Nomadland Chloe Zhao (2020; USA) Frances McDermand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Viewed: Everyman Cinema Newcastle 21 May 2021; ticket: £13:50 (with booking fee)
Woodstock generation finale
Nomadland feels as if it would have better realised as a documentary. Apparently many of the parts were played by people living mobile life styles, and Frances McDermand, as Fern, plays a role that is often close to being a stand in reporter / interviewer. But this hybrid form doesn’t cut into this subject area in the same way as a piece of actual reportage. Without the dramatic bookending of the film around Fern there would be more space for seeing and hearing the lost and hidden voices of the American dream.
Lee Issac Chung’s recently released Disneyesque celebration of the America, Minari, tells what happens when you go embrace the Dream full on: you overcome all obstacles. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland tells what it’s like when you wake up from ‘the dream’: when the factory goes bust, when they repossess the farm or debts take your house. Then you are alone. The stark picture in Nomadland is America as a society of isolated individuation. In this situation many choose to climb into their cars or vans or mobile homes and roam the country, finding work and solace, disappearing in the vastness of the continent. Chloe Zhao shows the various communal initiatives, the attempts at forming collectivities out of this diverse crew, but more compelling are the images and stories that emphasise people’s aloneness. No surprise: this is a culture that has created the economic and social conditions where communities – economic – social – local – can no longer survive the onslaught of monetising capitalism. Only money has value, this is the logic of the global economy as it folds over the lives of working people.
Chloe Zhao’s scenario works best as it documents the casual work cycle of road existence and probes the psychic base upon which people weave their present reality. Nomadland opens with the closure of the Gyproc plant that pushes Fern out of the village of Empire onto the conveyor belt world of temp jobs: Amazon, theme parks, fast food outlets, where the rule is: use your body and leave your mind behind. ‘Papa Bob’ a kind of spokesman for the Nomads, talks in an early section of the film about the freedom endemic in being a American nomad. But Fern and those like her although not anchored in the financial system’s mortgage racket, they are still totally dependent on the macjob economy to pay fuel repair bills and parking/overstay fees. They may not be anchored but as the script shows, they are tethered to the system: Fern needs money: gas, repair work, food and overnights.
The film starts in a strong suit: the reality of surviving on the margins of a fractured and broken state. But Chloe Zhao’s scenario at a point about half way through the film slips into image fascination. ‘Nomadland’ starts to look like another Disney Production, the screen filling out with chocolate box pictures of National Geographic America. We are shown tourist board images of rock mountain river gorge and desert. Compounding this imagery we have Frances McDermand plonked in the middle of a couple of these images, dancing and bathing, as if selling soap or freedom bras. Image dissonance: a message that somehow in adopting these advertising tropes and stereotypical poses, Fern is liberated.
As the film winds to conclusion it descends into sentimentality and the dishonesty that is surely part of the price it Chloe Zhao pays for choosing the dramatic rather than the documentary form. Drama, in particular Hollywood’s version, seems to demand (not all directors yield to this demand) some sort of emotional closure. The route taken by Chloe Zhao accedes to this demand, which is encapsulated by ‘Papa Bob’s’ encomium as he talks to Fern, denying the finality of endings: “We don’t die, we don’t say goodbye, we just say: “See you down the road!”.
James Baldwin makes a telling observation in relation to the Sherriff’s last words to Mr Tibbs in ‘The Heat of the Night’. The Southern white Sherriff who has at one point come close to lynching Mr Tibbs, the black detective, finally says goodby to him on the station platform with the words: “You take good care of yourself, you hear?” Hollywood loves to end a movie with a metaphorical ‘kiss’ meaning a faked reconciliatory gesture that makes everything all right. “ See you down the road!”
As the film descends into its Disneyesque ending, it becomes dull, devoid of the life and reality that sustains the opening sections. I also became more aware of the incongruity of the drone footage that Chloe Zhao mandates in her shooting script. Drone footage can be problematic. The ‘role of the camera’ in a film shoot can take on many guises, from ‘Point of View’, ‘privileged observer’, ‘analogous protagonist’ often cutting between these ‘persona’ as well as incorporating many other types of shot. There’s no rules. But drone shots usually have a suprahuman quality that can make them problematic as to what they represent and how they are incorporated into the structure of the story. Used as high shots, looking down on a situation or scene, they have an omniscient, God like quality that can take them outside the scenario. Used at ground level drone shots often have a detached quality that can take them outside the subject’s domain: they have an non-human quality. Used creatively drone shots reveal something to the audience that could not be seen by other means. They are a resource for filmic communication. Used as shots to fill a hole in the scenario, or as a piece of visual novelty instead of a tracking shot, used repetitively without a creative understanding of what they are contributing, drone shots are a device that can figuratively reveal the lack of any ethos guiding a film.
‘Nomadland’ is built upon the performance of Frances McDermand as a representative of a ‘type’, a woman dumped by society. ‘Nomadland’ is grounded in people and their experience of life. To resort, with increasing frequency to drone shots as a tracking device, detaches the image from its grounding within the human domain. The camera instead of being an observer or a companion to Fern’s life, becomes an ethereal detached stalker. But who’s the stalker? I don’t think Chloe Zhao knows but her drone camera work contains within itself a contradictory element: it’s smooth alien like motion, it’s stealth in following behind Fern is analogous to the very forces that are destroying her: the indifferent relentless smooth anonymous powers of banks and government that track and prey on the powerless. The camera as a drone becomes de facto an emanation of deterritorialised powers that are stalking America.
In one cameo we see Fern having a shit in her van. The imperative to both to shoot and include this shot in the film, would seem to derive from a commitment to a pedantic literalist realism. Of course the actual problem is not shitting in cramped confines. The problem is how/where to get rid of your shit once it’s in the bucket. Somehow the failure to grasp this basic issue sums up Chloe Zhao’s movie. For all its intentions Nomadland doesn’t get that it’s not about the shit, it’s the question behind the question, how you get rid of the shit.