Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Day 33: Walkabout: Man vs. Nature 4

White Boy: Well, where are we now?

Where, indeed, to begin with Walkabout?  The fantastic cinematography?  The experimental editing that, while a bit showy at times, more often than not perfectly compliments the aimless wanderings of three young people through the Australian outback?  The effortless, breezy acting?  The fact that there’s a whiny little boy in this movie who is somehow not annoying?  Like all Grrrreat movies (and I mean that capital G and those extras Rs with a capital M) you could write a chapter in a book about each of these elements and, probably, still be frustrated that you didn’t have enough space to write about them (be on the lookout for my upcoming book, Non-annoying Children in Film and the Lack Thereof).  And, like all Great films (extra Rs omitted for brevity’s sake) these elements coalesce into such an intoxicating witch’s brew of engaging and thought-provoking cinema, that to talk about any of these individual pieces on their own does a disservice to the way it interacts with the whole.

(Meta-blog note: you can tell when I am having trouble writing something by the amount of parentheticals I use.  The more parentheticals, the harder a time I’m having [parentheticals make me feel uber-hip and, so, give me confidence through the difficult stretches by amusing me{and when I put many, many parentheticals nested inside one another, it usually means I’m making a half-assed attempt to be witty (not always successfully)}])

So what is the whole then?  On the surface, it’s a tale of two city kids, a teenaged girl and a young boy (billed in the credits as “Girl” and “White Boy” respectively), abandoned in the Australian outback.  As they struggle to survive in this harsh climate, they come across a teenaged Aborigine boy (billed in the movie as “Black Boy”) who aids them on their quest to find a way home.  This aspect of the film is well executed; at first, the outback is depicted as an extremely hostile place with awful, frightening looking bugs, lizards, and snakes under every rock.  Once the city kids meet the Aborigine, the depiction of the outback changes: the hostile environment can now be exploited for basic survival purposes, and thus, appreciated for its beauty.  Additionally, their relationship develops as they spend more time together.  The little boy starts to pick up on the Aborigine language, the sexual tension between Girl and Black Boy builds and builds, and when they do, eventually, reach some vestige of “civilization”, what happens there is delightfully unexpected.

Underneath this is a keenly observed movie about the clash of two very different cultures and its inevitable consequences.  There’s the usual cultural clash stuff with Black Boy finding the clothes of the city kids weird and the kid’s toys amusing, but the movie goes further on each one of these.  The kid wants to go about without a shirt on, like Black Boy does.  Despite Girl’ warnings, he ends up with a horrific, debilitating sunburn.  When White Boy offers Black Boy a toy British soldier, Black Boy is startled by the image and throws it aside in disgust, though there’s never any indication other than this that he’s been personally harassed by British soldiers.  

The sexual politics at play between Black Boy and Girl are just as subtley and realistically portrayed, culminating in a surprising and rich sequence in which he attempts to woo her with a mating dance.  She’s as aroused and curious about him as he is of her, but the movie concludes that these two people (and thus, these two cultures) can never truly coexist.  The film argues that, while the Western culture can take and learn many, many things from the Aborigines, it has nothing it’s willing to offer to them in return.  With its last shot, the movie also makes a case for culture-free, naturalistic utopia that is both a naïve wish of Girl and a satisfying conclusion to the story that’s taken place between Girl and Black Boy.

Furthering the culture clash theme, the movie makes some startling digressions from its main plot, following characters completely separate from the narrative at what seem like random times.  But each of these diversions serves to illuminate the main plot, contextualizing the conflicts the three main characters face in terms of the larger culture issues at play.  When we see a man working on what look like ceramic souvenirs and treating his Aborigine helpers like inhuman slave labor, it adds new thoughts and ideas to the relationship between Girl and Black Boy.  These points of divergence never feel apart from the movie, either, tangentially related to the main plot as they may be.  They’re shot and edited within the same style, but, more important to their success is the way they’re edited into the movie at thematically appropriate moments.  Though there’s a dangerous “telling the viewer what to think of the preceding and following scenes” element to these narrative breaks, they’re, on the whole, oblique enough that you can come to your own conclusions.

All of these things are part of theme, just another element at play, like the cinematography or the acting.  I could bluster on for pages (and maybe I’d quibble with John Barry’s sometimes just right but sometimes too-beautiful score), but my abilitiy to convey the delicate, deliberate nature of this film’s rhythms and the jaw-dropping images on display would not improve.  Everything comes together: the theme serves the editing, the editing serves the camera work, the camera work serves the acting, and the acting matches the sound design.  I cannot say this loud enough: see this movie.  On the biggest screen imaginable.  Watch it once a year and remind yourself that within all of us lies a naïve and simple wish to prance about naked in the wilderness, animals free of the fear and madness that culture brings and, yet, still basking in the safety it provides.


drake said...

Nice Review.

medusa's muse said...

I like your Reviews.Great job! :)

Sudarshan said...

Dude what do I say??? You're amazing..and your posts rock!!
Keep up the good work!!

Ash Karreau said...

Movies about the Outback always terrify me, because everything in Australia is poisonous, including all snakes, spiders, and natives.