By Ellen Snortland
White vans. I’m seeing them everywhere since we watched the astoundingly good “Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand and directed by Chloe Zhao. Such is the magic of becoming aware of something previously unknown. Now, every time I see a white van, I’ll wonder if that is someone’s home.
Zhao is beyond gifted. Her abilities to frame a scene, work with actors, and evoke powerful emotions without needing to use a sledgehammer are stellar. She also edited the film, which has no violence and barely any drama. To call “Nomadland” a meditation on “there but for the grace of God, go I” comes close to the experience of watching it. I could relate to every single one of her characters, many of whom play themselves.
The American middle-class has been gutted, and we are part of the innards. I have resigned myself to the reality that I will never retire. I could be a textbook case of what not to do. For example, I used personal assets to fund my documentary, thinking that the project would pay off at some point. So far, it hasn’t, but I don’t regret taking the road less traveled. My sisters sold their souls for security; I sold my soul so I wouldn’t have to work for a-holes! And yes, I can laugh at myself.
In truth, I couldn’t ever imagine retiring; however, I would have liked having the choice. My husband and I have cobbled together a freelance, independent-contractor empire, and I consider us fortunate. Here’s a partial list of what I — a person with a Juris Doctor, mind you — do just to keep the wolves from our door: We have two Airbnb guest spaces on our property; I bake Norwegian specialty goodies; I board and walk dogs; I coach writers and teach writing classes; I collect royalties from my books; I am an exotic dancer. Kidding! (Just checking to see if you’re still with me.) I am so fortunate because I love writers and dogs with all my heart.
Back to “Nomadland.” Based on actual events and people, the movie is also a love letter to a significant portion of our aging population who take seasonal work where they can find it. For example, working at Amazon warehouses around Christmastime (the “Amazon CamperForce”), following crop harvests like sugar beets, or working as short-order cooks. They are temps in the real sense of the word, but not the front office kind. These people are nearly invisible, except to one another. They have similar stories to the people we all interact with regularly. Many of us are one client or one paycheck or one medical emergency away from being on the streets, or as the case may be, living in a van… if we’re lucky.
Fern, the character played by McDormand, is a well-educated, hard-working former teacher. She’s a “team player” who loves her job and her husband. They live in a small Nevada company town controlled by U.S. Gypsum, whose mines are also there. Almost overnight, her husband and the company itself have died, and the town evaporates — Nevada even erases its ZIP code. Fern takes to the road and hooks up with a woman who is part of a network of people similarly situated, who urges Fern to go to Quartzite, Arizona. This is where the annual get-together happens of the RTR: Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a veritable boot camp for new and old van dwellers.
The people who attend the RTR gatherings, created by Bob Wells, give each other pointers, barter and swap goods and services, and provide a community I would join in a heartbeat. While Zhao doesn’t romanticize the experience of being “houseless,” she reveals a piece of American values that include neighborliness and coming together, similar to the traditions of barn raisings and quilt making. I came away from “Nomadland” seeing just how much material “stuff” weighs me down. I can see how I could shed enough to fit in a van… as long as I have my sweetheart and my dogs.
Bob Wells, pictured, the most well-known person in the film, took his actual life experience of loss and sorrow and channeled it into his creation of the RTR. His son committed suicide, and he shares that in the film. The theme of grief is a steady undercurrent, and it’s not hyperbole to say that many of us also grieve the loss of the so-called American dream — a dream out of reach from large segments of our society for a long time.
Do I still want my home? You bet. However, “Nomadland” makes an uncertain future at least confrontable, which is quite an accomplishment for a movie. And… another white van just drove by.
Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a heckuva long time, and she also coaches first-time book authors. Contact her at email@example.com.