Here's one of the stranger moments of my childhood: when I was in primary school in the late 1970s, every once in a while the class, and sometimes the entire school, would pack into the "assembly room" and watch a film on a rickety old projector. Don't worry, I'm not about to get all Stigliano on you and reminisce about days gone by whilst begrudging the last 30 years of life on earth as some kind of cultural vacuum ruined by liberals/homos/me/indie-rock/do-gooders/Michael J. Fox/Roseanne Barr/etc. No, what I'm about to say is that one of the stranger choices made by the teaching staff was to show the children Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout from 1971.
Englishman Roeg had made a bit of a name for himself for having co-directed Performance, starring Mick Jagger, in 1970, and would go onto make other cult favourites such as David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Don't Look Now, Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance (the last three of which Jim O'Rourke was so impressed by, he named three successive solo albums after them). Walkabout was filmed in Australia and stars UK sexpot Jenny Agutter in the lead role. You may remember her for getting her gear off in An American Werewolf In London. Or perhaps not. You may just know her for the fact that she seemed to be fond of stripping naked in just about every film she made in the '70s/'80s.
She was but 18 years of age when she filmed Walkabout, and she's playing (convincingly) an under-aged English schoolgirl; again, one who gets the kit off on screen. I shouldn't harp on the subject, lest I sound like a creep, though I can only assume that the version I was shown in primary school was an edited version, one which cut out the nudity and the rather brutal early scene in the film where Agutter's father, played by veteran Australian actor John Meillon, tries to shoot her and her younger brother before killing himself. At the very least, I do recall being slightly traumatised by the film's central concept of two young schoolchildren being lost and seemingly dying of hunger and thirst in the middle of Australia's unforgiving outback. I'm not quite sure why the teachers thought impressionable young minds should witness such cruelties, but in retrospect I'm glad they decided to torment us with their choice of cinema.
In the mid/late '90s I was belatedly made aware of Kenneth Cook's 1961 novel, Wake In Fright, by my good buddy Mark Harwood. It, too, was made into a film in 1971, this time by Ted Kotcheff (First Blood). The storyline is vastly different to that of Walkabout, though its central theme, one which portrays Australia's barren outback and sense of isolation as its main prop, is similar. Wake In Fright, one of this country's finest books and films - if you've neither read nor seen either, then I'm demanding you do both, pronto - was also studied widely in Australian schools in the 1970s. Veteran noise/avant/punk musician John Murphy, a man a good decade or more older than me, yet one who coincidentally also attended the very same state primary and private high school as myself, once told me that he was shown the film of Wake In Fright in high school at the time. If you're familiar with the film, some of its shocking scenes and the fact that the movie itself was considered almost extinct until it was very recently unearthed, remastered and reissued onto DVD, you might think that's kind of odd, perhaps even stranger than showing a room full of primary-age children scenes of two kids practically starving in the desert just after their father has tried to kill them.
So why am I writing this? Because Walkabout is a brilliant film. If I could be bothered making some sort of a list of my favourites, it'd be in there somewhere. It's got an excellent score by John Barry and even a brief electro-acoustic/cut-up track by Stockhausen on the soundtrack (taken from his meisterwerk, Hymnen), and despite a strange lapse into art-damaged cinema halfway through (there's a mighty peculiar scene in the middle involving scientists in the outback which looks like it belongs in a French New Wave film), the dreamlike film itself plays the storyline quite straight, as the two protagonists are helped to white civilisation by an aboriginal adolescent on his "walkabout" (a native tradition of self-discovery and -reliance males make at the onset of puberty), played by David Gulpilil. However, this ain't no white guilt trip; "Black Boy", as he's known, shares a similar sense of alienation as his white friends, and the result of this alienation isn't pretty. I'm beginning to wonder if that scene, too, was edited out for my fragile brain all those years ago as well.
The film itself has such a beautiful look to it (Roeg had extensive experience in cinematography), and yet the subject matter can be so depressing, with the seemingly happy adventures of the three adolescents obviously doomed to some tragedy down the track. As in Wake In Fright, white civilisation (I could've used inverted commas there, but come on!!...) is portrayed as just as brutal and merciless as that of the natives and the landscape, and since I'm of the belief that Australian mainstream culture barely scraped into the 20th century before Gough Whitlam was swept into power in 1972, I won't hold this portrayal as merely a cinematic conceit. Walkabout is just about the best there is, and that's not just nostalgia doing the talking.