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Archive for May 29th, 2021


Frances McDormand as our thoughtful Fern – she recites a Shakespeare sonnet by heart, and at other moments shows herself to be well-read (Nomadland)


The owner, boss, chief of the glass-making factory who permitted American Factory to be made

Dear friends and readers,

This might be labelled now for something somewhat different. Most of the contemporary movies and plays I review on this blog take a liberal, sometimes radical, left-wing, anti-racist, social humanist stance: these are the kinds of stories I enjoy. Theatre I look for something profoundly (if possible) exploratory of the human spirit, especially in distress, on the edge of not coping (Uncle Vanya: scroll down). For tonight I’ve a film to recommend as mesmerizing, whose not-so-hidden agenda is libertarian enabled by sleights-of-hand. Nomadland, scripted & directed by Chloe Zhao, featuring Frances McDormand, based on a book of the same title by Jessica Bruder, resembles Mudbound, in being a movie made by, coming from material by women, and much be-prized. I had been sleepy and the experience projected woke me up.

But then I recommend that the next night as contrast you watch on Netflix, American Factory (made partly because of the Obamas’ presence, also an independent film, directed by Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert). You will discover what is the true context for Nomadland and how what is presented are desperate self-induced romantic delusions, which people tell themselves as in: they have made a good choice in their apparent willingness to flee inside their van-homes from a ruthless asocial society to wander about deserts, snow belt, and forests. (There are those who refuse to consider they will end up with this kind of job as a life choice.)

At the center of the Nomadland is a widow, or should I say wife whose husband has died a hard death of cancer: asked her status, Fern says she is married, only her husband is dead. His death has not parted her from him. Her memories, the decades she spent living with him in the way he wanted (in factory jobs), in a house he preferred (tract house), situated in a place he liked (at the edge of a desert), surround her mind, keep her company. To be fair, this emphatic inward shaping is not brought forth at first: what we are immediately confronted with is a factory sign which tells us the factory is shut down, and intertitles inform us that upon that factory closing the community vanished. No jobs, no way for the people to stay and to survive. She appears to be living a subsistence life, near destitute, in an old “ratty” van; caging the lowest sorts of jobs (a packer at an Amazon warehouse, a cleaner in a campsite, a cook and washer-up in a huge fast food place (turns out to be a sort of Disneyland store-as-mall called Drug Wall), at which she works for as long as they need her, and then is either fired or she quits. She has made enough money to live for say weeks on end in her van traveling about the west in the midst of spectacular scenery (beautifully photographed of course — never dingy, never just grey, when it rains it rains impressively). We see her looking at her pictures remembering happy moments – I’ve seen this in many films centering on older women.


The life of Fern and Dave presented as if they were on a perpetual sunny picnic (see the review it appears in)

Only gradually do we see the hardships of such a life, but they do not seem to bother our heroine. What if she urinates or defecates in a bucket – she can empty it the next day. What if her van lacks heat: she has plenty of blankets. She has a TV, radio. Once a tire goes, and she is almost stranded: but a woman she has the nerve to ask help from relents and they become close friends for a while — until it’s time for the friend to move on, probably to a hospital for she is dying of untreated cancer. Once when she is told to move on, this is not a place to park overnight, her car stalls. Turns out to fix the car she needs $2300 and she is told the car is worth $5000 — but it is she says her home. (She has told someone she is not homeless, only houseless.) She doesn’t have it, and on the phone, her sister refuses her, so we see her somehow take a long journey by bus and foot to that sister living in a beautifully appointed middle class home. The sister would clearly keep her, and the sister’s friends sort of accept her, but Fern will not stay; she gets the money in an envelope and promises to pay it back, and return to her truck. We see her disappoint herself and a small dog by refusing to take the poor creature into her truck with her. She stiffens herself and walks away.

There are some “feel-good” compensations. She travels to real life gurus about whom people like herself gather and learn how to survive from, as well as in groups celebrate together their existence

She attends several such events during the movie. Enjoys dances. Becomes friends with a man she is clearly compatible with, one Dave (David Straitharn) who she travels with for a while: they take hard jobs together; then his 30+ year old son shows up, and asks his father to return home with him and see a grandchild. Dave confides to Fern he’s been a lousy father and seems unwilling to go with his son, asks Fern to come with him, or later on; the son (miraculously) seems to hold nothing against the father and when she does take Dave up on the invitation, we find ourselves in another beautiful middle class home, the food just gorgeous and originally cooked; she is told she is welcome to stay. But she foregoes this. As with her sister, she says she cannot. It’s not her? When the movie is over, we are told the charismatic leader whom she returns to more than once (and he has his tale of hard grief) and many of the people she meets are real “nomads” like herself.

The movie was just showered with awards. Rotten tomatoes gave it a rating of 98%. Most reviews give high praise with little qualification: Ebert’s reviewer just “loved it”:. Ditto as “the critic’s pick” for the NY Times. I began to wonder what was wrong with this film? My mind was very tired by the time I came to it at 11 pm (nowadays you can watch films into the wee hours w/o worrying about how you are to get home, or the movie theater’s hours). But then I found what I was troubled by expressed by Richard Brody of the New Yorker: A nostalgic portrait of itinerate America, he calls the film. He noticed all the characters were presented in a simplified way and kept at a distance from us through Fern’s mind. Read what he has to say. Here’s how I’d put it

The way the subsistence existence of these people is presented is that this is their choice — as Fern chose to live with that husband and not stay with her sister (who complains she could have and she left a hole in their family). They seem to want to live this way, and indeed the real people say this – but real people in social life do not like to present themselves as impoverished and near destitute, especially at the end of their lives. Ask about the company they work for and they will often excuse its hard behavior to them, identify with the company that is gouging them. Fern clearly chooses this because in front of us she has a new right now (romantic) offer from Dave who could go live with his son, who (as I say) seems to have forgiven his father for a boy- and young manhood of total neglect and be living in very nice middle class circumstances — as do Frances’s sister and relatives. Amazon looks a horrible place to work, so too the kitchens of a restaurant stop on some big highway, or as someone who is the cleaner of a campsite for RVs — but our Fern needs only work there for as long as she needs to get together enough money to go out on the road again.

Who needs Biden’s infrastructure or plan to make good jobs, bring industry back when we can spend weeks in the mountain moon light? There are a couple of lines now and again by someone very old who implies he or she was given no chance for anything else once the job was up. Could save nothing. I remembered Willie Loman of The Death of a Salesman; Arthur Miller has him say in anguish, am I to be thrown away after a lifetime of hard work? We are confronted with a refrigerator engineered to last as long as it takes to pay for it. I remembered Grapes of Wrath where the people go on strike; where they are relieved when for a short time they can go inside a gov’t run camp and live better (if there are rules to abide by).

I don’t say there isn’t enough here to show you what the economic reality is. But all but one or two people who if they offer no help, look very sorry over Fern’s plight and tell Fern of a bed in a near by church — of course she is not bothered, remember she is houseless, not homeless. A friend recognized in this movie “an American spirit, a sort of go it on our own mentality in opposition to going along with a government plan for everyone, though it also avoids being very political. These people have a sense of pride that doesn’t want to take charity.” He did remark he had never seen Wall Drug from the harsh point of view we were shown it in this film (a hot kitchen, a place where garbage mounts up).

Brody notices all the things the film leaves out: practicalities: how do they pay their taxes? He says the film omits in the case of Dave’s brief stay in a hospital how before a hospital will perform a procedure on you you must sign a document accepting any and all related charges. I wondered also where they kept any money they might have? do they vote, ever? In the large scheme what is left out is the salary structure and price of goods in a society that disabled them from ending up with savings or pension. Of course the people are on a spiritual quest now. Right.

When I was identifying with the heroine as a woman who choses to be alone rather than re-marry or get a new partner, there is a huge difference between me and this woman. I own a house, have widow’s annuity (2/3s of my late husband’s federal gov’t pension), my social security, and both my parents’ savings — I can afford to say no to someone like Dave — who himself is apparently going to live of the charity of a son he was a lousy father too. Maybe it’s foolish and useless to complain about this kind of (in effect) libertarian propaganda, but maybe not. It is not my mentality to live liminally continually, oh no, and not (I submit) most people’s.


Miss Pettigrew before putting on attractive clothes …

I am wondering if Frances McDormand makes a specialty of portraying white working class type women. The last movie I saw her in, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she was a very violent woman and very angry and working class essentially — what I remember best about the film is the continual profanity and anger and abysmal poverty — cars loaded down with guns in the back. Mississippi Burning was a whitewash (pun intended). It was years ago I saw her in witty comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, again a person with low expectations, so very appealing in a very non-feminist film.


Workers

Earlier this spring I saw a documentary, American Factory, recently about a Chinese company — huge corporation — who came to the US and took over an empty US factory that had failed the capitalist demands of high profits — very like the what the factory in Nomadland. did When it closes, almost everyone in the town is unemployed. I recommend it because it exposes the workings of capitalism from the inside of the work day, from the point of view of American and Chinese workers, the long hard hours (Chinese will endure hardly any time off and long periods away from their children), the required worship of a boss, high efficiency demands, no vacation for long periods, demands of utter loyalty and pretend obedience rituals. What people in the class said was they were amazed the company allowed the camera in — the answer was it was supposedly fair — showed “both sides.” Well it did show how the boss regarded his profit, but it made clear how his company (very like Amazon) thwarted an attempt to unionize (forced meetings, constant propaganda against it, threats made good to fire people). The real thrust was to expose the ruthless stealing of people’s very lives so one man or several can make huge sums. What enabled the making of it was the Obamas backed it. Here is an excellent review by Peter Bradshaw (from The Guardian), e.g.,

the workforce realised that to show their gratitude they were expected to conform to the Chinese culture of regimentation and submission, uncomplainingly working six or seven-day weeks, pushing up productivity at all costs and declining to make a fuss about decadent and lazy American indulgences such as lunch breaks and safety precautions …

He found this “solution” for a stable life “discomforting and desperately sad.”

Sheelah Kolhatkar places the film against the backdrop of our political polarization as US society is confronted, as the New Yorker puts it, with challenges of a global economy, i.e, mass unemployment, menial jobs, or the harsh regimen of non-unionized corporate work.

So here is your alternative. Get yourself a van, try to live in the most minimum way possible, take jobs as you need them (the way the boss hires you) and call it liberty. Only a romantic movie like this can persuade anyone you will not soon get into hard trouble. How many popular and be-prized books quietly urge the same alternatives dressed up as this Nomadland. How rare to get a real look at the factory or capitalist life increasingly inflicted on US people?

Ellen

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