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The Illusion of Nomadland
There's a reason the film won Best Picture of the Year—and it's not a good one.
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on. — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
A slam dunk opportunity to educate the American public about the disappearing safety net and outright rejection of aging that’s affecting tens of thousands of seniors—a number that grows by the year—was sadly missed when Nomadland was made into a movie. I’m not surprised that it won Best Picture of the Year. It tells the aspirational story of pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps despite your circumstances—a founding principle of the American ethos.
But as Steinbeck knew, as the journalist behind the book, Jessica Bruder, knew, bootstraps are an illusion. Credit Bruder for her detailed investigative work in the tradition of Barbara Eihrenreich and Rebecca Solnit. The journalist spent years on the road living and working alongside these workampers, the name given to the growing number of Americans living in campers, vans, and even Priuses, traveling from gig to gig depending on the season for meager wages, no health benefits, no assurances whatsoever. She befriended them and learned their stories—in fact, to the film’s credit, most of the actors are the people in the book, and congratulations to Chloe Zhao for her victories, being the first Asian woman to win the Best Director award. Frances McDormand ended up winning Actress of the Year, but the actual people from Nomadland were equally important in the film—and, I hope, as “non-professional actors,” they were paid their worth.
It’s a powerful film, and Bruder reports on their hearty attitudes—people are resilient. But she writes about so much more and what’s left out of the film is disheartening. The opening scene finds McDormand’s character, Fern, shitting in the middle of the desert. You’re immediately swept into the turmoil of nomad life. Moments later, though, something strange happens: you see the workers inside of an actual Amazon factory.
In 2017, Jeff Bezos predicted that by 2020 a full one-quarter of all workampers would have been employed in an Amazon factory. Putting it lightly, Nomadland is a long critique of Amazon’s role in cutting the safety net of aging Americans, skirting labor laws at every turn, and fighting unionization at every turn. We really are still picking the grapes that the Joads clawed at.
Everyone that saw the film remembers Linda May, the sixty-something dreamer who plans on building an Earthship in the middle of the desert. In real life, she acquires the land to do just that, but what guts me is the Facebook post that May wrote about Amazon that didn’t make the script:
Someone asked why do you want a homestead? To be independent, get out of the rat race, support local businesses, buy only American made. Stop buying stuff I don’t need to impress people I don’t like. Right now I am working in a big warehouse for a major online supplier. The stuff is crap all made somewhere else in the world where they don’t have any child labor laws, where the workers labor fourteen- to sixteen-hour days without meals or bathroom breaks. There is one million square feet in this warehouse packed with stuff that won’t last a month. It is all going to a landfill. This company has hundreds of warehouses. Our economy is built on the backs of slaves we keep in other countries, like China, India, Mexico, any third world country with a cheap labor force where we don’t have to see them but where we can enjoy the fruits of their labor. This American Corp. is probably the biggest slave owner in the world… Radical, I know, but this is what goes through my head when I’m at work. There is nothing in that warehouse of substance. It enslaved the buyers who use their credit to purchase that shit. Keeps them in jobs they have to pay their debts. It’s really depressing to be there.
How were they able to film inside of an actual Amazon warehouse? According to a 2020 interview, McDormand simply called Amazon’s senior VP of development. But if I had to guess, I’m betting that Amazon read the script; I’ve done enough work in movies to know what access entails. Any trace of dissension from gig workers or complaints about the rigors of the job didn’t make the final cut.
Besides, the richest man in the world isn’t going to allow criticism in a movie that includes his logo. It also won’t include statistics Bruder makes clear: nearly twice as many women are poor in America than men, or that woman get an average $341 a month less than their male counterparts in social security; that there are only a dozen counties and one metro area in the entire country where a minimum wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment; that Amazon has a week of “work-hardening” for new gig workers to become accustomed to the physical and emotional demands of ten-hour shifts, which require walking, squatting, and kneeling across 20 miles of concrete space (or mention the dispensers of free pain relievers mounted in the warehouses, and what kinds of addiction ensue from those); or the “Amazon cold shoulder” given to workers that speak out against the company’s labor practices. You’re certainly not going to hear the anecdotes of these workers about suicide being their exit strategy, which isn’t a big deal to them given they live in the desert anyway.
Better to focus on the desert sunsets and makeshift spa sessions with cucumbers and ice water. America has a sordid relationship with death anyway, and an even more fraught relationship with aging. We hate it. Growing numbers of people of all ages inject toxins into their faces to “look young” and we think nothing of this strange ritual of avoidance and self-loathing. Forget the wisdom of aging, we prefer the lackluster virality of youth. If the cost includes sentencing more and more seniors to public lands where they fend for themselves in broken-down campers, so be it. Better to uphold the illusion than care for the wise.
That’s how “Nomadland” won Picture of the Year: it honors the age-old illusion that hard work pays off even though the reality is that it barely pays anything except, as Marvin Gaye once sang, taxes, death, and trouble.
While watching the film, I just couldn’t help noticing parallels to the wellness industry we spend so much time contemplating on Conspirituality: the resistance to aging, the idea that we can defeat nature with just enough supplements and sacred breathwork and nootropics, that we can avoid discussing the slave labor that did and still provides for our privileges. The message is never to age gracefully; it’s just “don’t age.”
To borrow a sentiment from Matthew, the only thing being sold in “Nomadland” is aspiration, the desire to rise above the circumstances by ignoring an investigation of what led to these circumstances in the first place. The book lays it out; the movie avoids the ugly reality at all costs, and the producers were rewarded for their allegiance to turning a blind eye. As Wilfred Chan succinctly observed in a February critique in Vulture,
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.
When the film offers Fern a way out of poverty and she chooses not to take it, it’s effectively saying, “Hey, some people are just meant to live this way,” which is what rich people have told themselves about poor people for as long as those two groups have existed.
Americans love our illusions. Earlier this week, Rick Santorum, a man who only a decade ago ran a moderately successful presidential campaign, said that there was “nothing” in America before Europeans arrived—well, there were Native Americans, he added, but they ultimately gave very little to American culture. The twisted fantasies of the colonizer remain alive and *well, not exactly well, but present. Hamilton notes that the romanticization of homesteading the American West persists, ultimately blinding us to the hard truths about how actually we treat our citizens—the “stuff of capitalist wet dreams.”
He also noticed that the film was set in 2011 instead of 2018, when the film was shot, for a reason: if it was current, the filmmakers would have had to grapple with MAGA, and Zhao explicitly said she wanted to “avoid politics.” But how do you avoid politics when politics created the mess that’s driving an increasing number of seniors into vans? Discussing MAGA would have forced an even more inconvenient truth to emerge—the people who’ve been tossed aside are the same people that supported (and support) Donald Trump in droves. The filmmakers try to have it both ways and fail: avoid the pain point of politics by setting it back in time but weirdly feature a very modern Amazon warehouse.
Hamilton’s critique was written a few days before the Oscars, but the ending is still worth quoting in full. Discussing things like MAGA and QAnon, he concludes,
That’s obviously a much more complicated and uglier story, and it’s one that Nomadland’s makers are about as eager to get into as Nomadland’s viewers are eager to hear it. Telling that story well would make for a better movie, and a far more difficult one. So instead we get beautiful sunsets and transformational acting, a film about poverty that flatters its makers for making it and its audience for watching it. That audience is certainly not the people that Nomadland is actually about, and that audience likely doesn’t want to spend much more time thinking about those people once the movie is over. Nomadland makes sure they don’t have to, and if the film wins big on Sunday, that will surely be a reason why.
The film won big, as we know. I’m also guessing that next year, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” the brilliant and brutally introspective docuseries by Raoul Peck, won’t be shortlisted for a prize even though the series grapples with what America actually is while even concluding with some semblance of hope. The problem is that on the way to hope you have to tread through the suffocating thickness of white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, politics—the thing the filmmakers of “Nomadland” wanted to ignore. And time and again, ignorance awards you a trophy for participating in the illusion.
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