By Christopher Sharrett.
Zhao’s film would seem to follow Bruder’s impulse in documenting a profound and perpetual economic crisis, as contemporary America’s bosses opt for an outsourced and financialized economy…. But the film’s critical concerns tend to leave center stage.”
The opening card for Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland informs us that when a gypsum plant closed in Empire, Nevada in January 2011, two years into the monumental economic crash, the town, owned by US Gypsum, essentially ceased to exist, its postal zip code deleted in the summer of that year. We are told, therefore, that we are entering a familiar realm of contemporary horror. The experiences of Fern (Frances McDormand), a fictional character, are suggested as embodying the general strife of the Empire townspeople. Her husband Bo dies, forcing her to abandon her home (worthless in an empty town owned by a company) and set out for better prospects in a decrepit van. Along the way she meets Dave (David Strathairn), another person facing hard times and a life on the road. A tentative, unrealized romance develops, and one might focus on this as the center of the film’s narrative, although its framework is intended as very broad and of acute contemporary significance .
Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, a social problem book, Zhao’s film would seem to follow Bruder’s impulse in documenting a profound and perpetual economic crisis, as contemporary America’s bosses opt for an outsourced and financialized economy, with the US a business-driven society at an unprecedented scale. But the film’s critical concerns tend to leave center stage.
The film has a large number of actual “nomads” (I find the term vexing here, since, to my recollection, nomads are people who travel about for their existence over many generations, often as shepherds, and not necessarily because of particular strife), some now famous because of their appearance in this film, like Charlene Swankie, Linda May, and Bob Wells. These are real people who make their way from job to job; they have fictionalized onscreen personae. There is nothing new about combining fact and fiction, but here the strategy undercuts what seems to be the film’s humanist ambition. Charlene (who uses only her surname, “Swankie”) tells Fern that she is dying of cancer; near the conclusion, she has indeed died, with other nomads offering eulogies by a campfire. Bob Wells tells Fern, with cracked voice, that his son committed suicide some years earlier – this apparently happened, but is Wells demeaned by others’ fabrications? Linda May says that she seriously contemplated suicide. Again, the poignancy is diluted when some material seems suspect. Bob, Linda May, and Swankie, like Fern, might be seen as archetypes of people forced, by various sufferings, to leave their old world behind them. Bruder’s book testifies to the hardships of nomad existence. But why make them “types” when the real-life experiences of these people would seem to make the case? Did the filmmakers simply want to give them lines? Is extra melodrama needed? In a Q&A session on the Blu-ray, Swankie tells us that delivering her lines was extremely difficult, going against her temperament and convictions.
There is something more troubling. There is talk, both in the film narrative and the Blu-ray supplemental interviews, about the nomad existence as a “lifestyle,” as an option for those sick of the rat race. Bob Wells, who has long white hair and a complementary beard, and is referred to as Santa Claus at one point (Santa is evoked in the form of a faded plastic night light – Wells is more like the Wise Man of the story), tells people to free themselves of the “tyranny of the dollar” and realize that the “Titanic is sinking.” He is the apostle of van-dwelling as freewheeling option, as if the nomads are latter-day hippies. The lifestyle idea introduces the time-honored idea of resourceful Americans, able to make it on their own, without public support. In the past, the culture would call them “bums,” but today the nomad idea provides a good designation that protects dominant economic ambitions. The rugged American returns once again.
Wells runs a website and holds forth at a mass camper rally in Quartzite, Arizona called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous – at the RTR , an American flag flies at the edge of the scene, recalling the framed-out church in My Darling Clementine (1946 – Ford becomes important). There is nothing wrong with people, forced into a terrible circumstance, to try to find joy in what they do, if they are in fact joyful rather than putting on a brave face. But addressing this element is problematical when the film’s principal agenda seems the exposure of an ongoing social calamity. Frayed-at-the-edges young people seem to embrace a transient way of life, yet is this because they see no prospect in front of them, a pitiable situation that seems very real at this moment? But the film emphasizes the number of “retirement age” people (I am always troubled by the coy term, implying the common notion that we outlive our usefulness at 65, at the same moment that we become “seniors,” as if we achieve distinguished rank – a very bogus and very American notion) who are forced into perpetual travel with the shredding of the social contract, and the very miserly social safety net available to them. They face, at the end of their lives, what many young people see at the outset: a sense of a void, empty of real friends and a support system. Speaking for myself, I can hardly think of anything more miserable (and basically impossible) at my age, after being born into a large industrial society, than travelling about in a van, sleeping, eating, and defecating therein, and forced to see a vehicle as home and source of solace.
Amazon, the megalithic corporation now absorbing all retail sales, is featured in Nomadland, very much so in the source book. Amazon has a relationship with the mobile homeless, noted sketchily in the film; the company has a bestial program called CamperForce, catering to aging nomads, sensible from the Amazon standpoint since it draws a sizable pool of cheap, temporary labor, at a time when “temp work,” popular for capitalism since the Reagan era, is a major growth industry, one beloved of rightist figures in and out of government for cutting down on “entitlements.” We see Fern and friends walking up to a massive Amazon “fulfillment center” in the dawn hours. The interior of the place is cavernous, recalling the office floor in Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), with their endless, uniform and uniformly spaced desks creating a deep false perspective, receding into a distant, imperceptible horizon line. But the Amazon site, with its endless shelves framed by conveyor belts, is more massive and threatening than Welles or Wilder, or Fritz Lang’s Moloch architecture in Metropolis (1926) for that matter. A cheery, overweight supervisor starts the morning labors at Amazon by asking employees for a “safety tip.” She is heavily tattooed, as is the current custom (which eludes me), apparently a form of tribalism. She, like others, puts on a happy face – what is the alternative? At lunch, she tells people that each of her tattoos reminds her of some emotion or aspect of her life – not being lived, of course, while she is virtually enslaved by Amazon, which, with Walmart, threatens the very notion of civil life in America. At this writing, Amazon has brought a crisis to Windsor, CT, not all that far from me. Over the course of several weeks, hangman’s nooses have appeared, dangling from the ceiling of a framed-out Amazon fulfillment center (yet another). The nooses, clearly an evocation of lynching, brought the attention of the NAACP, state police, and the state attorney general, but thus far Amazon has been unable to identify the origin of the nooses, even though the site is supervised during its construction.
This type of horror doesn’t appear in Nomadland, perhaps because the filmmakers were intimidated by the company. In the Blu-ray Q & A, questions about Amazon arise; Frances McDormand issues a “shhhh,” while Chloe Zhao tells us that she “doesn’t make films about politics,” a hopelessly naïve (or cunning) remark. I take it that Amazon allowed Zhao to film on their premises, with the stipulation that she not make disparaging remarks about the company.
The film’s ambitions might be best understood by attending to its drama and mise-en-scene, with its major ideas revealed not in discussions of economy but in ideology and metaphor, and the image of the couple and the family, always crucial to the American cinema.
John Ford, especially his use of landscape, has already been invoked by reviewers numerous times in attempts to understand Zhao’s ambition. For my part, Zhao seems to be, in this film at least, the anti-Ford. The “magic hour,” the exterior lighting moment – from late afternoon until dusk – made famous by Ford and his cinematographers Gregg Toland, Bert Glennon and Winton Hoch, has been mentioned as applied to Nomadland. We see the magic hour in this film for the most part only in its final manifestation, as the thin orange light of the setting sun appears on top of the horizon. Ford’s long, melancholy shadows, draped across the sunlit prairie, are present in Nomadland only momentarily, and not nearly as carefully sculpted as in, say, The Cavalry Trilogy. The issue here may be that the film cannot partake of the complex melancholia of Ford, with its sense of sadness and regret combined with (reserved, tentative) hope.
If Ford is a point of reference, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) seems the most relevant model. Like Ma Joad early in that film, Fern packs up her most precious things, including a set of plates (McDormand’s own) with the Autumn Leaf pattern, much in the way Ma takes that which is closest to her heart (and small enough not to be a burden – the little porcelain dog with the Louisiana Exposition label stays in one’s mind). Fern clutches her late husband’s shirts to her face, but moves on. The Expressionist shadows in Grapes of Wrath’s early scenes apply a sense of foreboding, but the sky lightens as daytime arrives to light the Joads’ way. Nomadland is marked by doomsday – represented by frequently overcast skies – and a landscape that is less than friendly. I must say that the Big Sky country of the West, Midwest, and Southwest always seems to me ominous; if one is alone and without communication in this landscape, death is close. As Swankie tells Fern, “you could die out here.” The vastness of the landscape, denuded of foliage (if it had any in the first place) signifies a void, and an intolerant one, especially at a time when this mammoth chunk of Middle America is made up of “red states” that vote for reactionaries, now of the foulest sort.
The overcast skies are complemented by a plangent score by Ludovico Einaurdi, using piano or piano and cello, at times producing a toccata, the bass line severe, emphasizing the film’s focus on mordibity. Death lurks constantly, not only in the tales of Swankie and Bob Wells, but in the diverticulitis that puts Dave in the hospital (Fern is there for him). Outright horror confronts the Joads (the death of grandma), but they have relief in the New Deal campground, and its FDR-like protector. Could the RTR be an equivalent? Bob Wells lacks needed authority. Tom Joad (and to a lesser extent Casey) is depicted as savior (the crossroads in the first image), and at the end as spirit of the people, underscored by Ma’s remark, “We’re the people who live.” This ending, unlike that of Steinbeck’s novel (where Rose of Sharon, her baby stillborn, gives her milk-laden breasts to a dying man, an image of the macabre destroying charity), provides a typically Hollywood assurance that is impossible for Nomadland.
Ford’s community fete appears in the line dance at the Quartzite Yacht Club bar, where Fern and Dave eventually dance as a couple. But while Ma Joad can affirm the family and future, the social world disintegrates quietly for Fern and her friends. Fern and Dave take jobs in a kitchen of the huge tourist trap, Wall Drug, in South Dakota, whose signpost is a concrete brontosaurus (the real, material threat is in the crocodile being fed rabbits, and the yellow boa constrictor draped by the men over Fern). Wearing a green paper cap, Dave pours gravy resembling brown paint (or something far worse) over a sandwich. He is visited by his alienated grown son; Fern senses tension, but praises Dave, seen by his son as neglectful.
The social world begins to vanish, undercutting the idea that the nomad life creates a new sense of community. Fern visits her sister Dolly; immediately tensions arise as Fern gets into a scrap about pricey real estate with her in-laws and their friends. Dolly intercedes, saying that Fern and the nomads are like the “pioneers” of old, and “part of an American tradition.” The pioneers had the naïve goal of Eldorado; they were sometimes set upon by Natives for encroachments, or by the army. The journey of Nomadland seems circuitous, with the same people meeting at the same places every year: they are simply forced to live on the highway. Dolly and Fern later converse in a dimly-lit bedroom, where Dolly lodges long-held grievances that change the focus of the film. Fern left the family long ago, asserting her individuality in the face of family conformity. For this Dolly lost a sister, who could have been a companion and consolation; Fern can say, simply, “that’s on me.” At this point the film points simply to the female’s rejection of home and domesticity – although, it is pointed out, Fern married Bo very early in life, and stayed in Empire long after his death, which seems incredible since the town was taken back by the gypsum company.
Fern also visits the home of Dave’s brother; Dave is leaving the road life, inviting Fern to join him. There is a Norman Rockwell moment featuring Thanksgiving dinner, awkwardly presided over by Dave. Dave’s awkwardness is notable; he is most definitely not the competent American male of Ford or Hawks. Dave and Fern sit in a bedroom, Dave holding a baby and inviting Fern to stay. Fern doesn’t reply, her only answer her departure. At one point he drops a box containing the sentimental Autumn Leaf dinner set, telling us his plans for Fern are hopeless. Her rejection of home and domesticity is explicit. There are nostalgic moments, like Fern looking at slides through a handheld viewer as the moment transitions from her reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…”) as a young man shares a smoke. The soundtrack fuses the scenes. The slides evoke the postwar boom years: a baby (Fern?) in a crib, a father and young daughter by a church, mother and children at the dinner table. Fern looks at images of stability that make especially unstable and threatening the current world – where van-living seems natural and tolerable, a natural consequence of current assumptions.
Earlier, other literary allusions occur. Fern rests and plays with commodities in a big-box store, when a young mother and her several children appear. The mother asks Fern how she is, if she still works for Amazon, and if she “likes it.” A moment later, one of her girls approaches Fern, who was once her occasional teacher. To prove she retains Fern’s instructions, she recites a bit of Macbeth’s farewell (”To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…”), one of the blackest, even nihilistic soliloquies in all literature. There is little evidence that the child comprehends the speech, but she appreciates Fern’s teaching. If the speech is applied to the film’s narrative, implications arise that cancel the idea of nomad existence as “lifestyle,” especially as the overcast skies persist, as we see the film’s beginning at the end once more, a very sad ouroboros swallowing its tale.
We see Fern at the storage units, their blue doors pleasant, yet awful. She is again sorting her husband’s belongings. She visits the abandoned gypsum plant, going inside its offices, the desks coated with dust. She sees a workman’s hardhat (her husband’s?), a coffee cup where someone left it years earlier. Then she is walking down an empty street, a gesture repeated earlier in the film – she strolls on a somewhat prosperous, but desolate, street at night, in a town in the Dakotas, passing a neighborhood movie theater – a rarity these days – offering The Avengers (Zhao’s next film is a superhero movie – so much for independence). Fern stands in front of a small tract house, obviously hers. She walks inside, inspecting its emptiness, the wall vents askew, the shelves empty, carpets ragged. She walks out the front door, the camera following. Some reviewers have compared the shot to Ethan Edwards’ departure at the end of The Searchers, clearly wrong because Ford’s camera is stationary. Both Ford and Zhao want to convey the protagonist’s isolation, but by following, Zhao includes us in an insistent inspection of Fern’s hopelessness. Unlike Ethan Edwards, her skills have limits and she is often neglectful of basic survival protocols – and the world around her is only moderately friendly, only occasionally providing for her.
The western is regularly invoked in this film’s reviews, as well as the term “feminist western.” It is interesting how often the genre is applied to reading of other films. I recall the pathetic state of the western as the video rental age came to an end; the genre took up a meager single display rack, if it was visible at all. In the case of Nomadland, the western is applicable mainly for the geography where the story unfolds, but perhaps also for the implications of this geography given the current state of the nation. I’ve already suggested the endless, pointless nature of the latter-day metal wagon train, with its “pioneers” barely hanging on, rather than hoping for new, abundant prospects. As for a feminist western, it’s true that Clementine has rejected Wyatt Earp, as well as the homestead they once shared, but what is she up to? The real point may be the dreadful extent of female suffering in the new economy, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, where income, if it exists, is in the “service sector” of waiting tables and answering phones. Where the labor is more substantial, it is physically arduous and brief. Feminist? Women may not be dealing directly with male authority, but are they any less under a suicidal and homicidal male rule, one that is utterly pitiless and without sense? Should Fern have stayed with Dave?
It may not be especially relevant to an understanding of the film, but Frances McDormand has stated several times in the publicity material, perhaps jokingly, that at 65 she wants to change her name to Fern, smoke Lucky Strike, and drink Wild Turkey. This movie just made her act on her plans faster. Do the two carcinogens, each of which potentiates the other’s cancer-causing poisons, add to McDormand’s class/age solidarity? The nonsense of the statement is another small element undercutting Nomadland’s seriousness. And there is Chloe Zhao’s origins, which she may well have left behind her, but according to the internet, her father is one of the wealthiest men in China, in both finance and industry. The observation may be unfair, but we already have, after all, so many instances discrediting this film as a look at contemporary poverty that an interrogation of motives is in order. Has Zhao parted company with her class? We’ll see – after her superhero movie.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus in film at Seton Hall University and a Contributing Editor for Film International. His book on the series Breaking Bad is forthcoming from Wayne State University Press.