WalkaboutAugust 2010

  • Starring: David Gulpilil (as David Gumpilil), Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg
  • Directed by: Nicolas Roeg
  • Theatrical release: 1971
  • Blu-ray release: 2010
  • Video: 1.85:1 (widescreen)
  • Sound: Dolby Digital mono
  • Released by: The Criterion Collection

A few weeks ago, while at Legacy Books in Dallas to sign copies of my new book (What's a Wine Lover to Do, Artisan), I chatted with one of the store's managers. It's a huge and beautiful store, and I asked if they had a film section. His response indicates how serious these folks are about culture: "I would love to have a small, well-curated collection, but we don't have the room to do it."

My response was that all they'd have to do would be to sell The Criterion Collection's movies; their stock would automatically be well curated.

The reason I'm so bullish about the choices made by Criterion is not just their fanatical tenacity in tracking down, restoring, and reissuing the usual film-school classics, but also their quirky explorations into the fun and funky. You always hope a curator will go beyond the obvious masterpieces and provide a few surprises that are as inspirational as they are educational, works that stimulate thoughts and fuel fantasies. Virtually every film classic beloved by the prototypical college film professor has found a home at Criterion, always in masterpiece versions. But what a pleasant surprise that they've chosen to champion Nicholas Roeg's first film and hallucinogenic masterpiece, Walkabout.

The story, based on the novel by James Vance Marshall, starts when a middle-aged Australian man suffering from some sort of mental breakdown takes his two terribly white children, a teenage girl and boy about 10 years younger, on a picnic in the outback. After trying to murder them, he destroys the car and kills himself. The kids have no idea where to go or what to do, and are on the point of dying when a very black teenage aborigine boy finds and saves them. He is on walkabout, a months-long wandering in the wilderness that is the native Australian male's rite of passage into manhood. Rather than take them straight to the closest village, he takes them along on his journey. Two teenagers trapped together often means sex, but these share no language, culture, or heritage, and they have a young chaperon. Much of the tension of this story comes from the teens' anxiety over what their relationship is.

Criterion's support of Walkabout is surprising. Since its release almost 40 years ago, a number of brilliant film minds have partially or completely dismissed the film. David Thomson, one of the world's grand old men of film criticism, dismissed Roeg's work with this curt appraisal: "Nicholas Roeg is often reckoned as one of the best photographers to be a director." That's a very neat whittling-down of the director's talents. He might as well have said, "As a director, he's a very fine photographer." Thomson continues: "Roeg went on to direct, alone, Walkabout, a pretty piece of middle brow anthropology about civilization and savagery confronting each other in the Australian outback. There was more reason to hope that Donald Cammell might one day make a film in which his Borgesian preoccupations were worked out temporally than that Roeg might direct a film in which the photography was only a means to an end."

Note: Donald Cammell codirected Performance (1970) with Roeg. Cammell's work was often confabulation with an occasional piece of mock-reality thrown in. Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer who specialized in magical works of literature that flashed back and forth with little attention to a true timeline. Thomson's eloquently written but poorly communicated diatribe basically means that he believes Roeg's films rely too much on stunning visuals and not enough on normal storytelling.

201008_walkaboutEdward Guthman of the San Francisco Chronicle was equally dismissive. He said that, when Roeg made Walkabout, "the spiritual superiority of nature -- and the ecological awareness that inspired it -- were still fresh themes onscreen and in literature. Today they seem dated and maybe a tad naïve in their belief that nature can deliver us from foolishness if we only learn to serve it instead of taming it. Even more dated are Roeg's zooms, freeze frames, and non-sequential editing."

There is some truth to both critiques. In general, I'm not enamored of films that rely solely on looks, abandoning dramatic tension for prettiness or character development for sophomoric symbolism. When two lost lovers gambol though a field of fertile flowers for a curtain-closing embrace, caveat emptor. But Walkabout requires from the viewer a willingness to lower his or her defenses. In Freudian terms, the film is an attack on both the id and the superego. The powerfully seductive imagery taken from nature, especially when the teens frolic, is the most overtly sexual you may ever see in a movie, and is juxtaposed with scenes from a barbaric, primitive, and fascist "civilization." The director's outlook is clearly disheartened, yet the characters find their own innocent joy. All of these unstated feelings, and Roeg's barely cloaked imagery, pounce on the unconscious pleasure drives. Whether the viewer is entertained by the tickling or irritated by the manipulation is similar to a Rorschach test. I like the tickle.

I'm not the film's only fan. Roger Ebert wrote that Roeg "pulls up well short of the usual clichés of suffering in the desert. And his cinematography (and John Barry's otherworldly music) makes the desert seem a mystical place, a place for visions. So that the whole film becomes mystical, a dream." Walkabout was even an Official Selection at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.

And for those who love sheer beauty, 100 minutes with Walkabout is some of the most breathtaking time you'll ever spend with a film; it's up there with The Red Shoes, Barry Lyndon, Blade Runner, Days of Heaven, House of Flying Daggers, In the Mood for Love, Citizen Kane, and a handful of others.

The three main actors are all perfect in their roles. Jenny Agutter, who does a gorgeous nude scene, was only 17. Her acting is spot-on, especially her facial expressions, which always tell a story. The director's son plays the white boy. It's obvious that he's still a youngster, but he brings a great deal of open-eyed curiosity to the role. David Gulpilil (here credited as David Gumpilil) is pure magic. He had never acted, though he had been a professional dancer. His role goes way beyond the "noble savage" stereotypes seen in so many films about whites lost in the wilderness. He shows unexpected tenderness and occasional glimpses of childlikeness that explain why directors have continued to use him for four decades.

The other part of the film that sneaks up on you is the score. I think John Barry is the greatest film composer alive. While he can write anything from party music (the swinging London films of the 1960s) to powerful action scenes (the James Bond scores), he really shines in wistful romantic pieces. His scores for Out of Africa and Somewhere in Time sold boatloads of CDs to romantically obsessed buyers in the 1980s. I've heard some 65 of his scores, and none is as beautiful as Walkabout. Sadly, the score was never officially released and the bootleg was abysmal. (Early in my career, I had a ten-minute conversation with Barry and, uncharacteristically for me, I shared with him my breathless assessment of his work. I also shamelessly tried to finagle a clean copy of the soundtrack recording, even offering to trade him a Criterion Collection laserdisc of the film. He said he had a copy at his home in New York and would send it. Sadly, I'm still stuck with the bootleg.) At least the luxurious theme is available on Barry's Movieola (CD, Epic Soundtrax 52985). Don't waste your money on the Silva Screen re-creation of the score, which sounds as if orchestrated by monkeys.

Criterion's extras are, as usual, among the best in the business. The audio commentary (Roeg and Agutter, though not together) comes from the laserdisc edition, and offers a vast amount of clarifying detail. There's also a longish interview with Roeg's son, Luc, who shares some intimate details of the filming. An interview with Agutter largely repeats details from the commentary. There's also an hour-long documentary about David Gulpilil, who parlayed his part in Walkabout into a rich career as a character actor in such films as The Right Stuff, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Last Wave, and Australia.

I don't usually gush about a manufacturer of anything; nearly all have their foibles. But The Criterion Collection has been the gold standard of film reissues for so long that it's hard to ignore. For anyone looking to start a Blu-ray library of the world's greatest films, hitching a ride on The Criterion Collection catalog could be a winning strategy. In just the last few months they've released Black Narcissus, The Leopard, Stagecoach, Seven Samurai, Charade, Walkabout, The Red Shoes, Black Orpheus, and Paths of Glory. Who knows what other gems will come in the future?

. . . Wes Marshall