Welcome back to cinemas
Review of Nomadland
In this first edition, dedicated to the theme of welcome, a topic that could hardly be less appropriate would be the return to cinemas. This welcome was offered in mid-June by the local easing of restrictions against the virus.
Etymologically, the first appearances of ‘welcome’ trace their meaning to ‘a welcome guest,’ with ‘will’ meaning desire and ‘cuman’ meaning to come. This desire to come was indeed the case as I stepped inside those hallowed darkened halls where the power of a flickering light beam reigns supreme. Eight months had elapsed between the first and last time I had entered a cinema. The film selected for this comeback was Nomadland (directed by Chloé Zhao, 2020), which had taken by storm both the film industry and the general public just a while earlier. This too was a fitting choice, as it tells the story of a ‘houseless’ widow who makes her abode in a van, travelling North America and developing a bond doubly with nature and a group of like-minded van dwellers. The theme at hand was particularly present, both within the diegesis* as well as in the present circumstances shared by us all. Like Fern – the character aptly named after the plant renowned for its tenacity and perennity – who is forced out of her house and into wildlife, so were we forced to poke the embers of our bonds with nature since being indoors was not advisable due to the pandemic.
Beyond this mirroring of real life and the story, there was also a more palpable element of welcome in the way Fern was greeted by the group of van dwellers, with each individual taking their personal approach at the encounter. Time and again, passages were shown where a coming was desired, at times by just one party, at times by both, but inevitably leading to an encounter that would leave some lasting mark on the life of this woman already touched by misfortune. What however acted as an uplifting beacon of light was the way she seemed capable of turning each scenario into an occasion for finding some form of purity and beauty, something which many took in stride at the time of the first lockdown to better themselves and let Bildung follow its route.
And yet a notable incongruity appears when considering the film’s performance in the accolades bestowed by the Academy Awards. This tinge of cynicism was raised by this column’s co-author, Nóra Kardos, who noted Nomadland’s peculiar ratio of wins to losses of nominations. Despite the saccharine desire for inclusivity that has been pervading the Academy in recent years, this very film that spoke about the lives of outcasts that deserve a voice failed to succeed in the more technically-driven categories, receiving instead awards for best picture, director and actress. While this phenomenon could be interpreted as indicative of the film’s greater formalistic assets as opposed to technical ones, it would also be due to the Academy’s wish to appease this contemporary wish for inclusivity and recognising the marginalised.
After all, of the five director nominees only David Fincher stood out as the more august and canonical figure amongst the sprightly careers of his contenders, several of which are better known for their work in the independent or low budget sector. And by winning the coveted statuette, Chloé Zhao became only the second woman to do so, and the first non-white one at that. Such a feat is redolent of the desire for tradition-breaking and canon-upheaving ‘firsts’ in an institution that has in recent years faced vitriolic critique for not keeping in step with the changing social times.
Such an argument finds support in the loss of the cinematography category, arguably a crucial component to a story whose premise is so deeply grounded in showing the protagonist that is the vast and uncompromising wilderness of North America. Without the sweeping panoramas and sublime-inducing scales of nature compared to human characters, the film could not possibly have conveyed the isolating quality of life led by Fern. Add to this the staccato editing that skips season to season and location to location to form Fern’s relentless windmill scrimmages, and there is another justifiably valid technically pivotal element to the film.
Ultimately, several of Nomadland’s merits were appropriately recognised, and this lyrical character study of a stranded widow who makes a way for herself in nature speaks volumes to the current hardships endured due to the pandemic. What however left the more enduring mark of this experience was long-awaited return, the welcoming reunification of projection on a screen and audiences joining in the wonderfully magical communion that is the Cinema.
* Diegesis: the component of a narrative – whether it be in literary prose, film or theatre – where elements pertain solely to the world presented and not to those shared by the receiving audience. In this case it refers to the story itself, the characters present in it and the events that unfold for them.
** Bildung: the German cultural and philosophical tradition and belief of personal growth through a process of exposure to education and culture.