It’s time to fire up those mental gears. For so much of this time that we’ve spent in our Virtual Movie Palace we’ve been looking at films that I’ve continued to advocate for in their escapist values. Meaning, though they have continued to give us joy, they have not necessarily been the most challenging (with a handful of expectations). So I think it’s time we sit back and contemplate the nature of human existence while broadening our understandings of the ancient world with Werner Herzog and his most recent documentary NOMAD: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF BRUCE CHATWIN that takes us on an “erratic quest for wild characters, strange dreamers and big ideas”.
In Herzog’s films, whether it be in his narratives like Fitzcarraldo or his popular documentaries like Grizzly Man, we are often given inquisitive characters with insurmountable tasks, wild imaginations, and a curiosity for nature and all that remains unseen within. As Herzog also acts as screenwriter in his work, these qualities are obvious allusions to his own nature, and it explains why he felt so connected with the late novelist and travel-writer Bruce Chatwin who Herzog himself deems a “kindred spirit”. Because while this documentary is everything that I have already described, it is above all, an ode to his longtime friend.
Structured in eight chapters, Herzog’s expedition to bring his friend’s voice and research to life takes us from Patagonia at the tip of South America, to the Outback of Australia and the Black Mountains of Wales. In Chile, we find the spot where Chatwin’s ancestor discovered the first remains of The Giant Sloth, which inspired his first book In Patagonia. In the Wales we understand the place where he found relief from his wanderings. And in Australia we dive deep into his research to understand the assertions that were made in his book The Songlines, that includes his thesis on the origin of language.
And that’s just the first few chapters, which are meant to give some understanding of Chatwin’s background and research. From there, Herzog’s attempts to piece together his unfinished book The Nomadic Alternative and provide a brief yet cohesive understanding of what his biographer describes as the culmination of his theories on nomadism and evolution of human lifestyles. To do this, Herzog delves into the hunter-gatherer traditions of Patagonia, shows us vintage photographs of the Selk’nam people, and studies the rock art at the Cueva de las Manos in Rio Pinturas.
While Herzog adamantly reminds us, and his subjects, that he is not the subject of this film, he makes these travels with the philosophy that “the world reveals itself to those that travel on foot”. And in exploring Chatwin’s work, he not only dares us to ask questions, but to seek their answers by any means necessary.
This project becomes deeply personal as he reminisces of his own filmography to demonstrate Bruce’s influence on his own life and work. We learn how the two met in Australia while Herzog was filming Where the Green Ants Dream, how he paid homage to Chatwin in Scream of Stone, and how he adapted Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah into Cobra Verde. Because while the film is objective to Chatwin’s work, it means something more to Herzog and its emotionally apparent while he takes time to explore Chatwin’s personal life. We spend time with Bruce’s wife Elizabeth where the two remember him for his playful characteristics, his lively presence at parties, and ultimately his open sexuality and relationships with other men.
We’re also given moments in which Herzog finds a screenplay for Cobra Verde that he had given to Chatwin, which includes annotations Bruce had never given to him. And we see their roles reversed as Herzog hears excerpts of an essay titled Werner Herzog in Ghana, in which Chatwin writes about his own admiration for his friend’s work. And in the investigation of Chatwin’s journal, we find the last bit of writing he ever put to paper. These emotional beats give this dense anthropological film added dimension and provides the final spark to bring Chatwin’s true spirit to life on screen.
That’s what I find is truly unique about documentary is that it fits itself somewhere between a National Geographic piece and a personal correspondence. And between the focus on Chatwin’s work and his personal memories, Herzog also gifts us with truly mesmerizing cinematography with beautiful landscapes and exotic locations with wildlife rarely seen. In this aspect, it ultimately still maintains some escapist virtue I feel benefits our isolated times.
This is usually the part of my essay where I give you recommendations on what else to watch to make this screening a double-feature, but honestly, there is nothing else like this film. I think the best advice I can give you is to explore further work from Herzog, who I believe is one of the most original and important filmmakers of our time and one of few documentarians that I would describe as an auteur. I suggest you find Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Fitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man for yourself (each available from the Ann Arbor District Library) to appreciate a complete vision of a brilliant filmmaker.
Enjoy rest of your week!