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Down-Underground: WALKABOUT, or Thirteen Ways of Making a National Epic

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by Jed Mayer
May 8, 2014 2:03 PM
3 Comments
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1. Bring an outsider’s perspective

Like Wake in Fright, the only other Australian entry at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Walkabout was directed by an Englishman, Nicolas Roeg.  He tells the story of Australia without sentimentality, without rancor.  The landscape is not idealized or demonized; neither are those who dwell in it.

2. Use images to tell a story

Based on a 1959 novel of the same name, about two American children whose passenger plane crash lands in the Australian Outback, Roeg’s film rigorously pares back and revises the story; the novel is 144 pages, the screenplay 14.  The film begins with a mineral surveyor driving his children to a deserted desert landscape, where he tries to shoot them before covering himself and his car with gasoline and lighting a match.  We don’t know why.  His daughter stares blankly.  The fire burns fiercely.  The children walk into the desert, their school uniforms black against the rust-colored landscape.

3. Cross-cutting multiplies perspectives

Images of rocks, strata, broken landscapes.  A girl’s school where Australians are going through their English elocution lessons.  Bricks, brown and earthy.  The Outback, sand glowing fiercely red under a cloudless sky.  Brutalist architecture, dystopian concrete forms like an urban cage.  A butcher grinding kangaroo meat to be packaged as pet food.  A woman preparing dinner while listening to a radio show on proper table etiquette.  Chitinous lizards crawling over the desert floor, unwieldy in their armor but perfectly adapted to their environment.

4. Tell immigrant stories

Europeans don’t seem to belong to this landscape, or at least they seem to be trying their level best to maintain the culture of their place of origin, practicing elocution, rehearsing manners.  Ninety per cent of Australians live on the coasts, while the Outback represents over seventy per cent of the continent’s landmass.  A teenage girl and her younger brother are abandoned to this landscape; their school uniforms can’t protect them from the heat, and they burn until their skin bleeds.  They come upon an oasis; a fruit tree feeds them; the water revives and washes them.  By the next morning the water has burned away in the heat.  Roeg somehow manages to compress two hundred years of immigrant history into twenty minutes.

5. Tell native stories

A lone aboriginal boy comes upon them; he shows them how to draw water from the soil.  They join him for his “walkabout,” the aboriginal ritual in which a sixteen year-old boy is sent out into the Outback to see if he can survive.  He and the schoolboy communicate through sign language, and he increasingly draws the whites to his world.  They gradually strip off their school uniforms, the last trappings of the world they are leaving behind but also moving inexorably towards in their errant pilgrimage.  The aboriginal boy wears their clothing, but with a difference, the boy’s pants on his head.  They later make a sun parasol by stringing a blouse on sticks.  The boy decorates the children’s white skin with elaborate painted designs.

6. Everything is sexual

The film was initially rated R for a nude bathing scene that was then pared down for a PG rating.  The restored scene is mesmerizing in its mixture of Edenic innocence and subdued eroticism.  Nothing overt happens between the teenage girl and boy, but in many scenes they are shown looking hungrily at one another.  Their coy courtship breaks racial taboos even while it serves as a metaphor for relations between immigrants and natives.  The boy’s desire for the girl later becomes so intense that it drives him to distraction; he does an elaborate mating dance but she claims not to understand what he wants.

7. Everything is political

The sexual element of the story is a bold move on Roeg’s part, considering the radical separation enforced between immigrants and natives, the latter of whom had long been consigned to government-sponsored reservations.  The courtship narrative dramatizes the country’s slow evolution towards greater inclusiveness, but the film’s troubling conclusion offers little hope of full reciprocity.  In its post-colonial setting, every element of the film’s narrative takes on political overtones: the father’s seemingly innocuous profession of mineral surveyor can also be seen as essential to the continent’s commercial exploitation; every exchange between the young characters may be read as a cultural one, rich in possibility, fraught with foreboding.

8. Everything is natural

Soon after the abandoned children begin their own version of the aboriginal walkabout, the landscape begins to transform them.  The sun burns their skin, leaving them a darker shade of white.  They suck water from the dry earth.  When they encounter the vestiges of Western civilization they are as bemused as their aboriginal escort.  A wombat waddles up to them while they are sleeping and sniffs curiously.  They eat raw meat, freshly killed.  All thoughts of elocution and table manners are burnt away.

9. Nothing is natural

This is not to say that they fully assimilate to the landscape.  The film’s genius lies in its unwillingness to romanticize their journey.  They eventually grow up and become conventional urbanites.  Neither is the aboriginal way of life represented as pure and unsullied: a kangaroo spear-hunt is cross-cut with images from a meat-processing plant; white hunters are later shown doing the same thing with rifles.  Killing is killing, in city or outback, a point underscored by a close-up of the kangaroo the boy kills, its five-fingered paw raised in the air like an accusing human hand.

10. Mix genres

Just as the line between nature and culture is blurred, so are the conventions of genre.  Nature documentary undercuts social satire.  Epic looms over coming-of-age story.   Experimental, new wave style mediates adventure narrative.  Shifting point of view undoes the falsely objective gaze of visual anthropology.


11. Know your ruins

The Outback is not a pristine, unsullied place. The walkers come upon abandoned mines, burnt-out cars, empty sheds, and eventually, amazingly, an entire white community residing in the middle of the desert in geometric, modern cottages.  Seemingly, the only difference between civilization and the wild is time.

12. There will be blood

The story begins with an apparently motiveless attempted murder and self-immolation.  The unexpected violence of this scene overshadows the rest of the film, like the colonial past haunts the present.  Every act of killing, whether for food, sport, or otherwise, feels like a brooding recapitulation of that inaugural baptism by fire.  The possibility of violence hovers over every encounter between the children and the landscape’s denizens.

13. History repeats itself

The children reassimilate into urban life, yet the story ends with flashbacks to them bathing nude together.  Was their walkabout an idyllic escape from social burdens, or a violent rite of passage enabling them to return as better citizens?  The final image is of their school uniforms hanging on sticks, empty vestiges of their former selves, yet waiting to be donned again.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Click here for the first installment of Jed Mayer's "Down-Underground," a series on the Australian New Wave.

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3 Comments

  • L | May 8, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    It's sad that Australia doesn't make films like this anymore.

  • James M. | May 8, 2014 3:46 PMReply

    Incredibly overrated film, as is "Wake in Fright" and Roeg's own "Don't Look Now."

  • Oscar | May 8, 2014 2:17 PMReply

    My Dad took me to see this (first run) as a little kid. I was 8.
    I think Dad thought it was a Disney film. It was not.
    Blew my little kid mind.

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