Theater Openings and Vaccinated Viewings in Pandemic Year Two

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2021, Volume 74, Issue 4

It has been more than a year since this editorial space filled with speculations about streaming films and the closing of theaters. It was with distinct excitement, then, that I began to read the reopening announcements. The beloved Paris Theater in New York City, with its lease now held by Netflix and with programming selected by former Museum of the Moving Image curator David Schwartz, trumpeted an Al Pacino retrospective. The Film Forum, that mainstay of downtown New York tastemaking, announced its theater’s reopening while retaining its virtual marquee, too. The Museum of Modern Art continued its online offerings as it awaited fixing its reopening date while Film at Lincoln Center proclaimed its opening and Landmark Theatres issued a national reopening-day announcement. Another press release trumpeted the combined theatrical and online debut on July 1 of Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson’s Sundance hit, Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), brought to you by Searchlight and Hulu.

Ah, for the smell of popcorn in the air and the sheer scale of those giant images up on a screen bigger than a laptop. Or so I thought. Then industry reports began to arrive. Godzilla vs Kong (Adam Wingard, 2021) turned out to be the movie that a vast in-person, ticket-buying public had been waiting to see. 1 CGI vs. Covid! Brought to the world by the conglomerate of HBO Max and Warner Bros., the monster sequel was a throwback to the very kind of moviemaking and moviegoing to which I’d hoped the pandemic had put an end.

And in between such theatrical news, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime and Netflix and Disney+ all poured press releases into my in-box, making it clear that they are not about to surrender their primacy as industry players. Their buying sprees at this year’s film festivals offered a sign that the future of distribution and exhibition was still being reshaped.

Questlove’s Sundance hit Summer of Soul.

While not exactly “normal,” it certainly felt as if vaccine exuberance was in full swing, at least for those who had been vaccinated—less than a third of the US population, at this writing, raising serious questions about access, privilege, and reluctance that may or may not be answered by the newest announcements of universal eligibility in US vaccineland. Not so fast, even then. Sobering statistics and reports of new variants began to show up in the news, to my dismay. I expect it may be necessary to revisit theatrical status and global health—of humans as much as movies—in the next issue.

And the online universe began mutating. Adaptation to Zoom and its ilk has evolved: there’s Zoom fatigue, yes, but also acceptance, mastery, and tinkering with new platforms (like Kumospace, which FQ used for its last reception). When I “attended” this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference, despite misgivings, I found myself more involved than usual, checking out more panels and interrogating the ideas on offer with greater specificity. However, what I still missed were the lobbies, the chance interactions, the serendipitous conversations that construct and inspire my sense of the field. There’s a long way to go still with Zoom events, for the very deliberation involved in entering those spaces removes the momentary passivity that in prior times led to unexpected encounters with unanticipated outcomes.

There’s a sense of in-between times in the COVID world as this editorial heads to press, a liminality that is deeply felt. I imagine it as akin to a pilot’s sensation of flying a plane through fog without radar, with no sense of speed or direction. So how to look, in the midst of such a stranding, for visionary works and transformational practices in the exercise of filmmaking, film viewing, film scholarship? I would be lying if I pretended to chart the way forward, compass in hand. No such luck. Rest assured, though, that Film Quarterly continues to be open to expanding its own scope and to staying open to writers and opportunities, frame by frame, jab by jab, whatever the future delivers.

In This Issue

Toby Lee’s “The Radical Unreal: Fabulation and Fantasy in Speculative Documentary” leads off this edition of Film Quarterly with a rumination on the functions of indexicality and trickery in nonfiction film as both evidence and argument. Lee considers two works, INAATE/SE/ (2016, Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil) and Layer (2015, Ruth Jenrbekova and Maria Vilkovisky), that “deploy the unreality effect as a vital strategy of political resistance.” The first juxtaposes Indigenous experience and knowledge with settler colonial history in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, while the second messes with gender/sexuality expectations. From psychedelics to Native prophecies, Lee unpacks the meanings inherent in both works, with implications for a future Indigenous aesthetic as well as shape-shifting gender embodiments.

A pair of essays on representations of/by Korean women arrived serendipitously in synchrony for this issue. In her “Antipodal Connections: A Pair of Argentine Documentaries and Their Korean Women Subjects,” Chisu Teresa Ko looks back at two documentaries made in the era after the country’s financial crisis of 2001, La chica del sur (The Girl from the South, José Luis García, 2012) and Una canción coreana (A Korean Song, Yael Tujsnaider and Gustavo Tarrío, 2014), placing them in the context of a shift away from a “former insistence that Argentina is an exceptionally European nation within Latin America to a newfound embrace of multiculturalism and attention to issues of race and ethnicity.” In both films, Ko points to the discrepancies between the voice of the filmmaker and that of the documentary subject as complicating questions of gender, agency, and cultural difference.

FQ’s Chris Berry, in turn, uses the London Korean Film Festival (LKFF) held last fall as a prompt to take up the history of the representation of women in South Korean films. These texts include Jageun puledo ileum isseuni (Even Little Grass Has Its Own Name, Kim Soyoung, 1990), the first film of the women’s film collective Pareto’s “comfort women” trilogy; Kateu (Cart, Boo Ji-young, 2014), as linked to a 2007 supermarket strike; Itaewon (Kangyu Garam, 2016), a documentary on the old women who chose to work in clubs; and Beotigo (Vertigo, Jeon Kye-soo, 2019), again with linkages to women’s concerns and labor issues. For Berry, each of these films extends the network of links between gender, nation, and labor.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Luchino Visconti’s Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971), Emma Wilson revisits the shared moment of plague time across a half century and traces the surrender of its protagonist, Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), to a doomed eroticism. Wilson also assesses a new documentary, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which debuted at Sundance and tells the life story of Björn Andrésen, who was sixteen years old when Visconti plucked him from an audition to play Tadzio. Wilson’s revisiting of this classic brings seventies taboos back into sight while fully appreciating Death in Venice’s transcendent beauty.

Howard Rodman accepted FQ’s invitation to write a remembrance of Walter Bernstein, the charismatic writer and screenwriter whose memories formed the basis of The Front (Martin Ritt, 1976). Bernstein passed away at the age of 101 on January 23, 2021. Here, Rodman pays tribute to a mentor through a wonderfully personal lens. In addition, FQ has its own claim to Bernstein’s legacy: he joined the emergency town hall that Film Quarterly assembled with Film at Lincoln Center a few weeks after Trump’s election, where he brought his brand of fire and brimstone to a traumatized audience, instructing the crowd assembled in the amphitheater in late 2016 to “get ready for a shit show.”

The launch of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology of five films—Mangrove; Lover’s Rock; Red, White and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education—for British television is the occasion for reflections on its importance by Michael Boyce Gillespie, Rebecca Wanzo, and James S. Williams. In his “Pressure Drop: A ‘Small Axe’ Introduction,” Gillespie begins his introduction lead off with a tip of the hat to Stuart Hall’s statement that identity is a production that is always in process, and “cultural identity” no less so.

In “How Long, Not Long: A Take on Black Joy,” Wanzo notes that “[w]hen blackness meets genre,” tropes often constitute themselves into the “racial injustice” films that have been dominant, but here points to a “defiance of genre expectations” as defining the series. She sees McQueen as a virtuoso, moving back and forth in time to effect a “balance between black suffering and black optimism.” Surveying the trajectory of the five films, Wanzo in the end returns to her title: “[E]ven if the arc may not bend toward justice, in the end it bends toward joy—a new direction for Steve McQueen’s filmmaking.”

James S. Williams, meanwhile, fills in London history and events that are an invisible context for the series, such as the opening of the despised “Westway” elevated highway in 1970 or the tragic New Cross Fire of 1981, with particular attention to male potency and anxiety. Noting an “ambivalent approach to history,” he observes that McQueen “champions exceptional individual achievements” over collective action. Still, Williams sees the collective scenes as offering “euphoric, free-form moments” in which “the historical and the aesthetic … genuinely come together and fuse.”

FQ columnists never disappoint. Manuel Betancourt points to Los silencios, Tragic Jungle, and Land of Ashes as Latin American excursions that go beyond so-called magical realism to capture a way of living in the world shaped by folklore, beyond dichotomies of past/present, real/fantasy, and life/death. Caetlin Benson-Allott celebrates Sound of Metal, not only for its representation of Deaf culture but for its acoustic remediation of the visuality-focused field of cinema studies. Bilal Qureshi offers up Luxor and Monsoon as two films that plunge their protagonists into a state of liminality that, however originally unintended, meshes eerily with COVID times.

The women of Hive, the Kosovo drama that scooped the world cinema awards at Sundance 2021.

My report on Sundance 2021 notes its glimpse of the future of film festivals, replete with new online additions that are unlikely to disappear whenever the live events resume alongside bidding wars and breakout hits of yore. A hybrid event, it offered the usual mix of thrills and disappointments in a new wrapper with the requisite highs and lows duly reported.

In her review of Charles R. Acland’s American Blockbuster: Movies, Technology, and Wonder, Carrie Rickey narrates a history of the development of the blockbuster movie; tracking its evolution before and after its heyday, Acland cites James Cameron as the pivotal figure who effects the transition into the series as the new modus operandi of Hollywood success. Meanwhile, in a conversation with Philip Scepanski and an introduction to his study, Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy, “Page Views” editor Bruno Guaraná explores the limits of humor and the social function of comedy in times of national crisis and suffering, considering such events as the space shuttle Challenger disaster and this year’s Capitol attack. As always, a PDF of a chapter of Scepanski’s book is available for download on the FQ website at https://filmquarterly.org/category/pageviews/.

Other reviewers take up an important selection of other volumes. Michelle Raheja’s examination of Liza Black’s Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941–1960 is particularly stirring when she cites Black’s discovery of Hollywood movies that spent more on fake Indian finery than on actual Native American actors. Olga Tchepikova-Treon unpacks Genevieve Yue’s very original Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality, Áine O’Healy points to the importance of James S. Williams’s Queering the Migrant in Contemporary European Cinema, and Eva Hageman parses the essential lessons in Horrible White People: Gender, Genre, and Television’s Precarious Whiteness by Taylor Nygaard and Jorie Lagerwey. Once again, these reviewers point FQ readers to an exceptional collection of books.


1. David Rooney, “‘Godzilla vs. Kong’: Film Review,” Hollywood Reporter, March 29, 2021, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/godzilla-vs-kong-film-review.

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