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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 2020 Oscar-winning film Nomadland.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
When you grow up with all the trappings of middle-class suburbia, it's hard to imagine a Shadow America out there, roaming the land. Poor neighborhoods? Sure. The homeless? Absolutely. But not three million transients (according to the BBC) who shuttle from town to town across our country, living out of their vehicles and subsisting on odd jobs along the way.
While you'd never describe these drifters as wealthy, they're largely not indigent either. And for the most part, their decisions to eschew the conventions of modern living don't seem to be born out of financial calamity. Theirs is a conscious lifestyle choice. Who are these people? What drives them? This is the backdrop of director Chloé Zhao's Nomadland, based on a 2017 novel of the same name by Jessica Bruder.
Like The Rider, Zhao's previous film, Nomadland might as well be cinéma vérité as it follows the life of Fern (Frances McDormand) while she travels the country in her rickety van. Outside of an intertitle which explains the collapse of her Nevada hometown following a mine closure, the exposition is minimal, and much of the film revolves around Fern's survival. Today's work might be at an Amazon distribution center, while next month's employer could be a state park. After that? Perhaps a gig as a line cook.
All the while, her van needs upkeep. Rinse. Repeat. Fern ain't the loquacious type, and her backstory is parceled out in dribs and drabs. Eventually you learn that she lost her husband right around the time when the town went under, which might account for her steely, detached disposition.
Fern may be tight-lipped about her background and motivations, but when she crosses paths with a community of "vandwellers," we meet the charismatic Bob Wells (playing himself), a real-life champion of minimalist lifestyles. Bob explains his movement as a push back against the demands of consumerism:
"The odd thing is that we not only accept the tyranny of the dollar, the tyranny of the marketplace, we embrace it. We gladly throw the yoke of the tyranny of the dollar on and live by it our whole lives. I think of an analogy as a workhorse. The workhorse that is willing to work itself to death and then be put out to pasture. And that’s what happens to so many of us. If society was throwing us away and sending us, the workhorse, out to the pasture, we workhorses had to gather together and take care of each other. And that’s what this is all about."
Seeing it now in print, it almost sounds like Bob is delivering a revolutionary call to arms, but his real-life persona exudes gentleness, grace, and compassion. He and his companions cross paths again with Fern near the end of the film, when he reveals a bit of his own backstory... and it's heartbreaking.
As we journey with Fern, we see that not only does she have friends and family, but she's also offered a home on more than one occasion. She repeatedly declines; her decision to live on the road is truly a conscious one.
Clarence, is there a character plot arc in the traditional sense here? At the conclusion of the film, Fern returns to Nevada and rids herself of the belongings she had in storage. What was your takeaway? A clean break with the past? It seemed as though that ship had long sailed.
Did any particular part of Fern's nomadic lifestyle appeal to you? It should be noted that most of the "vandwellers" were over 55, and so you didn't see too many school-age children in that community.
Why do you think that Fern rejects the offers of homes (and by extension, communities) throughout the film? She had settled down in the past, so the idea shouldn't be entirely anathema to her. Did you get a sense that she was looking for anything in particular?
I’m going to answer your questions out of order, but I WILL answer them…!
Firstly, I don’t see the appeal of this lifestyle. I like driving and the idea of taking a vehicle cross-country to marvel at America’s glorious vistas. I don’t like the idea of having to sleep in said vehicle during sub-zero nights, or having to relieve myself in a bucket. But that’s just me.
I do think Fern has an arc, but it’s hard to see it at first. And it highlights a problem I think I have with this movie.
For two-thirds of the film, I got a strong sense I was watching a story about poverty and the toll it takes on people, focusing as it does on Fern’s low-wage transient jobs, Bob Wells’ communal speech about capitalism, and the characters’ overall insecurity. And as you noted, the movie spent a lot of time focusing on older people, several of whom have health issues that put them further on the edge.
But eventually the audience finds out that Fern is not, in fact, destitute. She may bicker with her mansion-dwelling sister, but the fact is that if Fern is ever really in a jam, an envelope stuffed with cash is only a phone call away.
Also on her journey, a fellow traveler (David Straithairn) practically begs her to stay with him and his family in another nice, big, wam house…on Thanksgiving, no less! In sum, Fern has choices, the kind which many people who live out of their cars don’t.
[It also doesn’t hurt that everyone she meets on the road is some combination of wise, helpful, or fascinating. Not a MAGA hat or AR-15-waiving misanthrope to be found.]
There are other films like Grizzly Man (2005) and Into the Wild (2007) that feature middle-class people who reject “civilization” to look for a more fulfilling life or to escape an inner turmoil too painful to face. Nomadland ends up being like those movies, only with a happier ending. I think Fern’s return to Nevada was a step in finally making a break with her tragic past so she can move on. The end of her narrative arc, if you will.
By the time the credits rolled, the movie became about a woman coping with the loss of her husband and community. No doubt, there’s a story there, but it’s not the one I thought I was watching for the movie’s first 100 minutes.
Kevin, I think this is a very good film with some truly beautiful moments, but the lack of exposition hurt the storytelling. It also leaves the movie open to criticism that, at the end of the day, the story is basically poverty tourism used as a setting to explore middle-class grief.
Am I wrong in how I’m looking at this? Am I being fair? After all, I don’t think Frances McDormand (who starred in and produced this film) or Zhao were walking around declaring it had any more meaning than what’s on the screen.
And is there a role for “message movies” in our media-saturated, hot-take society anyway? Is it even possible in 2022 for American multi-millionaire actors and moviemakers to say anything real about society without being immediately shouted down or accused of pandering?
Lots to unpack here! For starters, what are the responsibilities of a filmmaker to the source material? Nomadland was conceived by Jessica Bruder as work of journalism, with her attention remaining squarely on the "vandwellers." The character of Fern was created by Zhao for the film, presumably to give the tale a narrative arc... but as you said, it shifts the focus of the story from capitalism to grief. It seems as though you would've preferred the former? I'm more ambivalent as far as choosing between the two, except to say that A) we've already seen a number of films in recent years take aim at capitalism, and B) I feel Nomadland benefited from not being so easily politicized. (For the record, Bruder loved the finished product.)
It's doubtful that Zhao was a multimillionaire when she made this film -- she certainly didn't get rich from her debut, The Rider. (After she signed on for Marvel's Eternals, different story.) But you raise a good point about Hollywood in the age of Social Media Saturation. To be a public figure in 2022 is to invite abuse, no matter where you stand, politically or artistically. But it's always been easier for the public to digest a message within the guise of a narrative. At least on screen, a star can put on the facade of being an Everyman? It's a lot tougher when the sermon doesn't come with an interlocutor.
Were you surprised at all that David and Dolly (Fern's sister) were so eager to extend a helping hand to Fern? She wasn't exactly a warm soul. It kinda makes one wonder what her marriage was like? Perhaps it was akin to the one in Olive Kitteridge, the 2014 HBO miniseries where McDormand played the title character -- a woman who makes Fern look like Mary Poppins.
On that note, any thoughts on the Opposites Attract trope? You'd think that there's no way any "nice guy" would wind up with Olive or Fern in a zillion years, right? Or maybe it would take someone with the patience of Job to put up with Fern's disposition? And we can throw in McDormand's Mildred from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in there as well -- she's basically the same sort of grief-stricken character. (For the record, I liked Nomadland much, much more than Three Billboards.)
I'll leave you with one final question. You were unhappy with the backdrop of "poverty tourism" here. Which films do you feel have done the best job of authentically portraying that experience, with characters who didn't have benefactors waiting in the wings as Fern did?
One film of that type that has stayed with me decades after I first saw it is On the Bowery (1956), a “docu-drama” set in New York’s Bowery district (aka Skid Row). The “characters” were actual alcoholics who were living on the streets. The director, Lionel Rogosin, gave them a basic plot to act out while he captured the details of their day to day lives. One of them died of alcohol poisoning a few weeks before the film was released, another would die a few years later of similar causes.
Rogosin had made a promise to himself after World War II to fight fascism and racism wherever he found it. On the Bowery was his debut feature and his first attempt to shine a light on parts of society not seen in typical movies.
In a way, this was Zhao’s opportunity as well, and she accomplishes it to a point. It’s good that the book author was happy with the movie version. Unlike so many other adaptations that completely miss an author’s point, Zhou’s vision reflected some kind of truth, even if it wasn’t the truth I ultimately expected to be the focus.
As far as loyalty to source material, this question reminds me of what’s going on right now with the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Here you have a series based on a book (Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman) that’s being enjoyed by just about everyone except the people being portrayed in it, since the producers made up a bunch of details about the lives of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jerry West that don’t put them in the best light.
This isn’t new. After all, when a mainstream movie maker has a choice between telling the truth and telling a good story, they will ALWAYS choose to tell a good story. It’s why movies are so unreliable and incomplete as documentaries, even if the movie IS a documentary. But movies tend to spread faster and make a larger impression on modern society than books. Do living people whose lives are being falsified for a movie have a right to gripe? Does it matter? I would say at this moment in time the answers are “yes” and (unfortunately) “no.”
I think one storytelling element that Zhao captured well was the dynamics between the siblings. When Fern talks to Dolly about her situation, it felt to me like that wasn’t the first time those two had that kind of conversation. Family members will put up with a lot more than strangers, low-key hostility and all. Besides, it didn’t look like helping her sister out was putting any dent in Dolly’s lifestyle. Even if siblings have very different personalities, they find a way to exist together.
Speaking of which, I haven’t seen an "opposites attract" kind of couple on screen in a long while. My guess is that sitcoms have driven that trope into the ground with too many “blue-collar schlub marries smart sexy wife” setups to be believable. After a while, even Hollywood has its limits!
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