Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019)

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He would craft mythical tales into voyages of the mind. Filmmaker Werner Herzog and author Bruce Chatwin became fast friends when they encountered one another in Australia in 1983. Herzog was researching Where the Green Ants Dream, Chatwin his book Songlines. They talked nonstop, bonding over their shared love of the sacrament of walking which they both believed had therapeutic even mystical qualities. Herzog narrates the story of their friendship and Chatwin’s travels and books over the course of eight chapters, commencing with The Skin of the Brontosaurus, an object in the family’s cabinet of curiosities that was really skin and fur from a sloth but which was one of the many pieces inspiring Chatwin to travel – or walk – the world, emblems of places he wanted to visit, or as Herzog says, points of a compass. Using some voice recordings of Chatwin reading from his work, archive footage and excerpts from Herzog’s own films, and interviews, he traces their interweaving stories across the continents from the neolithic structures at Avebury in Wiltshire to Australia and South America and West Africa, to the Priory in Wales that was his sanctuary, and demonstrates how their journeys and interests intersected:  Herzog famously walked to see Lotte Eisner in Paris and used Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Uidah as the basis of Cobra Verde, a film set in another deranged landscape starring Klaus (Fitzcarraldo) Kinski who biographer Nicholas Shakespeare says might best represent Chatwin as an older man, had he lived. Herzog never saw Chatwin’s annotated copy of the screenplay and Shakespeare reads out what the author thought of Herzog:  a compendium of contradictions;  remote and alone. Chatwin had led a highly promiscuous life as a bisexual and was dying of AIDS when Herzog showed him Herdsmen of the Sun, the last images he saw.  Chatwin told Herzog he was dying and Herzog reports that he responded, I can see that. As he lay dying he gifted Herzog his leather rucksack, a totem and talisman in this film about people finding their tribes – it not only played a role in Herzog’s Scream of Stone, it may have helped save Herzog’s life when he could sit on it during a particularly dangerous ice storm. Herzog defuses the myth. Chatwin asked Herzog to help him end his life and Herzog offered to either bash his head in with a baseball bat or shoot him. In fact Chatwin didn’t want his friend to see him die and was lapsing in and out of consciousness and he watched the film when he came to every so often and died shortly afterwards. As Herzog reads extracts from Chatwin one senses the echoes of his own autobiography:  One of the essential locations where he would find his inner balance.  Chatwin had liked Herzog’s film Signs of Life because, Herzog says, he was searching for strangeness.  The myth continues until the final chapter The Book is Closed when Herzog reads Chatwin’s last handwritten words, Christ wore a seamless robe. Talking with academics, correspondents, climbers and Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth, Herzog shapes the contours of an adventurous nomadic life that vibrates to this day, traced along the planet’s navigational lines and proving its very pulse. He was the internet

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.  An imposing black structure provides a connection between the past and the future. When Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and other astronauts are sent on a mysterious mission to investigate an object hidden beneath the lunar surface their ship’s computer system, HAL, begins to display increasingly strange behavior, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine that results in a mind-bending trek through space and time… One of the great auteur works that has the courage to make an intellectual (and visual) leap that would elude lesser writers and filmmakers. Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Sentinel (they wrote the novel and screenplay simultaneously in their unique collaboration) has not lost its oddly intimate power and remains the benchmark for everything that followed in science fiction with its take on evolution and man’s relationship to the universe.  The Star Gate sequence, zero gravity scenes and visual effects are transcendent. Kubrick abandoned Alex North’s commissioned score for the existing recordings of classical music which he had used for the guide track. A film of utter audacity.

Maggie’s Plan (2015)

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Admittedly I am no fan of Greta Gerwig whose kooky shtick has been replayed ad nauseam since she graduated from nudie mumblecore. She’s a college administrator who wants a child without marriage and goes after Guy (Travis Fimmel) a mathematically inclined pickle man (Joan Micklin Silver territory …) for a donation.  At the crucial moment of sperm insertion she is interrupted by the ‘bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology’ and wannabe novelist John (no Wesley) Harding (Ethan Hawke) who professes his love for her and leaves his speech-impeded Danish lecturer wife (Julianne Moore) and their children. A couple of years later in the chaotic tedium of their marriage, plus one (toddler Lily) Maggie tries to reunite the narcissistic pair so she can bring up her daughter in peace. Then John finds out what the women are planning. This is supposedly a subversive screwball comedy replete with the Nora Ephron-type friends who serve as confessors (Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph). Because the ‘meet cute’ happens over missed paycheques?!  Rebecca Miller’s film looks terrible and if you need to know how awful family planning and marriage can be …  but a lot of critics liked it. It’s badly staged, awkwardly written and adorned with performances that belong in a better production.What gives?! This epitomises the term ‘meh.’ From a story by Karen Rinaldi.

The Nanny Diaries (2007)

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This book is probably the most grimly depressing and dispiriting I have ever read. I literally wanted to barf up civilisation afterwards. It’s a fictionalised account of the experiences of two college grads’ nannying for the well-heeled in NYC. It’s far from Mary Poppins. Yet husband and wife team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini took the Mean Girls framework of an anthropologist’s perspective and have protagonist college grad Anne/Nanny (Scarlett Johansson) use this horrible work experience – which she literally falls into in Central Park – as field work for a graduate programme in anthropology (her minor.) She majored in business so her hard-working nurse mom expects her to be CFO some day not the indentured slave of an Upper East Side non-working lady who lunches, Mrs X (Laura Linney, in a very good performance), just not on normal food. For the first while, you want to abort the awful child Grayer (Nicholas Art) but his behaviour improves and anyhow it’s too late, he’s practically 6. Annie falls for Hayden the Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) who lives on the same floor of the Fifth Ave apartment building while Mr and Mrs X’s marriage falls apart. Annie finds out from the other nannies (they’re an army) that she’s the Type C – 24/7, no time to herself. Paul Giamatti is the philandering husband who gropes hot nanny in the end, bringing to a close everyone’s superficial relationships while Annie gets stiffed (monetarily) by Mrs X. The fantasy construction  of the Museum of Natural History-style dioramas lifts the social commentary, as does the red umbrella which gives Annie flight and amplifies the Poppins references. It’s good to see the Met in such sparkling style after a recent clean-up. This film serves horrible material awfully well and it plays much better than it reads with the Parents’ Society meetings being particularly illuminating about people who breed but don’t actually mother. Strange – but somehow understandable! Johansson is very good and has a nice slapstick physical style and her friendship with Alicia Keys (wearing makeup) is quite believable. A tart treatment of an iffy source.

The Bling Ring (2013)

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Your butt looks awesome. Sofia Coppola’s interpretation of the notorious gang of narcissistic Calabasas nitwits who trolled the stars of reality TV and robbed them while they were out of town gets a rather bittersweet treatment (the story had already been a TVM but Coppola’s work derives from the Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales who has also written a book on the subject). The godhead of these brain-dead self-obsessed monsters is stardom itself, the venality espoused by The Secret is their mantra. Beautifully shot, with a disinctive palette and style for each of the nightlit robberies, this is a shocking insight into the mindset of the youth of today, driven by episodes of The Hills, where fashion is feeling and being a wannabe reality monster is all there is. You can feel Coppola’s desperate sorrow for a society which appears to be beyond satire. This is a kind of anthropological view of Adderall-addicted millennials who are clearly a generation without a clue. I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s study of Coppola on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.