Review: Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

In many ways every film is about its filmmaker, even when the ostensible subject is a different person. A viewer who approaches Werner Herzog’s documentary about the British travel writer Bruce Chatwin expecting a biography will likely be disappointed since the clearest purpose of the film is to explore Herzog’s relationship with Chatwin, which started in the early 1980s. Consequently, the aspect of Chatwin’s career that I myself find most interesting is mostly ignored. Chatwin is often credited with reviving the art of travel writing with his bestseller In Patagonia, but that wasn’t his aim, which was to make himself useful as a citizen of the world. An office worker whose first few attempts at being published failed due to lack of focus, he became the nomad of Herzog’s title because he was always in search of something he couldn’t grasp until he actually found it. His travel writing is different because it isn’t really about travel. It’s about going to a place and discovering everything there is to know about it, right down to the geology and the natural history. 

It’s this latter facet of Chatwin’s work that overlaps with Herzog’s, whose own movies are often anthropological in conception. However, he doesn’t examine Chatwin’s work itself, and, for that matter, rarely even quotes from his books. He essentially reminisces about the times he spent with Chatwin and then tries to build parallels between Chatwin’s thoughts and his own movies, which are referenced at least as much as Chatwin’s words. Herzog is straightforward about how Chatwin directly influenced his own movies, but we learn nothing about the writer’s frustration as a young corporate factotum, or, for that matter, much about his sexual conflicts (Chatwin died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 48, still in the closet though his wife of many years was aware and tolerant of his relationships with men). Instead, we get a lot of ruminative narration about Chatwin’s “obsession with prehistory” and his conclusion that “all history is myth.” Though these ideas are interesting in and of themselves, it is up to the viewer to forge the proper connections in order to make some kind of linear sense out of Chatwin’s life. Herzog’s patented English voiceover, at once clipped in tone but grandiose in style, can often sound like a parody of itself, especially when expanding on such abstract matters. 

The movie, which itself travels all over the world, is beautiful, but because it is essentially a compilation of footage shot over many years for other projects, it’s easy to get the impression that Herzog was simply looking for a means of putting that disparate footage to use, and Chatwin, the ultimate peripatetic writer, became the ideal subject. At one point, Herzog tells an interlocutor that Chatwin is the subject of their conversation and the movie we are now watching, as if to remind himself what he should be doing. As erudite and probing as Nomad is, a more honest title would have been Bruce and Me

Now playing in Tokyo at Iwanami Hall Suidobashi (03-3262-5252).

Nomad home page in Japanese

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