For several years a friend of mine has floated the idea of making a movie casting “bums from the street,” as he calls them, in all his unholy unwokeness. Well Chloe Zhao went and did it with Nomadland, and garnered six Oscar nominations for her efforts, including Best Picture.
Mind you, in 2021 that isn’t saying much. For the first time in my adult life, when the Oscars were announced on whatever day the announcement was made, I had not seen or even heard of a single one of the ten films (or was it eight this year?) that were nominated for Best Picture. Thank you, Gavin Newsom, for closing California movie theaters for an entire year, except for a brief three weeks in October when I was out of town.
As the pandemic lockdowns dragged on, major studios withdrew their major blockbusters from the 2020 schedule, hoping to sell more tickets in 2021 when theaters reopen — if they ever do. (Many have closed their screening rooms forever.) This opened the door for many independent films to be nominated, and what a woke and eclectic lot they were, with stories about living with trauma, disability, dementia, racism, social injustice, poverty — and one outlier about the making of Citizen Kane. (I’m sure we’ll find some wokeness in that one too somewhere.)
When the Oscars were announced, I had not seen or even heard of a single one of the films that were nominated for Best Picture.
Since Nomadland is picking up most of the accolades in the bridesmaid competitions leading to the big event on April 25 (April freakin’ 25!! Usually it’s the end of February or the first of March) I decided to begin my Oscar viewing with that.
The film follows the story of a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) who is living in a van down by the river. Or in the Amazon parking lot. Or in the Badlands of South Dakota, where we see some breathtaking scenery. Fern is one of thousands who travel the country in recreational vehicles, many (but not all) of whom lost their jobs when businesses closed during the Great Recession of 2008–2012. “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless,” Fern proclaims defensively about her van and her way of living.
Amazon provides seasonal work for people like Fern, and they even pay the fees for people to park their RVs, campers, trailers or vans in nearby campground facilities. I’m not sure whether we should praise Jeff Bezos for providing jobs for the underemployed or condemn him for paying so little that they have to live in their cars. Fern and the others seem very happy to have the work, but director Zhao clearly falls in the condemnation camp. Fern finds other work in park facilities, shops, and small restaurants around the Northwest, mostly cleaning bathrooms and tables. She seems happy to be busy and self-reliant and is very proud of how she has decked out her van to make it functional and cozy.
Fern is one of the modern-day nomads who have created a loose-knit community of travelers who drive from place to place and spend a few days or weeks together before moving on. At one of these caravan stops Fern meets Dave (David Strathairn) who hints at a romantic interest and even invites her to share Thanksgiving dinner at his son’s home. McDormand and Strathairn are the only legitimate actors in the film; all the rest are locals and nomadders.
I’m not sure whether we should praise Jeff Bezos for providing jobs for the underemployed or condemn him for paying so little that they have to live in their cars.
In many respects Nomadland is a documentary masquerading as a narrative feature, which isn’t surprising, since it’s based on the non-fiction book by journalist and screenwriter Jessica Bruder. The characters who populate the film tell their stories around campfires and give makeshift seminars out in the wild to help newbies know how to survive on their own (“If you have bad knees, you’ll need a seven-gallon,” one woman says during a presentation on the best choice of slop bucket for an unplumbed vehicle). They seem like nice, intelligent folk who enjoy their way of life, share generously with others, and never complain. They are nomadders, but they are not “no-matters.” And because they are telling their own stories as themselves, they don’t exhibit the weaknesses of many amateur actors who worry too much about remembering their lines and shining for the camera. (I’m not sure my friend’s “bums on the street” idea would do as well with a scripted film.)
But here’s the problem: to call this film “tedious” would be putting it mildly. I kept waiting for something — anything — to happen. Some epiphany or change of heart or crisis — anything to establish a conflict or dilemma! What we get is a flat tire. A broken plate. A hefty car repair. That’s about it. At one point it looked as though Fern might be contemplating suicide, and I was actually angry. “That’s how they’re winning at these award shows? By pulling a Million Dollar Baby stunt?” But even that doesn’t happen. The woke crowd may excoriate me for my insensitivity, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care.
So the next night I turned to another Oscar nominee, one that seemed as if it would be steeped in pathos and character development: The Sound of Metal. Here a heavy metal drummer named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) suddenly begins to go deaf, apparently from an autoimmune disease.
If Nomadland is a documentary masquerading as a narrative feature, Metal feels at first like a narrative feature masquerading as a documentary. And it should — as in Nomadland, many of the characters are not professional actors, but members of the community highlighted in the movie, in this case the non-hearing one. The cinematography in the opening scenes capture the backstage immediacy of a concert, and the scenes of Ruben and lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke) touring from gig to gig in their tricked-out van (yes, another Oscar nominee set in a van!) are reminiscent of 2019’s Best Documentary Free Solo. Interestingly, although Ruben plays heavy metal at night, he listens to the soothing tones of jazz and Sinatra at home.
To call this film “tedious” would be putting it mildly. I kept waiting for something — anything — to happen.
Ruben and Lou are more than bandmates, and more than lovers — each has rescued the other. We see the scars of cutting on Lou’s arms, and the evidence of heroin use on Ruben’s. When someone asks him how long he has been sober, Ruben responds, “Four years.” When the next question is “How long have you been with Lou?” the answer is again, “Four years.”
As my viewing partner of both films opined, Sound of Metal is “five times more interesting than Nomadland,” but that shouldn’t be interpreted as high praise. There are many good aspects. Riv Ahmed is marvelous with his luminous eyes and expressive, interesting face. Director Darius Marder spent a lot of his effort on simulating what Ruben hears — and doesn’t hear — and it works in focusing our attention on the sounds around us, both good and bad. The third act is particularly well constructed, and there are several quietly devastating moments. But, also like Nomadland, it’s slow paced and, at times, even tedious.
We follow Ruben to a deaf community populated mostly by children and a few young adults where he “learns how to be deaf.” Ruben does learn how to fit in and becomes adept at signing. But he doesn’t learn how to accept being deaf. The community is run by Joe (Paul Raci), a New Age-y, soft-spoken authoritarian Vietnam vet who banishes Lou and confiscates Ruben’s van keys and his phone. “We’ve discovered this is the best way,” Joe tells them as he severs Ruben’s contact with his past. Joe wants Ruben not only to accept his new situation as a deaf person but to embrace it.
It’s just plain cruel for someone who could be helped to hear through modern technology and is discouraged from doing so.
My biggest complaint with the film is that Ruben’s experience with cochlear implants is presented as an annoying burden rather than the scientific miracle that it is for those who want to hear. Many of us have been moved to tears by videos of babies and grownups lighting up as they hear sound for the first time. Learning to use implants takes time, effort, and adjustments. But Ruben is simply told, “This is as good as it gets” before being sent on his not-so-merry way, without therapy or training. This is simply not the way it happens, but it fits with the philosophy of the film, which is best revealed when Joe says, “Everybody here shares in the belief that being deaf is not a handicap. Not something to fix. It’s pretty important around here. All these kids . . . all of us, need to be reminded of it every day.”
I’ve heard this argument before, and I suppose it can be an empowering point of view for someone who will never be able to hear. But it’s just plain cruel for someone who could be helped to hear through modern technology and is discouraged from doing so, simply because it would “privilege” the hearing and appear “ableist.” “Serenity is no longer wishing you had a different past,” Joe says, in the stagnating jargon of New Age acceptance.
This seems to be the center of the story — will Ruben return to the hearing world or will he remain in this rural deaf community? But as the film ends we realize the goal was much larger (in Joe’s eyes) — and smaller (in mine): can Ruben discover the “stillness” that Joe endeavors to teach him?
More pointedly, the film seems to ask, can you?