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On the road again

On the road again

Thursday 29 April 2021

Nomadland tells the tale of Fern, a sixty-something woman from Nevada whose life collapses, forcing her to seek a new way of surviving on the move. Honoured as Best Picture at Sunday’s Oscars, the film is a modern masterpiece, subverting the American dream of “the road” with the bleaker 21st Century reality of older travellers struggling to get by in the pitiless gig economy

The road has always been America’s 51st state: which is to say, a realm of endless real-life mobility and of boundless imaginative possibility. It is the place where Americans reenact the pioneering spirit, and play fugitive when forced by desperation or inclined by dreams to do so.

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (Disney+, 30 April), which scooped the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday, is a masterpiece of the creative genre that this yearning has spawned. No less than Mark Twain’s Roughing It, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, it captures the freedoms and the perils facing those who reject, or are excluded from, a life enclosed by a white picket fence and defined by Main Street. 

Frances McDormand now has three Best Actress Academy Awards to her name, thanks to her pitch-perfect performance as Fern, a woman in her 60s whose life crumbles around her with pitiless speed. When the gypsum plant that is the heart of Empire, Nevada, closes, the zipcode of her hometown is simply erased from the map – a loss compounded by the death of her husband.

Declaring herself “houseless” rather than “homeless”, she takes to the road in a battered RV, simultaneously flinty and fearful in her quest for ways of making ends meet and living from day to day. On the highway, she discovers an unexpected and endlessly morphing tribe of nomads – many of them real-life characters playing themselves. 

When not behind the wheel, Fern takes temporary work in an Amazon fulfilment centre, at a sugar beet processing plant, as a host at a National Park – anything that will keep the wolf from the door of her van, and fund her new and unexpected life as a late middle-aged transient.

The freedom of the restless American is often associated with the romance of youth. “I was surprised, as always,” wrote Kerouac, “by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

But the hard kernel of Nomadland is ethnographic – the disclosure of an ageing cohort of travellers, scraping by at the margins of today’s gig economy, often battling illness or bereavement, searching for survival and a measure of human warmth in the third act of life. Though there is plenty of emotional connection in the movie, few of the people that Fern encounters find excitement in endless itineration.

Most, indeed, are visibly afflicted by what the late philosopher Mark Fisher called nomadalgia – the very modern condition of weariness with travel, and a nostalgia for a settled life that they suspect will never again be available to them. In this sense, Fern represents not the seized liberty of the young rebel – the ferocity of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (1969) – but the narrowing path of later life in the 21st Century.

Zhao herself picked up the golden statuette for Best Director – only the second woman to do so in the Academy’s 93-year history (the first being Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker) – and her victory is richly deserved. 

Stunning to behold in its portrayal of the American landscape – open fields and rough-hewn faces – Nomadland deserves the majesty of large-screen projection and will make you long for the reopening of cinemas. 

Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on set

On which note: according to my Whitehall spies, we are still on track for a return to the multiplex on Monday 17 May. I don’t know about you, but I am counting the days. 

Meanwhile, don’t miss our special Oscars Creative Sensemaker Live tomorrow, Friday 30 April, at 13:00-14:00 BST – at which we’ll be looking back at the shocks and delights of the night, the fashion clangers and triumphs, the unexpected winners and the shock losers, with speakers including film critic Pamela Hutchinson; Nana Acheampong, fashion stylist and Celebrity Style Editor at Fabulous magazine; and Delphine Lievens Senior Box Office Analyst at Gower Street Analytics. 

Here are this week’s recommendations:


Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (VOD, 30 April)

Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s portrayal of the friendship between two American literary giants of the 20th Century is an exquisite exploration of creativity, self-destruction, rivalry and the profound affinity that arises between (almost) kindred spirits. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams had much in common: roots in the South, precocious genius, homosexuality, and addiction to alcohol and pills. Capote cared more about fame than Williams, who longed most to be better-looking – and was deeply hurt by his cruel depiction as “Mr Wallace” in Capote’s Answered Prayers

Beautifully-curated archive footage is interspersed with voiceovers by Jim Parsons as Truman and Zachary Quinto as Tennessee. Highly recommended.

Bloods (Sky One, 5 May)

Though the sheer star-power of Jane Horrocks will probably draw most viewers to this promising new medical sitcom – initially, at least – its true revelation is Samson Kayo, who is astonishingly funny as her fellow paramedic. Indeed, the show is Kayo’s creation, inspired by his training as an ambulance support driver before his performing career took off. There is something of the Seventies workplace sitcom about Bloods – think On the Buses meets Casualty in post-Brexit Britain – and it is none the worse for that.

City of Lies (VOD, 3 May)

Brad Furman’s Los Angeles-set crime drama was ready for general release in 2018 but has faced a multitude of obstacles – not least the scandals surrounding its star, Johnny Depp. Based on Randall Sullivan’s non-fiction book LAbyrinth about the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., the movie is saved from the over-familiarity of its subject matter by the performances of Depp as LAPD detective Russell Poole and (especially) Forest Whitaker as journalist Jack Jackson. 


I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain – Anita Sethi (Bloomsbury)

Well-established as a terrific journalist, Sethi turns her attention to the broad themes of identity, bigotry and the relationship between landscape and self. Rooted in a horrible racist incident, I Belong Here is a glorious book, presenting curiosity and exploration as a magnificently defiant response to the brute pettiness of prejudice. Never didactic, it nonetheless opens the reader’s eyes to triumphant effect.

Everybody: A Book About Freedom – Olivia Laing (Picador)

Laing’s first major non-fiction book since The Lonely City (2017) – an acclaimed inquiry into urban isolation – takes as its theme nothing less than the human body and its private and public significance. If this sounds seriously ambitious, it is – but Laing pulls off with elan a literary challenge that would defeat most writers. Ranging from the “sexual revolution” of the Austrian psychoanalyst Willhelm Reich to Nina Simone via Malcolm X and radical feminist Andrew Dworkin, the book was mostly completed before the pandemic, but is full of contemporary resonance – as well as timeless insights into the ways in which the body can be both a prison and a source of liberation.

Worst. Idea. Ever – Jane Fallon (Michael Joseph)

What if you set up a fake Twitter account to help out a dear friend with her new business, pretending to be a customer – and found out more than you bargained for? This is the premise of Fallon’s latest novel, and one of her most ingenious. Her eye for detail, compressed emotion and the absurdity that lurks beneath what people say to each other, is unerring, and Worst. Idea. Ever strengthens her claim to be – as well as a bestselling author – one of our very finest comic novelists.

The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War – Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane)

Has Malcolm Gladwell become a military historian? That would indeed mark a “tipping point”. And the answer is: not exactly. Instead, the celebrated analyst of human behaviour and decision-making seeks to draw lessons about the relationship between warfare, morality and technology from the stories of two mid-20th Century commanders of the US Army Air Force: Haywood Hansell and his successor, Curtis LeMay. For the latter, saturation bombing was the most effective path to victory, whereas Hansell favoured the surgical strike that has arguably become the lead doctrine (at least in theory) of modern warfare. As ever, what makes Gladwell’s work so readable is his narrative skill and capacity to turn the stories of the past into parables for the present.


Surrounded by Time – Tom Jones

The 41st album of an 80-year-old singer…and still he is full of surprises. For Sir Tom Jones to cover Bob Dylan’s ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ might be considered an act of generational solidarity – Dylan turns 80 on 24 May, after all – but the same cannot be said of his superb version of the Waterboys’ ‘This Is The Sea’. Once dismissed as a macho dinosaur, the Welsh powerhouse is still, in his ninth decade, a creative and inventive force to be reckoned with.

Bylur – Eydis Evensen

Awkwardly classified as “post-classical”, the Icelandic instrumentalist and composer is better understood on her own terms as a creator of sublime, haunting music. Evensen’s debut album – whose title means “snowstorm” – was produced in Reykjavik by Valgeir Sigurðsson, who has also collaborated with Björk, Ben Frost and Nico Muhly. Across 13 tracks, it pierces the heart; by turns consoling, forlorn and unsettling. A true work of art.

Khaled Khaled – DJ Khaled (30 April)

Who else but the veteran DJ could bring together the two Justins – Bieber and Timberlake – for his 12th album? Also featuring among Khaled’s galaxy of collaborators are Jay-Z, H.E.R., Lil Wayne, Post Malone, 21 Savage and Bryson Tiller. Two years after Father of Asahd, the New Orleans-born producer returns in triumph to fill the spring with his distinctive and irrepressible mixes.

Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

Photographs Courtesy Searchlight Pictures, Saban Films, Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys/ Dogwoof Productions, Sky UK Ltd