“Oh, goody. Another film where rich people tell other rich people how to feel about poor people.”

Not so much shot, as it was pressed record
Reported on 15th of December, 2022

So, there I was, enjoying a nice break from whatever this is, when what should I do but get into a discussion with my friend Pat about The State of Film Today. Basically since 2019, they’re all terrible, and in the same way. Hence the break from whatever this is.

I used Nomadland as a sine qua whatnot of this assertion, saying something to the effect of “when an objectively bad film wins the Oscars, it’s game over for cinema.”

To prove this (I did say “objective”), I dug out the article I wrote a year and a half ago and never posted, with full intent just to send it to him and never think about it – or this – again.

Unfortunately for me, there were just too many bolds and italics, and I just don’t know how to do that on Telegram. And emphasis is extremely IMPORTANT!!!!!.

Especially when being objective.


11 June 2021 @ Le Vauban 2

-$13.00 or, if one must be quotidian, and one must... 
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

§  §  §


How can one be, you may be asking yourself, objective in a purely subjective aesthetic medium? That’s easy. You find the number of ways the film is burnable garbage, which, I’ll admit, is a purely subjective process. However, when you reach a certain number of these subjective judgements, you have an objectively bad film.

That number is eight.

On tape

This all began, good God, about two years ago, when I saw the first twenty-five minutes of Nomadland on the television set. I made the snarky comment you see as the title to this piece to Bob and Pat and Dina and they encouraged me to review it here. With full intent to do so, that goddamned single ethical bone in my body made me see it …

… in the cinema

And it may the last one I ever see.

The film, on its own, doesn’t really deserve too much hatred. It just never comes to life. Hamstrung by the genre (character study), the best the film can do reflect, or explore. Interestingly. The film is neither depressing, horrific, funny, exciting or relevant. There is no energy here. Dead on arrival, you forget the film as you watch it.

As I said. Practically no hatred at all.

But even taking it …

… on its own terms …

… it fails. For all its attempts at realism, it feels fake through and through, stagey and lazy. You have two serious (let’s not say “serious”, let’s say “uninteresting”) problems.

Titles about jumpcuts always seem typos

The film heavily utilizes the jumpcut, hopping from unprofound moment to unprofound moment. She’s in an RV! the film proclaims. She’s singing by the fire! Nope, never mind. Character doesn’t have enough energy for that. She’s watching people sing by the fire! She’s shitting in a bucket! She’s making a jigsaw puzzle!

It’s a kind of “How ordinary are you?” drinking contest to the audience: If the music or soundtrack is interrupted by a hard cut to a new sequence, drink a shot. Or in Scott’s case, a bite from the cloyingly sweet bag of Jeff de Bruges chocolate.

I ran out of chocolate in the first three minutes.

I wasn’t playing the game.

On the plus side … wait. Before we give it any technical praise, that reminds me, there are actually nine points of failure.

As a film … metonymically!

I had to look this word up to make sure I was using it correctly, and I was glad I did. This is not a film, because it is, of course, shot on digital.

And it is not shy about that.

The ugliness of the shots put me in mind of Visions of Light, and how Mr. Gordon Willis was singled out as “The Prince of Darkness” during his career. He was known for keeping most of his shot underexposed. What he said in response to that always stuck with me.

He said, “I always leave one thing in frame at key.” This means that one tiny section of the shot, however small, and in Mr. Willis’ case, sometimes they were really small, was exposed exactly correctly, even if the rest of the shot was almost (but never completely, not really) black.

Digital is a forgiving medium, generally you can just turn the camera on. When you do this, you a fairly flat image in the contrast sense. Like this:

The blacks are dark grey, the whites are light grey. This is deliberate, so that you don’t lose information at the high and low light ends of the shot. You then correct it in post, which allows a lot of, some say too much, control.

You still absolutely need to be paying attention to exposure, so you don’t get grain in the darks or have some definition in the mid-range lights. Film is better in range of color and detail, but digital is fine, and has its advantages too. God knows, Mr. Roger Deakins, M. Benoît Debie and Mme. Agnès Godard have done well enough it, but you need still need the basics – exposure and correction.

Nomadland doesn’t so much split the difference between as it does run out on the fucking bill. Too dark, too light, nothing at key, and, somehow, miraculously, too much grain. Call it The Landlord of Greyness.

It further thinks that having a beautiful landscape is enough, and thus fails to frame, even in the most rudimentary way. You reach subconsciously for the imaginary PS4 controller in your lap, to nudge the X stick and get a slightly more balanced composition. It is a movie not so much shot, as pressed record.

Where was I? Right. Back to …

… failing on its own terms.

What I was saying, lo those many paragraphs ago, was “on the plus side”.

Now that’s an aside.

So, on the plus side, the jumpcuts make you realize that you’re not sitting through the 351-hour director’s cut. On the minus side, the film doesn’t seem to realize that this fast snippet technique is how better films (À bout de souffle, Point Blank, Hawaii-Five-0), and yes, even worse films (Mickey One) convey information quickly.

These older films use this gimmick to inject the audience with a rush of information, so that they could then then get on to the story, character or both. Nomadland uses only this technique, with not terribly compelling moments to boot (see “in an RV”, above). In its ignorance of basic film language, the jumping about makes it feel like you’re watching a film perpetually waiting to get started.

It never does.

Characters telling us There’s Something About Mary.

In a character study, you let the character behave, and have the audience decide what it thinks. Naked is a great example of this, as are many of Mr. Mike Leigh’s films, which by and large I don’t like, but I begrudgingly admit are well-made.

What you don’t do is have the character behave, or in this case, do nothing, realize far too late that you forgot to write a character per se, and then have other characters tell us that she is “braver and more honest”, characteristics she hasn’t demonstrated.

Ooops, sorry. That’s exactly what you do. Point in your favor, Nomadland. For all its self-stated independence, this is classic lazy screenwriting. Congratulations on your bright new career in Hollywood, Ms. Zhao!

I’m a Celebrity! Get me out of this art film

The inclusion of Ms. Frances McDormand and Mr. David Strathairn in the otherwise realistic environs and non-actors radiates only the impression of slumming. I can’t believe they made her do that!, says the audience member, oh my God, that’s what it’s like to be poor? I should give it …

… an Award …

… which they did, which in turn led to my pondering why, which led to me watching the first twenty-five minutes of the thing, which led to the snarky comment, which led to my seeing it unfortunately in the cinema.

Having enduring its entirety has led to a change of view on my part. It should not surprise you that this change of view was not for the better. Because those first twenty-five minutes had led me to believe that this was a case of …

… utterly failed agitprop.

The fault here is mine, believing that this was a film about income inequality. What with income inequality being at the very center of all the characters and situations in the film. Silly me.

No, really. Silly me. I should have known. Because within those first twenty-five minutes, there were shots inside an Amazon warehouse. The fact that it wasn’t displayed as Amazon told us that Mr. Bezos had given the film his blessing.

There is no action or event or choice or person or institution on earth where this is a good thing.

If you make a film without a political agenda, that’s fine.

Of course it isn’t. Because you are always making a film with a political agenda, even by, or especially by, omission.

And when you have characters out of money, getting by sans healthcare, living in vans, it’s just, I don’t know, weird to forget to foreground this during the epoch when great billionaires roam the earth. The ignorance on display here makes us feel like a Kardashian is going to show up at any moment and help Ms. McDormand out with a Pepsi. Kind of like my ignorance at using a five-year-old meme to make that point.

And yes, I know, I know, social issues are notoriously difficult to portray in film, with Poor v. Rich probably the hardest of those. This is unfortunately because of the way in which narrative itself is constructed.

Narrative, for better or worse, means watching characters. Characters, in some movies, occasionally, not so much these days, but nevertheless, occasionally, make choices. Those choices makes characters responsible for their fate in the story, hence tension. Choice resonates throughout the film as an alternate to the way the story could have been.

It is therefore extremely hard to show someone in a film being poor without blaming them for being so. It is the nature of narrative.

That this is the dominant style of story-telling in a culture obsessed with wealth, murder, slavery, domination, limitless growth and acquisition is probably just a coincidence.

Nevertheless, there have been some successes navigating this structural problem. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? counts as a major one, Downsizing a minor. Elysium, a staggering failure. The Wire pulled it off by depicting a vast array of characters and thus institutions, but did so over a sprawling landscape not possible in a single film.

The snare is ever-present, lurking in the very structure itself: a poor person in a story is a character, and a character is blamed – always – for their situation.

Technically speaking, this is the thing Nomadland gets the most right, at least from point of view of maintaining the status quo. Our lead character refuses help multiple times throughout the film. By focusing on Her Choices, or on Her Damage, it feels not so much irresponsible (though certainly that), as it does tone deaf.

What we see is the scrappy poor, making do, getting by and proud. They’re so resilient! And so colorful! They’re the real winners of this award. Well, I mean, I am, for recognizing them, and voting to give the film an award. But the poor merit at least a runner-up! Ooh, yikes. I didn’t realize there are so many of them. A participation trophy it is!

This lost opportunity feels like the interracial kiss cut from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and will age exactly as well. You could say that at least Dinner will have some sort of legacy, but I see one for Nomadland as well. For it is thanks to this film, that we know the poor are doing just fine, thank you very much. Hey, who wants to order something from Amazon!

The Take

Mr. Strathairn’s buying licorice because he didn’t like Ms. McDormand’s smoking was a believable character beat. And if it had led somewhere, that would have been neat.
There was a genuinely moving moment, when Ms. Charlene Swankie details her gratitude about the beautiful moments she’s experienced in nature. I would have seen a movie about that character.
Total Profits
The movie then ruins that moment by showing the actual birds Ms. Swankie described in frame. You get the feeling the movie knew that this is the only good scene and it’s repeating the bit like a catchphrase that got a laugh.
The romantic subplot has no energy, which you absolutely NEED. You never get the feeling that either one wants the other, let alone likes them. Instead, the film assumes you’ll think, because they’re both movie stars, they’re supposed to be together. You know, like when there are two black people in a movie!
That dog pat was SOFT.
Total Losses



Thoughts on Nomadland

  1. Julia Caston says:

    Scott!!!!! The best Xmas / Chanukah gift ever.
    Thank you!!! Yes the end is here….. did you see “don’t look up”?
    I hope you are living well… write more!!!! 💕🥰

  2. Julia Caston says:

    Can’t wait to see your thoughts!!!
    Happy new year!!

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