Several years ago, I wandered down to the reading room of Laity Lodge, a Texas conference center. I knew it to be the quietest, most restful place at the Lodge, and I needed a break after a few days of constant conversations with other writers. The reading room has an extraordinary view of the glacier-blue Frio River, and it was mid-morning, when sunlight paints a high canyon wall on the opposite side of the river. Vultures lazily patrol the skies, but even they seem calmed by the context. I was eager to be alone for a while, and, of course, to read. I mean, what else would one do in a reading room?

Reader, I did not read in the reading room.

Rather, I sat spellbound, gazing out the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows at what a mesmerizing dance. Birds were streaming up from the riverbank and right at the window, coursing in waves. There were too many moving too fast for me to count them, but they moved in such uncanny choreography that I could not look away. They did not strike the window — they aimed instead for the shadowed underside of the deck that sheltered the path outside. Each bird alighted upside down beneath the deck and madly dabbed bits of mud and clay from the river below. These were cliff swallows, and the small clumps of mud were nests in the making.

Here’s a short video of a few magical moments:

As I watched and wondered how they could sustain such complicated flight patterns without trouble, a moment came that made me gasp. A hawk dove down over the river, perhaps thinking of snatching one of the swallows out of the air. And in a split second the entire flock moved as one, becoming a river of self-defense, turning and chasing the hawk until it was driven, bewildered, from the scene. And then, before I could blink, they were back, scattering in wild trajectories, picking up on their construction site right where they had left off.

I remember how it felt, how I could hardly believe that I was there to witness it. It felt like gratitude. I could have stayed there for hours. I thought of the line from the twenty-third Psalm: “My cup overflows.”

Perhaps that scene sounds strangely familiar to you.

It should… if you’ve seen Chloe Zhao’s 2020 feature Nomadland.

Based on Jessica Gruber’s 2017 work of non-fiction called Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s film offers us a fictional narrative about a grieving widow named Fern (Frances McDormand) who puts her belongings in storage and begins living out of her van while moving from job to job around the country. Along the way, she gets to know a community of workers who, like her, struggle to make ends meet by pursuing jobs at parks, plants, and Amazon fulfillment centers. And eventually she becomes a part of an intentional community of nomads like her, a community of encouragement, support, and — perhaps most importantly — respect for the members’ idiosyncratic boundaries and burdens.

Star-gazing nomads learn how to catch stars in their hands.  [Image from the trailer for Nomadland.]
As we follow Fern from place to place, we observe her navigating complicated relationships with other nomads, most of whom are played by non-professional actors who actually live the life that we’re witnessing and work the jobs that we’re discovering. (The only other recognizable movie star is David Strathairn — excellent, as always — as a friendly and flirtatious loner who tests Fern’s resolve on matters of privacy and solitude.)

But we also spend a great deal of time alone with Fern as she takes in the beauty and the hardship of those awe-inspiring and often cruel landscapes. Even as we are occasionally enchanted by the sight of undeveloped country in panoramic splendor, sights that a city boy like me rarely sees, we also begin to sense how precarious her situation is, how much she needs community, and how much the community needs her.

One of the nomads who helps Fern out of a jam — an older woman named Swankie (playing herself) — becomes an important mentor on matters of survival. And it isn’t long before Fern learns that survival isn’t a road that will take Swankie much farther. As they face difficult truths in an intimate conversation, Swankie insists to Fern that she has lived a full life. She measures this fulness by things she has seen: “Moose in the wild. A moose family on a river in Idaho. And big white pelicans landing just six feet over my kayak on a lake in Colorado.”

And then she talks about cliff swallows. Hundreds and hundreds of them.

Fern (Frances McDormand) learns not to ever say a final good-bye to people she’ll meet “down the road.”

I’m looking at Swankie’s face which is illuminated as she describes the wonders that she has seen. But I’m seeing the Frio River cliff swallows in the Texas hill country. And I feel as though I’ve recognized this stranger as a sister.

Nomadland is one of those films in which we travel roads we would never otherwise travel, meet extraordinary people we would never otherwise meet, and find ourselves blessed in intimate and revelatory moments when they share something of themselves. It feels like a feast of unforgettable encounters. And in that, it becomes an experience so rare that I find myself thinking back with gratitude on a few other filmmakers, artists who were, I suspect, influential in the inspiration of this film.

On the map of cinema, I never expected to find an intersection joining the corners of Agnes Varda, Terrence Malick, and John Sayles. That’s where I met The Rider, my first encounter with Chloe Zhao. I was moved and impressed. But now I’ve seen Nomadland, which is, by my lights, an even grander achievement. And I realize that I am present to witness the raising of what might become a great house in one of my favorite neighborhoods.

Forget about Nomadland’s Oscar buzz and spotlight interviews — they’re unnecessary. That’s show business trying to interrupt an authentic moment and celebrate something real so that it can make itself look meaningful. But Zhao’s movies don’t need Oscars; they’re already the real thing, the rare wonder, the revelation that cinema can give us. Time will prove their quality, and any Oscars will end up a footnote. The best I can hope for from the Academy’s attention is that some unsuspecting moviegoers might be introduced to the potential of the art form, wake up, become curious, and start exploring beyond the bounds of multiplex consumerism and find out what a wide, wild world cinema really is.

Fern’s closest friend is her home on wheels: “Vanguard.”

The movies are a business. And show business is interested in learning what you already like so it can know what to sell you, take more of your money, and get more advertisements in front of you. Show business comes from studies and surveys and formulas. Show business isn’t interested in challenging you, inspiring you, or cultivating empathy. It likes its categories and its algorithms. The movies are a grid, a network of boxes: a grid that helps business calculate and expand.

Cinema, by contrast, is a world of creative freedom. It comes from imaginations driven by and drunk on beauty and truth, people who will put second mortgages on their homes and spend their life savings in order to bring their visions to life. Their work is playful, curious, exploratory. It refuses categories ad looks at formulas as opportunities for surprise and change. Cinema’s a globe, and an ever-changing one, with porous borders so rivers of influence flow freely across cultures and languages. It welcomes inspiration and it enables inspiration, so those who attend to it best be ready: They might come to know the lives and ways of neighbors they never knew they had. They might learn new languages. They might escape becoming mere consumers led by the system; they might become more fully human.

Okay — I get it: I’m describing a false binary. Sure, the Movies and Cinema overlap in all kinds of ways. After all, Moviegoers sometimes develop an appetite for art. And Cinephiles are an audience that, like any audience category on the grid of The Movies, can be marketed to. Many of the greatest filmmakers are also savvy businesspeople with their eyes on the box office, and many up-and-coming independent imaginations are aiming for their shot at a Marvel movie. So I’m not doing anyone any good if I paint these worlds as oppositional and exclusive.

But the more I grow weary of franchise-focused, formulaic movies, and the more I become allergic to nostalgia merchants, the more I find myself grateful for those artists, those loners, those imaginations out on the edges of things. For Wim Wenders and Claire Denis, for Lee Isaac Chung and Jim Jarmusch, for Sean Baker and Sofia Coppola.

The spirit of Agnes Varda is alive and well in Nomadland‘s encounters with drifters, philosophers, and survivors.

Right now, I’m thankful for Chloe Zhao. In two remarkable films, she has gone off the grid, exploring aspects of America that most filmmakers either avoid or never discover at all. She is interested in the overlooked, the neglected, the unwanted. She is interested in the poor and the pain that they carry. And so, in a spirit that I cannot help but describe as “Christ-like,” she loves those neighbors with her camera, with her storytelling, and with her editing. Zhao strikes me as an artist who finds her films by listening rather than forcing other people and other places into her preconceived notions.

And in doing so, she carries the torch of Agnes Varda, revealing the dignity and glory of those living beyond the borders of pop-culture’s superficial, glamour-obsessed favor. She carries the torch of John Sayles, devoted to the art of compassionate storytelling. She carries the torch of Terrence Malick, well aware that the place in which a story unfolds is every bit as important as the characters — and, in fact, that place is a character, one with much to say, one we ignore at our peril.

Fern and her friend Linda May cover a lot of ground in their journeys from job to job.

With Nomadland, she’s prepared a place place that brings those influences together while she breaks new ground all her own. Infusing a real-world nomadic American community with just enough fiction to sculpt a convincing narrative arc, and following Frances McDormand in the discovery of her most exquisite performance, Zhao keeps us moving from place to place on the edges of American society, and in doing so it establishes a new point on the map for our moviegoing souls — a place to grieve together, to look and listen, and to love. It’s a lonely place, and a costly one. But it offers views and encounters that we will never forget.

Here, Zhao builds on the strengths of The Rider and reveals that she is growing fast as a filmmaker. She already has a singular voice and vision as truthful and as beautiful as any in American filmmaking today. But the thing is… she’s not an American filmmaker. Sometimes, it takes a visitor to show us who we are. (Zhao is Chinese.) If someone can hold up such a clear and revealing mirror and speak the truth with love, well… that is a rare and priceless gift. I am grateful.

David Strathairn, star of John Sayles’s Limbo, is a man living on the edge again here.

Nomadland is full of expressions of love — I don’t know what else to call it — for the people Zhao discovers in her journeys and for the filmmakers whose distinctive visions have inspired and shaped her own. The two I thought about most were Malick and Varda. I caught what I think to be deliberate callbacks to The Tree of Life, Vagabond, and even The Gleaners and I. But the casting of Straithairn as a burdened wanderer may be a nod to Sayles’s Limbo, another attentive and compassionate look at people compelled to live on the literal edge.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Nomadland is pastiche. Zhao’s way of making movies is unique, and her passion for honoring those who live on the road, in the in-between places, and out on the edges of things strikes me as a filmmaking form of Gospel.

This movie had me thinking about people I’ve met along the way who I can’t stop thinking about, people who you aren’t likely to meet because they tend to keep to themselves — not because they’re running from something, not because they’re introverts, not because of… anything simple. It had me thinking about Jesus and how he sought out and loved those who didn’t fit anybody else’s idea of “success” and honored them by serving them.

Whether it’s in a rush of birds or a congregation of nomads, the Kingdom of God is at hand for those with eyes to see — and right now I don’t know that I trust any filmmaker to capture it more than I trust Zhao right now. No movie in 2020 moved me more than Nomadland.

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