Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Walkabout (1971 - dir. Nicolas Roeg)

I saw Walkabout at a small theater in Bozeman, Montana when it was first released. I can still remember walking out of the theater in a daze and not exactly knowing why. I can also remember, over the next several months, having fantasies of getting "back to nature" and wondering why it would be so terrible if people lived their lives naked and happy in the wilderness. Hey...I was young and filled with the naive idealism that seems to go with that territory, especially in the early seventies.

In retrospect, I think I now know the explanation for that nostalgic feeling of lost innocence I experienced. This is where the evolutionary psychological perspective comes in...the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). This has been a widely misunderstood concept in evolutionary psychology and is frequently interpreted to indicate a specific time and place in human prehistory, usually the Pleistocene epoch. It is mistakenly assumed that humans are generally/vaguely adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle characteristic of this period. However, the EEA concept is intended to describe those specific, particular selection pressures that were responsible for the evolution of specific adaptations in a species, not simply a geological epoch.

What I think I was experiencing after watching Walkabout was some sort of nostalgic resonance with human prehistory. No, not the childish back-to-nature stuff, but a deeper connection to specific aspects of less complicated strategies of life. Roeg's masterpiece is not simply an indictment of modern technological life. It is a brilliant dissection of how modern life reflects the pre-modern. While all the characters share the same EEA, they are separated by thousands of years of cultural evolution that makes effective communication next to impossible. While they all share the same basic human nature, they cannot express this fact to one another. As Roger Ebert has said in his review of the film, it is a story of how people have lost the ability to communicate with one another. They need food and drink, shelter, they feel sexually attracted, they laugh, they love to play, they share in innumerable psychological adaptations. However, over the eons, they have become completely isolated in their different symbol systems. In the end, heartbreaking.

In contrast, Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance" or, my favorite translation, "a way of life that calls for another way of living"), is a much more conventional expression of the decadence of modern, technological society. While powerful, this expressionistic documentary does not engage the profound themes found in Walkabout and, consequently, it's didacticism (as James Joyce explained) makes it a lesser work of art.

A poorly narrated trailer...rent/buy the film.

Reggio, from Koyaanisqatsi (Music - "Pruit Igoe", composed by Philip Glass)

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