“See you down the road.” At the Oscars, where actual nomads will be cleared off the streets ahead of time.
Nomadland is a beautiful thing to behold. For ninety minutes director Chloe Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards immerse you in a haunting, haunted, Whistler-esque landscape awash in deep blues, greens, and grays. It’s gorgeous and subtle, at times stunning. Rarely has a movie captured golden hour so well, the inverse correlative of Christopher Nolan’s use of endless twilight in the stunning (and underrated) Insomnia. It’s one of those rare non-CGI’d movies that makes you go, “I’ve never seen that before.” It’s art at a very high level. The images stay with you long after the credits role. The Ludovico Einaudi soundtrack is its own minor masterpiece that like the landscape becomes its own character. And of course there’s bona fide American treasure Francis McDormand giving a performance for the ages as the wayfaring Fern.
If the movie consisted of nothing more than the soundtrack playing over lingering shots of McDormand and panoramic vistas of nomadic vehicles wandering highways like herds of Pleistocene mastiffs, I’d have it on loop. One of the remarkable aspects of Nomadland is that it captivates despite lacking anything resembling a plot. You’ll search in vain for a three act structure. There’s no initiating incident, no plunge into conflict, no dark night of the soul, no character or story arcs. The movie ends as it begins. On one hand it makes for a masterful bit of film. I can’t remember the last time I was thoroughly entranced for 90 minutes by a movie in which virtually nothing happens. As a meditation on the human condition it’s transcendent.
All of which is why, to quote nearly every bad Yelp review ever, I really wanted to like this movie. I’ve loved McDormand ever since she stole the scene as the manic helicopter mom Dot in the Coen Bros’ Raising Arizona (“He’s just got to have his dip-tet right this very minute!”). Alas, Nomadland fails artistically and even morally – not because of anything that happens on screen (or rather, not really) but because of the machinations that led to its creation. The movie’s, indeed its fatal flaw, the transgression that renders the rest of it academic, is its kid-gloves treatment of working conditions in an Amazon fulfillment center. Actually, “kid gloves” is giving the moviemakers too much credit: Its outright corporate propaganda. The company’s labor practices are the stuff of hideous legend. Just last month it beat back the latest effort by workers to unionize. Yet in Nomadland the fulfillment center workers are passively content and neutered, dutifully packing boxes and tagging items in a warehouse that appears to be approximately the size of New South Wales.
A frivolous display of anti-capitalism capitalism
In the context of the rest of the movie – and indeed, in the context of our current historical moment – the Amazon scenes aren’t just gratuitous, they’re grotesque. The very first scene inside the fulfillment center is a carefully crafted bit of corporate public relations in which a floor manager leads her team in a safety review and a sort of looking glass version of the Walmart Cheer. Then there are a few non-feather-ruffling shots of Fern unhurriedly packing up boxes, lifting boxes, carrying boxes (no repetitive stress injuries, bulging disks, or crushed fingers in this fulfillment center!). She jokes around with coworkers and never seems in much of a rush to get anywhere. This is followed by a scene in the company mess where workers sit happily around a table eating a healthy lunch, introducing each other, and swapping stories. In one scene Fern sits in here camper watching a survivalist video, and the man in the video talks about “a support system for people who need help now.” The move cuts directly to a shot Fern on one of her happy walks through the fulfillment center. Not exactly subtle.
It’s as if Zhao is saying, “See, it’s safe and fun to work for Jeff Bezos! May we have our Oscars now, sir?”
Amazon’s centrality to the movie is apparent in form as well as spirit: The fulfillment center literally bookends the movie. It appears for the first time barely four minutes in, the first recurring character we meet other than Fern herself. Visually, Zhao and Richards consciously set the building in juxtaposition to the lowly storage unit where the movie introduces Fern: Her world is cramped and dark, full of old, used, and deteriorating stuff. In contrast the Amazon center is a warm, brightly lit, sprawling panoply of possibility, populated by conscientious floor managers and happy, smiling comrades – er, coworkers. Seemingly endless opportunity. The center appears a final time near the very end, the closest to a return home for Fern the movie offers. For all its visual and emotional subtly, Nomadland is anything but nuanced when it comes to economics: The people making this film knew exactly which side their bread was buttered on. All that’s missing is a giant picture of Bezos himself smiling benevolently over the work floor.
This is a movie about the shattered lives of millions of Americans whose jobs have been destroyed by the gig economy, first and foremost by Amazon itself. Yet the distribution center is portrayed the way John Steinbeck portrayed the Salinas Valley Hooverville in The Grapes of Wrath: An island of stability, safety, plenty, even hope for the future in an otherwise crumbling world. Again, all that’s missing is a closing shot of Fern wetnursing an infant in an Amazon shipping container (during golden hour, natch). The difference, of course, is that Hoovervilles were actual relief camps that (at least theoretically) provided actual help to actual out of work Americans. Amazon fulfillment centers exist largely to exploit those same kinds of people in the name of shareholder value. As I said, I love her as an actor. It is to her everlasting credit that she consistently cedes the spotlight to the other actors in the movie – many of whom are actual nomads. Still, it’s queasy to watch her pretend to suffer, knowing the reality behind the film.
How can a movie provide one of the world’s most ruthlessly exploitative corporations, not to mention one of the world’s richest individuals, with a few minutes of invaluable propaganda for free, then turn around and hold itself out as a realistic, even empathetic story about the very people that corporation exploits by the millions every day? According to a recent story in The Wrap, Amazon agreed to work with the filmmakers after Frances McDormand “wrote a nice letter” to amazon.com senior VP of business and corporate development, Jeff Blackburn. “It’s great that we show Fern working in an actual Amazon packaging place,” Richards told the magazine. Well, then. Keep McDormand’s A-list corporate pull in mind as you watch her making believe she’s a penniless gig working nomad.
The thing is, the Amazon scenes are utterly unnecessary. Artistically the movie would not change a whit were they left on the cutting room floor. Indeed, Nomadland’s very core is corporatist and capitalist. Last year, McDormand told The Hollywood Reporter that Amazon’s participation in the movie “a really smart move…we are telling a story about a person who is benefiting from hard work.” If I were Jeff Bezos I’d have fifty foot Nomadland posters installed in every single distribution center, complete with that quote, immediately. Try unionizing that.
Different kinds of dishonesty
Nomadland is dishonest elsewhere. The various camps, parks, and safe parking zones where Fern spends most of her nights will be unrecognizable to anyone who has ever actually visited, much less spent time in actual safe parking zones, RV parks, or homeless camps. In reality those places are hellholes awash in drugs and alcohol, petty crime, violence, and a crushing sense of despair. In the movie they are safe, friendly places where people cook food, share road stories and tips, swap essential items, and even sing songs. At times it’s practically like summer camp for lost grownups. Everyone’s clothes are clean and pressed and they all seem to have just gotten haircuts. There’s not so much as a pimple to be seen. Just like in the amazon.com fulfillment center Fern wanders through the camps while people holler hello. Camp sites are tidy and clean and there is nary a bottle, much less a pipe or a needle, to be found. There’s a scene where campers give each other advice, like how to poop in a van or car and which size bucket to use. The most realistic scene in the camp is when Fern gets diarrhea.
It is in the camps, just like the long meditative shots of Fern’s van plying yet another stretch of highway, where the audience is invited to do their meditating. In one early scene she walks through a makeshift RV camp in the Arizona desert. Again, folks call out to her and invite her to “come sit awhile.” As a delicate piano etude plays, the sun sets over the desert mountains, a child rides past on a bicycle, a group of people perform t’ai ch’i (because again, of course), and another group return from a day’s ride in their off-roaders. No hint of the grim, life-and-death reality faced by millions of actual homeless people, millions of actual nomads.
Reality’s a bitch
The whatever-annual Oscar ceremonies will be broadcast tonight. In anticipation of Hollywood’s Super Bowl local media in L.A. are reporting that the city is quietly removing homeless people and homeless encampments from the area around downtown Union Station where the event will take place. Which is where the story of Nomadland comes full circle to Hollywood’s essential, elemental moral bankruptcy: Multimillionaire actors, writers, directors, and producers will descend on the station in fleets of luxury cars, dressed in gowns and tuxes costing upward of $8,000, to celebrate a movie about the underclass that authorities swept out of their path days, or even just hours, earlier.
A homeless man named DJ told Fox News L.A. that authorities removed scores of tents around Union Station in the week leading up to the big show. “They told us if we didn’t move they were just gonna demolish our stuff.”
Zhao, McDormand, Richards and the rest will smile and wave to the cameras, looking absolutely gorgeous. There will be no actual poor people, no actual homeless people, no actual nomads to sully the photo ops. Perhaps one of them will make some reference to poverty and Evil Capitalism during their acceptance speech. Maybe they’ll see a tent on the corner from the back seat of their limo on the way to the Vanity Fair party. Maybe they’ll reflect for a moment. Maybe.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Amazon has too much at stake for such humanity, and this is Hollywood.