What once might have seemed like a radical situation, far removed from our everyday reality, aligned itself with our own experiences of living through a dangerous pandemic.
Nomadland's Ideological No-Man's-Land
Nomadland is a serious film about serious issues. Not three minutes in, we see two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand pissing in an open field, before we cut to the title card (white text on black screen, no music. Distributed by Fox Searchlight, a subsidiary of Walt Disney, Nomadland depicts the struggles of the houseless in Arizona. Now, why someone would need Disney to tell them about the plight of the houseless is certainly a question to ponder over.
At absolute face value, Nomadland has all the right ingredients for a Critically Acclaimed ‘Issues’ Film; reliable leading performance from great actor, pan shots across the American West, an ability to relate to almost every viewer despite its specific subject matter, a score from the typically overwrought Ludovico Einaudi that only occasionally pops up. But where Nomadland crosses the line between middling and morally questionable is in its casting.
In director Chloe Zhao’s previous film The Rider, she essentially recreated the events that actually happened to the lead actor after his actual traumatic head injury in a rodeo accident, as a traditional narrative-based drama. This is nothing exactly unusual, or in and of itself unethical; my favourite film of 2020 was Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, which saw the titular lead actor recreating her experience returning to Lisbon after forty years to discover her absent husband had died. It’s a chance to really pursue the truth in image-based storytelling, and to unravel the contradiction between fact and fiction. The best scene in The Rider features lead Brady Jandreau training a horse, an event that serves as a dramatic milestone in the character’s journey, and sees the actor in real-time training the actual horse on-screen.
Similarly, Nomadland features many nonactors. Throughout the runtime we are introduced to many of the actual houseless people who live in vans in the Arizona desert; they tell us their stories, their struggles, and how they get by, many directly relating the cause of their houselessness to the 2008 recession. But, the film’s primary focus is on Fern, a fictional character written for the film by the director, portrayed by two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand; Frances McDormand who owns two houses and is worth $30 million. Frances McDormand, who could probably buy every one of the actual houseless on-screen a house.
In terms of narrative, we only hear the stories of the other houseless because they’re talking to Fern, interactions written into the script. It is at least assumed that these are real stories; while Nomadland is presented as a fictional drama, the nonactors are indicated in the credits to ‘play themselves’. So, a contradiction arises: does Chloe Zhao feel these stories can only be digested by the audience through a fictional narrative drama? This framing only serves to keep the audience at a distance; not only is it disrespectful to its subject, it’s disrespectful to the audience. Most viewers would think the entire film was a work of fiction and the whole cast were professionals; ‘yes, this is a horrible thing, thank God it’s not real!’
Throughout the film’s dialogue are suggestions of the state of houselessness being a means to acquire transcendence, or a more fulfilling lifestyle; very early on a fellow worker in the Amazon plant Fern works at shows a tattoo of the Morrissey lyric ‘Home, is it just a word? / Or something you carry deep within you’. This is not a knock at this worker’s tattoo (we never actually see her again so we have no idea of her circumstances; it figures that she has served her purpose and so is discarded on the cutting room floor), but remember that Zhao chose to show the audience this tattoo, at this time in the runtime. We also hear Fern’s sister say ‘It’s always out there that’s more interesting than here’, and numerous times Fern rejects offers of accommodation.
What this builds up to can only adequately be described as an exploitation of the state of houselessness. Fern ends the filmic narrative still traveling in her van. The character has consumed all these real-life stories to fuel her fictional character’s journey, to help her process her fictional husband’s fictional death. Indeed, by the end of the film one of the actual nonactors we saw has actually died. She has been cannibalised for the purposes of this Disney film.
Nomadland actually almost relates capitalism to the state of houselessness; we see Fern working in an Amazon warehouse (did we mention this is a Disney film?), we also hear from Youtuber Bob Wells about the ‘tyranny of the dollar’ and workers ‘willing to work themselves to death and be put out to pasture’. But this is all controlled opposition. There’s no active class struggle or organising, just box-ticking to cynically ride the zeitgeist and get plaudits from Chrissy Teigen. By pointing the camera at this Bad Thing the viewer already knows about, Nomadland can reassure you that Disney too knows about it. Quite simply, it’s pandering. One character even discusses how ‘great’ the pay is. ‘The film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity’.
In effect, Nomadland is for no one; no one will come out of this film learning anything about houselessness or capitalism. The actual houseless nonactors will not fare any better for this film being produced; their struggles being co-opted and spat out as pathetic navel-gazing for the ‘indie’ cinema circuit. But, at least one critic from The A.V. Club will see two time Academy-Award winning Frances McDormand shitting in a bucket and feel a little bit of class guilt.
Some Kind of Hell
Last night I found a note on my laptop I couldn’t remember making. It simply read ‘Bollywood dancing to let it snow’. After much puzzling, I realised I had made this note whilst watching ‘Some Kind of Heaven’, the debut release from documentary film-maker Lance Oppenheim.
The Villages is a 130,000 strong retirement community in Florida; Disneyland for pensioners. We are treated to a brief clip of residents ‘Bollywood dancing’ to Let it Snow as the documentary takes us through the hundreds of clubs and activities on offer to inhabitants of the village. In the Villages, politics is itself reduced to a pastime; residents riding round on golf carts wearing novelty t-shirts and shouting at each other. Such political fanfare is simply another activity to pass the time — of as little consequence as an afternoon of water aerobics.
In a way, life in The Villages gives us a taste of what life could be like under Communism; more free time to dedicate to our passions and learn new skills. As Marx envisioned, in a socialist society where relations of production are radically transformed, we could ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening [and engage in] criticism after dinner’. However, ‘Some Kind of Heaven’ shows us that such a ‘utopia’ is unachievable in present, capitalist conditions. These pensioners — overwhelmingly wealthy and white — have worked all of their lives, sold a dream that decades of wage labour in service of capital would allow them to live out their twilight years joyfully. Now they’ve reached their nirvana, there’s something missing.
Residents arrive at The Village and stumble into a world of overly routinised, ‘organised’ fun. Marriages breakdown as couples suddenly have too much time and recreational drugs on their hands. A resident’s husband dies, and she is stuck in The Villages, having to work a full time job to survive whilst everyone around her (supposedly) lives out their wildest dreams. The film follows an ‘interloper’; a man who lives in a car park just outside of The Villages as he hunts for a wealthy woman to take him in and meet his material needs. When this happens, he is bored and absent. He has hustled to get a roof over his head, but loses his ‘freedom’ in the process, the ‘freedom’ to languish in the back of his van at 81 years old on the run from a DUI.
Whilst the film follows Villagers (and aspiring Villagers) as they grapple with the town’s empty promises, the workers responsible for reproducing The Villages daily are notable in their absence. What of the cleaners at the leisure centres, the waiting staff at the restaurants, the care workers supporting dsiabled and elderly residents? Without this invisible labour (inevitably performed by underpaid and/or precarious staff), The Villages would cease to exist.
There is another notable absence that goes unaddressed in the course of the film. The Villages overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, perhaps unsurprising for a community of 98% white, wealthy retirees living in a model village. Whilst Villagers can indulge in a buffet of ‘multicultural’ pursuits, such as Bollywood dancing, there is no discussion of race or the overwhelming whiteness of the towns’ residents and the ‘utopian’ vision it offers.
People move to the Villages to escape the realities of a planet hurtling towards extinction; a fantasy land with no bad news, no work. ‘Some Kind of Heaven’ — in the hauntingly absent stares of its subjects — shows us that such an escape is not possible. Capitalism tells us that if we just keep working hard, we’ll be rewarded with a comfortable end. ‘Some Kind of Heaven’ exposes this lie. The communist horizon, in contrast, sees life as a reward that should be experienced to its fullest; such a dream cannot be realised in a capitalist world, however hard the Villagers try.
Protest The Hero and Musical Self-Criticism
Many musicians have publicly criticised their own work. Thom Yorke famously hates Creep, Kurt Cobain grew sick of Smells Like Teen Spirit, and James Blunt constantly makes fun of himself for You’re Beautiful. Usually it’s one song they criticise, often because it’s overplayed, but rarely do they criticise whole records. Even rarer do they immortalise their criticism in song form. Rarer still, possibly unprecedented, is criticising a whole record, in a song, on that same record.
That’s what Protest The Hero did with Caravan from their 2016 EP Pacific Myth. How did this happen? Why didn’t the band change the EP before releasing it if they were so critical of it? The answer lies in how the EP was released. Following the success of crowdfunding their 2013 album Volition, and tired of the 2 year album cycle, the band tried out a subscription model through Bandcamp. 1 song every month, for 6 months. In their words, the idea was to release ‘songs we love now, songs we are proud of now, and songs which are inherently more candid than our other material’. They certainly delivered on that last one with Caravan.
What they perhaps failed to fully account for is that creativity is a difficult thing to muster on command and you can’t know if you’ll be proud of your creation by a certain deadline, yet that is what this kind of subscription model demands. If you’ve ever struggled to be creative to a deadline—whether it’s an essay you had two weeks to write, a D&D session you had a week to prepare for, or indeed a song you had a month to make—you’ll know there comes a point where you have to aim for ‘good enough’ or miss the deadline, pride be damned. In this way, rigid deadlines can encourage falling into old, comfortable patterns and well-worn tropes, creating ‘just words punched in a template’ rather than bold, new ideas.
The progressive metal genre, as much as I love it, is particularly prone to this kind of cookie-cutter writing, to finding ‘a catchy way of saying nothing’, often conveying unfocused anger at ~something~, vague metaphysical nonsense, or metaphors so abstract they’re essentially meaningless. Indeed, you can ‘interpret the meaning to mean whatever you want it to be’. This is the trap that Protest The Hero fell into repeatedly with Pacific Myth. It was something I sensed, but didn’t interrogate. A vague feeling that something was missing. But I pushed it aside. I love this band, after all. Maybe I just need to listen to the songs a few more times, then they’ll click like their old ones did.
Caravan woke me from that stupor. It begins in much the same way the rest of the tracks do, with an extended, largely incomprehensible mixed metaphor that washes over me, leaving very little impression behind. I’m once again lulled into shutting my brain off, enjoying the ‘empty poetry’ and tasty riffs, until, suddenly, there’s a shift.
‘The Sun, the Moon, the Earth, the shore. Tired metaphors played out before your eyes.’ I start to rouse. Before I was entirely passive, but now all of a sudden my eyes are involved. And hey, isn’t that first lyric similar to one from the other tracks? The critical direction continues, but, eyes still bleary, I do not yet realise where it is headed, until the song crescendos and lead singer Rody Walker screams ‘You are the problem! I am the problem!’, condemning us both for allowing our standards to slip. Finally, as I’m wide awake and alert, Rody asks ‘Are you satisfied?’ and before I even have the chance to answer he tells me ‘Don’t be satisfied.’
What makes this so affecting is how right he was. I made excuses and pushed aside that hollow feeling while listening to each song come out, month after month. I convinced myself I was satisfied, but truly, I wasn’t. Caravan changed all of that.
Whereas much of our media is designed to be ‘consumed’ passively and subconsciously (did you really find events depicted in the film particularly sad, or was it the swelling strings of the score that made you cry?), Caravan draws attention to itself by directly addressing the listener and acknowledging its own form. In that way, it employs a kind of ‘alienation effect’—popularised by communist playwright Bertold Brecht—distancing (or alienating) the listener from the work instead of immersing them in it, to encourage engagement with the song and its criticisms on a conscious level. A bold choice, especially when those criticisms—and more importantly, self-criticisms—are so scathing towards the very record the song completes.
In the moment, criticism is often intellectually and emotionally challenging. It is easy to get defensive and focus on the inaccuracies of a criticism, conveniently ignoring all the accurate parts. We must acknowledge and overcome that emotional response, allowing ourselves to reflect on our mistakes and correct them. As communists, criticism and self-criticism are invaluable weapons in our struggle to improve ourselves, strengthen our stance, and take aim at the ruling class. Good criticism and self-criticism brings what previously went unacknowledged and unexpressed to the forefront. It allows us to confront our mistakes head on, to correct them, and to come out of the process stronger.
After Caravan, Protest The Hero abandoned the subscription model, instead taking 4 years to release their next album: Palimpsest. Possibly their most direct, political, and meaningful work since they were raging against ‘the system’ and ‘the 2%’ (it’s been a while!).
That is the power of self-criticism.