What if being alone is what we were really all waiting for? Isolation is the defining sensation of the 2020s, perceived as a passing trial but really the only precedent this decade has to refer to so far. Most of us sense ourselves as being not so much solitary as partitioned, the teleconference cubes being the windows we now lean out of to call to each other. Fewer people than ever may believe that “hell is other people,” but we have to admit that almost everyone has always dreamed of having heaven to themselves.
Where once we sought to draw the aperture of existence down to the tight frame of our selfie-image, now we just want to peer out of it, and be part of something as bigger than ourselves as we can imagine. Turn your head a certain way and part of you disappears into your idyllic zoom backdrop, and people have long dreamed of losing themselves in the vistas of nature. The panoramas of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland feel like a masterful landscape the viewer has been painted into, eternal and complete. And, as far as we can see, utterly vacant.
My mind kept comparing them to the outer space and other-dimensional spans of Kubrick’s 2001; most of us have been to barely any of our own world, and Zhao shows us what has been waiting there. It’s a pioneer dream with the destination removed. For a time when we’ve come to value being more than going.
After more than a year of enclosure, this movie presents a delirious amount of outside. Yet the endless surroundings stay still; what moves is our point of view. One character defines what’s been meaningful in her life by what wonders she has witnessed, and that can be at the remove of a mountaintop or the ether between transcontinental zoom reunions. The movie’s two main modes are the infinite horizon and the intimate closeup; that some of the conversations between these faces seem to have been filmed at separate times only illuminates the feeling of lives being lived alone yet distances devotedly being crossed.
There was a special poignance seeing these discarded laborers, teachers, grandparents, artists roaming the abundant, abandoned plains and coasts and deserts and forests of the country; most of them are just old enough to have once been young hippies with dreams of returning to the land, and after they came home and went to work and spent their lives instead, that same economy spit them back out into the wilderness anyway.
The focal character, Fern, a naturally secluded soul now cast out even further by loss and grief, is content to be unseen and unmissed; her very name conveys unobtrusive background. Self-reliance is suspicious for women in the best of times, but we’ve all had lessons now in how to make do on our own; when Fern walks alone through a forest and floats alone in a river, she’s like an unsinkable Ophelia, an Eve with no need of Eden. The future is over and the present is far away, but no space is ever empty.