“Paris has got the Eiffel Tower and a few other things.”
When I asked filmmaker Brian Standing for a list of his favorite documentaries, I knew it would be a welcome addition to the Phoenix Cinema site. But beyond that, I had a selfish motive. I was hoping that I’d pick up tips for films I’d never seen. And so that brings me to This Is Nowhere–an excellent documentary that made Brian Standing’s list, and a film I tracked down and watched.
Concentrating on motor home campers who park their behemoth vehicles in Wal-Mart parking lots across the U.S., in This is Nowhere director Doug Hawes-Davis turns a sharp eye on one of the more bizarre aspects of American culture through his interviewees who are camped out on the cement in the Wal-Mart in Missoula, Montana.
I don’t understand the allure of motor homes, and to me, setting out driving one of these things across the U.S. would be a special kind of hell–a sort of No Exit scenario. So when I heard about the premise of This is Nowhere–well…I knew I had to see the film.
On one level This is Nowhere records the ruminations of an assortment of Americans who have taken to the road in various gigantic motor homes. For some of the interviewees who’ve sold their homes, this is a permanent way of life, and one camper rather whimsically refers to himself as a “gypsy.” Another man compares his travels to the expeditions of Lewis and Clark. These American travelers wax forth about what it means to be “free” on the road–driving from one destination to another.
On another level, the film captures some intriguing observations about American culture–a culture in which the modern pioneer spirit, and the pursuit of travel and adventure are distilled down to the predictability of selecting Wal-Mart as an ultimate travel destination. These intrepid campers pursue the familiarity and comfort of Wal-Mart stores to the farthest reaches of this corporate chain. An interviewee admits that shopping in Wal-Mart consumes a large amount of their free time, and the first thing the travelers do upon arrival is park and hit the Wal-Mart. One traveler marvels at the “freedom” the motor home offers by granting a change of views–while admiring the hills, she tends to overlook the fact that she’s parked on the tarmac in front of a Wal-Mart. Right next to that view of those beautiful hills is a brightly lit sign on the horizon blazing away the name ‘Wal-Mart.’ But apparently Wal-Mart–and the comfort to be rediscovered in its variations of the familiar–offers a seemingly safe predictability to the travelers in this documentary. So why not just drive around in circles and keep visiting your hometown Wal-Mart?
Naturally all of those interviewed are Wal-Mart customers and fans. One interviewee finds the fact that his Wal-Mart shoes fell apart in a month a miracle in customer satisfaction. My reaction would be to feel annoyed at the low quality, but this optimistic fellow has the perseverance to acquire a series of ten pairs of free shoes from Wal-Mart as each subsequent pair falls apart. On another note, one traveler buried his cat in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Mexico.
With satellite dishes (in one case, a traveler has no less than four satellite dishes–just in case), multiple televisions and large comfy chairs, the motor home creates an ambulatory, easeful, yet oddly passive travel experience. The travelers (who often seem confused as to which state they are in) jumble memories of trips as images of numerous Wal-Marts merge. Sitting in their plastic chairs on the concrete Wal-Mart parking lot, life passes by, offering a kaleidoscope of images, and theoretically a change in accents. But isn’t travel about seeing and experiencing new things? Silly me, I thought those were some of the goals. But This is Nowhere subtly argues that travel has become a end in itself and by extension that the American travel experience is eroded and replaced by the predictability of urban design. These travelers express how the memories of the towns converge–one town looks pretty much like another with the obligatory shopping center layout and predictable corporate businesses. And of course this is where Wal-Mart comes in. Armed with their special Wal-Mart Rand McNally maps, these motor home owners travel the US from one Wal-Mart to another in the cocoon worlds created by their ambulatory residences.