“Nomadland” - Chloé Zhao (2020)

Nomadland (2020) is an award-winning drama whose approach to the realism of its subject matter is both original and also something that underlies the film’s themes.  This film is a story about “vandwellers” in America – people who live in campervans, RVs, mobile homes, or modified buses and have no fixed abode.  Although the film is a work of dramatic fiction, it is closely based on a nonfiction book that documents the lives of these wandering vandwellers, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder (in fact Jessica Bruder is credited as a “consulting producer” for the film).  Moreover, almost all of the people who appear in this film are real-life nomadic vandwellers with no prior acting experience.  They are just playing themselves.  

However, Nomadland is not an example of fly-on-the-wall cinema verite.  It is a carefully crafted drama, with masterful cinematography by Joshua James Richards and haunting sound-track music by Ludovico Einaudi.  Neither is it quite appropriate to categorize this film as another example of Italian neo-realism, because there are certain distinguishing aspects of this film that make it rather unique.  

For one thing the film was written, directed, edited and co-produced by Chinese-born American Chloé Zhao, and although Ms. Zhao received a film education at NYU film school, she brings her own original, externally-based eye to the aspects of American life that she writes and films about.  In the context of this film, she seems fascinated by a phenomenon of growing general alienation that is starting to emerge among many ordinary people in America.  And as this film shows, many people have no choice but to accept it.  

So alienation is clearly one important aspect of Nomadland, but there are also other thematic elements present, as well, and these all collectively contribute to reasons for why Zhao’s film has been so remarkably well-received.  On the awards front, Nomadland had almost a clean sweep.  The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (and nominations in three other categories) at the 93rd U.S. Academy Awards.  It won the Golden Lion (best film) at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.  It was chosen as Best Film at the 74th British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs).  And at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, it won an award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and an award for Best Director.  And among top film critics, Nomadland has been widely praised [1,2,3,4,5,6,7].

The meandering story of Nomadland is concerned with a sixtyish woman, Fern (played by award-winning actress Frances McDormand), who has just embarked on a new life as a nomadic vandweller.  She and her husband had worked for years at a gypsum plant in small company-town Empire, Nevada.  But now the gypsum company has shut down, and her husband has just died, leaving the childless Fern alone and with no means of support.  So she purchases a van and converts it into something she can live in while she travels about looking for work.  When asked if she is homeless, she responds with no, she is “houseless”.  

The entire film then focalizes exclusively on Fern as she travels about the western United States in search of odd jobs that she can use for support.  However, Fern is so laid-back and laconic that much of what we learn in the film about vandwellers comes not from Fern, but from the fellow vandwellers that she meets and interacts with.  And as I mentioned, virtually everyone Fern meets is a real-life vandwelling nomad.  Nevertheless, Frances McDormand’s pensive performance as Fern is crucial to the success of the film.  As the film proceeds, we want to know more about what Fern is thinking and feeling.

After Fern heads out on the road from the shutting down town of Empire, she secures a seasonal job at a massive Amazon fulfilment center (warehouse for third-party shipping).  Although the workers don’t appear to be mistreated, the sheer size of the operation makes everyone on the floor like a tiny cog in a gigantic machine.  This is a telling visual metaphor for the impending gig economy and streamlined supply chain that so many ordinary people are now facing.

One of Fern’s coworkers at the warehouse, Linda, convinces her to come to a meet-up for vandwellers in the Arizona desert.  The event is hosted by Bob Wells, a charismatic real-life nomad who seeks to organize cooperative support for his fellow vandwellers.  Although some  vandwellers are middle-class retirees who have embraced this way of life in order to fulfill their love for freedom and the open road, most of these people are like Fern – forced by poverty to live in a van.  At Wells’s meet-ups these people can share tricks and info about how to get by on the road.

Later Fern meets and becomes friends with a congenial elderly woman nomad, Swankie, from whom she learns more about survival under impecunious circumstances on the road.  Swankie also tells her that she, herself, has terminal cancer, but she wants to close out her life on the open road rather than in a hospital.

After the extended encounter with Swankie, Fern is shown working in the Black Hills, South Dakota, where she runs into Dave (David Strathairn, the only other actor in the film with significant professional acting experience), a mild-mannered elderly nomad she had seen earlier in Arizona.  They go on to meet on several further occasions, and Dave politely indicates to Fern that he is interested in having her stay with him in a long-term relationship.  But ultimately Fern resists the temptation and decides to stick to her life of independence on the open road.

There is also an occasion when Fern’s van has a serious breakdown, and she has to go ask her married sister in California for a loan in order to pay for the repairs.  When Fern goes to her sister’s upper-middle class home, we can see the contrast in the two sisters’ lifestyles; and we hope the encounter will shed some light on the taciturn Fern’s background.  But it becomes clear that the sister has always been as much in the dark about Fern’s thoughts and feelings as we viewers are now.  Anyway, the sister does loan the money to Fern, and the van gets fixed.

Fern has further encounters with Bob Wells and other van-dwelling nomads, before eventually returning for one last nostalgic visit to Empire, Nevada, which is by this time almost a ghost town.  Then at the end of the film, she heads back out on the road.

So overall, Nomadland is a bleak, moody film that effectively conveys inescapable feelings of loneliness and a sense of loss.  But there are three connected thematic elements in the film that linger in my mind and warrant further comment:
  • Is the Gig-Economy the Future of Labour?
  • What Role Does Narrative Play in Nomadland?
  • To What Degree is a Self Defined by Narrative?
These are not items really explicitly addressed in Nomadland, but they were tangentially evoked when I watched the film.

1.  Is the Gig-Economy the Future of Labour?

Watching Nomadland made me wonder whether the traditional nature of U.S. socioeconomic society is collapsing (and since the U.S. is at the forefront of social evolution, this applies eventually to everywhere else, too).  With management increasingly centralized and specific jobs increasingly objectified and compartmentalized, the labour environment is more and more moving towards a gig-economy.  For digital workers, this can mean more and more digital nomads – people who can perform their jobs from remote locations and can therefore live anywhere.  But for hands-on gig workers, such as those depicted in Nomadland, it means that anyone looking for work must travel to the site of the job location and secure the gig-job.  In other words, they have to be nomads.

The positive side to all this is that there are likely to be available jobs for itinerants.  But of course the downside is that the jobs are reduced to lowest-common-denominator specifications and are often low-skilled and low-paid.

Chloé Zhao doesn’t take up this general social issue and its ramifications at all in Nomadland.  But what she does show is the lifestyles of the nomads and their various ways of dealing with the inherent loneliness in “nomadland”.

2.  What Role Does Narrative Play in Nomadland?
Almost all films (as well as dramas, stories, and novels) have a narrative that provides a structure for the events depicted.  The metastructure of these narratives is often characterized metaphorically as a journey.  There are one or more protagonists on such a “journey” who are struggling to reach a desired “destination”, and there are usually other agents along the way who assist or stand in the way of progress.  Much has been written about the narrative-as-journey metaphor [8,9,10,11,12], notably the more formalized characterization of it known as the “hero’s journey” [13] that was popularized by Joseph Campbell [14].

In the present context concerning Nomadland, we don’t have to delve into the various narrative characterizations, because in this case, I don’t see that the film even has a narrative.  Although one might at first think Fern is on some sort of journey, nether the destination nor the overall scheme of that journey is ever specified.  We never know what the wandering Fern wants or is thinking.  All we get is a random sequence of scenes depicting haphazard encounters that have no clear outcome – at least no outcome with respect to a given quest.  We never really learn much about what goes on inside Fern’s head or indeed who she is.  But then maybe that is the point.  Fern’s lack of a narrative is what this film is about.

3.  To What Degree is a Self Defined by Narrative?
It is often claimed that we basically model all the people we meet in terms of the narratives we construct about them, and this is how we to know and understand them [9,10,11].  It is in terms of these narratives that we know them.  We even think of ourselves in terms of the narratives constructed by ourselves and others about ourselves.  So is it really true, is that all there is to the self – the narrative that has been constructed to characterize it?  Are you and I just the stories we have constructed about ourselves?  There is dispute on that score.

Some philosophers, usually objectivists, maintain that, yes, that is all there is to the self – the narrative story (or stories) that provides a comprehensible, temporally-oriented scheme of who you are.  They argue further that any idea that there is some inner being constituting the true self is a self-deceptive hallucination.  The only existing selves, they insist, are the fabricated narratives that have long been constructed (since caveman days) to facilitate human interactions extended over time.

But there are other thinkers, both esteemed Western philosophers [15] and respected Eastern sages [16,17], who hold that there are really two essential aspects of the self:
  • an outer, worldly, narrative-based self 
  • an inner self that is founded on core-consciousness
According to this second, more nuanced scheme, it is the inner, core-consciousness-based self that is the true being that identifies who you are.  And this is the self-perspective that I find more natural, and I would guess that Chloé Zhao thinks this way, too.  It usually follows under this scheme that when a person’s inner core-consciousness gets the feeling that its constructed narrative-based self is somehow unfulfilling and leaves it disconnected from meaningful interactions in the world, it then feels alienated.  This sense of alienation can be difficult to articulate, but it lies as a root element of existentialist thinking, and it has been eloquently expressed by such writers as Albert Camus [18] and Jean-Paul Sartre [19], as well as in a number of memorable films [20].  And it is Fern’s alienation that is the artistic key to Nomadland.

As I mentioned, the film Nomadland doesn’t really seem to have its own narrative, and that comes down to the fact that the film’s main character, Fern, doesn’t appear to have a narrative-based self at all.  It’s not just an unsatisfactory narrative-based self, as it often is with some people; here in Fern’s case, it is a virtual narrative void.  She doesn’t appear to have had much meaningful interaction with her family when she was growing up.  And now that her husband has died and she has lost her longtime job and home, there is nothing left of her adult life on which to base her narrative self.  Her life is empty.  And that is what makes the film problematic.  Can a film succeed without being driven by a narrative journey?  In the case of Nomadland, I would say it more or less does succeed.   

Even though I am aligned with the philosophical position that the narrative self is not the most intrinsic aspect of the self, having only a severely diminished narrative-based self, like Fern, would be an existential problem.  And it is Fern’s existential problem that is on display in Nomadland.  We viewers want to know more about what Fern is thinking and feeling in response to her barren circumstances, but her contemplative reticence gives us little to chew on and leaves us wanting more.  Frances McDormand’s subtle, laid-back performance as Fern is crucial here.  We follow her gaze and guess about her feelings all the way, but our fascination persists.  And that is what lies at the heart of Nomadland.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. A.O. Scott, “‘Nomadland’ Review: The Unsettled Americans”, The New York Times, (18 February 2021, 26 April 2021).   
  2. Brian Tallerico, “Nomadland”, RogerEbert.com, (19 February 2021).   
  3. Beatrice Loayza, “Nomadland finds beauty on the rugged, ruthless open road”, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (28 April 2021).   
  4. MaryAnn Johanson, “Nomadland movie review: ain’t that America”, flick filosopher, (6 May 2021).   
  5. Murtaza Ali Khan, "’Nomadland’ Review: An inspiring tale of survival that presents the modern-day American West in a new light”, A Potpourri of Vestiges,, (4 April 2021).   
  6. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Nomadland”, The Austin Chronicle, (19 February 2021).   
  7. Chris Barsanti, “Review: ‘Nomadland’ Is a Sorrowful Lament for Lives on America’s Fringes", Slant Magazine, (12 September 2020).   
  8. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory),  (1990), Northwestern.
  9. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality", Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21, (1991).
  10. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  11. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press. 
  12. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions (1998).
  13. “Hero’s Journey”, Wikipedia, (17 September 2021).     
  14. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1st edition, Bollingen Foundation (1949), 2nd edition, Princeton University Press (1990), 3rd edition, New World Library (2008).
  15. Dan Zahavi, "Self and Narrative: the Limits of Narrative Understanding", Narrative  and  Understanding  Persons, D. D. Hutto  (ed),  Royal  Institute  of  Philosophy Supplement 60, Cambridge University Press, pp. 179-201, (9 August 2007).  
  16. Paramahansa Yogananda, God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, Self-Realization Fellowship, (1 September 2001).  
  17. Ching Hai, I Have Come to Take You Home: A Collection of Quotes and Spiritual Teachings from the Supreme Master Ching Hai, Sophie Lapaire and Pamela Millar (eds.), SMCHIA Publishing Co., (1 January 1995).   
  18. Albert Camus, The Stranger (L'Étranger), Gallimard, (1942).  
  19. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (La Nausée), Éditions Gallimard, (1938).
  20. The Film Sufi, “Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi, (15 July 2008).   

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