Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Nomadland


Chloé Zhao: Nomadland (US/DE 2020) starring Frances McDormand as Fern.

Nomadland / Nomadland.
    US / DE © 2020 20th Century Studios. P: Highwayman Films / Hear/Say Productions / Cor Cordium Productions. Theatrical distribution in the US: Searchlight Pictures. P: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao.
    D+SC+ED: Chloé Zhao – based on the book Nomadland : Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder. DP+PD: Joshua James Richards – colour – 1,90:1 (IMAX) – 2,39:1 – CFast 2.0 – source format: ProRes 4444 (3.sK) – master format: 2K – release: D-Cinema. AD: Elizabeth Godar, Tom Obed. Cost: Hannah Peterson. M: Ludovico Einaudi. S: Sergio Diaz, Zach Seivers – Dolby Digital / IMAX 6-Track / DTS / Dolby Atmos.
    C: Frances McDormand (Fern), Gay DeForest (Gay), Patricia Grier (Patty), Angela Reyes (Angela), Carl R. Hughes (Carl), Douglas G. Soul (Doug), Ryan Aquino (Ryan), Teresa Buchanan (Teresa), Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder (Karie), David Strathairn (Dave), Tay Strathairn (James).
    Themselves: Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells.
    Locations:
    South Dakota: Badlands, Wall Drug, Custer State Park, Deadwood.
    Nebraska: Scottsbluff.
    Nevada: Empire, Black Rock Desert.
    California: Northern California coast: Mendocino County: Point Arena. – San Bernardino County.
    Arizona: Yuma.
    108 min
    Triple festival premiere: 11 Sep 2020 Toronto / Venice / Telluride Los Angeles Drive-In.
    Finnish festival premiere: 19 Sep 2020 Helsinki International Film Festival.
    Planned Finnish theatrical premiere: 26 March 2021 – distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Finland with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Timo Porri / Janne Staffans.
    Corona security: max 6 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Press screening at Tennispalatsi 5, Helsinki, 16 March 2021.

Official synopsis: "Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, NOMADLAND features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West."

AA: Nomadland is a masterpiece and a great American movie, directed by Chloé Zhao, a Chinese, featuring an exceptional performance by Frances McDormand in the leading role.

Nomadland revisits basic concepts of the Western and overturns the classic desert vs. civilization dialectics. A company town turns into a ghost town, and Fern, a diligent worker, turns into a nomad, a van-dweller. Her quest takes her to the end of the West, to the Pacific Ocean. There is even a good man who loves her. In the finale we realize that Nomadland is indeed a great love story, too, but Fern's choice is not what we might expect.

Nomadland belongs to a thriving topical trend of women directors reinventing the Western, including Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff), Sofia Coppola (True Grit) and Emma Tammi (The Wind). The female Western has a long lineage, starting with Nell Shipman and Texas Guinan. Because of Nomadland's stark realism I was also thinking about The Lady of the Dugout, directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Nomadland is profoundly landscape-driven. The cinematic revelation of landscape as soulscape was discovered before the WWI simultaneously by Americans (Griffith, Ince) and Frenchmen following the Lumière inspiration such as Perret. Ever since it has been a basic attraction of the Western. A major reinventor of the landscape-soulscape epiphany was Antonioni, who as a guest director even made an American film (Zabriskie Point). As for Zhao, she has a fresh and original way to see the landscape and the talent to make the familiar to look unfamiliar. The cinematographer Joshua James Richards creates powerful compositions and visions in scope. They need to be seen on a cinema screen for full impact.

The anti-glamour approach brings to mind Agnès Varda's nomadland saga Sans toit ni loi. It also evokes 1930s Depression classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, but Nomadland is not a political film. It states facts bluntly, and the viewer is free to draw one's consequences, but Chloé Zhao is not interested in social engagement. In a way, her film is closer to Dersu Uzala. Like in Kurosawa's film, the nomad is invited to join friendly and loving family circumstances, but Fern's choice is the same as Dersu's. The mythical Japanese practice of ubasute (the old person retreating to a mountain top to die) familiar from film adaptations of The Ballad of Narayama, comes to mind.

The idea of suicide is evoked. The terminally ill Swankie returns to Alaska and sends Fern a video of the mountain with hundreds of swallow nests that was his greatest dream to revisit. Fern stands by the Pacific Ocean and contemplates the crushing waves. "Goodnight Irene" is being sung as a lullaby ("sometimes I get a notion / to jump into the ocean"). But taking her own life is the path Fern will not take. Nomadland is a work of Stoicism. Chloé Zhao is Chinese, and I do not know Chinese philosophy. Might we be dealing with a Confucian Western?

Though not a work of social engagement, Nomadland is full of rich and vivid social observation. Based on Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book, it is an engrossing account of the modern American nomad culture featuring several real-life nomads, including the charismatic leader and spokesman Bob Wells.

Visiting her sister, Fern joins a dinner with successful real estate businessmen, and her frank opinions about their line of work instantly brand her as an outsider in the family.

Amazon is a key presence in Nomadland. We see unforgettable views of endless Amazon storage halls. Fern is always a welcome worker there, and contrary to what we might expect, Amazon is portrayed as a fair and just employer. One of Nomadland's many aspects is that it is a fascinating survey on the life of the workers today, including camaraderie, friendship, fun and dancing. It is a saga of the deferential worker who is getting dealt a bad hand.

It is also a grim revelation about never affording to retire. A classic text relevant to the discourse, “The End of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford to Stop Working”, first published by Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 329, No. 1971, August 2014, is quoted in the final credits. Unmentioned in the movie and not relevant to it but unavoidable for me as a critic to observe as an aside is the role of Amazon in this context. Big Tech companies such as Amazon have destroyed the livelihood of millions of people working in the cultural field, in professions of literature, art, publishing, media and criticism, because people have been taught to expect everything for free online. Thanks to the business logic of advertising, creative talents get nothing, and Big Tech gets all.

Zhao's emphasis is wider, expanding into cosmic views. In the desert we are closer to the stars. Zhao does not shrink from kitchen sink realism, but she also keeps casually returning to Shakespeare, having Fern quote both Macbeth ("tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow") and the 18th Sonnet ("shall I compare thee to a summer's day").

The performances of actors and real-life nomads blend together seamlessly. There is psychological depth in the characters, the film keeps growing in my mind, and it demands to be seen again.

American cinema has always been great in welcoming foreign talent, in the course generating some of the best movies of all times from Murnau (Sunrise) to Polanski (Chinatown). We can now add Chloé Zhao and Nomadland into their number.

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