Updated: Mar 4
When I saw The Rider (2017) by Chloe Zhao (now 39), I was amazed that a young Chinese person (with less than 20 years of experience in the U.S., and most of that time spent in culturally elite milieus and/or coastal metropolises) could so vividly and accurately portray the working-class in The American West, which is a region many Americans themselves are unfamiliar with.
How did she do it? The details in speech, atmosphere, and vocation were so spot on and precise. How does she get non-actors to act... pretty damn well? She made me think of Nabokov or Conrad, who wrote English masterfully despite not becoming familiar with the language until well into adulthood. That level of mastery, without the head start, is just, well, unfair. You wouldn't be mistaken if you detect the slightest hint of envy, but it's also hard to be envious of superlative talent.
I watched Nomadland last night, which didn't disappoint. It's the rare Best Picture winner that I think the Academy got right. Or right enough.
I lived in my van for two years, though in less rugged circumstances than Fern, played by Frances McDormand. Fern had to use a bucket as a toilet, work jobs for low pay, and move her van according to the seasons. Me, on the other hand... I lived on a college campus, which had every convenience I could desire within a short walk.
Anywho... I thought Zhao captured the vandwelling lifestyle wonderfully--everything from impromptu bathroom emergencies, to worrying about people harassing you, and to feeling snug under your covers as rain gently drums against the van's metal roof. I've read a few think pieces about how Nomadland delivers a cutting critique of 21st Century American capitalism. Okay, but let's not forget that Fern was a restless soul who craved her own company. The movie makes it clear that she had the option to take on a more comfortable lifestyle, but she voluntarily chose the thornier path. The scene I identified with most was the one where she was offered a big comfy bed in a room of her own on a farm. Yet she leaves the room and sleeps in her van. I remember that feeling. It's not just the coziness of your enclosed space, and its delightful mix of cold air and warm sleeping bag. Your van feels like a kind of pet, and you feel like it's wrong to leave it outside, all alone. In the van, you feel closer to the natural world. You don't feel the need to stifle snores or wake up at a respectable hour. Really, you just feel free in your little tin shell. Fern wasn't rundown by the system. Nor was she running. She was just happier alone. That's my take.
Last year, I was disappointed to learn that Zhao signed on to direct a superhero movie after the critical success of The Rider. A comic book movie plays to none of her strengths (capturing moody landscapes, drawing authentic performances from non-actors, and having characters engage in openhearted dialogue). How will she pull that off with Marvel characters for a general movie-going audience hungry for winky one-liners and CGI explosions?
When I read about the superhero movie, I thought she was doing it for the money (understandably so, given how little her first two movies made). If she could go back in time, I wonder if she'd still sign up for a superhero movie knowing that Nomadland would win the Oscar and open a lot of doors. My hope is that Eternals will be an interesting mistake, she'll cash her check, and Zhao will go back to making interesting stories about everyday people in America, set in lands in between NYC and LA. God knows we don't need more stories about writers, actors, and musicians.