“Surely Anybody Can Understand That”: WALKABOUT

“I can’t make it any simpler,” says the white girl. (And, yes, her character’s name is “white girl,” according to the end credits.) She’s talking to the black boy. (And similarly, “black boy” is the credit.) All she wants is water. They’re in the middle of the desert, the white girl and her younger brother (“white boy,” the third and final character of major significance in the film), and she’s trying to explain the dilemma to the black boy who they’ve just discovered. But he doesn’t seem to speak any English, and the common tourist tactic of repeating yourself slower and louder isn’t helping. How the situation resolves itself, I won’t reveal here, other than to point out that it’s just one of the many scenes that brilliantly addresses the limits of utility of language in WALKABOUT.

From a thumbnail description, WALKABOUT doesn’t seem like it should be a remarkable film, apart from perhaps its setting. A boy and girl from urban Australia, lost in the outback, aided by an Aboriginal boy — it sounds like a story that Disney would tell using kittens and rabbits. (It’s entirely possible they already have.) Granted, it helps matters that there’s a great deal of attention paid in the film to setting, and lots of prying shots of nature at work1. But still: an all-time classic?

Damn straight: it was on my list of the top twenty movies of all time in our recent MHVF poll, and it’s certainly not the first movie that will go the next time I shake up the list. I’m a firm believer that any story, properly told, can be used as a lens into all sorts of unexpected themes, and develop them in ways so subtle that you might not even notice them on a first viewing, and WALKABOUT is a fierce proof of that argument, with the depth it weaves from its apparently simple setup.

These days, I’ve noticed, one of my preoccupations with film is how they use language, and when I sat down recently to re-watch WALKABOUT for the first time in a couple years (the fourth time I’ve seen it, I believe), I was certainly attentive to that theme. It’s far from the only one to seize on to, of course — theoretical vs. practical knowledge, treatment of women, and how proximity to civilization affects behavior are just a few others that come to mind.

But Director Nicolas Roeg manages to weave so many threads together regarding language, the sum is a bit breathtaking after a while. The ubiquitous radio that travels with the children everywhere is one example. It’s constantly spouting information on things like solving equations. But there’s no sign that this information is being attended to by either the white boy or the white girl, and it certainly has no applicability to the situation at hand. Eventually, for us and for them, it just becomes noise, despite the fact that they continue to be deeply concerned with making sure it works.

Or consider a bravura section in the middle of the film. The white boy decides to tell a story, and as he tells the story, the pages literally turn across the screen between shots of the trio walking. It’s a pleasant section which I hadn’t paid attention to much before, other than visually. But the story, ultimately, is about the failure of language to communicate between two people and the tragedy that ensues. And what’s really ironic is that he’s telling this story to the black boy, who can’t possibly understand him.

Ultimately, Roeg seems to be saying, language cannot save us, or bring us together, or even bring us knowledge; perhaps, unfortunately, its only power is to underscore the divisions between us. Two scenes near the end of the movie, that I wouldn’t dare spoil, communicate this in very different manners: one wordlessly, one with words that amount to meaningless drivel. In both cases, language has no power to improve the situation at hand.

In a dissection like this, the theme can come off as a bit artificial, and maybe it is. Roeg certainly is not beholden to naturalism here, and explicitly makes many decisions that embrace a distancing artifice: there’s the constantly shifting soundscape, which introduces the film conflating urban and indigenous sounds (and the music of Stockhausen) across different settings until any correlation becomes arbitrary to the viewer. An even more pointed example may be the arbitrary — almost ludicrous — way that Roeg forces the plot to come into being. The kids have to get lost in the desert somehow: the way that they do, involving their father, is simultaneously horrifying and almost laughable. (And, again, it’s very worth noting that there is nothing in his language that ultimately explains what is to follow.)

But, even though you can deconstruct WALKABOUT to the end of time, and make arguments about its post-Godardian heritage, its artificiality, and so on, what you can’t take away from it is the emotional heft it carries. For me, that’s the real magic of WALKABOUT: not only is it a beautiful film to look at (even with many disturbing images, mostly of animal slaughter), and not only does it carry ideas that you can take away with you, it really does work on an emotional level as well.

At the end of the movie, I had my biggest surprise of this viewing from a credit I never noticed before: namely, that WALKABOUT is adapted from a book. I haven’t sought it out yet, but I can’t even imagine what the relation to the source text is. Unlike many literary adaptations, where you can feel the pages turning, Roeg approaches the storytelling here in a purely filmic manner, using tools like cross-cutting and sound editing instinctively to develop themes and ideas. I haven’t seen much of his latter day input, but it seems a shame to watch this film and to think of Roeg as yet another 70’s filmmaker who has lost his way and has no place in the film landscape of today.


I screened WALKABOUT off of the Criterion Collection DVD. It’s one of their early titles (and thereby non-anamorphic), and while I remembered it looking pretty good, this viewing revealed frequent instances of minor print damage. It’s certainly not a crown jewel of Criterion’s, visually speaking, although the colors are beautiful and the transfer is very filmic (instead of many of the highly digitized transfers common on discs these days). The disc was noteworthy for quite some time for being the only disc in Criterion’s $29.99 price tier to carry a commentary (although at least THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS shares that honor now), and it’s a good informative one, including Roeg and Jenny Agutter.

Endnotes:

  1. I still get fascinated by this stuff, though I expect most people have watched enough of The Discovery Channel at this point to reduce their interest level substantially. Speaking of nature footage,when is MICROCOSMOS going to hit DVD? Back
An incomplete education