It’s been a dry, dull year for cinema, and there are days when it’s tempting to think (insert old-fogey voice here), “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” That temptation is particularly strong when one sits through a screening of “Walkabout,” the 1971 “lost” classic by cult director Nicholas Roeg (“Performance,” “Don’t Look Now”).
Due to a dispute over rights, “Walkabout” wasn’t released on video and, despite the acclaim it received upon release, has been largely unviewed over the past two decades. This revival comes to us in a pristine new print, but with five minutes of material trimmed from the 1970s release restored (mostly a beautiful scene in a lake, containing full-frontal shots of Jenny Agutter).
Shot on location in the Australian Outback — often in places scouted by air, places where no white man had set foot before — Roeg’s tale is superficially simple: Two white, city-bred kids (Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s own son, Luke) are abandoned by their seemingly mad father in the middle of nowhere, and try to find their way back to civilization. Forced to muster up their own survival skills, they find themselves totally unprepared for the brutal sun, the parched landscape and the endless horizons. The girl, in particular — with a particularly British public-school sense of order — seems more concerned that they don’t scuff up their school uniforms. On the verge of death, they encounter a teenage Aborigine boy (David Gumpilil), who reluctantly becomes their guide.
With its trek across the outback and its contrast of Aborigine and white culture, “Walkabout” has some obvious parallels with last year’s “Rabbit Proof Fence.” They even share a star: Gumpilil played the intense, wordless tracker in “Fence.” But while “Fence” was a straightforward tale of courage, with a clear moral lesson on white oppression of native culture, “Walkabout” is a far more complex brew of racial and cultural conditioning, on the primal call of the wild and the hypnotic pull of modern life. It’s a film that’s deep in meaning, reluctant to reveal all its secrets in one viewing.
Fortunately, it’s also a visual feast: The deep, rich indigo of desert nights and the baked, glaring ocher of noon captured here, are palettes that belong to the type of film they used in the 1970s; color doesn’t look like this anymore. Ditto for the editing: Obviously still influenced by the mass consumption of psychedelics that went into the making of “Performance” with Mick Jagger, Roeg employs a fractured, free-associative approach to cutting between shots, and the sound collage on offer — a mix of radio chatter, wildlife, didgeridoo and protoelectronic music — rivals The Beatles’ “Revolution #9.”
To his credit, Roeg resists taking us inside his characters’ heads. There’s no easy, nostalgic voiceover to walk us through what they’re feeling, which is as it should be. The girl and the Aborigine boy (none of the characters have names, adding to their archetypal quality) are both on the cusp of adulthood, and understandably a sexual tension develops between them. Roeg explores this subtly, in the way the boy’s gaze begins to change when he regards the girl, or even by lingering on a suggestively curved fork in a tree trunk — hinting at a desire neither party can express. For when they do, innocence is lost, and it’s all over.
“Walkabout” remains an absolute masterpiece in its marriage of experimental techniques — sound collage, counterinstinctual editing, poetic imagery — to a compelling, coming-of-age story. Many of the techniques Roeg pioneered have since turned up in films by Godfrey Reggio or Terence Malick, or, worse, have been ripped off by MTV directors to use in a shallow, callous way, but they remain noticably absent from narrative cinema today.
Far more conventional, but set in an equally remote location, is “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” shot in a Mongolian desert that resembles the lunar surface.
Where Roeg would go on free-form flights of fantasy, dropping layers of annoying advert babble over shots of pristine desert vistas simply to slam-dunk a point, co-directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni keep it real in their almost documentarylike debut. They focus on an extended family of herders, and stay close to the rhythms and rituals of their daily lives. As is typical for this type of film, they rely on nonprofessionals, and the characters you see on screen are pretty much playing themselves. Fortunately they seem comfortable in front of the camera, something that wasn’t always true of Samira Makhmalbaf’s latest.
“The Weeping Camel” is the kind of film you remember for the places it takes you, more than for the story. The drama comes when a white camel is rejected at birth by its mother, who refuses to feed it. As the little guy trails forlornly after his mom, the herders try to figure out how to resolve this tiny tragedy, finally calling in a musician to play some sacred ritual music. The camels here put in remarkably touching performances, even crying on cue, thus again proving that old adage that one should never act with kids or animals.
The youngest boy in the family also steals his share of scenes, particularly when he insists on mounting a camel about 10 times his size. The film’s most telling scene comes when he stops at an outpost with a satellite dish, where he’s soon transfixed by the cartoons on TV — even ignoring his older brother’s admonitions that they have to be on their way.
Davaa and Falorni clearly recognize the seductive pull of modernity, even as they celebrate the traditional. Unlike “Walkabout,” they never get too over-wrought about it, but one gets the sense that they’re recording an era and a lifestyle soon to be past. Some may call this a utopian view of a rural lifestyle that is no doubt harsh and grueling at times. But on the other hand, it sure beats living in concrete blocks, wearing a baseball cap sideways like you saw on MTV, and pretending you’re a dawg off the streets of Brooklyn. There’s something to be said for knowing who and where you are.