanation completely loses it, leaving them to fend for themselves in a land so alien that they have no idea how to survive. Trapped in an oasis that dries up without food, they are lucky to be found by a young aborigine, on his "walkabout" a stay alone in the veldt to test his survival skills and he brings them to a road. Apparently, in helping them, he violates the conditions of his walkabout, with terrible consequences.

As a visual poem, the film has many sequences of silence or trivial dialogue, a cover for deeper meanings that the viewer must reflect upon later. The girl, Agutter, is shielding her brother from frightening realities, but it is the young brother who is the real focus of the story. He has sudden flashes of insight, at times far more perceptive than his more conventional sister, though at his age he often must act them out rather than articulate them. She keeps him going, but it is his mind and spirit that keep them together and then achieve some communication with the aborigine man child. There is also a youthful sexual tension that appears shocking, like the innumerable brutal contrasts in the film. The tragic outcome, after so much has been experienced, is the most shocking of all, and the most un-hollywood: ironic, muted, and mysterious, as much a feeling as a story. I have never seen a clash and meeting of cultures portrayed with such artistry and intelligence.

Recommended as one of the greatest film experiences I have known. It is a classic. Agutter is luminously beautiful and became a major star from this film. Note: I bought this in Europe, where it cost only $7.

Read Best Reviews of Walkabout (The Criterion Collection) (1971) Here

I had the DVD, and was more then happy to get the Blu-Ray version. If you already have the regular DVD released years earlier, with using an upconversion DVD player, the Criterion Edition adds little in the way of probable added film quality.

The insert material indicates a new high-definition digital transfer, made from the original negative, with dirt, debris, etc. removed. And the soundtrack was remastered. The audio commentary with the film is the same as in the original DVD. The digital transfer was approved by Nicholas Roeg.

But this is a Criterion Edition, so one expects some nice extras, and one is not disappointed. There is an interesting interview with Jenny Agutter, and a separate one with Luc Roeg. But one of the nice added features is an almost hour long feature on the life and career of David Gulpilil. The feature with David Gulpilil is both fascinating and worthwhile. The supplemental material is rather recent.

So for those who love this film, this is the DVD to get. The DVD includes a booklet with some very interesting background information.

Technical note: I did get some freezing and stuttering (audio only) on the Blu-Ray version about half way through the film, but playing the same with the commentary on, no freezing at the same point. I haven't gone back to see if I could duplicate the original glitch.

Want Walkabout (The Criterion Collection) (1971) Discount?

Walkabout is a surreal film that walks the line between art house film and nature documentary. It's worth picking up the Blu-ray for the 1080P resolution nature photography of the 1970s Australian Outback, but there's so much more to the film than that. Adapted from James Vance Marshall's novel, the film departs from the source material at several crucial points. The first is the children's method of becoming stranded in the outback; instead of a relatively straight forward plane crash, the film presents a bizarre scenario of a family picnic gone terribly wrong. Fathers committing murder-suicides upon their families was virtually unheard of in 1971, but is unfortunately all too common today. The teenage girl and her barely school-age brother venture out into the wilderness as symbols of the British ruling class, their starched school uniforms a stark contrasts with the wilderness all around them. Jenny Agutter carries the film, since it is from the teenage girl's perspective that we experience the journey. The relationship between her and the aborigine boy is timeless and universal yet fraught with the social divisions and cultural confusion of their experiences. The British schoolgirl in her patronizes the aborigine even as he ensures their survival. The pubescent teenage girl in her finds herself in close corners with a pubescent teenage boy. The sexual undercurrent is understated but obvious. It is beautifully rendered, and ultimately tragic. The tentative, uneasy relationship between the white school girl and the aborigine boy is a metaphor for the relationship between the white colonists and the natives as a whole. And it is the story of childhood's last gasp, and the longing we hold for the freedom we once had when all of our serious choices were ahead of us.

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