Steve Goldstein was presenting his new book "L.A.'s Graveside Companion: Where the V.I.P.s R.I.P." at the legendary Larry Edmunds Bookstore in Hollywood. My wife needed our car to drive downtown to the Convention Center to volunteer at the Grammy Foundation's celebration of Neil Young. We had planned for her to drop me off at Hollywood and Cherokee. From Westwood, we headed east on Sunset Boulevard. Through Beverly Hills the traffic flowed normally. We stayed in the right hand lane and bumped like an old roller coaster over the fractured and potted asphalt. Approaching West Hollywood, the traffic started to thicken and then came to a stop. Ahead of us, we could see that road construction had impaired the flow of vehicles. But the sidewalks were open and available. My wife needed to get downtown and wouldn't make it if we stuck with our original plan. I had her take a right and get off this stricken merry go round we were driving on. I sent her off, south to the 10, toward her destination. I set off by foot eastbound on Sunset. The cars were moving slower than I could walk. I realized any bus I jumped on would be stuck in the traffic too. I had a few hours before the bookstore event. I decided to walk the Sunset Strip and make my way to Hollywood. I started my walkabout.
Walkabout refers to a rite of passage where male Australian Aborigines would undergo a journey during adolescence and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months. In this practice they would trace the paths, or "songlines", that their people's ceremonials ancestors took, and imitate, in a fashion, their heroic deeds. Merriam-Webster, however, defines the noun as a 1908 coinage that refers primarily to "a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work," with the only mention of "spiritual journey" coming in a usage example from a latter-day travel writer. To white employers, this urge to depart without notice (and reappear just as suddenly) was seen as something inherent in the aboriginal nature, but the reasons may be more mundane: workers who wanted or needed to attend a ceremony or visit relatives did not accept employers control over such matters (especially since permission was generally hard to get).
"Walkabout" is a 1971 British film set in Australia. Loosely based on the novel by James Vance Marshall, it was written by Edward Bond and directed by Nicolas Roeg, and earned Roeg a nomination for the Palme d'Or award.
A high school girl (Jenny Agutter) and her much younger brother (Luc Roeg), are seen walking home across the urban landscape of Sydney, Australia. Their father, a geologist, drives them far into the outback, where they stop for a picnic. Suddenly, without warning, he begins shooting at them, and when they run behind rocks for cover, he sets the car on fire and kills himself. The girl conceals what has happened from her brother; runs back to get the tablecloth, a can of fruit, and the transistor radio; and rushes off with the boy into the desert.
They spend a night sleeping on rocks in the mountains. After climbing high ridges, they see the sea and begin trekking toward it. But by dawn, they are weak from exposure, and the boy can barely walk. Discovering a small pool with a fruiting tree, they spend the day playing, bathing, and resting. Next morning, the pool has dried up. A young Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) appears, and though the girl can't communicate with him, her brother mimes their need for water, and the boy cheerfully shows them how to draw it from the drying bed of the oasis.
The three travel together for several days, with the Aboriginal boy's sharing food he has caught hunting. Wordlessly, they become friends, playing with and caring for one another. The Aboriginal boy decorates the siblings with colored mud and listens to their radio while they sleep. The boys begin to communicate, using words and pantomime. The Aboriginal boy and the girl notice each others' bodies, and at one point, while he is hunting, she swims naked in a deep pool, perhaps unaware that her brother has seen her.
A change of scene shows a research team in a hot desert, all the men attracted to the only woman. One of them carelessly loses a weather balloon, which is later found by the three youths. In some versions of the film, one scene depicts a woman walking past the Aboriginal boy, speaking to him, and spotting the other children. They do not see her, however. When the boy doesn't reply, the woman continues walking over a ridge to a plantation. There a white man is seen roughly directing a group of Aboriginal children, who are making plaster statuettes and other things. He calls a break and enters the house, where the woman awaits him on a bed.
The older boy guides the siblings to a farm. It turns out to be deserted. As the girl explores its rooms, he becomes sullen. He discovers a paved road while collecting sticks in the forest, and excitedly shows the brother. Soon afterward, he hunts down a buffalo and is wrestling it to the ground when two white hunters nearly run him over in a truck. He sees them shoot several buffalo with a rifle. Striding without a word past the girl at the house, he is next seen lying in a field of bones; he is painted with white mud. He returns to the house, catching the girl dressing. He pursues her through the rooms in an intense, silent dance. Her brother returns. Although the older boy dances outside all day and into the night, until he stumbles with exhaustion, the siblings cannot understand its meaning. They fall asleep nearby.
In the morning, the brother wakes his sister and tells her the boy is gone. After they wash and dress in their full school uniforms, the brother tells her the boy is dead and takes her to his body, hanging in a mango tree. The child doesn't fully understand death and attempts to offer the body his pen-knife. Before leaving, the girl wipes ants from the boy's chest.
Hiking up the road, the siblings soon find a nearly defunct mining town, where they are met by a surly man who tells them of a place they can stay. They play at the abandoned mine-head, throwing rocks against rusty old machinery.
The last scene is set in the city and years later. A businessman comes home to his wife, the sister. While he relates office gossip, she daydreams, imagining a scene in which she, her brother, and the Aboriginal boy are playing and swimming naked in the deep pool in the outback.
The film was produced from a minimal 14-page screenplay by English playwright Edward Bond. It was based loosely on the novel of the same name, in which the children are Americans stranded by a plane crash. After the indigenous boy finds and leads them to safety, he dies of a case of influenza contracted from them, as he has not been immunized.
Nicolas Roeg, a British filmmaker, brought an outsider's eye and interpretation to the Australian setting, and improvised greatly during filming. He has commented, "We didn’t really plan anything—we just came across things by chance…filming whatever we found." The director's son, Luc Roeg, played the younger boy in the film.
The Criterion Collection DVD release of the film is billed as the "original, unedited director’s cut".
The poem read at the end of the film is Poem 40 from A.E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad.
Jenny Agutter - "Girl"
Luc Roeg - "White Boy" (credited as Lucien John)
David Gulpilil - "Black Boy"
John Meillon - "The father"
Reception and interpretation
Walkabout fared poorly at the box office in Australia. Critics debated whether it could be considered an Australian film, and whether it was an embrace or a reaction to the country's cultural and natural context.
The film is an example of Roeg's well-defined directorial style, characterized by strong visual composition from his experience as a cinematographer, combined with extensive cross-cutting and the juxtaposition of events, location, or environments to build his themes. This use of intellectual montage creates symbolism by juxtaposing two shots that are not literally connected. For example, in one scene the Aboriginal boy is seen killing and dismembering a kangaroo, a passage interrupted by several brief clips of a butcher at work in his shop.
The film is interspersed with numerous images of Australian plant and animal life, along with its varied landscapes. The director often uses those images to emphasize events in the plot and set the emotional tone, most notably during the violent scene involving the rifle hunters. Though many of the events are impossible in a natural setting—in one scene a wombat wanders past the sleeping children in the middle of a desert—they create a backdrop of a populous, varied environment. In Walkabout, an analysis of the film, author Louis Nowra wrote:
"...I was stunned. The images of the Outback were of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting."
Film critic Edward Guthmann also notes the strong use of exotic natural images, calling them a "chorus of lizards".
Critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the great films." He writes that it contains little moral or emotional judgment of its characters, and ultimately is a portrait of isolation in proximity:
"Is it a parable about noble savages and the crushed spirits of city dwellers? That’s what the film’s surface suggests, but I think it’s about something deeper and more elusive: the mystery of communication."
Commenting on the film's enduring appeal, in 1998 Roeg described the film as:
"…a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability."
1.^ "Feature Films in Competition (1971)". Cannes Film Festival.
2.^ Fiona Harma (2001). "Walkabout". The Oz Film Database. Murdoch University.
3.^ "Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg". The Criterion Collection.
4.^ Chuck Kleinhans. "Nicholas Roeg--Permutations without profundity". Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media.
5.^ Louis Nowra (2003), Walkabout, NSW: Currency Press
6.^ Edward Guthmann (January 3, 1997). "Intriguing `Walkabout' in the Past". SFGate.com. San Francisco chronicle.
7.^ Ebert, Roger. "Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg". The Criterion Collection.
8.^ Danielsen, Shane (1998-03-27), Walkabout: An Outsider’s Vision Endures, The Australian (newspaper)