Saturday, January 1, 2022

2021 #5 Film of the Year Nomadland

Linda May

Charlene Swankie

Bob Wells

Director Chloé Zhao

Frances McDormand with Chloé Zhao

 cinematographer Joshua James Richards

NOMADLAND                     A-                                                                                                    USA  Germany  (108 mi)  2020  ‘Scope  d:  Chloé Zhao

On January 31st, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years.  By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued.                   —opening intertitle

Like her earlier films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and 2018 Top Ten Film List #1 The Rider, continually blurring the lines between fiction and documentary, this may be the director’s most accessible and conventional effort yet, adapting the 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder, who spent months driving coast to coast living in a camper van documenting itinerant Americans who gave up the security of home to live on the road full-time.  This is a tragically sad and mournfully solemn look into the nomadic lifestyle that followed the 2008 Great Recession when 2.6 million jobs were lost in just that first year alone, eventually losing more than 8 million jobs, more than half coming from the construction and manufacturing industries (800,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared in just two months), largely due to the collapse of the housing market, resulting in the biggest economic meltdown in the U.S. since the Great Depression.  Lasting a little more than 18 months, foreclosures skyrocketed, basically halting all new construction, causing a glut of unused office space in downtown high-rise locations, while skill-specific jobs were lost and never replaced, causing a permanent rift in the composition of jobs, so for many their lives would never be the same again, invisible casualties of America’s downsized global economy that makes a mockery of the promised American Dream which is sacrificed on the altar of greed and capitalism.  One in five employees lost their jobs, basically losing everything, many never obtaining real work again, instead roaming through a labyrinthian network of temporary jobs, wandering from place to place, season to season, like migratory workers.  More than anything else this film is a lament to a forgotten America, to those altered and disaffected lives reeling from a shock to the system from which they never recover, becoming a memoriam of sorts, a sad elegy for something irretrievably lost.  The sad truth is many of these lives are broken and none are ever healed or made whole again.  What’s broke feels permanent, like a death, unable to reconnect to the world afterwards or find a life that makes sense, so they just wander the ends of the earth in search of meditative solace and open space.  The bleak existential tone is a bit overwhelming, where this film understands loss like few films do, recalling John Ford’s Depression era The Grapes of Wrath (1940), or the more recent American Honey (2016), though this director is no Andrea Arnold, yet she’s hugely influenced by Terrence Malick, but doesn’t match his eye for landscape composition or his ear for music, but it’s not for lack of trying, extremely careful about the aesthetics, where she and her partner, cinematographer Joshua James Richards, do find tender grace notes, allowing landscapes to become a dominating silent presence, utilizing a cinematic language of poetic realism, like shooting horizons at Malick’s golden hour, yet marking interior space with the formulaic piano music of Einaudi: Low Mist (Day 7) - YouTube (5:26).  The film captures the longing for the open road in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), yet these characters are older and more resilient, revealing lives filled with regrets, where the road sometimes is the only thing that makes sense, where you can feel amazingly alive and free, populated by people who simply end up in the middle of nowhere and have no idea how they got there, yet they wouldn’t be anyplace else.  The underlying tragedies are only hinted at, using mostly non-professional actors, except for two, David Straithairn, a secondary character seen off and on down the road, and Francis McDormand, who is fabulous, reeling from the death of her husband, kind of a female version of Jack Nicholson’s ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), done considerably better, avoiding the usual sentiment, never falling into the trap of poverty porn or miserablism, getting into the mental layers of grief that people are trying to get out from under, where it just gets the better of them and can be overwhelming.  McDormand optioned Bruder’s book and sought out this director, finding the authenticity of her style appealing.  Filmed in seven states over the course of four months, mostly in the Badlands of South Dakota and across America’s Southwest, McDormand actually performs many of the jobs done by nomadic workers who inspired the book, such as working in national parks, harvesting beets, and packaging Amazon orders. 

Winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Festival, we find ourselves in Empire, Nevada in the midst of a personal tragedy, where Fern (Frances McDormand), nearing retirement age, sells most of her belongings to purchase a live-in van, as the factory where she worked shut down, so she would have to seek work elsewhere.  Perhaps more importantly, her husband, who we learn next to nothing about, recently died, with Fern staying on afterwards, perhaps honoring his life, as he was well-respected in the community, but with the town’s disappearance, she’s haunted by the thought that his memory could completely disappear, as if he never existed.  She takes on seasonal work at an Amazon Fulfillment Center during the holiday season, offering an insider’s glimpse of the enormous underbelly of a supersized warehouse center, as depersonalized a working environment as there is, the very embodiment of capitalism, where the premise of the entire operation is to continually emphasize speed, yet there’s little motivation to personally invest in the work, as it’s a billion dollar international conglomeration fueled by continually interchangeable parts.  Each individual worker means nothing in the overall scheme of things, with a mammoth payroll that runs on a continuous turnover of cheap labor, where it’s easy to feel dwarfed by an operations of this size, yet by the time you realize you’re just a speck in the ocean, it’s time to move on.  Along the way she encounters similarly aged people on the verge of retirement, like Linda May, one of her Amazon coworkers playing a fictionalized version of herself, who explains she once considered suicide when she realized her Social Security benefits would amount to a mere $550/month after a lifetime of work, by anyone’s account an inadequate living wage, so they’re forced to push on, living on the outer margins of society.  In the opening few moments we see Fern squat to piss along the side of a roadside highway and later get the runs in a bucket inside her camper, so this film doesn’t sugarcoat the jarring degradation of the experience.  On more than one occasion she’s ordered by authorities to move along, as there’s no overnight parking, forcing her to make quick exits and extend her drives into the night.  In the supposedly safe confines of an RV park campground, she gets a flat tire, but receives an earful from Charlene Swankie, another fictionalized real-life character, when she doesn’t have a spare, reading her the riot act about not being prepared, claiming she could get herself killed in the middle of nowhere.  Earlier Linda May invited her to visit the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, a popular winter campsite for RV owners organized by Bob Wells, another real-life character who runs a YouTube Channel (CheapRVliving), an older, bearded man who teaches practical skills, offering seminars on self-sufficiency and common sense advice, providing a different perspective on how to survive what he describes as “the yoke of the tyranny of the dollar” where broken down people who have worked all their lives are treated like workhorses put out to pasture.  One thing the film misses is that those most affected by the 2008 Great Recession were aggrieved white men losing their homes and sometimes their families, not to mention the safety net of healthcare benefits and even pensions, when their good-paying jobs simply disappeared after the plants shut down, leaving angry, disaffected workers who became turned off and disgruntled Trump supporters.  The film never addresses this growing white resentment at all, showing no Trump signs, no MAGA hats, yet just about every single nomad shown is white, avoiding politics and any male bitterness or anger, instead emphasizing a more likeable, non-threatening female-centric view of friendship, mostly seniors who have been abandoned and discarded, still continually exploited by employers who refuse to pay them for all their hours, yet embracing one another where no one complains, a stark contrast to Wendy (Michelle Williams) in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), operating with no safety net, greeted almost exclusively by hostility and indifference.  It’s a curious aspect of the film, where one wonders what drove them all to live like this.  

One of the most powerful scenes is Swankie telling Fern she’s been diagnosed with brain cancer and has only a few months to live.  But rather than feel sorry for herself, she has designs on returning to Alaska, where one of the most wondrous moments of her life was kayaking on a river where swallows nest in cliffs rising just above the water, where the thrill of seeing them all take flight, swarming all around her, surrounding her with a constant symbol of life was just an unbelievable scene, one of the supreme moments of her life that she’d like to do again before she dies.  Her heartfelt description of what it means to her says it all, saying goodbye with no flowery sentiment, yet these transcendent moments define this film, elevating an alternative lifestyle to finding one’s true calling, all encapsuled in a metaphoric search for America, where the road offers a healing and redemptive medicine for life’s trauma and pain, perhaps making this the ultimate Covid film, with people stuck inside four walls unable to go anywhere.  Fern’s underlying mindset may best be understood when she utters, “I just don’t want to be comfortable anymore,” becoming a glorified anti-hero, like Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970), where the pursuit of happiness requires an untethering from the collective.  It becomes evident that her ferocious desire for individuality, living on her own terms, and her defiance of the idea of settling down is based on the overwhelming trauma that lingers from the death of her husband, as she just refuses to let go.  There is no one else for her, as that man continues to live with her each and every day, where those long daily silences are fervent prayers in his behalf, meeting on some spiritual realm, but their relationship continues, remaining near and dear to her even as she barely ever mentions him, as the pain cuts too deep.  Late in the film she returns to Quartzsite and has a confessional heart-to-heart with Bob Wells, each unearthing untapped reserves of soul-searching personal agony, dredging up emotions rarely ever revealed, the kind of thing that drives them to become outsiders in the first place, unhealable souls that need to wander the winds.  It’s very similar to American soldiers overseas who can’t fit into normal society afterwards, with PTSD symptoms, where they need quiet and plenty of space to recover.  Not sure the film really gets inside the dilemma, or the social condition, but displacement and dislocation are the new realities, while McDormand’s weary face is etched with insurmountable pain, amazingly raw and internally damaged, evoking the pangs of tragedy, yet the film exposes rare revelations and evocative moments surrounded by indelible panoramic images.  Not many people are capable of making a film like this, as it taps into a human revolt against rules and conformity, where even families aren’t considered safe havens anymore.  Fern has a run-in with her own family, facing negative perceptions and stereotypes, yet there are also needed embraces, while also offered a chance to make a go of it with David Straithairn (a tacked-on Hollywood device, a reminder the director’s next venture will be directing a $200 million dollar Hollywood mega-blockbuster superhero movie) who makes a surprising return to rather serene small town life with an appreciative family that hasn’t forgotten him.  While the offer is genuine, so is her awkward departure in the early hours without saying a word.  In every instance something triggers this elusive desire to perpetually live on the road, like vagabonds, easily drifting this way and that.  The film provides no easy answers or solutions, though Fern does receive an email with footage of Swankie finding her swallows, attending her funeral sometime afterwards, all gathered around an evening campfire, a ritual that reminds everyone of their impending mortality.  The film does not offer long, extended sequences, feeling more like a snapshot view or a succession of recurring vignettes that reflect the lifestyle of nomads on the road, with Fern even breaking out in a Shakespeare Sonnet at one point, (Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer's… | Poetry ...), eloquently recalled, providing a probing depth, adding to the gravity of her continuing odyssey in pursuit of life’s fleeting mysteries.   

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