I’m riding the highest wave of my Nicolas Roeg obsession. I’ve been watching and re-watching his films, sure, but I’ve also been seeking out all the interviews with him I can Google and reading all the books on his work I can pull from the library stacks. (For what it’s worth, I suspect that the definitive book on Roeg, or even the definitive collection of interviews, has yet to appear.) Naturally, for this month’s edition of my 3QuarksDaily film column The Humanists, I look at Roeg’s 1971 solo directorial debut Walkabout:
None of us really think about it anymore, especially if we grew up in Crocodile Dundee’s pop-cultural heyday, but... how weird is Australia? This land mass, just large enough to qualify for continent status, hanging out by itself underneath Asia? Starkly arid and desolate, for the most part, between its eastern and western edges? Ten thousand miles from England, yet full (in a sense) of Brits? Without a doubt, Australia makes the short list of countries that can freak you out if you think hard enough about them. It doesn’t sit at the top — stiff competition from Turkmenistan, Paraguay, and North Korea — but which filmmakers bother to actively engage with it? The Mad Max pictures grew more grotesque as they went along, but in a speculatively flamboyant way that didn’t really engage the actual weirdness. Baz Luhrmann seems to hold a grasp on some of his homeland’s deep askewness, but his movies tend to convert it into mere eccentricity.
But if we’re keeping it to high international profiles, we’ve got to talk about Nicolas Roeg. Despite suffering the apparent disadvantage of growing up in London and not, say, Alice Springs, he nevertheless managed, in his solo directorial debut Walkabout, to deliver an Australia never seen before — or, for that matter, since. More specifically, he delivers an Australian outback, and a drama in it, never seen before or since, dropping a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl and her six-year-old brother right into the thick of it. Cinephiles, or even enthusiasts of modern myth, know the rest of the story: the uniformed, near-albinistically white siblings — credited only as “Girl” and “White Boy” — just about succumb to dehydration when they come across a young Aboriginal tribesman — “Black Boy” — who ultimately leads them back to their civilization, though only after a series of fatal failures to communicate.
That plot opens up a minefield of potential cinematic embarrassments, including but not limited to telling the story with a standard “survival” movie or, worse, telling it with a standard “noble savage” movie. The Girl and the White Boy owe their lives to the Black Boy, true, but Roeg doesn’t convey it with a broadside against Western civilization, colonial arrogance, excessive whiteness, or what have you, even though those seem like tacks the film has to take. I’d dragged my feet on seeing it for the first time because of my fear that Roeg, who had become one of my favorite filmmakers immediately after I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth, would succumb to obvious moralistic clichés. How foolish of me; watching any given Roeg film should assure you that, even when he uses time-worn components of plot or character — and he usually does — he fits them together with a box of tools all of his own cockeyed invention.
Lord help me, I just couldn’t resist the chance to compare cinema’s available creative space to the Australian outback, Roeg to one of the true adventurers who dares enter it regularly — and most other directors to the two white kids before they’ve ever left Adelaide.