Sunday, July 1, 2012

Nomads (1986) dir. John McTiernan

Logline: A French anthropologist starts ranting and raving and spits his life story into the ear of a doctor before dying. That doctor then unwittingly relives the last week of the anthropologist's life, wherein he discovered the horrible secret of an ancient tribe of demonic nomads living unnoticed in the city of Los Angeles.

In 1987, John McTiernan directed Predator. In 1988, Die Hard. 1990, The Hunt for Red October. But before he briefly became Hollywood's action film director par excellence, he wrote and directed a film casting Pierce Brosnan as a French anthropologist hot on the trail of a leather-clad street gang of Inuit demon spirits, or Einwetok. His is a career trajectory that is difficult to reconcile with the content, tone, and execution of his debut feature, which I'd hesitate to call a good film but is (assuredly) a weirdly absorbing one. Nomads is more interested in letting us observe and contemplate its action rather than laying it all out as concrete exposition, and so it can come off as leisurely and elusive (sometimes to its detriment) but also immersive-- at times, particularly during Brosnan's early investigations of the nomadic gang, we feel as if we're playing the part of anthropologist too, trying to formulate an understanding of their culture in tandem. Add to this the further mediation of experiencing Brosnan's anthropological adventure posthumously through Lesley-Anne Down's visions (as she tries to make sense of him), and it's clear we're dealing with all this interest in observation through a few layers: we're watching her watching him watching them. Fittingly, the information we receive about the nomadic Einwetok culture is sparse and diffuse, leaving us (and the film itself) with a chillingly incomplete understanding.

On that note, it's also worth pointing out that the film's commentary on anthropological observation and cultural voyeurism is conflicted. After all, this is a film that treats the delinquent homeless of urban settings as a primitive culture and declares their nomadic tendencies to be the result of nothing more than an evil Inuit spirit. But, on the other hand, Nomads also feels critical of Brosnan's anthropologist, who both interferes with the practices of and eventually attempts to destroy the culture he's observing and documenting. In the end, he's destroyed/subsumed by that culture, and that seems appropriate considering his boorish, culturally-insensitive behavior. What I found to be most condemning of the anthropological gaze is the film's labeling of its drifting, homeless youth population as one invisible to "civilized" society and, ultimately, resistant to study or documentation (they fail to appear in any of the countless photographs that Brosnan takes and develops of them, a less-than-subtle hint that a group of people cannot be understood through the observation of appearances alone, regardless of how "scientific" such observation purports to be). In fact, Brosnan's anthropologist cannot understand them at all until joining them through death, while Lesley-Anne Down and us are left mystified on the other side. It's our failure to comprehend the nature and intentions of the Einwetok (for instance, can we call them legitimately evil, or simply possessing customs beyond our comprehension?) that make any definite interpretation dicey. Is the film trying to complicate our understandings or snap judgements about certain subcultures or demographics within our society? Maybe.

Thinking and writing about it, I'm growing more fond of the film than I was while watching it. Brosnan is fine, but his French accent is ludicrous and unnecessary to the narrative. The group of nomads (who include both Mary Woronov and Adam Ant amidst their ranks) are appropriately enigmatic and with a grinning menace, but basically look like the other Lost Boys that Kiefer and Bill S. Preston left back at the collapsed hotel. A surprising amount of the film is relatively dialogue-free, and these portions (especially Brosnan's investigations) are almost riveting, but the proceedings start to drag once the action is transferred over to Down and Brosnan's widowed wife. Several reviewers on IMDB have labelled the film an "urban fantasy," which sounds alright to me-- it's urban, fantastical, and about as irresolute as you would figure such a pairing would be.

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