Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Two docs about the real people living in Nomadland


Two docs about the real people living in Nomadland

[This post was originally written for the Enoch Pratt Free Library blog.]

Nomadland swept the Oscars this year, winning awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Chloe Zhao - the first woman of color and of Asian descent and only the second woman ever to win the award) and Best Actress (Frances McDormand). Loosely adapted from journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book - which documented how a devastating global recession transformed old-fashioned “company towns” into ghost towns and created a new class of elderly transient workers - director Chloe Zhao’s film version uses the fictional character “Fern” (Frances McDormand) to represent this real-life diaspora. Shortly after the death of her husband, with whom she lived in the now-shut-down mining town of Empire, NV, Fern loads up a van that is now her home and hits what Robert Frost famously called “the road less traveled,” taking an itinerant journey of healing across the American West. Along the way she encounters many of the real nomads who first appeared in Bruder’s book, here playing themselves. Their appearance is important because, though Fern’s journey is financially-driven, not everybody hits the road for economic reasons. For many, the challenging lifestyle is a choice and their road leads to a place where they can enjoy both solitude and community. Nomadland is currently streaming only on Hulu and Disney+, so unless you have a subscription you’ll just have to wait until the DVD eventually comes out to see it. In the meantime, you can use your Pratt library card to check out two rare documentaries in the Best & Next Department’s video collection (yes, we still have video tapes!), Loners on Wheels and Roam Sweet Home, which complement the subject matter of Nomadland as they chronicle the lives of non-conventional seniors choosing to spend their golden years living on the road. While Zhao’s docudrama utilized the star power of Frances McDormand (and co-star David Straithorn) to tell a compelling story about societal drop-outs surviving economic and emotional hardship, the offbeat characters inhabiting these two small-budget films from the ‘90s are even more fascinating and their personalities and stories will hold your attention every bit as much as Hollywood stars like McDormand and Straithorn.

Loners On Wheels

(Susan E. Morosoli, 1997, 53 minutes)

88-year-old road warrior Duchess Grubb

Loners On Wheels documents the life of Duchess Grubb and her friends in “Loners on Wheels” (LoW),  a national, singles-only recreational vehicle organization offering freedom, friendship and fellowship to older adults who prefer to spend their retirement driving across America instead of sitting quietly in a rocking chair. Crediting the organization with providing an active alternative for people that otherwise would have been “staring stupid at four walls,” Duchess recites a poem celebrating “the friendly hello and the nice smiling faces upon your arrival from faraway places” that characterizes the community. Those faraway places include Joshua Tree, Salvation Mountain at Slab City and other scenic vistas. Along the way viewers are introduced to a trio of singing sisters (identical triplets!) whose side-hustle is stand-up comedy, a man who keeps fit exercising on his home-made trampoline, and plenty of campouts and cookouts - even a roadside birthday party for Duchess! (Also available on YouTube.)

Roam Sweet Home

(Ellen Spiro, 1996, 52 minutes)

Airstream trailers: tin chateaus on wheels

Director Ellen Spiro and her dog Sam hop in a vintage Airstream trailer and follow a group of “Geritol gypsies” - elderly drop-outs who have “side-stepped the system” by pulling out of conventional society and into roadside trailer communities. Along the way she captures the spirit of the roamers and the variety of reasons they abandoned the more traditional models of retirement. They range from a love of travel to the freedom from restrictive relationships. There are still challenges to be overcome living on the road: the owner of a pet chimpanzee recounts how she once snuck her chimp into a roadside diner - only to shock customers who saw a hairy arm emerge from under her blouse to grab some morsels! The film is narrated by Spiro's dog Sam, with the voice provided by renowned Southern novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). Gurganus wrote Sam’s narration, using it to share his perspective on the whims and follies of human nature, as exemplified in this cast of colorful characters. (Also available on YouTube.)

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