CineWomen: Chloé Zhao continues love letter to the American West with ‘Nomadland’

Plus her first feature film ‘Songs My Brother Taught Me,’ ‘Dead Pigs’ by Cathy Yan, and “The Watermelon Woman” by Cheryl Dunye

What was the last movie you saw in a theater?

Mine was Emma. on March 11 at the Regal Edwards Santa Maria. By that weekend, cinemas across the country closed to help tamp down the virus.

My companion was my mom — also the last person besides my husband with whom I’ve socialized in person in nearly a year.

I suspect that my last cinema experience looked much like moviegoing does today: our party was one of two in the entire auditorium, though we weren’t wearing masks yet.

The studios have adapted: Universal immediately began moving its titles to digital sooner than ever before. Disney debuted a new Pixar movie exclusively on Disney+. Warner Bros. is premiering its tentpole pictures day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max.

And now Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos announced through what looked like gritted teeth that one of Tom Cruise’s next movies will hit Paramount+ just 45 days after its theatrical debut.

That’s not as an extreme position as some of the other studios, but it speaks to how radically the pandemic has altered the theatrical landscape, and one can’t help but fear there’s no going back.

And yet.

Rewatching Nomandland this week on Hulu, I couldn’t help but fantasize what Chloé Zhao’s stunning landscapes would look like at the ArcLight, or even the William Fox Theater screening room at the Fox lot. Still, I was happy, too, to be able to call it up on my Apple TV at a start time that was convenient to me without having to wear a mask or leave my apartment or put on pants.

I love the movie theater. It was my first job that wasn’t working for family. It was where I met my husband. It started my career as a journalist. It’s where I spent at least two nights a week in the before times.

I just don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable going back again. In the meantime, I appreciate not having to make that difficult choice.

Frances McDormand disappears into her character and the landscape of the American West in Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.” Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

‘Nomadland’

With Nomadland, Chloé Zhao completes a trilogy of sorts that offers an authentic and empathetic portrait of the dispossessed of the American West.

Her first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me, centers on a Lakota Sioux brother and sister on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (more on it below). Her second, The Rider, takes place in the same milieu and focuses on a once-budding rodeo star who’s suffered a head injury and can’t ride anymore.

Nomadland too takes place in western South Dakota, but only partly, as the title suggests. It’s also Zhao’s first film with Hollywood actors, as Frances McDormand and David Strathairn mingle with the director’s usual mix of nonpros playing versions of themselves.

Here, Zhao wanders farther afield, starting in Empire, Nevada, where a gypsum mine closed in 2011 after decades of operation, rendering the community a ghost town — even the zip code was discontinued. McDormand plays Fern, a widow of both the town and her husband who worked there. A woman who has to — and likes to — work, she’s moved her belongings into a storage unit and a van and follows gigs where she can find them, including an Amazon fulfillment center, a sugar beet harvest, a National Park, and a tourist-trap cafeteria.

Along the way, she finds a new community wandering the countryside — real-life nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells, who makes YouTube videos about how to live out of a vehicle and founded the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.

Fern isn’t as desperate as her fellow roamers — she’s offered a place to live, more than once. But she’s grieving, and she’s free, and she can’t bring herself to settle somewhere else. McDormand disappears into this curious, at times prickly, do-it-yourself adventurer, perhaps because she draws so much of the character — including a precious set of dishes — from herself.

This isn’t to say that Nomadland glamorizes the nomad lifestyle. There’s dignity here, yes, and even at times joy, but Fern and her pals are performing physical labor when they should be approaching retirement, and there’s no glamor in that.

There is glory, however, in the magnificent backdrops of the stark Nevada desert, the otherworldly South Dakota Badlands, and the powerful Pacific Ocean — environments captured by Joshua James Richards’ sublime cinematography and expressed by the evocative piano and strings of Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi’s latest work Seven Days Walking.

Nomadland is not without its detractors who wish the film had taken more to task Amazon specifically and gig labor generally. Having not read Jessica Bruder’s investigative book upon which the film is based, and which features many of the same personalities, that wasn’t the film I was expecting, though I’d be interested in watching that one too.

Nomadland (2020), directed by Chloé Zhao (Hulu)

John Reddy and Jashaun St. John play versions of themselves in Chloé Zhaho’s “Songs My Brother Taught Me.” Courtesy of Kino Lorber

‘Songs My Brother Taught Me’

Chloé Zhao’s first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me, is also about the desire to escape and, ultimately, home.

The writer-director-producer-editor spent four years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation getting to know the people there, then building a film around their lives. Here her protagonists are Johnny (John Reddy) and Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) Winters — brother and sister of an alcoholic mother and absent father.

Johnny makes money as a bootlegger — despite a tribal vote to legalize alcohol sales in 2013, the reservation remains dry — while he plans to move to Los Angeles with his college-bound girlfriend. His departure, though, means he’ll leave his little sister behind.

Meanwhile, Jashaun befriends an ex-con artist who becomes an unlikely father figure and connection to her community, and starts to explore the rodeo world her cowboy dad rode in.

With 23 siblings by nine mothers, in a tightly knit clan, Johnny and Jashaun’s notion of family is … complex.

By casting and working with nonpros, from a treatment with scenes she wrote each morning, Zhao taps into stories — perhaps much like theirs — with, again, authenticity and empathy. Like the small shabby dwellings situated in stunning landscapes of western South Dakota’s sweeping grasslands and unearthly Badlands, at-times ugly, hard lives play out in a milieu of profound spirit and grace.

Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), directed by Choé Zhao (Hoopla, Kanopy)

Cathy Yan’s ”Dead Pigs” follows five disparate characters whose lives intertwine as they respectively pursue the Chinese Dream. Courtesy of Mubi

‘Dead Pigs’

Cathy Yan directed Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, one of the last blockbusters of 2020 before the coronavirus crisis shuttered movie theaters, yet her feature debut Dead Pigs, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, wasn’t available to view in the United States until this month on Mubi.

It’s a shame this social satire took so long to find a platform but a treat that it has one now — seek it out if you can.

Inspired by a true incident when thousands of dead pigs were found dumped in the Huangpu River, which flows through Shanghai, Dead Pigs follows five disparate characters whose lives intertwine as they respectively pursue the Chinese Dream: a down-and-out pig farmer with an extravagant streak; a fiery businesswoman who refuses to sell the family home; a kindly restaurant worker with a crush and a secret; a young woman with a rich dad who has little to do and even fewer consequences; and an American whose latest real estate project has hit a roadblock.

As they make their way toward each other and a climactic standoff of comic proportions, Yan mines pathos with a light touch and critical eye toward globalization, rapid change, and wealth inequality in an emerging superpower.

Dead Pigs (2018), directed by Cathy Yan (Mubi)

Cheryl Dunye (right) directs, writes, and stars in “The Watermelon Woman.”

‘The Watermelon Woman’

Twenty-five years ago this month, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, marking the debut of the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian.

The writer-director stars too as an eponymous filmmaker/video store clerk working on a project about Black actresses in films from the 1930s and 1940s — specifically one performer in a movie called Plantation Memories who’s credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” Cheryl sets out to figure out who she was and discovers a personal history that includes a romance with the actress’ white female director.

Neither Fae Richards nor Martha Page is real — for budgetary reasons, Dunye created her own archival materials. But that doesn’t make their story, or the omission of stories like theirs from film history, any less urgent.

Meanwhile, Cheryl embarks on her own romance with a white woman — a new customer at the video store whose efforts to help with the project complicate it, their relationship, and Cheryl’s friendship with her bestie/co-worker.

A quarter of a century later, The Watermelon Woman suggests that ’90s indie is a genre unto itself, immediately transporting viewers to that era of early Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Smith. Dunye’s film can be rough around the edges, with some confusing chronology — she interviews an aunt not nearly old enough to have hung out with Fae Richards as she claims she did — and awkward scene transitions. But for those who came of age as cineastes during that era, it’s a nostalgic nod to that gritty aesthetic and an important milestone in New Queer Cinema.

The Watermelon Woman (1996), directed by Cheryl Dunye (Kanopy)

Writer. Reader. Film critic. Moviegoer. Traveler. Hiker. Cook. Besotted aunt to Logan, Titus, and Bodhi. Based in Los Angeles. Socials: @annleee (she/her/hers)