In the 1960s, there were few cameramen who shared Nicolas Roeg’s ability to render sirenic, jittery sensuality at 24 frames per second—and this was an era whose dominant culture arguably cracked open and redefined the sensual palate. Even more impressively, Roeg’s gift often manifested itself most lucidly while serving the orgiastic gimmicks of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Mask and the bucolic splendor of John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd with the guarded glee of a merry prankster spiking a corporate water cooler with LSD.
But it’s not just that Roeg successfully snuck timely art into the mise-en-scène of those and other studio-centric films, it’s that he seemed incapable of recording anything but subtle art within whatever limitations his aspect ratio enforced. And so while Walkabout may have been his proper directorial debut (he shared billing on the grimacing, sociopathic Performance with Donald Cammell), it’s far more significantly his final cinematographic statement.
Set chiefly in the Australian Outback, where even red clay dirt appears angrily lysergic, the 1971 film acts more like a daring career denouement than a functional transition for a crewmember turned auteur. Technically aimed between the fractured passion of Richard Lester’s Petulia and the similarly fissured masculinity of Roeg’s Bad Timing, the curious, aquiline-eyed zooms and nature-fixated askance angles of Walkabout concatenate into bold statements about the relationship between photography and man’s off-balance, modern lifecycle.
It’s as though Roeg is subliminally scolding us for the fetishism of National Geographic and the hegemony it facilitates with his despondently moonlit mountainsides, though his criticisms never congeal into cohesively glib arguments about race or ecology. Instead, he keeps his camera at a cold distance from the sweaty, scorched on-screen action and, along with the affecting naturalism of the underage and indigenous performances, achieves an aesthetic that remarkably feels human and mechanical at the same time. Dare we call it nobly savage?
Descriptions of plot are likely to suggest a preachiness that isn’t at all present in the film’s rhythmic, heady form, but this, too, communicates how deftly Roeg straddles the fascinatingly fecund border between impotent, imagaic mood piece and bland cautionary tale. In a bizarrely unprecedented predatory act, a ruddy-faced English émigré (John Meillon) strands his nameless daughter (Jenny Agutter) and son (Luc Roeg) in the Australian wilderness while ostensibly picnicking. From there, the two scamps wander around the parched wild brush and frilled neck lizards with their transistor radio and wax soldiers until they’re discovered and rescued from dehydration by an adolescent Aborigine (David Gulpilil) undergoing the titular rite of passage.
The remainder of Walkabout depicts the difficulty, or impossibility, of nuanced communication among the three youths, due to barriers of language but also disparities in bodily confidence between primitive and post-literate civilizations. (In one ham-fisted scene, Agutter’s character demands water from Gulpilil’s bush boy, claiming that she “can’t make it any clearer,” and the frustration mounts until her younger and therefore less verbally encaged brother pantomimes a universally recognizable quaffing motion.) It’s also revealed, however, that the Aboriginal tribe has been subjugated and put to work by local whites for menial manufacturing tasks, and the cultural transaction is unmistakably a threat to customs that maintain a respectful, ecosystematic understanding in the otherwise feral land.
In a less assured film, we would simply observe juxtaposed scenes of the Aborigine teenager patiently teaching his white wards how to subsist off of dewdrops and speared marsupials with liberally outraged footage of his people being forced into manual labor, but the dichotomous humanism of Walkabout is never so tidily editorializing. True, there are the infamous displays of slipshod visual metaphor: As the Aborigine agilely hunts a kangaroo, Roeg punches in two-second, viscerally suggestive scenes of an anonymous butcher hacking up beef, as though to muse that post-hunter-gatherer, occidental life is numb to the listless trafficking of death. But Roeg shoots every figure in the film like an instructional visual subject, and it levels the philosophical playing field. Whether man, or ant, or echidna, or gnarled tree stump, they’re all fodder for the experimental interplay of light, shadow, and space.
And aside from aptly mirroring the impartiality of the elements that the boy and girl are forced to endure without a training manual, this approach of emotionless omniscience also coaxes us into recognizing the beauty of destruction and the ugliness of the organic. Roeg ensures that we see just how menacing and dismal the glory of the Outback is: paths are marked by discarded carcasses brimming with maggots, tree branches lazily sprout serpents whose potential prey remain complacently ignorant, and trekking through the wilderness all day without a shirt or protective pigmentation sears and blisters the skin. Likewise, the colony of Aborigines never quite appears abused enough to offend or up-heave their endemic pride, and while dousing ceramic dingoes in pale primer they even seem elegantly within their tactile element.
Walkabout was one of two industry-shifting Australian films made by non-Aussies and released in 1971, but while Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright was a nihilistic neo-western that deconstructed the fidgety bedrock of masculine paranoia, Roeg’s film is a meditation on trepid transition—whether professional, national, or sexual. The camera lingers on Agutter’s nubile, bathing bottom and Gulpilil’s ineffectual loincloth with the same plaintive concentration it bestows upon the sullen twilight, and the point is a crucial one: Awkwardness while in flux is a cosmic affliction, and the only cure is a self-awareness unshackled by cultural expectations.
This theme becomes ironic if we remember that while as a cinematographer Roeg was adept at communicating ideas through emotive, painterly images, his one undeniable talent as a director might be the ability to make the comfortingly archetypal seem intimidating and alien (as in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Eureka). Walkabout is clearly by a filmmaker on the cusp of that self-discovery, and fittingly (considering the fate of both Roeg the photographer and the aborigine), every camera tilt, every lens flare, and every exhausted flesh tone feels valedictory.
The Criterion Collection’s 4K UHD release of Walkabout presents a brand new 4K restoration of the film, and the tactility of Nicolas Roeg’s images certainly benefits from the bump in presentation. It’s an incredibly sharp transfer, if a tad warmer than previous presentations of the film. Still, even when its shot day-for-night, the sky’s ferocity is intimidating; the blue-to-white gradients are triumphantly graceful and detailed while the dry rocks and sand gasp for life beneath. The clarity aids Roeg’s roving camera with a huckster’s aplomb, since frequent trucks and tilts to reveal distant horizon lines and perilous precipices have the effect of seeming to sneak up on the viewer to splash them in the face with clayey, thin-aired landscapes. The uncompressed monaural sound is clean and crisp, with the diegetic use of Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” sounding every bit as eerily timid, even tar-like, as ever.
All of the extras have been ported over from previous Criterion editions of the film. The commentary by Roeg and Jenny Agutter, from the original Criterion release, is offered here in all its understated, unflappably British glory. Roeg rarely lets his ego rip while discussing methodology, so you’re left even more spellbound than before by the film’s images.
There are also new interviews with Agutter and Luc Roeg, whose face hasn’t matured one bit since Walkabout was shot. The most entertaining addition, though, is an hour-length documentary about David Gulpilil. The segments on his contribution to Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence are more enlightening than the Walkabout anecdotes, but the study excellently captures Gulpilil’s curiously half-modest, half-stage talent personality (and when he decries Crocodile Dundee as “bullshit” you might find the wine you were sipping rushing through your nasal cavity). Rounding things out is a pensive essay by Paul Ryan.
Walkabout is clearly by a filmmaker on the cusp of self-discovery, and the sirenic, jittery sensuality of its images benefit from the 4K uplift.
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