The Australian Screen Classics series provides an invaluable space for the examination, celebration and critique of our national film heritage. Like the best of the British Film Institute’s Film Classics books, Louis Nowra’s Walkabout takes the author’s personal connection to the film as its foundation. However, Nowra is only partially successful in parlaying this emotional response into critical insight.
Strangely in an “Australian Film Classic”, Nowra bases his reading of Walkabout (1971) on the premise that the film is really about director Nicolas Roeg’s home: “The more one studies the movie, the more one realises it is a critique of England. Roeg travelled half way across the world in order to reflect on the state of his own culture.” (p. 67) This intriguing claim is one of the few times Nowra goes out on a critical limb, but rather than extrapolating this interpretation through a discussion of the film, he makes a broader sociological argument that British youth in 1971 were rejecting the “capitalist order” on the grounds that it was “soulless” and “driven by a psychologically destructive culture” (p. 67). In other words, Walkabout‘s depiction of the constricting and emotionally damaging nature of modern urban Western societies coincided with a critique of contemporary life being aired by the young in Britain at the time of the film’s production.
In very broad terms Nowra’s characterisation of the late 1960s generational divide may contain some truth, but anti-consumerist sentiment was prevalent in many countries in 1971. There is little in the film to substantiate the claim that it offers a critique of England in particular, as opposed to a broad indictment of modern Western societies in general. In fact the key relationship in Walkabout between the teenage white girl (played by Jenny Agutter) and the Aboriginal teenager (played by David Gulpilil, erroneously credited as Gumpilil in the film) seems to reflect, perhaps sometimes unintentionally, the specifics of Australia’s history of cultural misunderstandings and fraught relations between the country’s black and white populations. Alexis Wright argued in her RealTime review of Nowra’s book that the film ultimately renders Gulpilil’s character powerless and trivialises his culture: he is able to provide the white children with a fleeting sense of connection to the land, but in the end the white girl’s rejection of his sexual advances leads him to take his own life (1). While it is not always productive to analyse or judge a film in terms of contemporary values and ideas, the centrality of this cultural clash to Walkabout‘s narrative and themes makes Nowra’s inattention to the film’s racial politics somewhat perplexing.
Nowra’s lack of interest in the questions of race raised by the film also places him in a weak position when he considers the charges of thematic banality that have been levelled against Walkabout since its release. Describing a sequence in which footage of Gulpilil cutting up a kangaroo is inter-cut with a butcher chopping up a chicken, Nowra states: “Roeg’s comment on the brutal commercialisation of an Australian icon is too obvious. The symbolism grates.” (p. 41) In fact the sequence is more ambiguous than Nowra implies, but having characterised this part of the film as overtly obvious in meaning, he goes on to note: “Moments like these led some reviewers to belittle the film as a series of cliches comparing the corruption of European civilisation to the innocence of a Noble Savage’s life.” (p. 41) Rather than productively responding to these allegations of thematic banality, Nowra falls back on Roeg’s imaginative visual style as a defence. He quotes a review from Jan Dawson in Monthly Film Bulletin: “If the film plays with some familiar antitheses (noble savage and corrupt society, paradise lost and urban hell) it gains in power from the fact that these are presented as images rather than ideas.” (p. 70) Nowra leaves this quote hanging as if it contains a self-evident rebuke to the film’s critics, without ever explaining why a hackneyed theme is any less hackneyed when presented as an image rather than a written or verbal discourse.
While Walkabout‘s visual power does not in itself invalidate criticisms of the binaries around which the themes revolve, Nowra does powerfully convey Roeg’s striking depiction of the Australian landscape through images “of an almost hallucinogenic intensity” (p. 5). The outback here seems “acute, shrill and incandescent,” making Roeg one of the first directors to portray the “dead heart” as a place full of vibrant life. Nowra successfully evokes the deep impression these images left on him in 1971, at a time when cinematic images of Australia were extremely rare.
Beyond the depiction of the outback, however, Nowra refrains from really probing the director’s visual style. Roeg’s films of the 1970s combine a vast range of formal techniques to produce a unique visual grammar. The moment of the father’s suicide in Walkabout is typical of the way he employs formal practices common in the modernist European cinema of the time, while going against the grain of the more militantly reflexive tendencies of filmmakers like Godard during this period. The father’s death is portrayed through a series of temporal and spatial jump-cuts that elongate the action, functioning as an Eisensteinian form of cinematic punctuation rather than a moment of illusion-shattering reflexivity. What makes Roeg’s style unique is the way such montage techniques sit alongside a visual expressivity anchored in the individual image. Throughout the early scenes of Walkabout for example, he frequently shoots the children from extreme low positions using wide-angle lenses, subtly distorting the image in a way that conveys both the scale of the land in which they find themselves and the way their presence will distort this environment, just as they themselves have been emotionally and psychologically deformed by the stultifying nature of modern urban life. Rather than a reflexive exploration of how meaning is produced in the cinema, Roeg’s experimental approach represents a radical extension of the ways in which themes and narrative might be conveyed using purely visual means. While Nowra touches upon Roeg’s ability to convey ideas via images, he misses the opportunity to pursue this insight with an incisive dissection of the director’s style.
Rather than delving into the radical aspects of Roeg’s filmmaking, Nowra occupies much of his book with a protracted plot summary interspersed with a basic thematic reading. At best this lack of depth is frustrating; at worst Nowra’s address comes across as condescendingly simplistic. For instance, at one point he informs us that Roeg is not a director of naturalistic dramas and “if we tried to watch the film in a literal way we would be lost and profoundly dissatisfied.” (p. 36) If the Screen Classics books are to truly enrich Australian cultural discourse, they need to push critical boundaries by offering provocative and original readings of Australian films, rather than obvious didactic statements more suited to a high school primer.
Nowra’s lack of critical depth means that the most interesting parts of the book are those dealing with the background facts of Walkabout‘s production. There is an informative discussion of the novel on which the film is based, and a revealing look at how playwright Edward Bond worked many of his recurrent concerns into Walkabout‘s script. The story of how David Gulpilil came to make his screen debut in Walkabout is also fascinating. Unfortunately, these aspects do not compensate for the book’s lack of critical insight. When compared to the best of the works in the BFI’s Film Classics series, Louis Nowra’s Walkabout is a disappointingly prosaic and slight treatise on a film that potentially offers rich opportunities for imaginative interpretation and generative critique.
Walkabout, by Louis Nowra, Currency Press and ScreenSound Australia, Sydney and Canberra, 2003.
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- Alexis Wright, “Walkabout: Seeking the Silenced Voice”, RealTime no. 58, December 2003, p. 23.