Friday, September 25, 2020

Pushed Down the Road

 Nomadland (2020) - Zhao

In the film's prologue, it is stated that the high desert mining town of Empire, seized to exist after the company shutting down its operation during the 2008 economic meltdown. The town's residents were forced to relocate and it became a ghost town. It lost its postal zipcode status even. Welcome to the dark side of corporate America. 

Frances McDormand disappears into the role of a woman living in her van in Chloé Zhao's affecting humanist sketch(es) from the seldom seen Americana. These are people without homes, living in their cars, moving up and down the American West, taking menial jobs to support their hands-to-mouth living in the margin of society. Mcdormand is Fern, a widowed woman first seen in a large Amazon facilities sorting out the orders during Christmas time. She, like many other Americans, take part in seasonal jobs like working in Amazon warehouses.

Fern befriends with characters like Linda May and Swankie, who are playing fictional version of themselves and who are not far from themselves. They all have stories to tell. They are in fact living the original spirit of America, on the road, in their cars, rather than having a picket fences and lawn and dogs and family. The difference is that they are forced to be on the road, not for the romantic notion of free spirited of the American West.

Hitting the road is an American concept. More so than a German (Autobahn and all that) one. I mention this because of I remember the talk I had with the great Berlin School director Christian Petzold whose films often present people in transit. There’s even a paper written about the role of the fugitive family’s white Volvo in one of his movies (The State I am in). He told me that his characters hit the road not because of the notion of some misguided freedom and romanticism which the post war affluence brought- in films of Wim Wenders for instance, but because of financial hardship brought on by global economic downturn. 

I mean, there's quite a bit of romaticism too in Nomadland- because this land is just too god-damn beautiful wherever you go. Arizona's desert, Nothern California's Redwood Forests, Nevada, anywhere Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards point their camera at, there is poetry everywhere, even though in the next scene Fern and her colleagues are cleaning puke stains from the toilet seat of a public bathroom of the camp ground, shitting into the one gallon bucket inside their vans and scraping gunk off the grills of tourist trap chain restaurants. The cars of their choice is not Pontiac GTO from Two-Lane Blacktop or some gigantic RV, it’s modified non-descript van you see in construction sites.

There's a sort of love interest in there too for Fern, in the form of David Strathairn, who plays Dave, an aging dad and grandpa who's been running away from his sons and family but eventually goes back to the normal life.

Zhao is obviously very talented at getting unbelievably natural performances out of professional actors and non-professionals alike. McDormand's performance is undoubtedly immensely moving. Each stories of friendship and human connections are also extremely touching without being ever succumbing to cheap sentimentality. Too bad that music goes all extra gooey. With Zhao's documentary aesthetic of the film doesn't really need any soundtrack other than what mother nature provides, in my humble opinion.

Still, it seems Zhao is headed for greatness. Her ability to find an intimacy between a rock and a hard place is truly remarkable. I hope she keeps it up.