Nomadland

First film in the theater since Birds of Prey* March 12, 2020 (fully vaxxed now). It's so good to be back.

Whenever people say a movie "needs to be seen on the big screen" they are invariably talking about big special effects-heavy blockbusters, but this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen. From the ecstatic majesty of Zhao's wide landscape shots to the pained intimacy of the closeups, there is power and depth in this film that simply does not translate on a small screen.

There's one shot that stands out to me, and it isn't even a particularly important or "arty" shot; it's where Fern runs away from the tour group into the little mounds of the Badlands of North Dakota. When I saw it the first time on my PC, my reaction was basically just, "oh, hey, I've been there!" But on the big screen you actually see her descend, almost submerge, into this desolate wasteland, and you get that it's her in microcosm, leaving society of her own volition (instead of being forced to by circumstance, as a certain subset of people insist on reading into this movie) and allying instead with the vast and uncaring natural world - and through that we understand something about not only her (our) relationship with the world but with death itself.

The film is very much about "the world" - human society and nature and the human individual - and life and death. Maybe it's pretentious but it's true, and I think it has a unique perspective on it.

It's a real shame this film has become something of a lightning rod for the ire of reactionary knobs on one end and a squadron of pseudointellectuals who think every piece of art is a Ken Loach film on the other. Great art expresses things that cannot easily be said with plain language, and that's exactly what Nomadland is.

An aside, it's both fascinating and endlessly frustrating that everybody recognizes Terrence Malick's influence on Zhao's visual style, but far fewer care to read her films on similar terms. She covers almost exactly the same ground - mankind's relationship with nature, society, and death/afterlife all at once. His focus tends to drift more on the divine while hers is more humanistic - extreme closeups, handheld cameras, nonprofessional "actors" playing themselves - so her films feel different and offer a different perspective on the same ideas, even if they're rooted in the same fundament. She's the Boris to Malick's Melvins (I am very proud of this analogy). Both rock, obviously - and a critic would be as remiss to ignore the progenitor's influence as they would be to whine that neither one is The Coup.

* Total coincidence but the film I saw before that (at home) was Songs My Brothers Taught Me**.

** Also a total coincidence that both "bookends" happened to be directed by Asian women - both happened to be rewatches of films that I just liked. It's fantastic that this is even possible now - it wasn't long ago that it literally wasn't - and I hope to soon see the day when it isn't even remarkable.

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