Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 28, 2020 7:35 am 
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WERNER HERZOG AND BRUCE CHATWIN IN THE 1980'S

The meeting of two passionate eccentrics, remembered

This documentary memoir about the writer and personality Bruce Chatwin, which came out last year but is now available "on demand," has been heralded as one of Werner Herzog's best in years. It's not mainstream - are any of his films mainstream? - but it is beautiful, heartfelt, and fascinating. Herzog protests in the film more than once that it's not about him, about himself, but about Chatwin. But of course every Herzog film is about him, this one particularly so. Yet it is also a good introduction - just an introduction - to one of the most remarkable and distinctive English writers of the late twentieth century. It's particularly about certain important points of contact the two men had: walking, nomadism, Australian aboriginal "songlines" - the word coined by Chatwin and the title of one of his most famous books. Also the story of a Brazilian slave trader in the 1800's, which became Herzog's last film with Klaus Kinski, Cobra Verde, and was an adaptation of Chatwin's book, The Viceroy of Ouijah. And all this is accompanied by stunningly beautiful photography of some of the landscapes that meant most to Bruce, revisiting the places where the two men were together. The images are set off by what another reviewer calls an impeccably strange musical score. But the binding glue is as always Herzog's sometimes woozy passion.

Chatwin died of HIV/AIDS, in 1989, though he persistently claimed that it was a very rare infection from eating moldy thousand-year-old Chinese eggs. And he told other stories to explain his fatal illness. He was above all a storyteller, and enchanter, who beautifully embroidered his own hyper-reality: Nicholas Shakespeare, his biographer, has notably said that what he told was never half-truths, but "the truth and a half." Chatwin was dying when he went to Ghana for the shooting of Cobra Verde, for a few weeks, yet rallied and was upstanding, and this moment is fascinatingly recreated by Herzog.

When you talk about Bruce Chatwin even if you didn't know him but have only read his books and read about him (as this reviewer has), you become almost breathless with excitement to tell all, to tell stories, to try to recreate some of the man's unique erudition and charm - and his mystery, because with his massive contradictions, weaving of legend, and tightlipped-ness about himself, he always remains elusive to us as a person, like his spare, lapidary prose.

The title of Herzog's film isn't casual but designates the essential points of contact the two men had. Both were fascinated by ancient nomads and sought information about them, beieving nomadic, minimal, peripatetic lifestyle was the essential way of human beings. In a sense Herzog is, then, following in Chatwin's footsteps. He also met Chatwin rather late. But one thing revisiting Chatwin clarifies is the remarkable fact that three of his six main books, The Songlines, Utz, and What Am I Doing Here, were all written and published when he was already dying, in 1987, 1988 and 1989, the year he died. Herzog was with Chatwin in his last days and entertained him when he was drawing his last breaths with a haunting clip we see, of beautiful young men of a nomadic tribe made up like gorgeous women, with gleaming teeth and bright eyes. We also see a glimpse of the dying Chatwin, in a BBC TV interview, like a skeleton with gleaming, penetrating eyes. He was extraordinarily alive when he was dying.

Another thing one realizes or is reminded of by Herzog's beautiful tribute is the importance of Chatwin's American-born wife, Elizabeth Chatwin, née Chanler, met as scretary of Peter Wilson Chairman of Southeby's who is present off and on throughout the film, anchoring it. Chatwin was famously bisexual, his good looks and charm continually used to seduce a succession of men, women, anyone or anything that came into his sphere. And so there arose the notion that Elizabeth was a marriage blanc, a façade marriage. But seeing her and hearing her here, learning of her enduring loyalty and love, we see that this isn't true.

What's not covered in Herzog's film is the early Chatwin and particularly his boy wonder stage at Sotheby's auction house. He went there direct from Marlborough College at 18, and his career there was meteoric and legendary. In the 8 years he worked at Southeby's luxury venue he became one of the directors, its youngest ever, specialized in Impressionist painting and antiquities. How did he do it? As one admirer said, "He had the eye." He was brilliant, his memory capacious, his mind eclectic and quick, his charm irresistible. All this was before the internet but Herzog says in a conversation in the film "He was the internet"; he anticipated it and outdid it. He also forged his writing style here, at Southeby's, learning to craft concentrated, succinct descriptions of offerings that became the model for his rich, honed-down prose. Chatwin's strong relation to art and connoisseurship is underrepresented here, something the art world has not failed to note and regret. So this is missing from the film and so is anything about the style or the other books on which Bruce and Werner did not connect. Herzog says firmly that he doesn't care about anyone's sexuality - after he has elicited Elizabeth Chatwin's declaration that her husband's many affairs ("He used to bring them to the house on weekends") didn't matter in the least to her. But it should matter, if we want to know him. We hear from Elizabeth repeatedly, but she remains a little opaque.

It was later that Chatwin moved from his glittering career at Southeby's, as a pared-down collector himself, as a charmer of everyone, to writing his books, and that's why he went so fast, perhaps, when he started writing them. He protested that he disliked the word "novel" and didn't know what it meant, that what he wrote were "stories." His first and always most famous book was In Patagonia, which revitalized the art of the travel book and inspired many writers. Ir remains his remote, obsidian monument, carried by many under their arms as they are inspired to overrun the once unspoiled region about which he writes in the book. Herzog does justice to Patagonia, but not so much to the book

This is a lovely, passionate, and very Herzogian film. But it should be only a beginning. It succeeds and matters if it leads viewers to look up and read Bruce Chatwin's books, and about him, which might include his letters, Shakespeare's biography, and his editor Susannah Clapp's book on him, With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer, or her profile of him in The New Yorker. Another introduction (just discovered) is a 56-minute video on YouTube] of a presentation at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India in 2009, 20 years after Chatwin's death in which three men, of three different generations, in their 70's, 50's, and 60's, respectively, who knew him, one after another speak wittily and informatively about him: first Redmond O'Hanlon, who reads from his book Congo Journey; then chair of the session William Dalrymple, who reads an equally witty description of Bruce; finally Chatwin biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, who adds a little more perspective. Dalrymple worries, even back then, that people have stopped reading Chatwin. Herzog's new film may help remedy that wrong.

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, 85 mins., debuted at Tribeca Apr. 2019, showing at about a dozen other festivals including Telluride, Vancouver and Rome. Released Aug. 26, 2020 in the USA, now available on demand. Metascore: 85.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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