Twilight Bodies (or Ashes Under Heaven)

by Álvaro André Zeini Cruz

Fern shits in the toilet between the bed and the kitchen sink. Swankie knocks untimely at the van door.

Forward. Swankie donates his few belongings, one of them made by the grandmother. “Enjoy. And take good care of it”, she advises about the hidden object outside the field. The object was gone, never having been seen.

Forward. Fern cleans toilets with Linda. Linda reveals to Fern and Davie that she wants to build a self-sustaining house, made with her own hands, to leave to her grandchildren.

Before. Fern stops in front of a decayed “saloon” that remains standing. Stubborn rubble.

Forward. Davie accidentally breaks Fern’s dishes. Fern orders him to leave, to move away from her. Then, alone, she glues the plate together, as scarred as inanimate.

Between twilights, Fern carries potatoes, fries, cleans turds, works at Amazon. She works in an “Empire”, after living in Empire, ironic name of this ghost citadel, whose view has always gone nowhere. In another city, she passes in front of a cinema that announces the apocalypse in bold letters: “The Avengers”. Alone, she drinks Coke in a half-finished copy plan of Hooper.

She meets Davie, who has diverticulitis, just as Swankie had cancer. Fern ages under a pallor that reflects the colours of the sky. It’s a phantasmagoria between sunsets. Like her old city, which made her body a stake, while, in fact, the cells are nomads who leave all the time so as not to return to the creases left behind. The photograph of the young husband is an unwrinkled permanence. But it has a tear.

Perhaps the nomadism of these people through space is a minor issue compared to the nomadism of molecules, cells, atoms that leave bodies over time. Organic existences that tried to feed on the world around them but ended rooted in an opposite relationship, nourishing what is inorganic.

Now malnourished, these bodies are catapulted by Chloé Zhao’s horizons, reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s horizons. The approximations go further: Zhao’s camera seems like a more well-behaved sister – therefore better – of the pastiche of himself that became Malick’s post-Tree of Life cinema. The images do not escape some of the platitudes of certain North American art cinema (the end-of-the-world postcards, the naked body on the water), but neither do they fear unexpected associations, as with torn melodramatic music.

Nomadland looks at the effects of capitalism on the contemporary United States, but this portrait is always better when it focuses on the marks left by the system on those bodies thrown out of orbit. The general plan of a unique dinner – because it takes place inside a house built on the ground – illustrates how Zhao sees these figures: at the table, the well-lit (but unimportant) family is distributed in the staging in depth, contrasted with the contours of Fern and Davie, protagonist-silhouettes that bounce a tiny bit of light in the foreground.

Twilight bodies these of Zhao, as were Malick’s bodies amid the yellowish wheat fields. There, however, these bodies fell apart while they planted (ordered) the inequalities of the world. Here, the harvest is insufficient, the crops have burned down, the potatoes look like rocks, and the ground is as grey as these shadow nomads (yellow, here, just the sandstone, this formation that crumbles). If Malick’s film portrayed the beginning of a century of Ash in Heaven, for Zhao, a hundred years later (from the historical time of Malick’s film), the ashes remain here; the paradise is the sky. Ironically, it’s a better film when it forgets the dazzle caused by the telescope and looks through the magnifying glass at Frances McDormand’s crisp close-up.

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