Saturday, September 15, 2007

Unseen Images: Walkabout

Walkabout was released in 1971, received great reviews and then disappeared for more than 25 years. It was not even released on VHS until the late nineties and only recently on DVD. When Roger Ebert placed it on his "Great Movies" in 1997 he noted this himself and even now while other Nicholas Roeg films like Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth have become standards of seventies cinema, Walkabout is rarely mentioned. I think I know why.
The original reviews of Walkabout describe it as "beautiful," "magical" and "a delightful family film." It would not be unexpected for the average filmgoer to walk into it expecting an earlier, Australian version of The Black Stallion: Innocent(s) lost in nature, helped out by a mysterious knowing guide (in The Black Stallion, a horse, in Walkabout, an aboriginal boy) and connecting with nature in the process. But this does not describe Walkabout at all. Roger Ebert described it as "deeply pessimistic" and he has a point. Walkabout portrays nature as brutal and harsh, communication between cultures as an obstacle (and one that cannot be overcome) and the world as unblinkingly uncaring. It is in many ways not only a film that could not be made today, but one that would not be accepted even if it were. And that would explain its disappearance and subsequent relegation to obscurity.
The film begins with shots of the Australian urban environment, surrounded by trees and ocean but ignorant of the nature that consumes it. There are exotic trees, but they are conveniently labeled, there is a beautiful ocean but the children swim in a pool instead. And their father sits alone on a bench outside work, then at home stares at his children in the pool with a hollowness that makes him a phantom in his own world.
Shortly after, through a series of panning shots of walls that leads us into the outback, we see the family Volkswagen with father and children it tow, in the middle of the desert. The father has taken his children here for a picnic but seems oddly disconnected from anything going on around him. He studies geological charts as his daughter (Jenny Agutter) sets up the blanket and food and his son plays with his toys and water pistol. Without warning the father begins shooting at his children. His son thinks he is playing and "fires" back with his water pistol. The daughter takes off running, scoops up her brother and drags him to a trench, out of sight of their father. Shortly after, the father burns the car and shoots himself. Son and daughter are alone in the middle of the outback. The story, as it were, begins.
The scenes of the father are never explained. Did he lose his job? Did he do something wrong for which murder/suicide seems to be the only out? It is never stated. And remarkably, in a film utterly and absolutely devoid of sentimentality, the daughter never reacts. She guides her brother as best she can, telling him that Dad went on ahead and they have to catch up. But she never cries. She never reveals emotion of any kind connected with the shocking events that just transpired. It seems odd at first but as the film progresses the recognition of a lack of emotion becomes palpable, then understandable, then accepted. The movie isn't about emotion or cheap sentimentality. It is about survival and communication. The survival part is apparent. The communication aspects are revealed more slowly, cautiously until by the end the viewer is convinced no one in the film has understood anything that anyone else has done, including themselves.
The sister carries her brother to an oasis where they drink muddied water and eat berries from a tree. By morning the water is gone and death seems a certainty. And that is when they spy an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a walkabout. The girl cannot communicate to him that they need water but her brother has no problem. For whatever reason the younger brother seems able to communicate with the aborigine much easier than the sister. The aboriginal boy shows them how to get water from a dry bed and soon they are a threesome, surviving in the outback.
There is not much else in the way of plot on which to elaborate. They wander, kill for food, eat, sleep, swim in the nude and survive. But it is how they do these things, and how Roeg frames his shots that tell the real story of Walkabout. And it is the visual telling of the story that separates it completely from a film of today. A quick look at comments on IMDB shows a woeful misunderstanding of the film by many based on what they think they should be seeing due to film cliches set in stone from the eighties on. It is told differently than it would be today. And those differences are worth noting.
One of the first jarring differences concerns that ubiquitous disclaimer found on movies today that "no animals were harmed during the production of this film." Well, that's out the window. Animals are beaten, gouged, clubbed, shot, stabbed, vivisected and devoured by flies and maggots in scene after scene. There is a pungent scent of death that permeates the whole production. The aboriginal boy (David Gulipilil, a real aborigine with admirable hunting skills) is shown hunting, for real, just as Nanook is shown hunting the walrus in Nanook of the North. Kangaroos and buffalo and reptiles are speared and clubbed, ripped apart and disemboweled. Roeg employs freeze frames and cross-cutting throughout. One such cross-cutting, of the aboriginal boy vivisecting a kangaroo while a butcher in the city is seen chopping up meat in his shop, is the subject of a misguided comment on IMDB bemoaning being hit over the head with a lecture on how bad those urban imperialists are and how natural the aborigines are. There must be an award somewhere for missing the point so badly. But it is understandable, given what is expected from a tale like this told today, in these "kinder, gentler" times. The point made so abundantly clear throughout is that they (the two different cultures) are one and the same, no one worse than the other, just two different cultures performing the same task in decidedly different ways but achieving the same results. There is no judgment in this film of one culture over another whatsoever. Anyone viewing it that way needs to see it again.
It is the wall of communication that Roeg is concerned with, not elevating one culture at the expense of another. Many scenes, such as one where the aboriginal boy sees a settlement but does not lead the brother and sister to it, indicate that he clearly does not understand that they are lost and need to contact someone. Perhaps he thinks they are on a walkabout too. Or when he crosses over a paved road, a clear sign of civilization, and still does not bother to point it out to the girl, who only discovers it later.
Finally, the aboriginal boy performs a courtship dance for the girl that frightens and confuses her. She does not see its grace or gentle entreaties to companionship. He does not see that it frightens her and makes her uneasy. After this scene we come to what is possibly the single most misunderstood scene of the film. The day after the courtship dance, the girl's brother tells her of the paved road and the two of them clean up to travel down it. She wonders where the aboriginal boy has gone, assuming he went back to his tribe, only to have her little brother remark, "He's dead." He takes her to his body, suspended from a tree, and regards it passively and without emotion. And then they travel on.
Many viewers have made the erroneous assumption that the aboriginal boy killed himself, which is not true. Even the entry on Wikipedia states the boy hangs himself after being rejected by the girl, this despite the fact that the most casual glance will show he has not been hanged but is dangling from his arms. Although it is not made abundantly clear in the film (again it is about lack of communication and without the third person narrator of the book upon which it is based there is no real way to communicate it to the audience) the aboriginal boy has been sick, infected with a virus of some kind, and knowing his death imminent has suspended his body from a tree. It is a deeply held belief of the aboriginal tribes of Australia that bodies must be suspended above the ground to allow their spirits to leave the body and not be taken into the ground, or nether regions. Knowing he was dying was also why he performed the courtship dance at that time, believing this lost girl with whom he had no real connection was his last chance. Before he performs the dance he is shown at rest among the skeletal carcases of dead buffalo, a further indication of his impending death.
The custom of bodily suspension is also seen earlier in the film as an aboriginal tribe (perhaps that of the boy's?) is playing around the burned out Volkswagen. We can see they have suspended the rotting corpse of the dead father in a nearby tree.
After the sister and brother head down the road they come across a small mining town with one inhabitant. They knock on his door to ask for help but all he can think to tell is that everything is private property and they can't touch anything. He too, doesn't appear to understand the severity of the situation. The children do not help either. At no point do they explain what has happened, just that they are lost.
We never see them rescued, whisked back to their mother or dealing with the aftermath of the trying events. We simply see the girl, some years later, in the same type of apartment as her parents, looking past her husband as he tells her about his promotion and raise. Her face is emotionless and we see flashbacks to the outback. Does she long for it or miss it? Does she want to be back? Or is she just thinking about it because her life and husband bore her immensely? Again no answers, just images.
Throughout the film Roeg employs freeze-frames and cross-cuts liberally. He even freeze-frames lap dissolves before they have completed their dissolve and let's their image hang over the frames of the following scene like ghosts dancing about the outback. He succeeds admirably in visually detailing a harsh and brutal environment with no emotion, no sentimentality. He observes a tragic lack of communication from all concerned and is content to let the observation be enough. Walkabout is precisely the type of film, made today by a director like Steven Spielberg, that would be ruined with message and gooey sentiment. I can imagine torment and grief played out by the girl after the shooting incident. I can imagine the girl explaining the customs of the aborigines to her younger brother as they weep beneath the dangling body of the aboriginal boy (if they let him die at all). And I can certainly imagine a lump in your throat reunion with the mother, as John Williams' strings rise to a crescendo. The problem is, for too many modern day viewers of Walkabout that's what they're imagining before they see it and when they don't get it, they're disappointed. But if the viewer is not concerned with cliched expectations being met then Walkabout is a richly rewarding experience. And one not soon forgotten.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Director's Commentary: The 70's - The Second Golden Age?

This month I will be revisiting the Oscars of the seventies in my ongoing series on the Oscars. Before I get to the next entry (1970 - 1974) I thought it might be useful to re-examine the idea that the seventies were a second golden age for American cinema.

1970 saw a major re-awakening of American film that would carry through to the mid-seventies. Finally realizing that it was losing the youth audience to foreign imports Hollywood starting financing films that today would be lucky to get backed at the Sundance Film Festival: Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, Alex in Wonderland, Gimme Shelter, Husbands, I Never Sang for My Father, A Man Called Horse, Joe, Woodstock, Little Big Man. Okay, Hollywood didn't finance all of those but the studios started to distribute as many as they could while smaller distribution companies were getting into the act as well. Now defunct National General Pictures co-produced and distributed both Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse. The studios themselves continued to put out big movies like Ryan's Daughter, Patton, Catch-22, Tora, Tora, Tora and Airport of which some were successful and some were not. The start of the reputation of the seventies as a second Golden Age of the movies had begun. But the story of the second golden age isn't entirely true.

There were before and have been since just as many good to excellent to great small, intimate films made each year as there were in the seventies. The difference was in the promotion of those films and their box office take. Put it this way: In 2003 Lost in Translation was released to excellent reviews and terrific word of mouth with a limited marketing campaign. That same year Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was also released to excellent reviews with a massive marketing campaign. Lost in Translation pulled in 44 million and Return of the King pulled in 377 million. Thirty years earlier, in 1973, it would have been the other way around (and the special effects for Return of the King would have been considerably worse). That was the difference. The big box office winners were the small character driven dramas and comedies. Going back to 1970 the biggest budgeted, special effects extravaganza was Tora! Tora! Tora!. It cost $25,000,000 to make and pulled in... just $14,500,000. By contrast M*A*S*H cost all of $3,500,000 to make and pulled in... $73,200,000.

The reverse of today was true in the early seventies. Big budget, big special effects, low box-office. Low budget, no special effects, big box-office.

And if you're thinking that M*A*S*H grossed much more than Tora! Tora! Tora! due to its considerably higher acclaim consider this: In 2001 Pearl Harbor, based on the same events as Tora! Tora! Tora! and opening to even worse reviews, grossed $450,400,000 worldwide by the end of its run. With an estimated budget of $140,000,000 that's a gross of over three times the cost of the film. In the same year, 2001, Mulholland Dr. opened to near unanimously great reviews. Its worldwide gross was $20,112,339. With an estimated budget of $15,000,000 that's just a 33% take over the cost of the movie.

Mulholland Dr. is exactly the type of movie that would have flourished in the early seventies. As the baby boom moved into adulthood they were interested in seeing more adult themes on the big screen. The studios, always going where the money is, gave them what they wanted. With the success in 1969 of Easy Rider ($340,000 budget, $60,000,000 take by 1972) and Midnight Cowboy ($3,600,000 budget, $44,785,053 take) and the failure of Hello Dolly ($25,000,000 budget, $15,200,000 take) and Sweet Charity ($20,000,000 budget, $4,000,000 take) it was clear where the money was. As an added bonus the movies bringing in the most money cost the least amount to make.

By 1971 the biggest movies with the biggest marketing campaigns starred actors and actresses like Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson and Glenda Jackson. Movies like The French Connection (made for $1,800,000 and taking in more than $51,000,000 - a whopping 28 times the cost of the movie) were winning at the box-office, the critics polls and the Academy Awards. For a short, dreamlike period it seemed that art and business had finally found a way to sleep in the same bed together. Gone were the days of the little guy being stepped on by the big studios. Gone were the days when the artist would have to struggle to get financing. Now the studios were seeking out the film students and the artists and giving them the keys to the kingdom. Young filmmakers just out of film school found themselves in the same demand that theatrically trained actors and actresses found themselves in at the advent of the sound era. The movies they and other old newcomers (like Don Siegal and Robert Altman and Hal Ashby) who had struggled under studio supervision for years, produced were challenging, engaging, thought-provoking. Titles like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Straw Dogs, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Last Picture Show, The Hospital, Harold and Maude, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, The Getaway, Sounder, Fat City, The Heartbreak Kid, Play it Again Sam, American Graffiti, Drive He Said, The Last Detail, Charley Varrick, Don't Look Now, The Long Goodbye, The Exorcist, Scarecrow, Papillon, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Serpico, Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Conversation, Chinatown, Harry and Tonto, The Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo, The Man Who Would be King, Hester Street and on and on. I've left out quite a few actually, but you get the point. The bonds of playing to the box-office had been broken. From here on out the writer director could make the movie he wanted and not worry about focus groups or whether or not it would play in Peoria. Of course it would. It's what everyone wanted. It was blue skies as far as the eye could see.

But there were clouds on the horizon.

As much money as the low budget personal films were making there were other movies raking in big bucks too that had nothing to do with artistry. Big time musicals (Sweet Charity and Hello Dolly) and over-inflated dramas (Tora! Tora! Tora! and Ryan's Daughter) were no longer bringing in the big box-office that had always been guaranteed them for decades. But in 1970, by pure chance, Hollywood discovered something that brought the audiences in by the multitudes. In decades prior, disaster films had never done poorly at the box office but they were rarely ever big box-office winners either. Hollywood had even released a couple of airplane based disaster movies, The High and the Mighty (1954) and Zero Hour!(1957) that did middling to good box-office so there was no reason to believe another one would be that different. But they were wrong. Very wrong. In 1970 Airport fulfilled an unknown desire of the masses to see has-beens, former Oscar winners and second bananas gather together for an hour and a half of turgid soap-opera followed by twenty minutes of disaster management. It grossed over $60,000,000 in its initial run and went on to gross more than $100,000,000 overall worldwide.

Hollywood being Hollywood, by 1971 they had moved everyone to a ship, sent a rogue wave in its direction and called it The Poseidon Adventure. Big time box-office once again. They were on to something. And the directors that made these films weren't nearly as much a pain in the ass as those young kids making movies the studio heads didn't understand in the first place. And the actors (former stars happy to get work, character actors happy to have leads) were very easy to work with. Willing and cooperative. Hmmm...

By 1974 the disaster genre had become standard. Two big ones were released in that year: Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Earthquake cost $7,000,000 and took in $79,700,000 worldwide by the end of its run. The Towering Inferno cost $14,000,000 and pulled in $116,000,000 worldwide before its run ended. And with plenty of studio loyalists voting, The Towering Inferno even managed to get a nomination for Best Picture! No film had yet raked in $100,000,000 domestically on its initial run but that wasn't far around the corner.

In 1973 The Exorcist had eschewed the standard distribution technique of opening in the big two, New York and Los Angeles, and then slowly making its way around the country with limited engagements before going into general release. Instead it was released en masse in as many towns and cities and on as many screens as the studios could rent. The result was big box-office as it shattered opening weekend records. By the time its general release ended it had raked in more than $89,000,000 at the box-office domestically. The idea of a wide release in lieu of limited engagements seemed like a possible goldmine. Within two years the studios would strike that gold they had long been mining for: $100,000,000 domestic.

In 1975 it happened. Jaws opened on 465 screens (nothing compared to the thousands of screens a big movie opens on today, but there were no multiplexes back then) and by the end of its initial run had pulled in $129,549,242 domestically, more than The Towering Inferno had pulled in worldwide. The Age of the Blockbuster had begun. And that Second Golden Age of low-budget independently made films was rapidly heading for the door.

Of course, there would still be many more low to mid-range budgeted movies coming out of the studios for years to come. Films like Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Days of Heaven and Kramer vs. Kramer would still be made, still receive acclaim and still do well at the box-office. But the studios had discovered (as they always seem to do) an easy formula for big bucks: Special effects, wide releases, summer openings. It wasn't perfect. For every Star Wars there was a Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century, for every Airport 75 there was a Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. But perfect or not, the big box-office takers raked in enough to cover for the failures.

By the late seventies Hollywood had gone back to the business it was used to: Studio directors, churned out scripts, re-hashed ideas, proven formulas. The small movies were still there, they just weren't getting the star treatment they had received in the early to mid-seventies. The Second Golden Age turned out to be more smoke and mirrors than reality. The movies were great, no doubt, and there were probably slightly more of them made due to studio interest than there have been in other years. But it was studio financing and promotion that made it seem bigger than it was.

So was there a second golden age in the seventies? Yes and no. There were many more great independently made "small" films in wide release than ever before but the blockbusters, from Airport through Jaws, were still there and eventually took the attention away from the smaller films. But for a few short, shining years the filmmaker as artist stood at the forefront of American movie making. If that's what it takes to create a golden age, then here's hoping we have many more to come.