During these days (rather these weeks, these months) of self-quarantining and social distancing, movies promise to kill time. There are lists of movies about contagions and lists of movies that will lift your mood. “Netflix Party” is a Google Chrome extension that allows us to watch movies together while apart. Good Housekeeping announced their best End of the World movies. The idea, it seems, is that movies can occupy some empty hours, distract us from our painful reality.
It’s not quite right, though, that self-quarantining generates gains in time. Those who can or already do work from home will keep doing their jobs. People who still hold public-facing jobs are out at work. Parents with children at home will have exponentially more work to do. People who have lost their shifts or their jobs, students who have been kicked out of school housing with days’ notice, now have to do god knows what to hold their lives together. When all this daily work is done, we turn to finding our friends online, Facetiming with loved ones, refreshing if not strictly reading the news, and/or vaguely trying to strategize about what to do next, yet without any sense of what next looks like (or without the stomach to face what’s predicted). After all of that, there’s the time spent grieving, for what’s already lost and what will be, and the time required to take all this in. Which, one cannot do.
In North America, in the first early weeks (already gone), we were trying to imagine and anticipate something imminent and invisible: a “war,” something that will hit like a “tsunami.” It staggers the mind to try to fathom such a reality, and then to try to picture the immediate future (as in, next week), and then the coming months, and then finally the real future, the next reality, beyond that. Even as cases of Coronavirus infection spike and hospitals are already nearly overwhelmed in New York City, for those of us not directly involved, there is still an eerie vagueness to it all because we are not witness to it. There is unusual stillness and silence. Everything is different, but the terrible chaos is just off screen.
In the effort to think a reality that buckles the mind, the mind may turn to movies. One does not imagine ex nihilo; rather, we borrow and combine from what we have seen before. Movies provide imaginative resources, pictures and icons and scenes and tonalities with which we might try to make sense of this moment. This is like that. Precisely because film (or perhaps, really, television) is so integral to modern life, we cannot imagine life without it (in both senses). Movies can be a way into a feeling, a resource for comprehending intolerable experience, a reference with which to tether something radically new. There is dizzying irony to all this: as Chris Hayes tweeted, “It’s weird how my head keeps reaching for zombie movie analogies when zombie movies are just an allegory for actual pandemics.”
The day the NBA canceled its season—the major transformation of American life that finally sounded the alarm—a seemingly endless trailer of the entire disaster genre ran through my mind. It wasn’t just the genre’s contents—I fixated on visions of gigantic tidal waves—but also its moods: the eerie, the horrifying, the uncanny, the desperate. Every day, random scenes come to mind unbidden. When college classes were first switched online, I thought of the opening scenes in Arrival when the campus murmurs and then erupts in response to the new aliens. The first empty New York avenue I saw recalled Tom Cruise running scared through a desolate midtown intersection in Vanilla Sky, bellowing as the camera spins around him. An acquaintance, in a panicky moment, said that she thought of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the Donald Sutherland version, she clarified) while on a walk in Toronto.
With the President racializing the virus, drumming up a hawkish posture to confront a nationless, border-indifferent threat, it’s easy to associate to movies like Independence Day and World War Z, with their spectacular masculine nationalism. The very repellant extravagance of these movies can highlight and focus dimensions of a reality that is being coordinated all around us. So many end of days movies are military fantasies, or military realities rendered fantastically. On this, read AS Hamrah’s essay “Jessica Biel’s Hand”—a title so good it’s somewhat painful—on his miserable summer watching nearly 40 movies about the war on terror. These films, and Hamrah’s moral recoil, give us some indication of what we may expect whenever Hollywood starts making movies about Spring 2020. (This week the President announced that America would be open for business “very soon, very soon.” Frank Capra imagined that the only thing that might be strong enough to combat the destruction of an unchecked ruthless banking industry would be an act of suicide and an act of god. It’s a wonderful life.)
When people in my life started talking about leaving New York City for “the country,” Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf came to mind. It is his quiet and humane apocalypse movie (where the quiet is punctuated by paroxysms of ripping violence; a quiet Haneke movie is still a Haneke movie). Time of the Wolf is set in a post-apocalyptic scenario in France, though what exactly has happened is never explained. Cities are dangerous, and a growing group of refugees are hunkering down in a train station, waiting for a messianic train (to where?) to come. The film shows the risks and sad predictability of sectarianism and xenophobia, the callous opportunism of figures in power, the inarticulate comfort of animals, and the ways in which children will use their imagination and bodies in distorted, desperate efforts to survive such circumstances. Late in the film, a stranger plays music quietly on a Walkman, “wasting” his batteries, using the art they still have to take care of a heroically resilient but still very young girl who is on the brink of losing her mind. Thinking of this scene of aesthetic consolation then recalled the scenes from the balconies of Italy and Lebanon and Spain, of people singing across the emptied streets to and with one another. Film comes to mind and leads us back to the world.
Never in human history have we engaged in this monumental project of simultaneous, global social isolation (though we do this routinely when we imprison people). And, obviously, we’ve never done this while equipped with the kind of interactive technologies that we, thankfully, have now. These screens are a lifeline. Critics of the internet now count their blessings. But still, we don’t really know what this means for creatures like us, social animals to our deepest core, to live separately yet on screen.
Doctors have expressed their fear for what lies ahead for humanity, with respect to the trajectory of the virus. The defensive measures we now all, all together, need to take are also fearsome (one can say this without in any way doubting that we need, of course, to adopt these measures). The current defensive program, engaged in part because of a lack of adequate testing, involves living indoors, with minimal physical camaraderie, at great distances from one another, for unknown numbers of months. Of course, with Facetime and Zoom, we can really interact, it allows for genuine communication; but still, when we do so, I lose any material reality for you, and you become an image to me. (from my dear friend: “our doom is Zoom’s boom”). This is a staggering prospect. These months will change us.
Social distancing, self-quarantining, human intimacy as mortal threat: what comes to mind is Todd Hayne’s 1995 SAFE, a deeply uneasy film blending melodrama, sci-fi, horror, and illness genres. In sunny California, a wealthy suburban housewife begins developing physical symptoms—dizziness, nosebleeds, coughing fits, seizures—for no reason that any medical doctor can tell. Carol develops a “sensitivity:” she can no longer tolerate milk, she can no longer tolerate her family. She eventually joins others at a desert retreat called Wrenwood. This community keeps its distance from each other, respecting each other’s sensitivities, dressing in loose, non-provocative, organic clothing, isolating from the rest of the world. The community members are happy, though there are a few brief eruptions of bitter anger, guttural sadness, and disappointment. There is also Lester, who moves in stilted steps along the periphery of the property, dressed in full body protective gear. No one can interact with Lester, they can only watch him; he watches them too. By the end of the film, Carol experiences her sensitivities so intensively that she isolates herself in an igloo-like safe house, alone with her oxygen and clean sheets. Genuine human contact and connection is no longer possible, or if technically possible, it is too threatening to risk. In the final shot, alone in her quarantine, Carol looks in a tiny mirror and whispers to her gaunt reflection, I love you.
I’ve shown SAFE in a number of classes. Once, after I turned the lights back on, a tentative undergraduate said, “no offense, but that was really depressing.” Today on a morning walk through a misty Central Park, I saw about 6 or 7 other people, total. My guess is that this has never happened before, that this city’s most beloved park has never been this empty in its entire history. The quiet was peaceful at first—how fortunate, how serene—and then profoundly troubling, all wrong. I didn’t directly cross paths with anyone but saw each one of them from a distance: across a walkway, across the lake, moving between the trees. Each of us was Lester for the others.
That was a word everyone seemed to be using around the first weekend of March. This was before we had the concept let alone the practice of “social distancing,” let alone the potentially enforceable law; but it was after hand sanitizer had become difficult to find. This was the first weekend I saw people exiting CVS with carts full of products, and then, once inside, the first time I encountered the scandal of the empty shelf. This was before jobs evaporated, before bars and restaurants and movie theaters and museums went dark, before planes grounded and countries closed their borders. Before all of this, there was that slender moment in March when it was all just weird (other words from conversations: surreal, unnerving, bizarre, unsettling, cinematic).
Weird is not an emotion; it is a mood, an aesthetic. “Weird” notes a change still in the offing, it marks a mood starting to thicken the air. In early March, “weird” was a way of saying, everything is different but nothing is different yet. But now, as we approach the end of March, New York like so many others is a changed city. For many of us, the panic is all over the news and yet it is not present to the senses. Weird is what it’s like to apprehend absences: no cars, no people, no children’s voices, empty plazas and parks. You cannot see or hear an absence, only notice an invisible shift.
We often use the language of moods to avoid more concrete emotions, emotions that would bind us directly to what is happening and to our own reactions. Moods hold off feelings that might be overwhelmingly difficult and then overwhelmingly difficult to expunge once admitted: despair, fear, political rage; even sudden spasms of love can be almost too much to bear all at once. Loneliness is an emotion no one is supposed to feel let alone admit; and yet here we are, swimming in it, social animals all going through withdrawal. “Weird” is an effort to register the total transformation of ordinary life as it is being executed in real time, to try and think the very idea that something is happening at the level of the species. But like “stress” or “anxiety,” the word is empty. The mood is an avoidance, a placeholder. Weird is a dam.
Movies make moods. Of course a film displays and elicits ideas and emotions, plots and characters and scenarios. But a great film orchestrates a mood, a tonal atmosphere that coordinates its moments, holding it together as an aesthetic whole. For the best directors, plot is used as an opportunity for mood. To take some examples, think of Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Denis, Resnais, Weerasethakul. These directors organize their films with a governing affective-aesthetic sensibility. Their films are not observed like distant happenings; these films are environments, atmospheres from which you must struggle to emerge from when the lights come back on, worlds to return to as needed.
Last night I watched Mulholland Drive, for maybe the seventh time. Earlier in the day I’d resolved that David Lynch was the only director to turn to for the mood that I needed at that moment. As it turned out, the dreadful sonic incongruousness of Club Silencio made unexpected thematic contact with our contemporary real, that is to say, wholly virtual life: “No hay banda. It is all recorded, it is all a tape.”
But regardless of any thematic relevancies, what I wanted was for this movie to help me feel as deranged as I actually do, to be as unsettled as the world in fact is. This facilitation is not the same as catharsis. The film did not release or purge the mood, but distilled and confirmed it. Through strange fiction, it made the mood real.
The world is transforming hour by hour, and with our phones we can follow along as it goes. Many are working to make sure this trigger moment is not monopolized by the interests of the market, but rather engaged to shift our primary social and economic concerns to working people. Intimacy and sociality—the basic necessities of human life—have been curtailed, clipped, right when we are most in need of them. What makes COVID-19 so multiply devastating is that in addition to being potentially lethal, it flourishes as an attack on intimacy. Or, rather, its capacity to erode our essential sociality is one of its primary ways of being lethal. It is not as if our physical touch and proximity, sociality in all ranges of intimacy, were optional or extra for us; our need for it is as fundamental as sleep and nutrition. And yet right at this moment of unprecedented global uncertainty that is convulsing every conceivable sector of human life, this is what we cannot provide for each other. We cannot go to each other in that simple and immediate way. One staggers onto Twitter in search of information or orientation or solidarity, and while this can be found, one also discovers a kind of mass stammering, the collective voicing of profound disorientation. There are the crucial facts, helpful tips, news briefings, interviews with doctors, dispatches from Italy, China, Singapore, hand-washing videos, moral admonishments, all essential in their way. But there is also the insistent strangeness.
There are lots of reasons to turn to movies right now. In addition to being social creatures, we are also aesthetic, and so we seek aesthetic expression as a dimension of our basic hold on the world. One form of comfort that movies can provide is to distract, to help you out of a painful reality or out of a weird and unsettling mood. Another thing they can do is help you into it.