For a long, long time there were (and still are today) certain cultures that believed that the act of having one’s picture taken either caused harm to or robbed one of one’s soul. Possibly this is linked to the thought that mirrors are both essential in communication with saints and spirits as well as in their role as portals to other dimensions (which can function as either good or evil, my favorite cinematic example of which is found in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness). A portion of how cameras work (at least the early varieties) is via mirrors inverting images, and even though some societies may not generally know about the design of the apparatus itself, their ability to duplicate one’s image (like looking in a mirror) takes on the sorcerous role of spiritual jailer. But we know better, don’t we? Like Arthur C. Clarke stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and so long as we hold ourselves up as more enlightened, it’s easy to use this platitude to explain (or explain away) just about anything. Still, there is some part of me that wonders, with the preponderance of people describing every last inch of their lives in graphic detail on the internet, with the facility with which people will place so much of their most sensitive information online, with the desire many people have to want to be someone else in some imagined reality on the web, if we have perhaps robbed ourselves (or forfeited, if you happen to place any sort of credence in the existence and importance of actual souls) of our own anima? Maybe that’s overreaching in a film review for John McTiernan’s Nomads, but I think it has some relevance, considering the emphasis on photographs in the film and main character Jean Charles Pommier’s (Pierce Brosnan, post-Remington Steele [sort of] and pre-Goldeneye) use of them in his role as an anthropologist.
Exhausted during a marathon hospital shift, Dr. Flax (Lesley-Anne Down) is called in to consult on Pommier’s case. The Frenchman (did I mention he’s French?) is hysterical, shouting seemingly nonsensical sentences (it doesn’t help any that no one in the hospital at the time speaks French), but before he collapses, he manages to break free of his restraints and whisper something cryptic to Flax. Next thing you know, Flax is reliving the events that lead Pommier to this end as well as embroiling herself in things she probably shouldn’t, all of which centers on a gang of punks and their death-black van.
Like I teased with my opening salvo, this film deals to some extent with the thin line between savage and civilized worlds. Pommier moves to Los Angeles to take up a teaching position, to live like a “normal” person. However, there is an undertone that Pommier is fleeing something from his time among “savages.” One of the first images in the film is of an Inuit, hood raised, face hidden in blackness. As the credits end, the camera moves into that dark abyss, and the shot dissolves to the city at night. There is a (arguably) throwaway line that Los Angeles is a city built on top of a desert. Pommier tells his wife that he’s amazed to see these eponymous Nomads “in a modern city.” The Nomads literally wander around town, doing whatever they wish, including defacing property and even killing people. They are portrayed as punks (and interestingly played by not-quite-so-youthful actors like Adam Ant and Mary Woronov), and really they are a perfect fit for the analogy. They stand apart from society while traveling among society. They do not obey the rules of society, employing the seemingly pointless brutality of a people with no ties to or use for civilization.
In this same way, the film plays with ideas of perception and performance, notably through Pommier and his camera. He comes alive when taking photos of people interesting to him from an anthropological viewpoint. Nevertheless, the Nomads do not show up in any of the pictures he takes, their souls already being both free of corporeality and trapped by the land on which they dwell. As he follows the punks around, they tease Pommier along. They look directly at him and/or pretend to be acting off guard, allowing him to photograph them, knowing his efforts are futile. At one point, Dancing Mary (Woronov) even leaps up on an automobile and does a little gyrating directly for Pommier and his camera. Likewise, the film alters perspectives constantly throughout its story. Sometimes we are watching events in the present as Flax experiences them. Other times we are watching events Flax is watching in the past as she observes Pommier. Still other times we are watching events from Pommier’s point of view, and the transitions between past and present, Flax and Pommier, are fluid, often occurring within the same shot. The characters in the film are as much observers as they are observed, and this, in turn, shapes the film’s reality (quite literally).
On the flip side of this is the concept that the film is possibly describing Flax’s mind as it disintegrates. Yes, she is exhausted from work, but there’s more to it than that. She is also newly divorced, and she has moved (by all indications across the country from Boston) to a new place where she knows few people (the major [and somewhat dumbfounding] exception being the high-energy fellow doctor Cassie [Jeannie Elias]) and into a new apartment where she is still in the process of unpacking (her bed is literally a mattress on the floor). Flax is inexplicably fascinated by Pommier, and after he bites her ear, her slide into surreality commences. It’s almost as if his perceptual madness is passed on like a virus, all of which stems from something ethereal in the desert landscape resting under the veneer of the city of Los Angeles. It adds an intriguing layer over the film’s narrative. However, the filmmakers also don’t really bother to flesh out Flax enough aside from these cursory tidbits to make her journey all that compelling. It’s as if the film is meant to be solely Pommier’s (and the heart of his narrative is his investigation, not his character), with book end sequences featuring Flax. Developing her as a more substantial participant in the movie could have gone a long way in enriching some of the themes and adding a bit of complexity. Instead, her throughline plays more like an extended lead up to the “shock” kicker at the film’s end. It makes the film experience more frustrating and banausic than it should have been and consequently makes the film itself a very minor footnote in the history of genre cinema.
MVT: The Nomads are great, not only for the uneasiness they bring but in the casting of them. It’s not as if any of these thespians shine especially, but that they cast people as old as they did subverts the typical notion of punks as “youth in revolt” and augments the supernatural aspects they represent.
Make or Break: I love the scene where Woronov dances for the camera. This is not only since I love the actress in everything she does but also because the scene is both menacing and entertaining simultaneously.