“We have adjusted our perspective to that of the kangaroo and the digeridoo. This automatically throws us either down under and/or out back and, from that point of view, it’s most improbable that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom.”
— from Duke Ellington’s introduction to “The Afro Eurasian Eclipse” album.
At age ten, in 1973, I saw Nicholas Roeg’s Australia-set “Walkabout” at the Amery Theater with my mother. I’ve asked her why she took me to the film and she recalls only that she’d read it was ‘a sophisticated fairy tale for children.’ Here’s a quick summary of what I remember from “Walkabout” (having revisited it a few times as an adult):
A father drives his two children, a teenage girl and a younger boy, who was about my age during that first viewing, from the city to the edge of the Outback for a picnic. The father returns to the car, retrieves a gun and attempts to shoot his children. The boy, assuming the situation is play, pretends to shoot back with a plastic water pistol, laughing. The father pours gasoline on the car, lights it on fire and then shoots himself. The car explodes. The girl and the boy wander into the wilderness and, after a day or two, meet an aboriginal boy on his walkabout, a ritual transition into adulthood. In the initial appearance of the aboriginal boy, who is roughly the same age as the girl, he wears a belt hanging with dead lizards. The three proceed together, swim naked. Many animals are graphically killed, including the bludgeoning to death of a kangaroo. Suggestive sexual imagery proliferates until the aboriginal boy paints his face white and performs what must be a courtship dance. The girl ignores him and he hangs himself from a tree. The two white children eventually make their way back to civilization. The soundtrack, I should add, is a disorienting mixture of pop songs and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic, collage composition “Hymnen.”
The two disconsolate buddies in Wim Wender’s “Kings of the Road” joke drunkenly at the end of the film, “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” making reference to the American music that they listen to throughout the film as they drive from town to town repairing movie projectors. “Walkabout” colonized my subconscious when I was ten. The imprint we receive from films is particularly deep when we are young and our understanding of the world is still formative. I dreamt randomly juxtaposed images from the film for years afterward: a lens flare around the sun, sand, blue eyes, sweat drops on a face, fire, a white shirt, a black face, a lizard, a black face painted white, a spider. I didn’t have the experience at the time to interpret the cryptic sequences that “Walkabout” generated in my dreams. It was as if I were staring uncomprehendingly at a sentence in a language I couldn’t read.
“The Legend of Boggy Creek” also played at the Amery Theater in 1973. Bigfoot films abounded in the 1970’s and, like most of these cheaply produced, exploitation pictures, “Boggy Creek” presented itself as a documentary: it was shot with handheld cameras and the story was often advanced by means of headshot interviews. That which is amateurishly constructed sometimes conveys a putative authenticity; “Boggy Creek” played like a cross between a home movie and the television news and thus, for a boy of ten, the film was authoritative confirmation that Bigfoot existed.
Just months before I saw “The Legend of Boggy Creek” my family had moved to a house in a forest near a swamp. I lay in bed at night during the summer of 1973 listening to the heavy shifting back and forth of Bigfoot outside my window. If I squinted I thought that I could distinguish his enormous silhouette against the darkness. As with “Walkabout,” the film inspired a recurring dream, though more routinely narrative in this case. I walked to school from the new house with a cornfield on my right and woods on my left. As I walked I could hear something moving parallel to me, unseen within the trees. If I stopped abruptly, the hidden presence took one audible step more and then stopped too. I knew that it was Bigfoot, walking in the woods beside me in a mirror image of my movements. As I stood and stared into the trees, he stood too, concealed, staring back at me.
On Saturday afternoons in the early 1970’s I gathered with my brothers and friends in our basement to watch a television program called “Horror Incorporated.” Most of the movies broadcast were Toho Studio giant monster rampages or Hollywood variations like “Them” and “Tarantula.” One day, alone because I was quarantined with chicken pox, I watched an odd, human-scale film called “It’s Alive” that also suggested the home-movie feeling of “Boggy Creek.” (This was not the better-known devil-baby “It’s Alive” directed by Larry Cohen.)
If I try to picture the film as I write this more than forty years later, the opening scene of “Night of the Living Dead” intervenes, a car with a couple inside approaching a graveyard from the distance, shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white. In “It’s Alive” a couple are driving in a similar, boxy 1960’s car in a rural setting. They run out of gas. A farmer discovers them stranded and brings them to his farm. He subdues or perhaps kills the man and imprisons the woman in his house. There is a subplot about a goggle-eyed, low-budget monster in a cave behind the house that requires feeding. In the scene that appeared subsequently in my dreams, the farmer brings the confined woman a covered serving tray. She eyes the thing hungrily, but with suspicion. The man stands in the doorway, watching, while she uncovers the tray to reveal a dead mouse. The following sequence consists of canted angle close-ups of the woman screaming with her hands to her face and the man laughing sadistically in reaction. There is no sound over the shots and it was this simple absence that disturbed me most.
The primary mystery of “It’s Alive,” however, was that immediately after I watched the film, it disappeared forever. (I’ve just searched online and found that it was directed by Larry Buchanan in 1969. It turns out that I remember it in black and white because my family didn't have a color television yet.) It’s easy to forget that in the era before the Internet it was much more difficult to access this kind of information. In the 1970’s I was often dependent upon television to see films. I never found the movie on television again and I never met anyone else who had seen it. Throughout my early teens I searched in vain for confirmation that “It’s Alive” existed outside of my imagination. I began to wonder if the film had actually originated in my dreams, if the experience had perhaps been my private, chicken pox-induced hallucination.
A decade later, when I was twenty and studying at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, I read an article about ‘lucid dreaming,’ a state in which the sleeper grows aware that they are dreaming. Instead of simply playing actor to the subconscious script of the dream, one attempted to direct the events. I began conducting experiments to cue ‘waking’ within my dreams and, while I wasn’t able to fully control the action, I did gain one particularly memorable perspective. I ‘woke up’ while dreaming one night and found myself in an unremarkable room. A wooden table stood in the center of the room with a bowl of grapes on it. A window was open behind the table, the curtains shifting in a slight breeze. I knocked on the table with my knuckles and thought, “This is as substantial as any table that I’ve encountered in the real world.” I ate a grape and it tasted just like grapes outside my dreams. The breeze moving the curtains felt exactly like that which would blow through my dorm room window while I read. After this adventure, I concluded that the world created in my mind while dreaming was no less real than that mediated by my senses in the larger phenomenal world when awake. As Catherine notes in “Wuthering Heights:”
I’ve dreamed in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.
During this period of my lucid dream experiments, a series of coincidences occurred regarding the three films that had influenced my dreaming in 1973. In conversation with a math major in my dorm one day I discovered someone else who had seen “It’s Alive;” we excitedly recounted the ‘mouse on the tray’ scene, relieved we’d found objective confirmation that this peculiar movie existed. A few nights later, watching television at 3 a.m. in the basement of the dorm, I came upon “The Legend of Boggy Creek.” When I went to sleep after the film ended I had my Bigfoot dream again, for the first time in years. Now however, a dated folk song from the movie about the loneliness of the monster played as I walked next to the woods. And, finally, within a week or two, I discovered that “Walkabout” would be playing soon in the Lawrence University Film Club series. As I read the name of the film in the schedule, the image of the aboriginal boy, his face painted white, flashed in my mind. Although I was curious to see the movie again, I also had vague misgivings because it had left such a complicated impression upon me. I had a strange sensation that my formative, cinematic memories of 1973 were welling into and threatening to overwhelm the present.
Watching “Walkabout” again in 1983, I didn’t feel as if I were simply revisiting a movie that I’d seen once before; the images on the screen played more like a recollection of direct, lived experience. I felt that I had actually been the boy of ten who was uncomfortable and thirsty in the dry land. The distinction between the viewer in the audience and the actor playing on the screen dissolved and my 1983 present began to blend with my dreams from 1973. The film had effectively colonized my subconscious ten years earlier, but I had colonized the film in reaction as well through the very dreams that it had inspired. At twenty, watching the film objectively known as “Walkabout,” I ‘woke up’ into my personal lucid dream of Walkabout again, a documentary time-capsule of my ten-year-old self’s perspective. In this manner, the movie continued to dream itself through me, as presumably it must also do with other people who’ve seen it at multiple points in their life.
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami wrote in 1995:
“in the darkened theater, we give everyone the chance to dream and to express his dream freely. If art succeeds in changing things and proposing new ideas, it can only do so via the free creativity of the people we are addressing, each individual member of the audience.”
We all have personal relationships with movies that have imprinted deeply upon us, recurring films, like recurring dreams. A psychological middle ground is created, a conversation between two simultaneous projections: the image sequences cast upon the screen and the subjective memories and desires that we cast like a shadow upon those images. In my Bigfoot dream, I walk parallel to the shadow that a movie has generated in my subconscious. I peer into the presence that peers into me and it is, indeed, difficult to know ‘who is enjoying the shadow of whom.’
Now in my fifties, I remember standing in a room that I dreamt at twenty, knocking on the resonant wood of a table, looking out through an open window like Maria Schneider at the end of Antonioni’s “The Passenger.” I am the actor and the sleeping dreamer, and I am also the writer of this sentence reporting these ideas from the vantage of thirty years distance, my various locations in time shuffled like a deck of cards. At any moment, I will wake up or the film will end. The lights will come up and I will walk through the theater lobby to exit, squinting into the sunlight on the street outside, trying to blink away my disorientation and to reenter the habitual pre-eminence of the present.