Toil and Trouble

May 17, 2021

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Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2021) © 2020 20th Century Studios

What do we do when we quote Shakespeare? A case study: accepting her Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Frances McDormand delivered a deep cut from Macbeth. “I have no words; my voice is in my sword,” she said, intoning a line few may remember but many can Google. It comes from the end of the play, when Macduff cries to Macbeth before killing and decapitating him: “I have no words; my voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain than terms can give thee out.”

McDormand went on: “We know the sword is our work.” The violent context of the words removed, the quotation stands instead as a flex of cultural capital and a corresponding elevation of the work of acting. This is how pop mythology works: scrubbing history, abstracting content, universalizing (as in the case of “work”) what is actually particular. The sword as sword recedes before the ideological power of decontextualization.

It would be petty to critique an acceptance speech like this were McDormand’s words not so revealing of the film itself and her role in it. Shakespeare is in fact quoted twice in Nomadland, a film in which decontextualization––of the characters, of their actions, of the settings and situations––is a central principle. The blankly beautiful landscapes of the American West, the unmarked whiteness of the characters, the neutral anonymity of the series of jobs held by Fern (McDormand), all serve a function similar to that of the Shakespeare in McDormand’s Oscar speech. They abstract a specific set of circumstances (the shutdown of the Sheetrock plant where Fern and her deceased husband worked; Amazon’s CamperForce and its exploitation of elder poverty) from the relations of power and violence that wrought and maintained them.

Shakespeare first appears in the film with another quote from Macbeth. Shortly after moving into her van, Fern runs into a family she knows and asks the teenager, whom she once tutored, if she remembers what Fern taught her. The young woman responds by reciting a few broken lines of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. Shakespeare returns in full force toward the end of the film, after we learn that Fern’s situation is more a life choice than an economic imperative: Fern sits down with a young drifter and offers him some poetry to write to his girlfriend. She delivers Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?,” which she tells him was her wedding vow. Zhao intercuts this scene with a montage of Fern looking at photos of her childhood and walking around an ancient redwood: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade, / Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; / Nor shall death brag thou walk’st [sic] in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.” We are meant to understand this as a testament to universal themes: Fern’s undying love for her husband, the eternity of nature, and the loneliness of grief. If the first quotation offered a loose expository justification for Fern’s knowledge of Shakespeare (she was a tutor), the second is justified sentimentally. She just loves Shakespeare. And why shouldn’t a houseless nomad love Shakespeare, the film dares us to ask?

But we are not watching a houseless nomad; we are watching Frances McDormand, the Yale-trained and much-laureled actor, play the part of a houseless nomad. Nowhere is this actorliness more obvious than in her rendition of the sonnet, which she performs as a focused address to her scene partner, with full vocal tone, awareness of enjambment, and expressive affect rising and falling in tune with the meter. This is how actors at places like Yale are taught to perform Shakespeare: with deliberate and studied intensity that emphasizes the actor’s dramatic understanding of the lines (and the meter, and the multi-line sentence structure), and a slight over-expressiveness to aid the less-literate audience member. What McDormand’s performance exposes is the duplicity intrinsic to the phenomenon of the star character actor: no matter how precise and specific the actor’s performance, we never for a second lose sight of the actor, virtuosically performing a different person. The drama on display is the effort and achievement of the acting itself.

Because most stars are rich, and most people are not, realist acting often requires the star to de-class in some way. But all de-classing is not the same. Some filmmakers surround the actor with a narrative in which poverty is situational—i.e., one of several important things about the character rather than the trait—and acknowledge and channel the actor’s star power and authority rather than half-heartedly repress it. (Sônia Braga as the volatile town sorceress in Bacurau comes to mind). Nomadland wants to be a film about precarity and poverty, but it is in fact a film about Frances McDormand’s skill as an actor. Its overlaying of character details and her biography (Fern/Fran; “try M-C-D,” she tells the CamperForce parking attendant looking up her reservation) only underscores that focus, rather than equate her with the film’s non-professional actors, who are playing “themselves.” These amateur actors (recruited by Zhao for their roles in Jessica Bruder’s book, the film’s source material) do not deliver Shakespeare sonnets. Their performances, particularly those of Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells (so named both in the film and the credits), are often surprising and subtle, and remind me of the way people might speak in a recovery group meeting, with quiet listening and lowered temperature, narrating life stories that have already been processed, worked over, and accepted before their telling. They offer a legitimate counter to a central assumption of much realist acting: that the spontaneity of emotion is the measure of its truth. But the film is far more interested in McDormand’s interpretations of their emotional lives than their own.

Sonnet 18, in fact, advances what the scholar Mary Bly described to me as a “wildly arrogant” claim about poetry: the beloved person is invoked only to be immediately marginalized by the poet’s enamorment with his own art, the only object of enduring value in his eyes. That is what the sonnet claims will last “so long as men can breathe or eyes can see”––not love, not the memory of the loved person, but the poem itself. Perhaps, then, Nomadland simply misinterprets the sonnet. But I am not sure that McDormand and the filmmakers really did misread it.

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” go the sonnet’s last lines. This gives life to thee. This is also the message the film delivers to the people it depicts, claiming, like Shakespeare, to ennoble and immortalize them through art. The sonnet is the tell: here is the noblesse oblige of Nomadland, reinforcing the hierarchy—between art and its subjects—it pretends to level.

Shonni Enelow is the author of Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psychodrama, which won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, and the co-author, with David Levine, of A Discourse on Method, out now from 53rd State Press. She is an associate professor of English at Fordham University.

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