On Nomadland

By Pat Powell

Since my viewing of Chloe Zhou’s Nomadland at a Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) virtual screening in September 2020, I have been meditating on its significance to our present political and cultural moment.

The film follows Fern, the alter-ego of Fran McDormand, in her quest to live an unconventional ‘nomadic’ existence in post-industrial (or post-Empire, to use a Bret Easton Ellis expression) America. In a gonzo meets mockumentary style that works better than it should, McDormand’s fictional self ‘Fern’ seemlessly interacts with real-life nomads, working alongside them, laughing with them, bumming smokes off them.

It all seems terribly authentic, and it is no surprise that Nomadland is a shoe-in for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. However, the film is not without its share of critics. The lion’s share of criticism comes from the political Left, who point to clear deviations from the original source material and particularly from the chronicling of the horrors of working in an Amazon Fulfilment Center. As Wilfred Chan writes in Vulture, “this is where Nomadland stumbles, apparently deciding it wasn’t possible to both portray Fern [the film’s protagonist, played by Francis McDormand] as dignified and depict the grim truth […] it feels less like artistic licence than a betrayal of workers’ reality”.

Nomadland also exposes itself to a more generic form of ridicule typically levelled at the sub-genre of adventure drama in which it sits. Indeed, the portrayal of nomadism as a ‘life-style’ (an expression deserving of ridicule if ever there was one) and alternative to settling (both literally and figuratively) for the quiet desperation of contemporary American life – such a portrayal exposes the film to the same well-worn criticisms of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild – of celebrating irresponsibility, delinquency and the (distinctly upper-middle class) phenomenon known as ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’. Such accusations dovetail with identitarian critiques of director Chloe Zhou herself: as a Tángrén [overseas Chinese] born into unimaginable (for most of us) privilege, it is difficult not to dismiss Zhou’s elegy to America’s most economically marginalised as an elaborate artistic pretext for ‘slumming it’, that is, to “spend time at a lower social level than one’s own through curiosity”.

While I am highly sympathetic to class critiques of Nomadland, I am not willing to question the integrity of Zhou’s motives for making the film, particularly since I am guilty of many of the same indiscretions as she has been accused of committing. Indeed, the film has a profound significance to me as someone who once attempted to do what the character Fern did: in 2013, thoroughly disenchanted with studying a degree that would soon be dubbed ‘the new arts degree’, I made the decision to defer my studies and go, unironically, ‘On the Road’. I purchased a one-way flight to the United States with some money I had saved up living at home rent-free, followed by a used 2007 Camry from an auto-yard in Ogden, Utah for four thousand dollars USD. Not knowing anything about cars, I figured that a Mormon used car salesman was the least likely to sell me a lemon.

My Camry, somewhere in Idaho, posted to Instagram shortly after buying it. In the upper-right corner of the windshield you can see the mileage (~117 000) still written in white marker.

If I were to attempt to reconstruct my thought process at the time, I would say I was attempting what in psychological circles is known as ‘immersion therapy’, in which patients force themselves to do the thing that most terrifies them in order to desensitise them to, if not entirely eliminate, that fear. My deepest fear, like many in the West, was becoming homeless. I was, you could say, the complete opposite of the character Big Slim Hazard in Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road,

“As a little boy, he’d seen a hobo come up to his mother for a piece of pie, and she’d given it to him, and when the hobo went off down the road the little boy had said, “Ma, who is that fellow?” “Why, that’s a hobo.” “Ma, I want to be a hobo someday.” “Shet your mouth, that’s not for the like of the Hazards.” But he never forgot that day, and when he grew up, after a short spell playing football at LSU, he did become a hobo.”

It was my hope that living in a car, alone, for a calendar year, would make me realise that being homeless wasn’t all that bad, and that this revelation would free me to pursue my creative aspirations unencumbered by stifling bourgeois fetishes like security, domesticity and community.

It didn’t work. First of all, for anyone who hasn’t tried it, sleeping in a 2007 Camry isn’t very comfortable. Only as a last resort would I do it. Instead, I spent the majority of my nights sleeping on charitable strangers’ couches. Thanks to CouchSurfing, a kind of AirBnB in which no money changes hands, I slept on over fifty couches that year. On more than one occasion I was sexually propositioned, including by one man in Washington DC who invited me to sleep with his wife. I refused, and even though the man didn’t turn me out for it, I took it as my queue to leave at dawn the next morning. The next night I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, sleeping hard on a California King sandwiched between my host, a stripper with a heart of gold, and another (male) couchsurfer. Again, nothing sexual eventuated (to my knowledge).

There were darker nights than this. Much darker. Basically, I was Fern at her lowest point in the movie, when she briefly leaves her van for the comfort of a house. But while Fern proves incapable of living on another’s charity for even one night, I made a habit, a skill even, of ingratiating myself with perfect strangers – first on the app, then at bars, then wherever – and ending up on their couches for days and occasionally weeks on end. In the end, my year On the Road bore a much closer resemblance to the Coen Brother’s film Inside Llewyn Davis. “Got a couch?”, I would ask a fast friend, first with the disarming candour of Davis to the eternal Al Cody, but degenerating as the months progressed into the register of a Twin Peaks woodsman (“Got a couch? Got a couch? Got a couch?”).

The point of this prolonged jaunt down memory lane is to emphasise that I have good reason to be highly attuned to, and even downright cynical of, films like Nomadland which romanticize what I will call ‘voluntary homelessness’. This is precisely the status Fern acquires after refusing free board on not one but two occasions - first her sister’s offer to let her sleep in the spare bedroom, followed by another offer of her own guest house, at a safe distance from her would-be silver fox, Dave (David Strathairn). I do not begrudge Fern for turning down these offers. I know all too well that in life there are no free couches, let alone free guest houses. At the same time, having experienced firsthand the loneliness, the boredom, the truck-stop showers, the tiredness that a $2.95 Venti Americano won’t fix, the people you encounter who for some reason aren’t aware of the utter hopelessness of their life-situations and make you wonder if perhaps yours is just as hopeless as theirs – having experienced all this, watching Nomadland (the second time) made me want to grab everyone coming out of the cinema and tell them that homelessness isn’t as beautiful as it looks.

Homelessness isn’t as beautiful as it looks? Is such a disclaimer really necessary? Surely this must be obvious. Yet the issues I have canvassed in this article are hardly new. Since the 1980s, cultural theorists have been accusing Hollywood of romanticizing poverty and financial uncertainty in order to prop up the crisis-ridden capitalist system. As David Harvey writes in his magisterial 1989 book The Condition of Postmodernity,

“A rhetoric that justifies homelessness, unemployment, increasing impoverishment, disempowerment, and the like by appeal to supposedly traditional values of self-reliance and entrepreneurialism will just as freely laud the shift from ethics to aesthetics as its dominant value system. The street scenes of impoverishment, disempowerment, graffiti and decay become grist for the cultural producers’ mill … as a quaint and swirling backdrop (as in Blade Runner) upon which no social commentary is to be made.”

It is passages like this that make me feel guilty for loving Zhou’s Nomadland. As Zhou herself states in an interview, ‘politics’ (read: the decline of Western industrial capitalism) is an important part of Nomadland “it’s just, yes, there’s the beautiful sunset behind it.”. The part of me that loves Nomadland is the part of me which believes in the redemptive potential of postmodern aesthetics – of the transcendent beauty of the cigar store as envisioned by Wallace Shawn in My Dinner with Andre, or what David Foster Wallace knows as the ability to experience “a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars”. If a piece of art can awaken me to the possibility of experiencing beauty in a bleak situation, of remaining open to life despite everything, then perhaps its questionable ideological positioning should be excused.

Or perhaps this is just what Jeff Bezos wants me to think.

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