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On the (non)politics of Nomadland

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I saw Nomadland last night, and have some thoughts (Spoilers ahead, although the film’s plot is sparse).

A lot of reviewers have talked about Nomadland as if it’s some sort of statement about economic displacement/homelessness in 21st century America. This seems to me a knee-jerk reaction to the subject matter, or perhaps to the source material — Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book about van life in the wake of the Great Recession, which I haven’t read.

Despite the subject matter, the film itself is largely if not completely apolitical, indeed almost obtrusively so, if that makes sense. Abigail Nussbaum’s short review of it on LGM gets this exactly right:

Despite being painted as a political movie about rising inequality in America (and despite the fraught discourse over whether it whitewashes conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centers—an insistence that seems extreme give that these only appear in two short scenes in a two-hour movie), when I finally got around to watching Nomadland, I was struck by how apolitical it felt. Most of the people depicted here—including an invented character played by Frances McDormand and many people who are playing themselves—are nomads by choice, and the connections that that choice has to the way that the American economy pushes many people towards the bottom are, for the most part, outside the scope of the film’s story. Which in some ways makes Nomadland not too dissimilar to Chicago 7—a movie that reminds people of politics while avoiding anything that might come off as too controversial or radical. On the other hand, you have Chloé Zhao’s masterful, poetic direction, McDormand’s typically excellent performance as a woman who has to be in constant motion, and a virtually plotless yet gripping narrative that successfully puts you in the headspace of such people, and offers a window onto their community. The result is an experience that is almost seductive, even as you realize that it’s leaving a lot of stuff out of frame.

After watching the film, I thought about it in the context of three books (again, I haven’t read the Jessica Bruder book on which it’s based): Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Kathryn Edin’s and Luke Shaefer’s $2 a Day, and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. What’s striking about Nomadland, when considered in such a context, is that it’s not really about poverty in America at all, or rather it is in only a very superficial sense.

Nomadland is focused overwhelmingly on Fern, McDormand’s character, while by far the most important secondary character is her almost-romantic interest, Dave, played by David Strathaim (Most of the other characters in the film are real people who play themselves, as Nomadland reflects and extends the cinema verite genre).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Fern and Dave are part of rich families from which each has chosen to be estranged, at least temporarily: Fern’s sister, who obviously loves and cares for her, lives a clearly upper class life, and implores Fern to live with her and her husband, while Dave’s son and wife apparently own what appears to be a multi-million dollar property — a big beautiful house with a guest house on a huge plot of land within spitting distance of what looks like Big Sur and environs [ETA: Apparently it’s actually the Mendocino area of California’s north coast; thanks to commenter johio for the correction] — and they too are eager to take Dave and Fern in.

As for the characters in the film who may or may not be in some sort of serious non-volitional economic distress, they are barely present: there’s a short scene in which three people make brief statements about how they came to be on the road, and that’s about it. (Swankie, an elderly woman who is dying of cancer, is in an ambiguous economic situation, but again there’s essentially no focus on whether she’s actually struggling economically).

None of this is a criticism, by the way: The film doesn’t really deal with poverty in America, nomadic or otherwise, because that’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is an older single (widowed) woman, who has suffered a deep psychological wound from the loss of her husband, and has adopted a nomadic lifestyle, apparently in large part as a means for coping with her grief.

As such, it’s a tenderly elegiac film, that takes full advantage of the bleak inhuman beauty of what in less euphemistic times was known as the Great American Desert — the vast expanse of this country, from the middle of Nebraska to the Pacific Ocean — that is critically short on water but long on astounding landscapes.

I’ve also been thinking about what it means that Nomadland won the Oscar for Best Picture, given that it was directed by a woman of East Asian heritage. I suppose it’s an irony under the circumstances that almost everybody in the film is white: the film is much whiter than America in 2021, and very much whiter than poverty in America today, which is another reason why it really has almost nothing to do with that subject except in a very superficial sense.

The feminist angle in regard to all this is much more significant: Chloe Zhao is telling a woman’s story from a perspective that’s surely influenced by the director’s gender, especially given that Fern doesn’t fit any of the categories of acceptable lead female characters featured in Hollywood big studio productions.

It’s also worth noting that there’s essentially no mass theater audience for this kind of film in the USA: despite being offered in more than one thousand theaters for a couple of weeks after its Best Picture nomination, Nomadland has made about two million dollars in US theaters (Back of the enveloping suggests that the typical showing during his mass distribution release had about four paying customers). Interestingly, the film has found a significant international audience, as overseas ticket sales have accounted for nearly 90% of its total box office revenues (I know nothing about how the economics of streaming etc. play into making this kind of project commercially viable. Obviously it’s the kind of film that gets made now by a major studio only because a superstar actor like McDormand really wants to make it).

Nothing is more justly irritating to artists than to be criticized for making a film about A when the critic would have preferred to see a film about B, and again nothing I’ve written here should be taken as a criticism of Nomadland per se. But it would be great to see somebody turn $2 a Day or Evicted into a big budget movie, not that anybody should hold their breath waiting for this to happen.

In the meantime, Nomadland is well worth seeing, especially if you can catch it on a big screen somewhere.

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