"Symbols and Trophies of the West" by Cullen Gallagher
Nicolas Roeg opens his film Walkabout (1971) with a father doing field research in the Australian outback, with his son playing with toy cars and guns, and his daughter preparing a picnic. The father seemingly goes mad and begins shooting at his children before setting fire to the car and shooting himself. The children, sans parents and sufficient food, are left to wander the outback alone. While this is certainly a surreal way to open a movie, it can be analyzed in a very symbolic way, which ties it in well with the rest of the movie. If we dehumanize and objectify the father, making him an object, like the gun in his hand, or the car that he drives, his absence from the children’s lives takes on the significance of other Western signs absent from the majority of the movie.
On a broad symbolic level, the sudden change of character for the father can be seen as a mechanic malfunction, something akin to a car dying or a gun jamming. In essence, the opening scene symbolizes the backfiring of Western civilization and introduces the idea of societal discontentedness. The opening picnic then is a collection of Western comforts, things that have been given value and deemed necessity: bottled lemonade (not even water), a packed lunch, a blanket to spread the food on, a vehicle to travel with, a gun for protection – from what it is unclear, as there is nothing dangerous in these surrounds lest each other and their own inability to survive with luxuries.
Therefore the disrobing of Western civilization, so to speak, is necessary is in film’s narrative for the son and daughter to leave behind in order that they become, superficially, on the level of the aborigine they are to encounter. In opposition of such films as The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) (where a !Kung tribe is thrown for a loop when they mistake a Coca-Cola bottle as a present from the gods), it is not “the uncivilized man” that cannot make sense of “the civilized world” but vice versa: the “civilized” man is stripped of all that is familiar to him and he must adapt quickly to survival on his own.
Roeg also uses dialectics to compare the landscapes of the two different words: modern city life and the outback. Roeg begins the film with a shot of an apartment building near the sea. It is a picturesque shot, one that explains the place of nature in modern times: a scenic view from a window. The framing of the shot is important, however: the edge of the apartment building is flush alongside the right edge of the screen, occupying only a quarter of the screen. The remaining seventy-five percent of the screen is the ocean, which collides into and off of the left-hand side of the screen.
This shot is juxtaposed with a tracking shot that begins in a similar fashion to the previously discusses shot. A concrete wall begins on the left side of the screen, taking the place of the sea; frame right, the remaining quarter of the frame is an open shot of desert. The camera dollys right, exchanging the wall for a glimpse of the father in his car, doing research.
These two shots are important because of their visual similarities and their implications, which are very ironic. The portrait of modernity is distinguished by the presence of the sea, and the outback is introduced through a barren wall, seemingly pointless and lost in the terrain. But these characteristics are important, however. The sea is very tame next to the apartment building, it is not ferocious or wild; it appears as though it were a painting. One can imagine the inhabitants looking out their window the way they would look in the mirror or at an open closet. Contrarily, the wall is out of place in the outback, abandoned and solitary, much like the children feel at first. The two shots, then, summarize the typical interaction of the two worlds: they co-exist in such close proximity, yet they are separate and segregated.
Roeg embraces these incongruous neighbors; he destabilizes their isolation by presenting them together, in their greater contexts. Marshall McLuhan, in the book The Medium is the Massage (visualized by Quentin Fiore), addresses this notion of isolation as having vanished in contemporary society. Technology perpetuates knowledge. Print, paint and photography have plasticized knowledge, making it traversable, and the idea of truth can no longer seen as two sided: the “other” side of the story has given way to a whole circle of new truths, all equally viable (68-69). “Survival is not possible if one approaches his environment, the social drama, with a fixed, unchangeable point of view – the witless repetitive response to the unperceived” (10).
The environment McLuhan speaks of can be compared to the opening juxtapositions (and subsequent ones) in Walkabout. The dolly shot of the desert that begins with the wall on the left of the screen, and the small portion on the right with the desert. The camera tracks to the right, exchanging the wall for a larger view of the desert. These perspectives are changing, and these images (that represent places, ideas, people) are not static and separate – they form a greater whole, and they must be placed in a constantly evolving perspective. To quote Marshall McLuhan once more:
Our time is a time for crossing barriers, for erasing old categories – for probing around. When two seemingly disparate elements are imaginatively poised, put in apposition in new and unique ways, startling discoveries often result. (McLuhan and Fiore 10)
Works Cited McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage. New York, London and Toronto: Bantam Books, 1967.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.