First Impressions #3: Walkabout

Previous ‘First Impressions’:
#1. Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss
#2. John Frankenheimer’s Seconds

‘First Impressions’  is an ongoing series of articles looking at some of the most memorable opening scenes and the way they win our attention, make us interested, set the tone for what’s to come, and even provide us with a strategy for how the film should be watched.

All things are connected in life, but we all have our different stories — our friends, our relations, our husbands and wives — and connected with this is the sense of time passing” — Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg’s Australian-set Walkabout, released in 1971, was his first solo project as director. He had just co-directed the psycho-sexual gangster oddity Performance with Donald Cammell, and before that had been cinematographer for the likes of François Truffaut and Richard Lester. For those who haven’t seen Walkabout, please watch it before reading on, because although I’ll focus on its opening sequence some spoilers do lie ahead. For those who have seen it but need reminding, it tells the story of two children, an adolescent girl and her younger brother, stranded in the Australian Outback after their father’s suicide, who only manage to survive thanks to the help of an Aboriginal boy they encounter by chance. More than a story of survival and culture clash, it is about rites of passage, about what we lose as we get older in life, and about finding correspondences amid incongruities.

The bulk of the film takes place amid the diverse natural landscapes of the Outback (filmed in the Northern Territory) but it is bookended by two urban-set sequences (shot in Sydney). In fact, once we reach the ending it packs an emotional punch precisely because of the way it mirrors the opening. Yet, what most people might remember more clearly as the film’s opening is the sequence of the father’s suicide, a scene shocking and inexplicable in which he has driven his two children into the Outback for no apparent reason, and suddenly attempts to shoot them with a pistol before turning it on himself, also for no apparent reason, as if the mysterious Outback has called him to do so just as it called the girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock to wander hypnotically up the mountain.

However, Walkabout actually opens with a 5-minute montage (see video above) which gives certain clues as to the father’s actions, and holds the key not only to unlocking many of the film’s themes, but also shows off the unmistakable fragmented editing style of Nicolas Roeg. The editing is so exciting and and strangely evocative that it could stand alone as an experimental short. But in fact nothing is included in this mosaic of images and sounds without purpose. Let’s examine these opening five minutes, before thinking about how they open up avenues for the rest of the film to deepen and consolidate.

The film begins with sounds over a series of surfaces, stone and brick. We hear radio static and a croupier announcing ‘Faites vos jeux’ (the post-credits title card at the very end of the film will offer a rhyme to this with ‘Rien ne va plus’ as if the film had been one long spin of the roulette wheel). The surface of a brick wall fills the screen. The camera suddenly pans right to reveal the traffic of a city street. The pulsating rhythms of a didgeridoo solo now take over the soundtrack.

‘Brick wall pan’ #1 reveals the city.

This is the first of three such pans, each time peeling away a brick wall to reveal the surface of a different landscape and setting. On this occasion it is the city of Sydney, in the morning rush hour. A stream of images of commuters and pedestrians and traffic, edited in rhythm with the didgeridoo. Shots of legs walking, frames cramped with throngs of uniform people, their faces off screen so that they are compartmentalised and dehumanised. High-rises and office towers loom over the skyline like modern architectural totems. The stultifying routine of everyday urban life is suggested. One man in suit and hat (played by the excellent Aussie character actor John Meillon) — we’ll call him the father as it later becomes clear that is his role — is walking among these crowds.

These compositions frame the familiar sights of urban life into something strange, something not to be taken for granted, in a way reminding us that this modern settlement, tucked in on the coast and trying to ignore the vast expanse of Antipodean land surrounding it, lies incongruously on an island that had already been home to cultures and civilisations for millennia. Here the didgeridoo, a traditional instrument in unexpected pairing with these city images, heightens this sense of incongruity.

The girl doing elocution exercises in school.

That didgeridoo temporarily stops as we cut to an all-girls classroom in the middle of breathing exercises, to prepare for a lesson in elocution and poise. As the camera pans we recognise Jenny Agutter — she plays the adolescent girl, the daughter of the father. This detour into her school sets up multiple associations. The formal education system as being founded on fitting boys and girls into pre-selected social moulds and gender roles. In the case of these girls, their elocution class sets them up to have the prim and proper social graces that western ideas of ‘being civilised’ dictates, but the intrinsic uselessness of these skills will only be highlighted later in the film when the daughter is unable to communicate with the Aboriginal boy.

The boy intently watching the soldiers march by.

The didgeridoo returns and we see the boy/brother/son (played by Roeg’s own 8-year-old son Luc), waiting to cross the street and watching a group of soldiers marching past, the sound of their boots drowning out the didgeridoo for a few seconds. This fleeting moment is again of relevance for later. The boy’s pensive gaze on these soldiers illustrates his still active imagination and can explain why he will, at times, respond to being stranded in the Outback as if it was a boys’ own adventure, for instance when the sight of camels induces his ‘mirage’ of colonial adventurers in the desert.

This shot, and an immediately subsequent one of the boy reading a storybook while walking in his school playground, tell us something important about him: his imagination has not yet been co-opted by the suffocating education system. It is telling that he is never filmed in a classroom, the way his sister is, but only in the playground or in a park walking home. He, being the younger of the two and less entrenched into the adult world of social roles and responsibilities, is closer to his intuitive natural self. This suggests why later it is the boy, rather than the girl, who has most success in communicating with the Aboriginal and even learning his language.

Cut back to the father again, now leaving his office tower in a dazed and discombobulated gait. Followed by this shot, the second ‘peeling’ pan from a brick wall, inexplicably sitting in the middle of the Outback, with sounds of car horns and traffic on the soundtrack all the more to emphasise the incongruity of city and Outback being juxtaposed:

Brick wall pan’ #2 reveals the empty Outback.

This time the camera reveals an empty Outback landscape, before we return to the father still outside his office tower (the recognisable Australia Square Tower in Sydney, which significantly will appear again at the end), sitting dejectedly and lost in thought, certainly in no rush to get home. The image of the Outback, sandwiched in between the two shots of the father, is therefore his mental projection, as if he is rehearsing in his head what he will do in the film’s next sequence, namely drive his kids into that desert for no apparent reason. Under the surface, the signs are there that he is facing some sort of existential and/or mid-life crisis. Once we reach the end of the film, we may realise that his actions were not just a response to the alienation of a job of drudgery and a stultifying bourgeois life, but also one possible reaction to what are inevitable phases of human life. As French dramatist Romain Rolland put it, “most men die at twenty or thirty”, an interior existential death after which they merely go through the motions of life.

Two more pans whoosh up from the ground of the city to the top of office towers, creating incongruous connections through continuous camera movement between land and sky, between micro and macro, something the film will do over and over. Then shots of kangaroo meat in a butcher shop, of birds in a park flying off, of the three of them, father, daughter, and son, making their separate ways home. Finally we reach home, a high-rise apartment where the mother/housewife is busy preparing some ambitious dish while listening to the radio — another motif the film will pick up on later.

The father vacantly watching his children swimming.

From this point on, inside this rigidly stratified home in which each family member is stuck in their well-defined roles, the editing becomes slightly more conventional, cutting in spatial increments from one part of the apartment to another. Mainly, it follows the father as, drink and cigarette in hand, he looks on from the balcony with utter vacancy while his children call to him from the communal swimming pool below (this pool of course later is paralleled with the film’s iconic scene of swimming in the Outback).
Then a third brick wall. Again the camera peels away a metaphorical layer of skin separating modern city and ancient land, to reveal an Outback landscape, only this time with the father’s black VW beetle incongruently parked in the desert. The father has put his thoughts into action and, six minutes of screentime later, he will set that car on fire after his failed murder-suicide attempt. The abstractness of this, the film’s second sequence, offering no reason or motivation for the father’s actions, remains one of the most shocking parts of the film. Many people may be uncomfortable, even frustrated, by this lack of explanation. But our expectations are already set up in the opening.

‘Brick wall pan’ #3 reveals the father’s VW beetle in the Outback.

In those first five minutes, Roeg has loosely and associatively interwoven disparate images, cross-cutting between three different characters in different parts of the city at different parts of the day. He has given us no direct information about them, we do not know their names, nor will we ever learn them in the film. Why should we expect to be given cause-and-effect or psychologically well-defined and clearly-named characters after that opening?

These characters, as much as we will emotionally invest in their Outback trek, are essentially archetypes representing different stages on the wheel of life. Pre-adolescent white boy, adolescent white girl, adolescent Aboriginal boy, middle-aged white man. These different individuals are in a sense multiple facets of one wider and universal character, and Roeg’s elastic editing connects them into one kaleidoscopic story of life’s phases. Connections of many kinds can be found between them. See how the boy is lost in thought daydreaming as the soldiers march, exercising his imagination, but the middle-aged father having had so much sucked out of him by life no longer has the means left to think creatively, and when he sits outside his workplace unwilling to go home we can surmise from his body language that his thoughts veer towards numbness and depression. The same act of pensive reverie takes on vastly different dimensions across different periods of life.

Seen this way, as unstructured as they may seem, the opening five minutes can be viewed as a microcosm of cyclical stages, beginning with morning, journey to work/school, the routine of work/school, the journey home, and home time in the evening.

The mother preparing ortolan.

We can include the mother in this schema, slaving away in the kitchen in the process of cooking an ortolan, a bird considered a rare delicacy. It is also deemed a rite of passage for French chefs and gourmets to cook and eat. Did Roeg know this and include this detail knowingly? Very possibly, since this is so much a film about rites of passage, about milestones on the journey of life, checking our progress towards the roles that our society has decreed for us. Every character in the film goes through one. The opening five minutes therefore, besides their beguiling and abstract uncanniness, create a cosmic sense of connection between people and cultures which on the surface seem so vastly different. Roeg clashes incongruous things together, only for us to be able to spot the correspondences between them under the surface.

In the source novella by James Vance Marshall, which the film very loosely adapts, the children are the only survivors of a plane crash in the Outback while on their way to Adelaide (this must be why at one point in the middle of the film, the children mention wanting to get home to Adelaide despite the city at the start and end clearly being Sydney). The book makes no mention of their father or of his suicide. Instead, it ascribes a rather puzzling characteristic to the Aboriginal boy and Aboriginal culture:

“Aboriginals who are 100% physically fit have been known to die… purely of auto-suggestion. Death, to the Aboriginal, is something that can’t be fought”

This assertion in the book veers dangerously close towards othering the Aboriginals. In the film, Roeg makes the far more complex choice of having the father be the one who dies without fighting, who seems to have lost the will to live almost out of auto-suggestion, and it then clearly parallels with the Aboriginal boy’s suicide. The Aboriginal in the film (played by the incredible David Gulpilil) is no ‘noble savage’, but a fully human, and hence imperfect and flawed, being with surprising and uncomfortable connections to the children’s father. He is misunderstood, he is hurt, he has desires and disappointments, and he too dies. Roeg emphasises connections and correspondences, even behind the immediately apparent incongruities of culture clash.

Another parallel set up in the opening is the seemingly unmotivated shot of kangaroo meat on a butcher’s counter. Much later in the film, this is directly echoed when shots of a white urban butcher are spliced into a sequence of the Aboriginal boy hunting. Almost imperceptibly Roeg has sown the seed of an idea that he’ll cultivate further on to make one of the film’s most political points. Within the connections there are also significant differences Roeg wants us to see: in a scene two thirds of the way into the film, white hunters decimate the land with their guns. They terrorise nature in another incredible and very Roegian montage of freeze frames, while the Aboriginal boy, powerless and static, can only watch and cry. Just as later the children encounter a former mining community which is now a ghost town, the difference between the native civilisation and that of the white settlers is made clear: one culture only takes from nature what it needs, while the other exploits it beyond mere necessity in order to maximise profit and then abandons it after having bled it dry.

The final scenes: the girl has now replaced her mother, her husband has replaced her father.

Finally, this suggests what the film is perhaps most strongly evocative of, both on a personal level and on a wider cultural level: the idea of paradise lost. And it is here that the opening sequence is most crucial. There is a direct symmetry between the routine depicted in the first five minutes and what is shown to us in the final moments of the film, in its jarring return to city life. The ending is a few years in the future, the girl now older and married to a young man whom we see walking out of the same office tower the father worked in (Australia Square Tower again). We see him coming to the same high-rise where they lived at the start, even the very same apartment. And we see the girl, now doing exactly what her mother did at the beginning of the film, cooking an elaborate meal while waiting for her husband to come home. If we take the film’s lessons on board, the wheel of life has revolved in its cycle. The daughter has replaced her mother. Her father has been replaced by her husband. In a few more years, we can imagine, the daughter’s young husband will reach the same kind of existential dead-end as her driven-to-suicide father had.

In essence, Walkabout is the antithesis of a road movie. In a road movie, an epiphany is reached at some point of the journey. And by the end of the journey something has been gained. In Walkabout, the journey actually ends when the road is reached, as it represents a return to civilisation for the children. When they first reach the road, the editing conspicuously cuts to a straight-on overhead shot of its surface, recalling the brick walls of the opening. These shots of surfaces are Roeg’s visual means of marking the rites of passage as milestones. A threshold has been crossed — beyond this moment there is no return. By the end of their journey, something has been lost rather than gained. The only epiphany comes years later, in the painful realisation of that loss.

Shot of the road’s surface when the children reach it at the end of their ‘walkabout’ echoes the straight-on shot of the brick walls in the opening.

This is what growing up means after all, the end of something, something which becomes irretrievably lost. Whether it be childhood destroyed by two suicides; imagination and innocence eroded by having to return to society and fit into social moulds; the homeland for the Aboriginal boy forever shattered by white settlers and hunters; or the experience of the Outback and nature and along with it the potential for communication and connection between two cultures which is gone for the white boy and girl. All that remains of the girl’s Edenic memories of swimming freely in the billabong will be a fleeting, melancholy memory. It is precisely those opening minutes which allow the film to tie the loop and to emboss the idyllic middle sections into a painful memory that will linger on, as a closed chapter, as a paradise lost, as a reminder that nothing in her socially acceptable urban life can compare, or (as the final lines of the film taken from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad put it) as:

The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.