Monday, April 26, 2021

In Nomadland, about a homeless rural migrant worker, 'a ghost of a Western' and maybe 'The Grapes of Wrath'

Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Nomadland, which won big at the Academy Awards last night—Best Picture, Best Lead Actress (Frances McDormand), and Best Director (Chloé Zhao) — presents a complicated portrait of the rural West and the gig economy.

The film follows Fern, a widowed former teacher in her 60s, who becomes a van-dwelling migrant gig worker after the factory shutters in her rural Nevada town. It's based on the 2018 nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder, who lived in a van for three years and followed itinerant gig workers to research it.

Critics and Nevadans have praised the film for its authenticity, saying it faithfully depicts rural Nevada. And if the characters are realistic, it's because many are actual migrant gig-workers, not actors. Nomadland also manages to avoid common Hollywood tropes that show rural areas as full of simple bigots, dangerous freaks, or salt-of-the-earth down-home folks; a feat Oscar contender Hillbilly Elegy could not duplicate, Stephen Humphries writes for The Christian Science Monitor.

But the film pulls its punches in showing how dangerous menial gigs can be, especially for seniors, and ignores Bruder's pointed economic critiques. In the book, she describes the nomads as "plug-and-play labor, the epitome of convenience for employers in search of seasonal staffing. They appear where and when they are needed. They bring their own homes … They aren’t around long enough to unionize. On jobs that are physically difficult, many are too tired even to socialize after their shifts." One 77-year-old worker told Bruder that "They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up, work hard, and are basically slave labor."

"Because the film is primarily a character study of [Fern], it exchanges Bruder’s sharp indignation over capitalist exploitation for a muddled message about individual freedom that downplays the real stakes of gig labor," Wilfred Chan writes for Vulture.

Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker in November, "Somewhere, inside this lovely and desperate movie, there’s the ghost of a Western. Though people still gather around a campfire, their talk is of cancer and P.T.S.D.  Instead of cowboys driving cattle to high pastures, Fern and her kindred spirits converge, in certain months, on an Amazon warehouse—still obeying the rhythm of the seasons, I guess, as they bubble-wrap junk and box it in time for Christmas. . . . It maintains a fierce sadness, like the look in its heroine’s eyes, alive to all that’s dying in the West. That is why Zhao so often films at daylight’s decease, catching enormous skies of violet and rose, and why her fable speaks to us, in 2020, as John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” did to audiences eighty years ago. Fern’s needs and rights are as basic as those of the Joad family, yet there was a breadth and an uplift to their yearning that has since dwindled to a speck. “Fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul,” Tom Joad said. “The one big soul that belongs to everybody.” Some hope. Fern has her own soul, and it’s hers alone, packed away tight in the van, together with her toothbrush and her chicken-noodle soup. On she goes."

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