Warm Bath Cinema: A Defence of Nomadland
Photograph from Piqsels.com, Public Domain Licence
By Samuel Sandor
28th September 2021
Not too long ago, Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao managed the impressive feat of getting a film onto our screens (and the academy award stage) during a global pandemic. Even more impressive was its antithetical relationship to the emotions and issues associated with the Coronavirus. While we were all cooped up inside, feeling stressed, stir-crazy, and lonelier by the day, with Nomadland (2020) Zhao gave us sweeping landscape shots, nomadic freedom personified, a patient and peaceful plot, and a protagonist who spends her time making (and, sadly, losing), some of the most honest and lovable friends I’ve seen in recent cinema.
Some viewers weren’t such big fans though; a fact this article aims to explain and defend against. To clarify; most people I know did enjoy it, it’s just that those who didn’t enjoy it seemed to really dislike it. When I heard this, it did cause me to doubt myself a little—perhaps I might have been wrong? Maybe I got the wool pulled over my eyes by the beautiful visuals and the story wasn’t actually all that great, or maybe I was just in the right mood for the film at the time. In the end I decided to go to the Curzon Soho cinema and watch the film on the big screen. Having watched the film for the first time on a decade-old 35” Samsung ‘smart’ (a generous label) TV with blown-out speakers, I don’t know why I thought seeing it in the cinema would change my mind for the worse. No— okay, I confess, I was almost certain it wouldn’t change my mind for the worse. Nevertheless, I tried to go in with an open mind. In fact, my sister watched it with me, which did help me to see it with at least slightly fresh eyes. In the end, however, we both loved it.
Afterwards, we walked the short distance to Chinatown, picked a place I’d heard about from some website or other, and ordered ramen. The food tasted fantastic (do go to Jen Café if you ever get the chance), but, even more than that– it tasted familiar. Call me insane, but it tasted like Nomadland. If you ignore my slightly eccentric phrasing there, you might see what I mean. Something of the warming, patient and peaceful experience of eating my soup felt very akin to the viewing experience of Nomadland. Now, I am not saying that Nomadland is a purely sensory or bodily experience – it has a lot to say too (far more than my delicious albeit entirely silent vegetable ramen ever could). However, if one were to try and provide a metaphor for what Nomadland does to the viewer, a bowl of soup would not be a bad place to start. It is only a starting point, though. It seems to me that the metaphor of a Warm Bath might actually be a better fit—a rather crude analogy (you’ll have to forgive me for using it for the remaining duration of this article) but one that I think gets to the heart of the reason people either enjoy or don’t enjoy Nomadland (plus it sounds a little more catchy and universal than Piping Hot Vegetable Ramen Cinema).
Warm Bath cinema is often slow cinema, it frequently features a kind of flaneur or wanderer protagonist, it is commonly termed ‘poetic’ by critics, it uses an abundance of wide shots, and it is always very immersive. One goes into a Warm Bath film stressed (I assume this is the default state for most) and leaves feeling pensive, sometimes transcendent, and (depending on the subject matter) sometimes also refreshed. If you’re not sure what the hell I’m on about then think of films such as Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), Kogonada’s Columbus (2017), Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999).
The Library at Columbus, Indiana (As featured in Columbus), Photograph by 'born1945', Creative Commons 2.0
On the other hand, there also exists Cold Shower cinema; films which rattle you about, slap you round the face and wake you up with a jolt. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) all do this. If you could not tell already, archetypal Cold Shower films more often than not come under the ‘film bro’ umbrella – in fact it does seem, for whatever reason, that Warm Bath films tend toward female protagonists more often than Cold Shower films ever do.
The problem which slow bath cinema often experiences is that being ‘lulled’ is not seen by most people as a valid effect for a film to have on the viewer. At the very least, it is often seen as an effect reserved for the avant-garde. When you go to the cinema you want to cry, laugh, drop your jaw, open your eyes or experience some other extremity of emotion. Warm Bath cinema is too soft, too tranquil, far too delicate to thrive.
For many, Nomadland did not feel like a film which intentionally submerged you into an ethereal desert landscape and floated you along there with a likeable but flawed protagonist. Instead, it felt like a film which was trying to provide a compelling, occasionally thrilling, occasionally funny, and constantly engrossing story of a woman on the fringes of society. Those same people, quite understandably, thought the film failed, and called it boring. This is not so much their fault as it is the film industry’s (I know, I know— it’s very easy to say the film industry is in crisis and I shouldn’t take such a pessimistic attitude and there’s lots of good stuff coming out and oh but what about Parasite—but, at the end of the day, it does have its problems, and this is one of them).
The film industry’s aversion to Warm Bath cinema, and its conditioning of us to expect only a certain select curated charcuterie board of acceptable ‘movie emotions’ is something which ought to be rectified. ‘Confusing’ films have had a similar problem for a while, too. ‘I didn’t understand any of that film’ should only constitute a criticism when that confusion was unenjoyable or out of place (and sometimes not even then). When confusion rivets you for the duration of the film, keeps you up at night, forces you to search ‘Mulholland Drive Explained’ on YouTube, that’s a one-of-a-kind movie-going experience. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) are some such examples of films which people sometimes find hard to enjoy – their knee-jerk reaction kicks in saying ‘this emotion is not one of the right ones’.
People who enjoyed Nomadland were grateful for the subtle, soft, but rich emotions it evoked, and those who didn’t often felt like they hadn’t experienced any emotion – or at least not any emotion that a film ought to be provoking. I hope these people will give Warm Bath cinema another chance. There is enough film-bro Cold Shower cinema being pumped out. Subtler, more restrained, softer movies might be the antidote. There’s a place for Pulp Fiction (1994), there’s a spot reserved somewhere for Avengers movies too, and there’s even a place for He’s All That (2021) (in the inner circle of hell perhaps), but not at the complete expense of slow, thoughtful, humble, Warm Bath cinema.