87 minutes, 2002, DVCAM

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Review by Jon Danziger, May 22, 2003

High Plains Films presents This Is Nowhere (2002)

“I think you either have a little wanderlust and a little gypsy blood in you, or you don’t.” - James Hruska, full-time R.V. resident

Director: Doug Hawes-Davis and John Lilburn

MPAA Rating: Not Rated Run Time: 01h:26m:35s Release Date: February 25, 2003 Genre: documentary
Oh, the golden years of retirement. Will you work on your short game? Spend more time with the grandchildren? Tend to your garden, mentor the youth of your community, just sit around and be cantankerous because you’ve earned that right?

You can see the appeal of almost all of those, but it’s harder to see what’s so gripping about spending your days marauding around in your R.V., and your nights crashed out in said R.V. in the parking lot of some random Wal-Mart. But an increasing number of people are spending their later years doing exactly that, and this film catches up with a dozen or so of them, as their travels take them through Missoula, Montana, a very nice town with a Wal-Mart that looks just like hundreds of others.

Despite the signs in the parking lots specifically prohibiting overnight camping, the Wal-Mart people seem to have decided to turn a blind eye to the R.V.ers - the parking lots are huge and otherwise vacant in the wee hours, these people don’t cause trouble, and they’re all too happy to buy everything they need at the Wal-Mart that’s so hospitable. Of course, their vehicles are tricked out with all kinds of creature comforts, from coffeemakers and microwaves to VCRs and satellite dishes. I thought that traveling from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart was sad enough; but getting to the next one and then wanting to pass the time watching Family Feud - I mean, aside from being incredibly depressing, it becomes unclear to me just why these people wanted to leave the house in the first place.

The film does well to let these road warriors speak for themselves, especially when it comes to delineating the rifts between full-timers and part-timers. (This is apparently a Very Big Deal in what’s referred to as the R.V. community.) On some level, it’s hard not to fight off the suspicion that these people are in fact the worst of America: stupid fat white people driving from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart in vehicles that swill gasoline, with the audacity to complain about traffic. But then, except for a couple of instances, they seem like nice enough folks, who want little more than to be left alone. (The exception to this is the one fellow who likes to fulminate against the government, which he describes as “stupid people with nothing to do with their lives but to make sure that you follow the rules.” He’s dripping with contempt, but I wonder who he thinks built and maintains the interstate highway system he frequents daily. Also, some of these people, when practically having to sell their kidneys to get a full tank of gas, like to rant against the “A-rabs,” no doubt further endearing us to the population of the Middle East.)

And there are times at which they seem just unraveled from reality - one of them insists that he lives in “elegant simplicity,” while another refers to the people in the R.V. next to them as “the neighbors.” I’m sorry, but people sleeping in the Winnebago next to yours in a Wal-Mart parking lot are not neighbors, any more than chirpy hostesses at diners seating you and telling you to have a nice day are friends. There’s also a certain nativism to these people - revulsion is the only proper response when one of them describes a trip to the Southwest and encountering “not the Mexicans, just people. Regular people.”

Just why these people want to travel in this way is never made especially clear; perhaps that’s in large measure because the R.V.ers aren’t particularly articulate. They’re not philosophers; they’re not even very bright, some of them, but they do suffer from that common contemporary claustrophobia, of traveling across the country and ending up in exactly the same place. (Should we eat at Denny’s, or Red Lobster?) They also display geographical amnesia - they can’t remember where they’ve been, or if they’ve just seen some places on television, and though they mourn the passing of any kind of regionalism and individuality (“I hate that part, but I do like the convenience”), it’s hard to think that they feel this with much conviction, given that their most prized possession is a road atlas listing the address of every Wal-Mart in the U.S. of A.

Aspect Ratio - 1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratio - yes
Anamorphic - no

Image Transfer Review: The modestly budgeted film is fairly well rendered on this disc, though resolution can sometimes be a problem - shooting inside an R.V. at night in a Wal-Mart parking lot must be some sort of particular cinematographic hell. Colors are generally true, and there’s little dust and debris evident.

Final Comments
A subdued look at a curious subculture, THIS IS NOWHERE is an understated documentary with a subject group that is simultaneously fascinating and profoundly boring, about as unusual a combination as you can imagine. A bit more flair in the filmmaking would have helped, but this is a strange little cultural study nonetheless.