Bruce Chatwin, the author-adventurer who gave us The Songlines and In Patagonia before dying at age 49, was “a writer like no other,” says Werner Herzog. “He would craft mythical tales into voyages of the mind. In this respect we found out we were kindred spirits, he as a writer, I as a filmmaker.” In his latest documentary, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, the German director-narrator vows at the outset to “follow a similar erratic quest for wild characters, strange dreamers and big ideas about the nature of human existence. These were the themes Chatwin was obsessed with.” Sounds irresistible. Count me in.
Alas, few films could live up to that billing, and this one doesn’t either. Herzog has made a lumpy and rambling visual companion piece to Chatwin’s books, veering from airy mystical talk to biographical snippets to Herzog’s personal reminiscences about his friendship with Chatwin. At times, Herzog’s jumbo-sized persona overshadows his subject.
The film begins, as Chatwin’s In Patagonia did, with a piece of fur. The English author’s grandparents kept it at home; according to family lore, it was the skin of a brontosaurus. But it was actually from the remains of a giant sloth, a ten-foot creature extinct for 10,000 years, that had been discovered by his grandmother’s explorer cousin Charles Milward in 1895. Chatwin ventured all the way to the Chilean cave where the material had originally been found. Along the way, he spun a beguiling web of stories about people and places, some of which were less than rigorously accurate. As his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare wittily puts it, “Bruce didn’t tell a half truth, he told a truth and a half, he embellished what was there to make it even truer.” Published in 1977, In Patagonia secured Chatwin’s reputation, and in those years he and Herzog struck up a friendship that lasted until Chatwin, who was bisexual, died of AIDS in 1989. Herzog’s 1991 film Scream of Stone was inspired by Chatwin’s life, and his 1987 effort Cobra Verde, starring Herzog’s frenemy Klaus Kinski, was adapted from Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. Both films inspire Herzog to tell stories about his filmmaking, which draw us further off-topic: “Kinski was pretty much out of control,” Herzog says about Cobra Verde, which means it was a day ending in Y, I guess.
Herzog tells us that when he met up with Chatwin in Melbourne in 1983 the pair spent two solid days swapping stories, though Chatwin was such an indefatigable talker that the filmmaker says now, “Of course it was hard to squeeze in a story because he was nonstop.” Even if Chatwin had accomplished nothing else, his ability to talk Werner Herzog into a corner would have made him a figure of legend.
Herzog has difficulty translating what he finds to be the magical elements of Chatwin’s prose, particularly The Songlines (1987), about aboriginal oral traditions. Among other topics, that work reflects on the use of poetic mnemonics as navigational tools. An attempt to explain the mysticism in the book sounds today like so much mumbo-jumbo about songs “that carried the existence of the animal traveling through to create the landscape, the animals, the trees, growing in the landscape,” as an aboriginal elder puts it. Herzog’s tendency to slip into unintended self-parody pops up yet again here, in portions of this film that are like Spinal Tap for art-house auteurs. When Herzog mentions Ted Strehlow’s book Songs of Central Australia, he solemnly avers that the book contains “elements of secret knowledge,” so much that “even the painting on the cover should not be seen by everyone and we were asked to show only part of it and out of focus.” Nigel Tufnel nods vigorously, recalling the guitar that was so special no one was even allowed to point at it. Here’s the cover of the book of secret knowledge. If you look at it, your face probably won’t melt. Documentary filmmaking is not well served by the impulse to hide elements from the viewer.
But part of the pleasure in a Herzog film is watching him go native. As usual, the film is beautifully photographed, with haunting images set off by an impeccably strange musical score, and it’s always amusing to witness Herzog in rapture. A fresco of 10,000-year-old handprints on a wall in a cave in Tierra Del Fuego inspires this Herzogian salute: “The longer you look, the more unreal, the more mysterious they become.” Deep, man, pass the bong. Photos of esoteric rituals from a century ago in Patagonia leave even the master explainer a bit uncertain. Say this to yourself in Werner Herzog’s Voice (™): “No one has any idea what’s going on here, it seems to be a ceremony performed by naked men.” Exactly correct! But unhelpful. “They point to a complex system of beliefs and ceremonies,” Herzog says about another series of photos. Okay, but you could say that about a yoga class in Bethesda, Md., if you didn’t know what it was. Calling something a mystery just means, “I don’t understand this.”
Herzog reserves his most quintessentially Herzogian moment for a description of Chatwin’s final agony. Suffering from AIDS (there’s a horrifying picture of how he looked in his final filmed interview), Chatwin longed to die and begged Herzog for help. Herzog says he responded as follows: “Do you mean I’m going to bash in your head with a baseball bat or do I shoot you?” Chatwin replied, “Maybe some sort of medicine.” Chatwin slipped away shortly thereafter, and Herzog’s baseball-bat euthanasia idea went mercifully unused.