Mourning in America. Reflections on Nomadland.

This is a film about coming to terms with loss. It is hard to imagine it being made in a time of optimism.

It opens with central character, Fern, sifting through a pile of possessions, randomly junked in storage, for a few to pack into her small camper van. The wreck of a life reflected in the wreck of a community, with the main employer, a gypsum mine, closing and creating a ghost town. The death of the mine reflected in the death of Fern’s partner Beau. She has hung on for a year in the wreckage – seemingly numb – but now feel compelled to move. Staying in a place suffused with loss and loneliness no longer bearable. 

It closes with Fern’s return, and the donation of all the remaining stuff in storage to goodwill, and her returning to her former home, an empty bungalow on an empty street, wandering through, then out the back door into a vast Mid Western emptiness, leaving it open and letting it go, then back on the road that goes ever, ever on; en route a des aventures nouvelles (in a rather downbeat way). 

In between, there is a Road Movie, Jim, but not as we know it. This is a long way from getting your kicks on Route 66 (or even the A13). This is not kicking over the traces of a comfortable life to fix a relationship or sort your head out before reaffirming its limitations by fitting right back in; even in Jack Kerouac’s sense of being “like the prophet who has walked across the land to bring back the dark word, and the only word I had was “Wow!” Its not a journey with an end, just a journey. Moments of epiphany come through nature. Reaching the ocean and walking over the rocks in a howling wind spattered by spray – utterly wild and unforgiving – floating naked in a mountain pool – a moment of exhilarating transcendence beneath a vast explosion of swallows; all symbolising the need to live before you die.

As the journey from here to there and back again unfolds, music starts up. A review in Counterpunch argues that this is to make us – the audience – feel something (or be aware that we are supposed to). I’m not so sure. I think its meant to show that Fern is beginning to feel something. The first shots of the journeying are silent. Numb. Then there’s a musical stirring that I think is meant to convey that Fern’s buried feelings are starting to wake up. If this also serves as an emotional manipulation of the audience – as film music always does – this is a kind of supportive collateral damage. The style of the music, Einaudi’s plinky plink piano noodlings with a side order of cello soul is dark side new agey, soul as commodity in a minor key.

The fleeting connections and solidarities built up between people trying to survive an mobile homes, moving down the road, making do and mending, are sometimes more profound than would be the case if settled, because it can be easier to be vulnerable with someone you may or may not see again than with a neighbour who is always there, keeping account and, sometimes score. “See you down the road” may or may not come to pass. Its serendipitous, so you might as well say what you have to say now. But, there’s a distance. Things can only go so far. The one guy that gets a bit close to Fern bails out to become a live-in Grandad and, despite an offer to stay, she moves on without too much regret.Nearly everyone is in their own van, travelling alone; though there is one unexplored echo of Ken Kesey’s magic bus that appears but is not explored. The prospect of all travelling together appears as a fantasy in an RV showroom, where a spanking new ocean liner of the road dazzles them with its swish facilities and whale like majesty. Fern sits in the driving seat and fantasises about cruising, making the brrm brrm noises that a child would in a rare moment of playfulness. 

None of the characters in this film are Hollywood glam. None of the fake plastic Stepford cosmetic finishes and faultless hairdos – Fern looks like she cuts her own hair with a knife and fork without a mirror – or vast, well furnished mansions that are passed off as average homes in romcoms. Many of the people in it are people who live on the road more or less playing themselves. Nevertheless, hard though they have it, they are people with resources. The vans for a start. The woman who is dying of cancer has visited a hospital and got diagnosed. She is not without access to medical insurance. When Fern’s van breaks down she has access to a sister who lends her the money to fix it. The van is the one settled thing she won’t and can’t give up. Its now home.

Where the Counterpunch review hits hard is that the film risks romanticising the gig economy and transient, insecure work. A couple of scenes shot inside a vast Amazon warehouse show Fern ambling slowly around, smiling at co-workers and exchanging quips and smiles; not harassed and rushing, driven by her monitor or pissing in a bottle because there’s no time to get to the toilet if she’s to fulfill her quota. Her comment about working for Amazon, when asked, is “good money”. $15 an hour. Aspirational as a minimum wage, but hardly “good money”. Other jobs always come along when needed. Hard to imagine that it always works out like that.

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