This past Sunday a pared-down pandemic contingent of Hollywood elites conducted the annual Academy Award rituals of self-glorification not, as they have done since 2002, in the modern glitz of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood itself, but in the Art Deco splendor of downtown Los Angeles’s Union Station. It seemed oddly fitting, more than a year into Covid Time, that the stars and moguls, a couple hundred in number, would take over a utilitarian cathedral of public transport for their three-hour advertisement: the message conveyed by the begowned and tuxedoed perched at tables and banquettes was that they were all dressed up but had nowhere to go.
The retro furniture brought in by the show’s producer, Steven Soderbergh, was meant to conjure the glamor of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the most obvious visual difference being the large proportion of stars of color among the nominees and presenters. Union Station was finished in 1939, also the year that the first Black actor was nominated for—and won—an Oscar: Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With The Wind. That “classic” was pulled from HBO soon after George Floyd’s murder, but was made available again after being fitted with a disclaimer rejecting the movie’s whitewashing of “the horrors of slavery.” It would be twenty years before another Black actor was nominated by the Academy. When Union Station opened most Black people seen in the building were either shining shoes or were members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first union led by African Americans. Their duties included attending to Hollywood stars as they traveled in style between Los Angeles and New York.
Given the reduced numbers of attendees at this year’s Oscars, Hollywood’s supposed commitment to racial diversity was on full display right from the get-go—Regina King’s long walk into the building through the Ticket Hall, DJ-ed to her mark with power-groove elegance by the genial Questlove, who later got in a pitch for his forthcoming Summer of Soul documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969.
At least in front of the (ever-dwindling) television audience for the Awards, the push towards diversity continues in other demographics too. Asians cleaned up at last year’s pre-pandemic proceedings, when South Korea’s Parasite snaffled a half-dozen statuettes. That the Academy would so blithely export these accolades incited Donald Trump to launch a defense of American Cinema: “We got enough problems with South Korea with trade and on top of it, they give them the best movie of the year,” moaned the then-President. He hadn’t seen the movie: “Was it good? I don’t know. I’m looking for, like–can we get like Gone With The Wind back, please?” Given modern liberal Hollywood’s general contempt for Trump, one could only be bemused by his nativist posturing. Indeed, if he bothered to watch this year’s broadcast—and managed to stay awake in his Eastern Time Zone redoubt at Mar-a-Lago—he doubtless would have cheered as another South Korean, Youn Yuh-jung (who won for her supporting role as a spunky grandmother in the back-to-the-land immigrant tale, Minari), expatriated another Oscar, beating out Trump-baiter Glenn Close. She went home empty-handed for the eighth time.
But it was Chloé Zhao, a Chinese national educated in Britain and the United States, who shattered two celluloid ceilings on Sunday. Her movie Nomadland won six Oscars, including the marquee awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Zhao became the first Asian woman (and only the second woman) to win in the latter category.
The stars aligned for Nomadland. The film is set during the last economic crisis, the Great Recession, thus seeming to confront the present pandemic’s devastation of working people. Nomadland also seems to empower a single, older woman named Fern (played by Frances McDormand, who won Best Actress for the third time) while offering up a plaintive critique of post-industrial America.
Things look bleak at the start of the movie as Fern gathers up some personal items, resonant of her past, from her mini-storage and heads out of the soon-to-be ghost town of Empire, Nevada in her van. It’s 2011 and the American Gypsum mine has shut down. Fern goes first to a short-term job at an Amazon fulfillment center. The workers there seem happy, the work almost aerobic, but apparently not too taxing, even for the elderly. The people appear sociable, just about content with their lot, even if many are on—or over—the edge financially and mentally.
Though it can get bitterly cold up in the Great Basin in winter, Fern’s van is customized and cozy, and Amazon has paid for her campground fees. The work allows to stay in her home-on-wheels, which she loves and which retains the spirit of her dead husband. Fern doesn’t complain, and these economic conditions seem to allow damaged, self-distancing folks like her exactly what they want and need. Bumping into an acquaintance at a Walmart, she’s asked how she likes working at Amazon. Fern vigorously nods her enthusiasm. “The money’s good,” she says, and she seems to mean it. Little wonder, then, that Amazon allowed the Nomadland crew to film in their facility. That the movie can be streamed on Amazon Prime for $14.99 is an irony so obvious as to be invisible.
It’s as if a big-time movie star, appropriately mussed and wizened, has happened into an infomercial for the gig economy. Nomadland could have been shown in support of the anti-union cause in Alabama before the recent, failed union vote there.
Based partly on the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film purports to be part a documentary in the way that it uses real people to project a hyper-realistic view of post-industrial America. When Fern is let go from her Amazon job after the Christmas season, she finds her way to an encampment of the unhoused in the Arizona desert. There we meet more real people, who have left the system that has left them behind. They gather around a gentle Messiah of the Mobile, a real-life figure named Bob Wells, who preaches a live-for-the-moment existence as close to nature as internal combustion conveyance can take one. Yet Zhao often treats these real-life people as scenery, wildlife. Wells’ monologues make for the best moments in the movie, culminating in his devastating confrontation with the suicide of his son. (One can’t help but ask if he deserved—though certainly he would have rejected—a screenwriting credit on the movie.) Earlier, just as Wells is about to reveal his “Ten Commandment of Stealth Parking” (extremely valuable know-how for anyone on a road trip) to his sometime followers, Zhao cuts mercilessly away so as to get back to the “real actors” and the “real story.”
The often stunning cinematography juxtaposes magnificent Western landscapes with the grit and decay of human traces on the earth: gas stations and chaparral, roads and rivers, corrugated mini-storage doors against backdrops of serrated mountain ranges. Mostly, the sound design unflinchingly matches this apparent realism: the complaint of the wind across the snowy sage; the hiss of butane stove; the windshield wipers marking travel time to the next job. Over the first twenty minutes, all the sound comes from within the beautiful bleakness of the movie.
But then, after the Amazon interlude, as the van makes its way through the Western emptiness, a piano starts—piped in from the ether. We are being told to feel something. Seesawing broken chords move aimlessly between harmonies: unlike the van they go nowhere, as if, perhaps, Fern cannot escape her own melancholy, however far she might travel.
This intrusion of overwrought emotion represents a remarkable loss of nerve and taste on the part of the filmmakers, the music bad in itself, and totally ill-fitted to the moving images. The piano perp is Marco Einaudi, whose noodling and navel-gazing can also be heard on the soundtrack of The Father, which netted Anthony Hopkins the Best Actor Oscar over the posthumously favored Chadwick Boseman. Perhaps there the music can almost be forgiven as a medicated approximation of dementia.
Down in the warmer climes Fern makes new human connections. In the next geographical transition that comes another twenty minutes on and will lead to the next stop on Fern’s itinerary, Einaudi adds a cello, that stalwart signifier of pathos, or, as needed, bathos: to depart is to die a little. These sonic chapter headings recur at regular intervals, the next time with yet another cello added to the ensemble, as if Einaudi had pressed Order on two packages of sonic schlock both to be stuffed into the Amazon cardboard box for immediate delivery.
I know it sounds pretentious, but I kept thinking of Buñuel across the three interminable hours of the Oscars. The more “intimate” ensemble of invitees—their arrival, their entrance—reminded me of the surreal lockdown of The Exterminating Angel and its staging of a formal dinner party in a lavish mansion from which, for some inexplicable reason (reasons are always inexplicable in Buñuel), the guests can’t leave. During the uncanny captivity of these wealthy (fascists?), an elderly man dies and is laid out in a large closet. As the Oscar ceremony slogged on like Fern’s van, I imagined Harvey Weinstein laid out in his tuxedo on a marble slab in one of the presumably sumptuous Union Station bathrooms. What better place to begin eternal rest than in an Art Deco restroom in the City of Angels? At some point in The Exterminating Angel sheep find their way into the mansion and are slaughtered and roasted over fires made from the floorboards. I thought of them when the non-actors from Nomadland (Bob Wells was not among them), clad in couture gowns, were shepherded onto the stage by McDormand and Zhao for their acceptance of the Best Picture Oscar.
Weirdly enough, Buñuel won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1973 for The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, though he did not travel to Hollywood for the Oscars. In one scene in that movie, three upper-class women find themselves in an elegant restaurant where a piano trio plays refined, but schlocky music. For no apparent reason (there never are any in Buñuel), one of the women takes against the elderly cellist. “What do you have against the cello?” asks her friend. “I just loathe it,” comes the response, as Buñuel cuts into a close-up of the cellist’s left hand in full vibrato.
It is the cello that confirms what would have been clear even if Einaudi hadn’t been invited to choose the playlist for the Nomadland road show: in spite of her verité gestures, Zhao flees gypsum realism for the fool’s gold of sentimentality.