Modern-day traveling philosophers

    28 May 2021

    2021 made clear for world-class filmmakers that social themes are at their peak. The consequences of the pandemic and the rethinking of cinema language are visible in the prestigious Golden Globe and Oscars. In the second year of the coronavirus march around the world, prizes were received not by blockbusters, but by acute social manifestos.

    One of them is “Nomadland” by Chloe Zhao. The picture clearly reminded me of other films on a similar theme, and I will devote a separate review to one of them, “The world before your feet”. I also recommend watching the classic “Into the Wild” – a manifesto of people who hate and deny the consumer society.

    The roots of the sentiments of “nomadic” Americans are in the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the co-founder of eco-philosophy, who lived in the 19th century. The romantic attitude to nature, bucolic landscapes and denial of the dollar chase are from there.

    One of the heroines of “Nomadland” compares the “nomads” to the American pioneers who “conquered” the wild forests and prairies. And this comparison is partly true. If we imagine that the inhabitants of post-catastrophic America are full of solidarity and sympathy and do not kill each other, as in the Mad Max series.

    Let’s check the prominent film calling for a “quiet revolution” of the way of life.

    Zhao story is built around a cheerful, resourceful, middle-aged woman played by Frances McDormand. Character’ name is Fern, she’s a woman in her 60s, a former substitute teacher, left without a home and husband. Her house had to be abandoned, as the entire town of Empire, Nevada, which lived off the mine corporation. Her husband died.

    Throughout the film, the heroine gains the opportunity to live under a roof and with people who love her or at least support her as relatives. But all the screen time she’s pushed into the path by the inner mood of denial of the philistine.

    This word never sounds during the screen time, however. And there’re not so many dialogues. But the director’s manifesto shines through in everything: the heroine’s relatives make money on mortgages and are confidently leading the States to a new crisis, similar to the disaster of 2008. Nomad-tramp (David Strathairn) who has a crush on Fern is perfect candidate, but he lives with a family that will never understand nomads. “Denial, constant denial” is the leitmotif of the heroine’s behavior. Her beliefs keep her going forward.

    The movie begins with the end of Empire, a company town that officially went out of existence in late 2010, after the local gypsum mine and the Sheetrock factory shut down.

    Fern takes to the highway in a white van that she christens with the name Vanguard. She customizes her new home with a sleeping alcove, a cooking area and a storage space for the few keepsakes from her previous life.

    Later Fern and Vanguard join a dispersed tribe — a subculture and a literal movement of itinerant Americans and their vehicles, which NY Times call “an unsettled nation within the boundaries of the U.S.A.”

    The film has a powerful social message: after the 2008 crisis, there is a large percentage of Americans doomed to live on a $ 500 pension, which is scanty against the background of the overall high cost of the First World. The nomadic commune described in the film deliberately denies resignation to such a fate. These people of retirement age work hard in seasonal work, and they changed their life in the house and the payment of the mortgage to life on wheels literally to death.

    This America is not a tourist picture. We see extinct mining towns. Amazon warehouses with hundreds of seasonal workers. Private car parks where security guards forbid sleeping in the car.

    And nomadic life: instead of a toilet there’s just a bucket. Need spare parts and useful things on the road? Exchange with the same nomads as you. Sleep in the car at any temperature and season.

    A young girl who Fern used to tutor tells her that her mother says Fern is homeless. She wants to know if that’s true. “I’m not homeless. I’m just…houseless. Not the same thing, right?,” Fern says.

     “Nomadland is about a new phenomenon: America’s 60- and 70-something generation whose economic future was shattered by the 2008 crash. They are grey-haired middle-class strivers reduced to poverty who can’t afford to retire but can’t afford to work while maintaining a home. So they have become nomads, a new American tribe roaming the country in camper vans in which they sleep, looking for seasonal work in bars, restaurants and – in this film – in a gigantic Amazon warehouse in Nevada, which takes the place of the agricultural work searched for by itinerant workers in stories such as The Grapes of Wrath. Zhao was even allowed to film inside one of Amazon’s eerie service-industry cathedrals”, The Guardian explains.

    Reeling from unemployment, broken marriages, lost pensions and collapsing home values, modern nomads work long hours in Amazon warehouses during the winter holidays and poorly paid stints at national parks in the summer months.

    The movie is inspired by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”, and by the radical nomadist and anti-capitalist leader Bob Wells, who appears as himself and has a devastatingly moving speech at the end of the film.

    Zhao may well have drawn some inspiration from movies such as Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” (1970) or Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978), with their hard-scrabble world.

    Zhao’s vision of the West includes breathtaking rock formations, ancient forests and wide desert vistas. We investigate also iced-over parking lots, litter-strewn campsites and cavernous, soulless workplaces. 

    The homeless people’s festival described in “Nomadland” is an anti-Burning Man. The now famous Black Rock Desert fest in Nevada can only be organized by middle and upper class people, IT specialists and other “open-minded” guys and girls fully realized in American society.

    The gathering of the inhabitants of the trailers, where their guru condemns in his speech the “power of the dollar” is a counter-scenario to the prosperous manifestation of fantasies of the rich a la “Burning man”. The scene of the festival of the underprivileged is one of the strongest in the film, a manifesto of the do-it-yourself principle and the survivalist lifestyle.

    In Post-Soviet countries we’ve got the mentality that you’ll sit in your poor room until the last, albeit in debt and without paying a communal apartment. On the contrary, it’s relatively easy for Fern and her fellow Americans to drop everything and live in their own car. Instead of utilities and mortgages you pay for gasoline and repairs. Instead of a toilet you have a bucket. Instead of a shower… the shot shows only innocent swimming in a stream in the summer in the bosom of beautiful nature. Obviously, you may use the bucket as a shower or find it at odd jobs at Amazon.

    Bob Wells, nomad guru depicted in the movie, espouses the view that goodbyes are not final in the nomad community as its members always promise to see each other again “down the road.”

    Instead of love and relationships, and the whole complex of customs around marriage, instead of Tinder and raves we can see just meetings with like-minded people once a season, dancing to live music, fleeting flirting. And then stubborn trip further and further across the vast America continues. The people in the movie are not deprived of feelings, but the stubbornness of the main character is above her emotions. Young subculturers, whom she meets on the way, will most likely return to the bosom of “consumerism” and will acquire houses and children. The heroine seems to be an eternal nomad. It challenged the “power of the dollar” with a tough inner core.

    The contemporary nomadic lifestyle

    The 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland” NY Times calls “a sweeping account of post-recession contemporary nomads like the fictional Fern”. While researching the book, her author Jessica Bruder spent years following nomads across the country, and in doing so, showcased an invisible but significant portion of the American workforce.  

    In 2014, Bruder wrote a cover story for Harper’s Magazine, “The End of Retirement,” which detailed the plight of older Americans who couldn’t afford to retire and worked temporary jobs for companies like Amazon. She built off that reporting and three years later published “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”. 

    Like in Zhao’s previous films “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider”, the director cast non-professional actors, in this case real-life nomads, to play versions of themselves. In adapting the book for the screen, Zhao told Deadline that the real-life elements helped shape the character of Fern. “Everything happens simultaneously, because once we meet someone like Swankie, we realize she has to be in the film, and that informs the journey that Fern is going to take,” Zhao said.

    This lifestyle is not to be confused with “#vanlife”—a hashtag that populates Instagram feeds and accompanies photos of largely younger people traveling in vans. Bruder believes #vanlife is more of a brand than a movement. “There are people of all ages who are living in vans and then there are people doing #vanlife. For everybody who can actually make a living or enough to eat and put gas in the tank on the road as an influencer, there are thousands of people who would probably like to be doing that and cannot”, Bruder says.

    The community of contemporary nomads, as captured in the film, are largely white older Americans. The systemic issues author underlines go back decades. Zhao tried to depoliticize the story. “I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal—the loss of a loved one, searching for home,” she told Indiewire.

    The economic basis of nomads in the United States

    Fern, according to the story, is one of hundreds of Americans who work at Amazon for three months a year under the company’s CamperForce program. Founded in 2008, it’s recruiting temporary jobs for tourists on wheels and in vans to support its workforce during the busy holiday shopping period.

    Although CamperForce has been around for over a decade, the program has been in the spotlight since it was featured in the “NomadLand”.

    In the film Fern collects and packs top-notch orders. The scenes were filmed at a real-life performance center in Fearnley, Nevada, which has since closed and moved to Reno, according to 65-year-old Bob Wells, a real-life nomad who plays himself in Nomadland.

    CamperForce attracts nomads from all over the country, many of them elderly.

    Only a few Amazon warehouses participated in the CamperForce program in the early days. Amazon will offer CamperForce positions at 27 locations this year.

    Like hundreds of thousands of Amazon warehouse workers, CamperForce employees work 10-12 hour shifts in sprawling fulfillment centers packing, collecting, stacking and receiving packages.

    Vandwelling as a phenomena

    Vandwelling, a compound word of the words “van” and “dwelling”, is a lifestyle of living full- or part-time in a vehicle, typically a van that has been modified with basic amenities, such as house batteries, solar panels, a bed platform, some form of toilet, sink and storage space.

    One of the film characters, Bob Wells, has been a full-time camper for the last 12 years, and is the founder of the website Cheap RV Living, where he shares resources on how to live on the road.

    In 2015, Bob Wells started a YouTube channel called CheapRVliving. Now it has more than 400,000 subscribers.  He used the channel to offer how-to videos, interviews with other vandwellers, and philosophical videos utilizing inspirational quotes by noted authors and thinkers. In May 2019, the channel was approaching 50 million views.

    There Wells provides helpful tips on everything from budgeting to the best van heaters to staying safe while living in a vehicle.

    In October 2018, Wells announced the creation of Homes on Wheels Alliance, a charity of which he serves as president. The organization is dedicated to assisting needy individuals to acquire vehicles for habitation and travel. Home on Wheels Alliance funds programs that bolster the nomadic community.

    Wells has been featured in documentaries and interviews focusing on alternative lifestyles and simple living. He identifies politically with the far-left, and sees vandwelling as a rejection of modern society’s norms. Wells is a character in Nomadland, a nonfiction book following the exploits of different RV and vandwellers.

    In a recent interview with The Guardian, Bob Wells discussed the community of modern nomads, and why people are increasingly drawn to the movement. “If the Great Recession was a crack in the system, COVID and climate change will be the chasm,” he said.

    Another nomad phenomenas

    You can listen about “alternative” lifestyles in a podcast “Live Like the World is Dying”, hosted by an activist who lives in a cabin she built off-grid. She interviews a lot of knowledgeable people who have experience organizing in disasters and crisis.

    It’s really nice hearing from people who are really practical, who focus on community-building, and who aren’t all individualistic.

    The podcast starts at the beginning of 2020 and it’s fascinating going through the development of the COVID-19 pandemic through their conversations.

    Author of the podcast explains: “We’re All Preppers Now” is an introduction to individual and community preparation. Not “what to buy” but “what are some useful mindsets to have.”

    We can conclude all the lifestyle depicted in Nomadland as follows: “People wish to be settled. Only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote.

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