The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents July 2010 Return to Table of Contents
I Am Love
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Doctor Zhivago
The Fugitive Kind
ASC Close-Up
Walkabout (1971)
Blu-ray Edition
1.78:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

After a decade of working his way up the ladder as a camera assistant and operator, Nicolas Roeg spent another decade working as a cinematographer on some of Britain’s most influential films of the 1960s, including Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Petulia (1968) developing a provocative photographic style. Roeg’s taste for audacious cinematography merged with a desire to direct, beginning with Performance (1970), on which he served as cinematographer and shared directing duties with Donald Cammell. As co-director, Roeg was able to translate his style in broader strokes, experimenting with non-linear storytelling and editing. The brash and trendsetting style of the finished film scared off the distributors but inspired Roeg to break out on his own. He would next act as both director and cinematographer of Walkabout, a bold film version of the James Vance Marshall novel.    
Through cross cutting between the vast calm of the Australian Outback and the bustling urbanity of Sydney, an obvious culture clash is drawn through the juxtaposing of sound and images. A privileged high-school girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc “Lucien John” Roeg) are taken on an after-school picnic by their vaguely sinister father (John Meillon). They drive from the city far into the Outback, taking a transistor radio and a basket of food. When the father finds the right place for the picnic, he asks his children to get out of the car and set it up. As the boy plays and the girl arranges food just a few hundred feet from their car, shots ring out. Scrambling for cover, the girl crawls to her brother when she realizes it is their father shooting at them. Hiding behind a pile of rocks, the girl shields her brother from seeing their father set the car on fire and then shoot himself.

Grabbing food and drink, the girl pushes her brother away from the flames of the car, and the two scurry away into the vast, desert-like terrain ahead of them. With the company of their radio, the children walk along in the blistering heat, becoming more aware of the wildlife surrounding them and the looming reality they are lost in a vast unknown. A day later, sunburned and out of water, the two meet an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil). The boy appears to be on his Walkabout — an Aboriginal rite-of-passage custom in which 16-year-old boys are thrust into the Outback alone to learn how to live off the land. The Aborigine speaks no English but appears to understand that the brother and sister are lost. Through pantomime and careful observations, the children begin to communicate and become friends, forming a team as they venture through the Outback.

For Walkabout, Roeg gathered close friends, a crew, the small cast and his wife and children into a traveling caravan of trailers, jeeps and tents and went on his own journey through the challenging Outback. With the script serving as a loose outline, the crew was able to take advantage of whatever presented itself each day of shooting, including the indigenous wildlife. Roeg deliberately avoided artificial lighting throughout, favoring natural light with carefully placed reflectors. 

The Criterion Collection recently issued Walkabout on Blu-ray, and the transfer does a remarkable job of capturing Roeg’s elaborate imagery. The high-definition image transfer has solid tonal balance throughout, with excellent color saturation. There also is a commendable sharpness to the images, particularly in the film’s many extreme close-ups of wildlife and insects.  Some organic film grain is visible but always feels right. Criterion has done fine work, restoring a film-like vividness that was lacking in the movie’s previous home-video transfers. The audio track is monaural but offers clear, well-pronounced sound, providing strong presence for John Barry’s ethereal music score. 

The disc’s supplements offer good insight into both the creation of the film and its enduring appeal. An audio commentary by Roeg and Agutter that was featured on the 1997 laserdisc release makes an encore appearance, and also featured are the theatrical trailer, a 56-minute documentary on actor Gulpilil, 40 minutes of recent interviews with Agutter and Luc Roeg, and a printed essay by author/actor Paul Ryan. The supplements, like the film itself, feel very intimate, and they add to the picture’s power. This poetic, unique cinematic journey remains a testament to personal vision from a filmmaker at the top of his game. This neo-classical rumination on culture, communication and the endurance of the human spirit is a welcome addition to the Blu-ray frontier.

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