“Nomadland” is Everybody’s Land
Based on snippets of media chat I had formed the impression that Chloe Zhao’s film “Nomadland” was a sullen portrait of depressed people who fell through the cracks, had no homes, no money, and were forced into bleak survival mode just getting by, living on the road in cars, vans, or RVs. Not quite.
The versatile Frances McDormand, a 2020 Golden Globe nominee for Best Actress, plays the lead as sixty-something Fern who is grieving losses, of husband (died of cancer) and home. Fern was living in Empire, Nevada, a small town built around industry—a gypsum plant. The plant closed, for real in 2011, and the town folded, its zip code, 89405, then eliminated. Fern takes to the road in a modestly tricked out van, occasionally working in an Amazon distribution center. I couldn’t conclude from her face, somewhere between impenetrable and serene, that she was suffering. Perhaps I was projecting my own sense of outdoor adventure on her.
I’ve heard the film described as a “yawner.” Not for me or anyone who loves the western deserts and all their hardscrabble beauty. And who has crossed paths with its denizens, human and otherwise. Some of these denizens used to be known as snow bunnies for their migrating away from cold northern winters.
Neither Zhao nor McDormand manipulate opinions about this storyline, so it’s like a Rorschach. Where some see an adventure, others see desolation. While the story, dreamlike at times, presents itself in a neutral, non-judgmental way, the subtext might be that this is the way of a capitalist (or corporatist?) society—these characters may be suffering the effects of the widening wealth gap.
The talented McDormand’s interpretation of her role is cool and steady, never despairing—even when she says her much played line about being houseless, not homeless. I might be reading wide-eyed anticipation into her often inscrutable countenance because I am so drawn to the open landscape, unfettered by stuff, living in survival mode. Fern falls in and out of spending time with the desert community or “tribe” as they call themselves. Often she is alone, pensive, gazing out or in.
The character, Bob Wells, plays himself. Portrayed upbeat and cheerful, he seems to be the de facto leader of the mobile tribe or nomads. Wikipedia lists his occupation as YouTuber (with nearly half a million subscribers) and vandweller. He is founder of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of vandwellers in Quartzsite, Arizona, which has grown from 3,000 to 10,000.
“Nomadland” is strikingly populated with white people, mostly elderly retirees. I imagine that a few hundred years of blatant and systemic racism have fostered a very different scene for Blacks who fall through the cracks in our unequal society. You have to have a baseline of finances or assets to cash in, in order to join these road warriors. RVs and their maintenance and even basic survival all require funds. (Apparently, in real life, Wells, a former unhappy working stiff who dropped out of the rat race, has started a charitable organization “dedicated to assisting needy individuals to acquire vehicles for habitation and travel.”)
Given the homogeneity of the film’s demographic, I considered whether the characters represented Trump’s so-called forgotten white middle America, his diehard base, and those whose fractured lives led to opioid over-use. They might be among this crew, but there is no political under- or overtones in the film. And do-gooder Bob Wells describes himself as “far left.”
Heart-warming detail: When Fern’s van breaks down she visits a sister and her husband in a cookie-cutter suburb in order to borrow money to fix her van. The sister pleads with Fern to stay and live with her in her safe, conventional life. Fern says no thank-you. Hooray for Fern, preferring her stripped-away life in the desert with other roaming “houseless,” like her, with their makeshift (and shifting) communities.
Admire these “unstuffed” lives
Lately, so much is made of stuff, the way Americans accumulate things for the sake of accumulating and get bogged down in life. I had to scratch my head when a Marie Kondo came along and made a killing telling Americans how to unstuff their lives. And again recently, when a famous writer, Ann Patchett, publishes a ponderous 7,000-word story about getting rid of stuff she wasn’t using. Way back in 1981, George Carlin made us laugh, riffing on stuff:
That’s all your house is—a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.
When nomads were hobos
Coincidentally, not long before watching “Nomadland” I had seen “Sullivan’s Travels,” a 1941 film I love to watch over and over. It’s a comedy but there is some poignant overlap with Zhao’s film, with the lead character, Sullivan, a successful Hollywood director played by Joel McCrea. It takes place during the Great Depression. Sullivan decides to take to the road and mingle with so-called hobos. He sheds his wealth trappings and becomes “a vagrant drifter to gain life experience for his forthcoming film, a serious exploration of the plight of the downtrodden, based on the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (Interesting trivia: The Coen Brothers took that name for their 2000 crime-comedy from “Sullivans Travels”).
The film’s middle third depicts some intense violence among the hobos. Sullivan is mistakenly arrested and sent to a prison camp. There follows a beautiful heart-rending scene in a Southern Black church. According to Turner Classic Movies, “the film treats the African-American characters there with a level of respect unusual in films of the period.” Walter White, the Secretary of the NAACP at the time wrote to director Preston Sturges:
I want to congratulate and thank you for the church sequence in Sullivan’s Travels. This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a moving picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene.
I won’t say more but I commend both “Nomadland” and “Sullivan’s Travels” to film buffs who enjoy the medium both as entertainment and social commentary.