Monday, September 14, 2020


While watching Chloe Zhao’s excellent Nomadland I was immediately reminded of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy. I imagine Frances Mcdormand’s “Fern” is where Michelle William’s “Wendy” will be in 30 years after the events of Wendy & Lucy. But then realism set in. The realism that Zhao portrays in that even if you want to be a nomad/gypsy/transient, you still have to have some sort of steady/regular-ish income in order to live/exist in the specific way both Wendy & Fern want to live. There has to be some kind of a “trail”...

You can’t get an address without an address. You get a job without a job. It’s all fixed - Security Guard (Wendy & Lucy)

I like Wendy & Lucy very much but there is a bit of fantasy to it. The plans & goals set in the film don't seem realistic. Unlike Wendy, Fern has her shit together a bit more (she's also older and more experienced). Fern isn’t exactly homeless. To use her own words; I’m not homeless. I am without a house. She lives in a camper/RV. She also has a bit of money saved and would be eligible for retirement benefits (although not enough to live off of at this point in her life). She’s part of a community of people who live in campers/RVs/cars/vans/etc. This (real) community exists because they are the remnants of the small town of Empire, Nevada that essentially went extinct (Empire was kept alive by a local mine which employed a lot of the town. When the mine closed the town slowly died). Midway in to Wendy & Lucy there is some brief talk about how a mill closed in town leaving a lot of people jobless, making the bond between the two films even stronger.
Fern and her small community get by working various part time & seasonal jobs in order to live and maintain their nomadic lifestyle. At Nomadland feels like a mix between a documentary on day to day living and a handy instructional video on nomadic life. We’re shown how to maintain a camper, how to fix flat tires, how to barter for the right stuff and how to live in tight/small spaces. This makes a lot of sense as Zhao’s first films are just as much fiction as they are non-fiction (her previous films use real people/non-professional actors from the actual communities that Zhao documents in her work).

Nomadland is an obvious comment on the idea of work and what it actually means to have a job (along with the struggles of being unemployed). If I were to compare it to other films, I’d say it was kind of a continuation of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. If anything, some of the characters in Sorry We Missed You will eventually be forced to live like Fern and her friends down the road as the cost of living continues to go up everywhere. Nomadland is also a close 2nd cousin to Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You (definitely not in tone but in terms of major companies literally using poor people to keep the machine going). The way Zhao uses amazon in her latest film is similar to how Boots Riley portrays google in his.
Actually, I'm kind of confused/surprised as to how Amazon allowed their factories and logos to be used all throughout a movie that's about poor people working for them and not being able to make a living wage.

Vagabond /

And I imagine at some point down the road some film programmer will pair Nomadland with Agnes Varda’s Vagabond as part of some themed double feature. The basic skeletal stories have much in common and they’re shot similarly (one thing I did notice is that unlike the other aforementioned movies in this review, Chloe Zhao doesn’t really play up the added layer/danger of a woman living on the road on her own. Perhaps Fern has been in dangerous situations in the past and now knows how to avoid all of that).

Nomadland is also a character study. When Fern is offered help she gets both standoffish and aggressive at the same time. When she’s offered friendship she accepts it but still keeps everyone at a distance. There are various reasons why she lives they way she does (and the film gives little tiny hints and clues as to maybe why that might be), but I think a major reason why is that she’s just wired a certain way that can’t really be described or nailed down. Yes, she’s realistically eccentric, but she’s not “off” or weird or crazy (something I imagine the average person would call her). Just mildly eccentric (although not in a distracting way). This aspect of the story is interesting as Mcdormand really nails the little tiny mannerisms and shows a side of her acting we really haven’t seen before. And while she gives an excellent performance and the cinematography is beautiful, this is an incredibly dreary & depressing movie at the end of the day (besides poverty, cancer is another element that plays a major part in this movie in many little small ways).

Chloe Zhao has found her lane as a filmmaker which is why I’m a little perplexed that she’s directing The Eternals for marvel next. I know this sounds like the typical "cinephile" getting snooty but this is a legitimate concern. I’ve seen all but five marvel films in the theater so I don’t want this to be seen as an anti-marvel rant, but after watching this (excellent) film I really don’t get what she can contribute to the marvel machine at this point. I’m glad she’s getting marvel money and I understand she is a fan of the comic, but Marvel isn’t exactly a director friendly system. Zhao directs, produces, write and sometimes edits all of her work. Seems like an odd transition to make. Marvel has their mold/cookie cutter system at this point. 
I guess what I’m trying to say is I’d really like for her to stay in the lane she’s in right now because she’s so good at what she does (I really don’t want this to come off like I’m being critical of Zhao or that she can’t tackle the world of marvel). And who am I to tell an artist to stay in their lane?
Either way, I’m fine with a great/promising filmmaker getting a lot of money as well as consistent work.


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