The goodbye drills of Nomadland: Rethinking the cinema of travelling, through the 2021 Best Picture Oscar winner
In Nomadland emerges the truth that we don’t travel to forget, we travel to forgive.
The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.
What we choose to derive from art is a reflection of who we are. It need not be what the creator intends to convey. Missing the point can be the whole point. As much as we love listening to a story, the good stories listen to us. They understand us and, in exceptional cases, help us understand ourselves. They sign their entry tickets with personalised remarks, assuring us that our worldview — our private “takeback” from a vast narrative — is not lesser or greater. It’s just that: ours. And it’s valid. Writing that gets read is no more a collection of words, it’s a conference of worlds.
For instance, Call Me By Your Name is by all accounts a summer-drenched portrait of first love at the intersection of adolescence and adulthood. But what I took back was my own custom-made souvenir — not the illicit passions of same-sex attraction so much as the compassionate parenthood that enables the attraction. In teenage Elio’s father, I saw my own: scholarly and proud, yes, but also emotionally literate and quietly empathetic. He’s not a progressive man by virtue of simply being a movie character; his intellectual lineage demands it. I thought of his vocation, a professor of archeology — and the fact that, in his iconic final monologue, he draws on decades of academic training and determines his son’s suffering by excavating the mortal remains of his own past. By studying history, he invented a new kind of future — free of sexual stigma, mindful of individualism — for an upper-class American family in 1983.
Similarly, the latest Best Picture Oscar winner is many things at once. Nomadland is a rare hybrid of documentary and dramatisation: It’s adapted from a non-fiction book that chronicles the phenomenon of real-life American nomads in the slipstream of the Great Recession, many of whom play themselves in the film. But its protagonist Fern is fictional, played by actress Frances McDormand. Nomadland is a blend of the political and personal — her mobile-home journey reveals a landscape of marginalised pensioners who subvert an apathetic system by drifting through the gig economy. The film is also a lyrical hybrid of rootlessness and stability — the nomads dip their fingers in and out of capitalistic structure to sustain a migratory existence that eschews the essence of the American Dream.
Yet, I found myself fixating on the dot beneath the film’s wistful question mark. Outwardly a modern meditation on the machinations of survival, Nomadland for me is a silent acquittal of the coping mechanisms of grief. Financial crises aside, the wandering lifestyle is a consequence of loss and longing. Fern loses her husband, her job and her hometown before hitting a highway of destinationless pit stops. Bob Wells, a leading vandweller, speaks about the suicide of his young son. A fellow nomad, Swankie, has terminal cancer, striving to die in the wild rather than live in the social wilderness. At surface level, theirs is a community of loners endeavouring to break free from the trappings of civilisation. Their shapeless motion seems rooted in a desire to flee rather than confront their desolation.
But dig deeper, and Nomadland has a cathartic heart beating in its mournful body. The “road” has long been fetishised as a literal manifestation of emotional escapism. People move to escape mundanity, trauma, pattern and life itself. But what does travelling offer — other than physical transition — that money and recreation cannot? The answer lies in the visual language of Nomadland. Fern’s voyage is essentially an assembly of seasonal farewells. We repeatedly see Fern watching new friends drive away after a brief stint of togetherness; several shots feature her waving goodbye to their vehicles across cold and warm landscapes. Most films might have framed these as heart-wrenching moments, tinged with the tragedy of chance encounters cut short by the vagaries of age. But Nomadland infuses the hurt of parting with the hope of closure.
Towards the end, Bob Wells mentions that the nomads’ parting phrase (“See you down the road”) is no casual euphemism. It’s a genuine gesture. They do actually cross paths at least once a year; their wandering conforms to the anatomy of routine. The human mind is conditioned to assume that fortuitous connections on a trip are fleeting; the little moments are thus romanticised, and stretched, for the fear of transience. But by reframing farewells as a cyclical feeling of familiarity, the occupants of Nomadland train themselves to grieve the losses that kickstarted their journey. The more they exercise the evanescence of meeting and leaving, the more they learn to trust the demise of their previous identity. The more they nurse incomplete attachments with a promise of rekindling them, the more acclimatised they get to the pain of departure.
Fern embraces this culture of persistent separation in order to reverse the permanence of goodbyes. Every time she sees someone leave, she gets a little more used to losing her husband. She gets a little more adroit at rationalising his absence. She doesn’t know if the nomads will cross paths again, but when they do, Fern’s farewell sheds its endurance. She feels a little less abandoned, and a little more versed in the prospect of seeing her husband “down the road”. His death then feels a little less absolute and a little more ambiguous. Her van traverses this terrain between less and more; the road turns life into a dress rehearsal for death. Each goodbye tutors her further until there is nothing left to leave.
Watching Nomadland made me rethink the cinema of travelling. Recreational travelling isn’t the same as living in a van, but the core idea — of marinating in the passage of places — is similar. I’ve long been led to believe that movie characters use travelling as an escape from themselves. Jesse, in Before Sunrise, bides his time in Vienna after his girlfriend breaks up with him. A heartbroken Imtiaz Ali protagonist often finds solace in the mountains. Rani, in Queen, goes on her European honeymoon alone after being dumped on the eve of her wedding. It’s assumed that these people ‘find themselves’ because foreign lands strip humans of their uniformity and make them vulnerable.
But in Nomadland emerges the truth that we don’t travel to forget, we travel to forgive. We don’t travel to gain, we travel to get comfortable with the idea of losing. Rani must leave her new friends in Amsterdam and Paris after sharing an inextricable bond with them; this prepares her for the inevitability of rejecting her fiancé in Delhi. Her trip — a composition of fleeting alliances — makes her content with the concept of letting go.
On a personal level, I’ve struggled with the abandonment anxiety of goodbyes. As a child, I once sulked for days after forgetting a pair of shorts on a family vacation. My heart would be heavy weeks before my father’s impending business trips. It’s no wonder my adult self took to wandering with a vengeance. I get hopelessly attached to the scenery of my travels. I consciously bid every new room and cathedral and host and cafe goodbye. I pause a few seconds before exiting a space, somewhat mourning the death of a specific time. These transitory experiences in turn help me accept — and endure — the untimely demise of human relationships.
But perhaps one of life’s great ironies is that we avoid punctuating the demise of these relationships. We evade the goodbyes that can’t be heard. Fern circumvents tangible gestures of separation with the only two people in her life — a sister and potential suitor — that see her as more than a passing breeze. She pretends to be asleep in her van, or she leaves at dawn when the house is asleep.
We avoid relegating to history those that tether us to a future. At the same time, we avoid elevating to a future those that tether us to a past. Last year, as I stood facing an old friend on his final night in this city, I merely mumbled, “I’ll see you around” and walked away. No hugs, no handshakes. Days later, I was on the road again, falling in love with a new country so that I could dignify the art of coming undone. I said goodbye to a grocery store. Missing more than just a point felt like the whole point.
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