Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:
Today, James Wilson of Blogging by Cinema Light is here to look at the Best Picture Nominee – Nomadland.
Now is the Winter of Our Discontent
“I’ll See Ya Down the Road”
So, the American Dream goes something like this: you get an education and then you go to work. It used to be that you worked for the same company all your life and they rewarded your service with a pension when you retired. You bought a house you couldn’t afford and you worked your life to pay down the 30 year fixed. Then you retired to do what you want, pay your growing tax bill, collect your pension and your Social Security—a new wrinkle with The New Deal—and you’d have had kids and grand-kids and lived a full life to see the circle of life get repeated, each generation doing better than the last.
But, it doesn’t work like that. The economy goes bust every ten years, because the big-money people get cocky. The businesses aren’t stable enough to keep people on for 30+ years. The pensions have been spent to fatten the pay-out’s of the CEO’s and CFO’s and board members. The houses get foreclosed on when jobs get down-sized or “reorg’d” out of existence and pay-checks dry up because we’re sold on the belief that things are going to get better and better, when minimum wages have been stagnant for a decade while profits increase and the top executives see staggering increases, because their success will “trickle down” as opposed to moving off-shore.
Is that about it? What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, before you auto-spurt “What are you, a communist?” in a vain attempt to deflect, let’s talk about Nomadland. Based on a non-fiction book written by Jessica Bruder—who logged 15,000 miles over three years documenting the stories of itinerant workers who travel around the country in vehicles finding seasonal work after long careers have reached dead ends—it puts a fictionalized character, “Fern” (Frances McDormand) in the very real situation of the vagabonding folks in the book. These people aren’t loafers—they work, at tough jobs for low pay, usually because they’re older than the age being recruited by companies looking for young tyro’s waiting to be disappointed. These people are already disappointed, discarded by the work-place, but still with a work ethic, and a desire to eat. Maybe they’re actively rejecting the American Dream. Maybe they’re embracing it, by dislodging themselves from the housing albatross and living before they die. Maybe they’re like the bedouin or the First People, going where the getting’s good, unencumbered.
“Fern’s” story seems all too typical. Lived in a company town, met and married, company shut down and the town dried up, a ghost town, even losing its zip code. Husband dies and Fern packs up the van and gets a job at an Amazon warehouse miles away—they provide a parking space for her. She meets people, makes friends, and basically networks the next stop—The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, where she takes classes on self-sufficiency, does exchanges, learns the rules of the road, gets mentored (whether she likes it or not), and waits for the next phase…or the next opportunity.
Here, you meet some of the real people in the book, playing themselves, like Bob Wells (who started the RTR), Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and they’re free spirits who’d rather be on the road than paying a mortgage or regretting that they hadn’t experienced “that” for the distractions of making a living. Scratch that: they are making a living…and a life that is fulfilling and not filled with compromises other than those of comfort. Their stories are different, but have a similar thread, as in this monologue by “Merle:”
“I worked for corporate America, you know, for 20 years. My friend Bill worked for the same company. And… He had liver failure. A week before he was due to retire, HR called him in hospice and said, you know, let’s talk about your retirement. And he died 10 days later, having never been able to take that sailboat that he bought out of his driveway. And he missed out on everything. Then he told me before he died, just don’t waste any time, girl. Don’t waste any time. So I retired as soon as I could. I didn’t want my sailboat to be in the driveway when I died. So… yeah. And it’s not. My sailboat is out here in the desert.”*
Even in dialogue like that, the story is done with pictures—you can see that sail-boat in the driveway, a metaphor for an unrealized dream. Zhao tells the story with images of the flat desert, distant horizons, the limitless expanse of roads stretching out to nowhere, Fern going “walkabout” sometimes with lantern in hand in dusk and twilight, the vistas burnished in “magic hour” gradations of blue to dusty red, caught in transition. When people talk, it’s in the tones of every-day conversation or the long-gestating depths of reverie. No voice-over betrays inner thoughts, just the landscapes of faces gouged by wrinkles and experience, the weariness—or wariness—in the eyes, the tentativeness of the unspoken held in check in the tight stricture of their mouths.
It’s an intelligent film that respects its viewer by not holding your hand, not spelling it all out, while it also respects its subjects by not commenting on their actions, just letting them be in their surroundings, living in the moment, captured unawares. And it does so from the first scene of Fern triaging her belongings and lingering on the scent of her late husband’s flannel shirt to the final shot— reminiscent of The Searchers—that follows Fern as she leaves, for the last time, her house in Empire, and the camera follows her through the still-open door—why shut it when there’s nothing to protect, nothing to preserve—and she disappears at the left of the frame, the view of the plains and the mountains (all so enticingly behind walls previously) now in full frame, the view and possibilities endless.
Is there such a thing as a “fictional documentary?”** Yup. Place fictional characters in real events and you have one. But, Nomadland is not a “stunt-film.” It shows us a symptom of America that is going on right now, and brings us a character trying to navigate their way through it, and by experiencing it through her, we experience the phenomenon…without having to give up the comfort of A/C and plumbing. And maybe it will sink into our souls just enough that we spend less of our finite and valuable time throwing away that mailed credit card enticement.
At one point, a suburbanized character says that what Fern is doing…what they’re all doing is like being a pioneer. Yes, it’s like that, traversing the country looking for opportunity in order to live in freedom, and rather than oppression it is from the shackles of consumerism and das capitalism. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, they say. But nobody ever asks: why the fence? They also say “America: Love it or Leave it”…as if it’s an either/or thing…when you can do both.
Take the good and leave the bad…in the dust.