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Nomadland, Beginning and Slow Machine: The 2020 New York Film Festival


A glance back at the economic suffering of the post-crash Obama era that feels barely a day removed from the nation’s present multitude of crises, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is much more existential road movie than social tract. While it communicates something newsy about the pitiful state of things for the American worker, the story tracks an introspective quest, dramatized against the splendiferous, wide-open horizons of the American West. 

The odyssey of a Nevada woman who loses her home and takes to the road after the closing of her town’s gypsum mine, the film fits loosely into a body of work that includes both fiction and nonfiction, lines that Zhao handily straddles: The Florida Project, American Honey, American Factory, Bombay Beach and other efforts whose narratives are underpinned by economic instability and narrowed options while filling the screen with local color, regional specificity and immense amounts of heart. 

The film – one of the highlights of this year’s mostly virtual New York Film Festival – marked Zhao’s return to the prestigious Main Slate, where she bowed in 2017 with The Rider, her second film, which cast real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau as an aspiring rodeo champ who struggles after a brain injury makes further competition too risky. Nomadland expands her range. In adapting Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, Zhao inserts Fern (Frances McDormand), a fictional character, into a tableaux of contemporary nomads, travelers who live in their RVs as they move between temporary, often seasonal employment and corral into ad-hoc communities on the late-capitalist frontier. (Bruder collaborated with filmmaker Brett Story for the documentary short CamperForce in 2017, for Field of Vision.)As such, much of the cast is non-professional, in some cases sprung from Bruder’s reportage onto the screen, where they embody themselves-as-themselves with touching grace and resilient spirit. Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells – whose YouTube channel has made him a national icon of the nomad movement – guide Fran into her brave new world with equal parts salt and tenderness. Maybe it’s Zhao’s maturing touch, or the cast’s ease with the camera, but the (albeit endearing) awkwardness that marked the non-professional performances of The Rider subsides here.

McDormand’s performance, which maps as much brooding interiority as it surveys Fran’s uncertain road ahead, is the unvarnished, flinty thing Oscar nominations are made of, and the mutual intensity of focus that she shares with Zhao locks in on the most minor of details. It’s a story of “how” as much as “why,” and the way scenes build up out of the smallest moments, glances, tasks, asides into the widest canvas in creation is a marvel. The only misstep for me is the music, drawn from recordings by the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, which cloys as it evokes emotions we’re already feeling. 

Not quite “your dad’s” NYFF this year, the Main Slate dialed back on some of the predictable (and predictably male) European auteurs of long-standing tradition – even John Waters’ satirical poster made a point of noting Jean-Luc Godard’s absence (no new film, but anyway) – to welcome several women filmmakers onboard for the first time. Among them were Garrett Bradley (Time), Heidi Ewing (I Carry You With Me), Yulene Olaizola (Tragic Jungle) and Dea Kulumbegashvili (Beginning).

Georgian writer-director Kulumbegashvili’s feature debut is tough and brutal, lyrical and transcendent, made with astonishing assurance and a clear-eyed absence of sentimentality. The static camera, 1:33 frame ratio and extended sequences give the film a very distinct aesthetic tone, which may remind some viewers of Michael Haneke’s work, or given the situation of its protagonist Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. (Mexican filmmaker Carlos Raygadas is a producer of the film). As a former actress now consigned to a rural outpost where her husband (Rati Oneli, the film’s co-writer) oversees a flock of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Yana raises her son and serves her marriage, her needs and ambitions of diminished significance in the order of things. A dramatic act of violence near the start of the film kicks into motion a shattering sequence of events, as Yana struggles with her loneliness and soul-deep unhappiness, tormented from within and without. Her assaultive encounters with a big-city detective, who stalks and intimidates her after her husband files a complaint in the fire-bombing of their church, opens up a disturbing space of psychological ambiguity, where even the redemptive balm of the natural world is fraught with danger. Through it all the camera calmly observes as Yana wrestles with crisis, Sukhitashvili’s performance one of slow, quiet, nearly implacable longing.

Much as the other leads in the aforementioned films, Stephanie Hayes holds down nearly every frame in Slow Machine, which despite its name shuffles briskly back-and-forth along a puzzle-like timeline and eschews a predictable story arc for what feels more like improvisatory theatrical energy bursting out of recognizable dramatic (or dramedic, if that can be a word) situations. The title alludes to a phrase from Philip Larkin’s poem “Life with a Hole in It”:

“Life is an immobile, locked/Three-handed struggle between/Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)/The unbeatable slow machine/That brings what you’ll get.”

How those lines translate to or entangle the life of Stephanie, a downtown Manhattan actress (like Hayes, who plays her) with a career in black-box avant-garde theater and offbeat indies, is some of what the audience gets to think about during this wryly comic sorta-thriller’s fleeting 70 minutes. Co-directed by Joe DeNardo and Paul Felten (who also wrote the screenplay), Slow Machine outlines a woman-on-the-run escapade for the Edward Snowden age, as a tentative but talky romance with a suspiciously forthright anti-terrorist intelligence agent named Gerard (Scott Shepherd) ends in horror, and Stephanie flees to a vaguely upstate farmhouse (or something) where Williamsburg uber-folkie Eleanor Friedburger (more or less playing herself) is recording a new album – and in no mood to suffer unannounced strangers. Stephanie adapts/trolls by flaunting the persona of the Texas trailer-park heroine she’s rehearsing as for her current production, drawl and all. Awkwardness abounds, not least during a chatty interlude with Chloe Sevigny (as, apparently, herself), Stephanie’s testy bestie, in which the more celebrated performer shoos away an intrusive fan (“I’m a very small part of your life …”) before launching into a bizarre anecdote about a cryptic audition and a mysterious script that still haunts her. Then there’s a bomb threat, but the gals finish their Pinot Grigio, anyway. 

With its emphasis on a chameleon-like lead moving through paranoid situations in a nervous New York demimonde of hipsters, hidden identities and the looming potential of violence, the plot generates a conspiracy vibe without much of a conspiracy, opting instead to explore the nature of story itself, prizing Hayes’s ease in conjuring self-mythologizing monologues. 

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