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When Is an Editorial Not an Editorial? The Covid-19 (Quarantine, Era 1) Edition

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2020, Volume 73, Number 4

There is no such thing as business as usual now. And most certainly, no film as usual: every festival canceled, every movie theater dark, as the names of the closures and cancellations bring sadness and grief for curators and filmmakers, film critics and distributors, cinema owners and workers, film studies professors and students, and, yes, their audiences—all, of course, as of print time.

Cancel a festival? It was unimaginable until it was standard, all in the blink of an eye. There was a meme circulating that read: “What a long month this week has been.” Yes, exactly. First came SXSW.1 Then, canceled or postponed: San Francisco, Tribeca, Provincetown, the British Film Institute, Hot Docs, Edinburgh, BAM Film, the New Beverly, the Grand Lake, the Roxie, the Castro, the Cinémathèque française, and, with massive hand-wringing for its layoffs as well as missed screenings, Film at Lincoln Center, with a hiatus for its membership journal, Film Comment, too. An entire sector wiped out. Cannes optimistically postponed, announcing a tentative opening date of June 23, 2020, which would likely change again. Hanging in the balance for a while was the slate of LGBTQ festivals that usually own June–July. Frameline was the first to cancel, the rest likely to follow. An entire film season, then two, maybe three. A year’s worth of watching, finished, prerelease, PR-ready, halted in its tracks. A coup de grâce of sorts was enacted on March 20, following French president Emmanuel Macron’s shelter-in-place order, when Cannes converted the ground floor of the Palais des festivals et des congrès into a homeless shelter.2

With movie theaters throughout the world shuttered (though, at this writing, Chinese theaters were promising to reopen), the U.S. National Association of Theatre Owners, representing more than 33,000 screens, asked Congress to provide relief measures for its 150,000 employees.3 The New Beverly and the Aero and the ____ (fill in your local movie-house) all made their feelings known on their marquees. My favorite was Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, known for its outspoken marquee messages: “Double Feature, Coming Soon: The Death of the Coronavirus and the End of Donald Trump.”

Without even the option of neighborhood home-viewing parties, isolated cinephiles began to feel the pain and develop alternatives. Lists began to be shared, then more and more—a torrent of recommendations circulating online among friends and colleagues. And concern for the future of movie theaters, already in full swing before the quarantines, increased exponentially.4 Meanwhile, critics have started to rise to the occasion, too. Manohla Dargis wrote eloquently of missing the bone-deep pleasure of watching films together in the dark.5 Wesley Morris wrote about watching, as if for the first time, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), everyone’s favorite coronavirus revival.6 Others echoed my personal choice: Todd Haynes’s early Safe (1995), with Julianne Moore on the track of her own personal pandemic. At the Los Angles Times, Kenneth Turan (just before announcing his much-lamented retirement) and Justin Chang began recommending “films to watch at home.”7

Everyone’s life is on pause. And where there is waiting, there is watching: Netflix and Criterion and Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV, YouTube and HBO Go or Max, Mubi and Ovid and Hulu and, yes, Kanopy.8 And so much more. There’s Zoom for teaching and meetings, and for the new sociality of virtual dinner parties and cocktails, dates and reunions. There’s Slack and Facebook and Google Hangouts—of course, alltm. Very quickly, new (privatized) cross-platform inventions have emerged. And just think: only last winter, the big news was the Department of Justice’s overturning of the Paramount Consent Decrees of 1948.9

In an attempt to generate revenue flows for art houses, movie theaters, and specialty distributors, a parallel service was created to offer moviegoing via website, with the chance to watch programming at designated times and ticket prices in chosen virtual theaters that would share revenue. Kino Marquee was first out of the gate, buoyed by its release of Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau (2019) under that soubriquet; other branding has quickly tumbled into the sector.10 The Music Box’s StreamLocal service launched soon after, with Kino Marquee’s model of revenue splitting between distributor and the chosen movie theater. Oscilloscope had the most striking brand name: Circle of Quarantine.11 The Arthouse Convergence, a loose federation of U.S. art-house theaters, teamed up with Film Movement to offer a new platform for its members to use, Film Movement Plus, again with revenue sharing to help keep the indie sector afloat.

Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater.

In early spring, film festivals began the online migration. The Ashland Independent Film Festival even debuted a virtual edition: postponing its event by five weeks, it announced a full lineup with curated selections, filmmaker introductions, tickets and passes, even an awards ceremony—all online via the FilmFestivalFlix portal. The Doc Edge, New Zealand’s annual documentary film festival, moved online, too, with beloved Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences staffer Tom Oyer announced for a virtual keynote.

Individually, some theaters began to offer their own branded websites. The “Roxie Virtual Screen” offered screenings with tickets (even a senior rate) sold through the San Francisco theater’s website. Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center started offering screenings under the sobriquet “Film Center from Your Sofa.” The AFI launched the AFI Movie Club with “Movies To Watch Together While We’re Apart.” And Brooklyn’s tiny Spectacle Theater announced it would present its spring season online at Twitch.tv and urged its patrons to “keep the sickness on the screen.”12 Undoubtedly, new single-word services are about to launch or morph and will be fully established by this reading even if not visible at this writing.

Apart from the occasional column in the mainstream press, or individual conversations with insiders, the best guides to the evolving movie universe can be found on IndieWire. The podcasts by veterans Anne Thompson and Eric Kohn are always reliably ahead of the curve and trustworthy. Thompson is well enough connected to get access even at this fraught moment, and her conversation with Sony Picture Classics copresident Tom Bernard was instructive. Fighting the distributors’ and studios’ rush to PVOD (Premium Video on Demand), Bernard was dismissive: “That’s no place to play them …. Everything starts with exhibition. When the virus is gone, when it’s safe, people will come back to theaters.”13 Kate Erbland’s “Streaming Wars” IndieWire columns have been on point, too.14 In early spring, she could be counted on for facts and perspective to help map a new and unexpected universe.

I suppose all this will soon seem as familiar and old hat as last season’s iPhone, but it was cutting edge for late March 2020. Nobody has any idea what viewing habits will emerge when/if the quarantines end. But in the short term, one benefit may be an emphasis on curation for online viewing. Perhaps the new interventions will end the dominance of algorithms for screening choices and usher in a new golden age of curation. That, at least, would be something positive.

Yesterday, there was no time to waste. Today, there’s all the time in the world—the ever-smaller, more constricted, more isolated world. Some folks have been sharing their astonishment over rewatching Luis Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962) and finding it so bizarrely pertinent to today’s shut-in world. It is actually not such a strange choice if you consider the events in 1962: the Cuban Missile Crisis, a nuclear-war-risking showdown between the United States and the former Soviet Union, with Cuba as a proxy, lasted for thirteen days in October 1962, during which time Americans raced to stock their fallout shelters, without the help of either Amazon or Instacart. The Exterminating Angel was shown the next year in the New York Film Festival’s inaugural edition but did not have a theatrical release until 1967. Bosley Crowther, in his dismissive New York Times review, presciently (if inadvertently so) wrote: “The phenomenon of isolation is a seemingly insoluble mystery.”15

Tilda Swinton: British Film Institute Fellow, at the End of the Olde World

On February 27, the British Film Institute staged a dinner and ceremony in celebration of Tilda Swinton and her career, dating all the way back to her earliest collaborations with Derek Jarman and Joanna Hogg in the 1980s, Sally Potter in the 1980–90s, and so very many directors since then.16 Being named a BFI Fellow is a significant honor: other honorees over the years have included the likes of Jarman, yes, but also Vanessa Redgrave, Akira Kurosawa, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, and Jeanne Moreau.

At this coronation, for so it seemed in that room full of ebullience and gratitude, the formal speech of induction was delivered by the ever-witty Wes Anderson, filled with a great many comic asides to his wife, Juman Malouf. Swinton has become a constant in his films, from Moonrise Kingdom (2012) to The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) to the upcoming (and formerly, presumably, Cannes-bound) The French Dispatch (2020).

Swinton also lent her voice to Anderson’s fanciful Isle of Dogs (2018), which just might have been an influence, or vice versa, on one of her own more fanciful projects: Rompo i lacci (from Flavio). Swinton’s operatic dog opera (made with Sandro Kopp, 2018) stars her five springer spaniels running madly on a Scottish beach while an aria from Handel’s opera Flavio, as sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo, plays on the soundtrack. Only six minutes long, it achieved an expansive revival in the streaming swirls of March.17

Addressing the gang of pals that filled the banquet hall, Swinton invoked her late father and related her lifetime effort to get him to understand what it was she did, exactly, what sort of job. But tonight, she realized, she would have succeeded at last, for he had been a military man who’d get done up in his finest, complete with medals, and head down to London whenever there was a regimental dinner that required his presence. Pointing to the bright red stripe on her elegant trousers, Swinton announced that she would have told him that this time it was her presence that was requested at cinema’s own “regimental dinner.”

Marshaling its resources, Sight & Sound published a special Tilda Swinton issue. It arrived complete with her poem-manifesto about cinema and an excellent interview by Isabel Stevens, who also coordinated a series of screenings with Swinton and collaborators at the BFI Southbank (since, sigh, shuttered).18 There, audiences turned out to see Swinton onstage with such directors as Wes Anderson, Sally Potter, and the Oscar juggernaut himself, Bong Joon-ho.

It was not clear until the last minute that Bong would actually be present. He was scheduled to appear the night before for a screening of Snowpiercer (2013), but nobody knew if he’d make it out of Seoul as rumors of a lockdown circulated; perhaps he’d do the Q&A on Skype. But he triumphantly arrived and was present for the celebration dinner, too. A mere three weeks had passed since Bong’s record-breaking haul of Academy Awards for Parasite (2019). Three weeks, and the world was in the midst of entering an entirely new phase. Bong realized it and was ready. Eager to meet him, I noticed a rascally look in his eyes as he greeted me, then gently touched the arms of my suit jacket as if smoothing out the wrinkles. “Would you like to share my coronavirus?” he asked, then stepped back to see if I’d laugh or back away—or both.

Guests at the BFI’s celebration of Tilda Swinton.

In This Issue

At a time (spring 2020) when museums and galleries are closed, Kass Banning and Warren Crichlow bring the world of installations—and the past—back to life with their theoretical analysis, historical contextualizations, and close examinations of Isaac Julien’s ten-screen installation on the life of Frederick Douglass, Lessons of the Hour (2019). In their hands, Julien’s approach to this towering figure is linked not only to race and the abolitionist movement but also to the invention of photography and the arrival of modernity itself. Moving between the man and the era, as well as between the screens of Julien’s projections, Banning and Crichlow make a strong case for the pertinence of Frederick Douglass for contemporary thought as well as for the brilliance of Julien’s visionary aesthetic.

Interrogating the past has been a project for Portuguese filmmaker Susana de Sousa Dias throughout her career of austere, inventive films that have plumbed fascism’s archives in the pursuit of memory, violence, and the passing of time. In “Weak Memories: Archives of Futurability,” she cites a range of influences, from Walter Benjamin to Georges Didi-Huberman and Franco Berardi, as she traces her own evolution as a filmmaker and intellectual. From images locked in the archive to those overexposed on the internet, de Sousa Dias has repeatedly bent temporality and the cinematic index in an effort to excavate the past on behalf of the present and future, dismantling history’s myths in the process.

Entirely different is the approach taken by Joshua Bonnetta and J. P. Sniadecki in El Mar La Mar (2017), filmed on the borderlands between Mexico and the United States. In his “On Uncertain Ground: Place and Migration in El Mar La Mar,” Vinicius Navarro demonstrates how their close attention to the desolate landscape of the Sonoran Desert, coupled with a deeply layered sound design, works to convey an experiential meaning beyond the grasp of many traditional documentaries on the region. Navarro detects layers of visual and sonic meaning in landscapes deeply etched by the absent material bodies that once traversed these frames; even when the film seems to lie outside the scope of the political, Navarro marshals the details of U.S. policies that have weaponized these landscapes to produce corpses instead of migrants.

Orquidea Morales traverses the borderlands in a more fanciful manner but with no lessening of outrage in her study, “Horror and Death: Rethinking Coco’s Border Politics.” From initial controversies over Disney’s attempt to trademark the phrase “Day of the Dead” for its branding opportunities to the film’s record-breaking success in the marketplace, Morales examines Disney/Pixar’s Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, 2017) as an animation that fits the definition of “border horror.” Linking its narrative turns to the same disastrous border policies that left their mark on the desert, she argues that Coco’s cultural specificity has survived its Disneyfication despite the cruelty of its deceptively hopeful plot turns.

A new feature in this issue, “The Conversation,” takes up the wondrously multiple swirls of meaning that permeate that recent cultural phenomenon, Watchmen. Editorial board member Michael Boyce Gillespie has staffed this conversation with a trio of participants: Jonathan W. Gray, Rebecca A. Wanzo, and Kristen J. Warner (whose essay on “plastic representation” appeared in the dossier that Gillespie coedited here in 2017).19 Their commentary on race and the superhero wends its way from the opening scene of the young boy and his mother at the movies, the horrors of white supremacy, and the Tulsa Race Massacre, to the centrality of Regina King’s character; this is a group of discussants who succeed in catching fire and playing with fire at the same time. The sparks don’t disappoint. Stuart Hall is invoked (of course), but so are Victor LaValle and H. P. Lovecraft, Jane Eyre and “The Horror at Red Hook,” Hazel Scott and Alan Moore—all part of a discussion that ranges from pop-culture significance to theoretical signification.

The columnists for this issue, Manuel Betancourt and Bilal Qureshi, have a lot on their mind(s), too. The columnists for this issue, Manuel Betancourt and Bilal Qureshi, have a lot on their mind(s), too. Betancourt, in his “Cineando” column, pays close attention to Latin America’s documentaries. Inspired by Patricio Guzmán’s oeuvre and La cordillera de los sueños (The Cordillera of Dreams, 2019) in particular, he connects his mode of storytelling to both Brazilian Petra Costa’s incendiary The Edge of Democracy (2019) and Salvadoran-Mexican filmmaker Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad (2016) to study how the individual and the societal, presence and absence, are interwoven. Betancourt even finds something new in Guzmán’s work: an undertone of alienation, evidence of a primal rupture—from country, city, and the “tree in the backyard.”

As it happens, Bilal Qureshi is alert, as ever, in his “Elsewhere” column, to the politics of displacement. The nature of audience and place are ever present as he reflects on his experience of watching 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019) in a multiplex in an upscale shopping mall in Dubai on Oscar weekend, en route from Lahore back to the United States. While waxing rhapsodic over Roger Deakins’s cinematography in this and other Mendes collaborations, Qureshi pauses to review the troubled geopolitics of moviegoing both in India and in his native Pakistan, where successive regimes either opened up or shut down the screens, and wryly notes his own position as a lone saddened 1917 fan in a celebratory Oscar awards aftermath.

The Sundance Film Festival was well covered this year, with this writer on general duty and contributor Lawrence Carter-Long filing a dispatch from the festival’s first major engagement with disability issues on the occasion of its opening-night film, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, 2020), which carried the powerful imprimatur of the Ford Foundation, the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, and Netflix. While documentaries in general continued to be one of the strongest reasons to pay attention to Sundance, there were a few great dramatic films—by women directors, as it happens—and a changing of the guard in festival leadership that is meant to stay the course for the future.

Anyone looking for models of how to watch, document, or behave heading into the unknown future could do worse than follow Angela J. Aguayo into “Documentary Resistance: The Stories of ‘We Tell’ as Collective Political Agency.” In her consideration of the touring exhibition “We Tell: Fifty Years of Participatory Community Media,” curated by Louis Massiah and Patricia Zimmermann, Aguayo wastes not a minute in linking the importance of participatory community media to the “story of democracy’s survival.” Whether citing Massiah’s phrase of a “people’s history” or Zimmermann’s term of a “cinema of utility,” Aguayo salutes the “corrective” importance of this recovery work, with decades of documentarians working in different regions and with often defunct technologies. The work, much of it nearly lost, could not be coming to light at a more crucial moment than 2020.

It’s instructive in this year of darkened screens to read about moviegoing in Paris in the early days of the city of light(s). “Page Views” contributor Bruno Guaraná talks with Eric Smoodin about his study of Parisian cinemas and audiences, Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950. Considering Smoodin’s combination of archival research and experiential investigation, Guaraná locates his work at the intersection of Annette Kuhn’s ethnohistory and Michel de Certeau’s rhetoric of walking, crediting him with mapping as well as investigating the viewing spaces and habits of the wartime/postwar era. As usual with “Page Views,” readers can find a sample chapter to download online for free.

Carrie Rickey reviews Michael Newton’s Show People: A History of the Film Star and usefully distinguishes it from David Thompson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, though she contends that Newton matches that book’s erudition. Noting his argument that there is “some distance between what film theorists have thought that film was doing and what the film-going public believed” (18), Rickey notes Newton’s pantheon of stars—Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, and non-English-speaking stars such as Italy’s Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni, India’s Nargis and Raj Kapoor, and Japan’s Setsuko Hara and Toshiro Mifune—approvingly, but admits that she found herself arguing his points more often than agreeing, even as she approves his final engagement with the meaning of human performance in an age of robots, computers, and digital swapping.

In other reviews: Graig Uhlin calls Alenda Y. Chang’s Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games a “welcome addition to ecocritical media studies,” Daniel Dufournaud praises Jeff Menne’s Post-Fordist Cinema: Hollywood Auteurs and the Corporate Counterculture as a “central contribution to the study of New Hollywood,” and Patrick Keating praises the Ariel Rogers volume On the Screen: Displaying the Moving Image, 1926–1942, for the “the power and flexibility of Rogers’s revised approach to apparatus theory” as applied to this early period of cinematic invention and renovation.


1. South by Southwest (SXSW) did, though, quickly morph into a semivirtual event, allowing IndieWire to review the films, convening its juries by Zoom, and giving out awards—models that would soon be followed by other festivals. 2. “Cannes Film Festival Venue Opens Doors to Homeless during France’s Lockdown,” France24, March 25, 2020, http://www.france24.com/en/20200325-cannes-film-festival-venue-opens-doors-to-homeless-during-france-s-lockdown. 3. Sarah Whitten, “Movie Theater Trade Group Doesn’t Expect Studios to Launch Blockbusters on Streaming Platforms while Cinemas Are Shut Down,” CNBC, March 23, 2020, http://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/23/dont-expect-movies-to-go-to-streaming-while-cinemas-are-shut-down.html. Movie theaters were then included in the vast congressional bailout package. 4. David Lieberman and Brent Lang, “Can Movie Theaters Survive the Coronavirus Crisis?,” Variety, March 25, 2020, https://variety.com/2020/film/features/movie-theaters-coronavirus-1203544128/. 5. Manohla Dargis, “The Moviegoer: Our Critic Misses Sitting in the Dark with You,” New York Times, March 19, 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/movies/coronavirus-movies.html. 6. Wesley Morris, “For Me, Rewatching ‘Contagion’ Was Fun, until It Wasn’t,” New York Times, March 10, 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/movies/contagion-movie-coronavirus.html. 7. Justin Chang and Kenneth Turan, “‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ ‘Knives Out,’ and 15 More Critics’ Picks to Watch at Home, Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-03-23/critics-picks-knives-out-clemency-watch-home. 8. On a cautionary note, see Chris Cagle’s column “Kanopy: Not Just Like Netflix, and Not Free,” in Film Quarterly’s online Quorum, May 3, 2019, https://filmquarterly.org/2019/05/03/kanopy-not-just-like-netflix-and-not-free/. 9. Ted Johnson, “Independent Cinemas Sound Alarm over Ending Paramount Consent Decrees, Call for ‘Larger Factual Inquiry,’” Deadline, December 23, 2020, https://deadline.com/2019/12/paramount-consent-decrees-justice-department-1202816370/; Dana Harris-Bridson, “No, Studios Won’t Buy Theaters, but Small Exhibitors Fear Destruction while DOJ Touts Innovation,” IndieWire, November 20, 2019, http://www.indiewire.com/2019/11/paramount-consent-decrees-studios-wont-buy-theaters-1202190582/. 10. Chris Lee, “Stream an Indie and Support Your Local Movie Theater Too,” Vulture, March 19, 2020, http://www.vulture.com/2020/03/stream-an-indie-and-support-your-local-movie-theater-too.html. 11. Ben Kenigsberg, “Little Films Still Fighting to Be Seen,” New York Times, March 28, 2020, C4. 12. Thanks to Caroline Golum for the alert. 13. Anne Thompson, “Let Other Studios Race to VOD; Sony Pictures Classics Believes It’s Theaters or Nothing, IndieWire, March 27, 2020, http://www.indiewire.com/2020/03/vod-trend-sony-pictures-classics-streaming-1202220500/. 14. Kate Erbland, “Streaming Wars: As Competition Grows, Indie Streamers Keep Up Blistering Race for Viewers,” IndieWire, March 27, 2020, http://www.indiewire.com/2020/03/streaming-wars-indie-streamers-new-films-vod-1202220600/. 15. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: ‘The Exterminating Angel’ at Carnegie Hall Cinema: Bunuel Story a Satire on Some Empty Lives,” New York Times, August 22, 1967, 33. 16. For full details on the events, see http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound. 17. Available for your viewing pleasure at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcTS15OO0Bw. 18. Isabel Stevens, “Smoke and Mirrors and Make Believe,” Sight & Sound, April 2020, 25–32; Tilda Swinton, “The View from Here,” Sight & Sound, April 2020, 33, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/view-from-here-tilda-swinton-poem. 19. See Kristen J. Warner, “In the Time of Plastic Representation,” Film Quarterly 71, no. 2 (Winter 2017): 32–37.

© 2020 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

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