Offscreen Notes

Contemporary Crises and Cinema

October 12th, 2020

Will we see new love stories on large screens in closed theaters, the characters hugging and kissing? Or will they speak their passionate lines six-feet apart, through masks? Or will theaters and screens remain dark?

The coronavirus, or Covid-19, since early 2020, has changed life around the world. Cultures and economies have been transformed – reduced, slowed, and in some instances stilled. Yet, in August 2020, there was hope that a corner had been turned, that some aspects of our cultural lives were returning to normal. The Washington Post‘s Steven Zeitchik reported that film productions were commencing again: “Across the entertainment industry, casts and crew are beginning to return to work after a five-month hiatus. In states with loosened restrictions, such as Georgia and New York, production is starting to crank up under tight controls that alter how sets operate. Instead of crew members freely mingling, they’re being divided into ‘pods’ that limit how production departments such as wardrobe or lighting can associate. Covid-19 officers monitor the health of the cast and crew to determine who is allowed on set. ‘Zones’ dictate where those cast and crew can go” (WP, August 12). Yet, even Zeitzchik’s good news was threaded with sobering information: some major actors, fearing contagion, did not want to appear in love scenes, and even small acting parts might have trouble being filled by those who did not think the little money was worth the big risk; and some independent productions apprehended trouble getting insurance during the crisis. What of the work completed? Will that be presented in traditional theaters, or in different forums – online; or at refurbished or improvised (parking lot?) drive-in theaters.

I, Daniel Garrett, essayed catastrophe and crisis as represented in cinema some many months ago, when I realized I had been hearing the news of terrible events, augmented by the shocked commentary of participants and witnesses who said those events were like something seen in a movie: the article Catastrophe (It Was Like a Movie): On The China Syndrome, Twister, The Perfect Storm, Titanic, Deep Impact, World Trade Center, and Contagion has been posted by Offscreen editor Donato Totaro this month. Despite the passage of time from conception to presentation, appearing October 2020, the article I suspect has not lost much, if any, relevance. The coronavirus has been an international tragedy, with so many good citizens, so many significant workers, so many beloved people, being lost. Catastrophe. It is an agon—an agon: a challenge to body and spirit—with a destructive force beyond ordinary anticipation or immediate ease: accident, calamity, blight, disease, plague, suffering, trouble. Human beings used to have to struggle through shock, pain, and misunderstandings to arrive at a sense of order and insight regarding difficult and overwhelming experience—but after a century of mass culture, in which the imagination of disaster is brought to us again and again, when a catastrophe occurs for the first time in our lives we have a sense of déjà vu. The force of accident or nature or terror in our lives is, at once, both predicted and stunning. The terrible is something we feel we know from memory—thanks to film and television and the internet—even as what is terrible erupts around us, breaking our lives into before and after. There is an intellectual mastery that is paired with an emotional dislocation: our personal experience seems somewhat impersonal.

Tenet signifies belief. For those of us who love cinema, who believe in it as beauty, as pleasure, as knowledge of the world, whether art film or pure entertainment or both, we miss the large screens, the crowds, the shared pleasures. There was a great deal of hope that certain films might return us to an important feature of our common lives—but the premieres of many films have been postponed. Christopher Nolan’s imaginative, time-traveling Tenet, starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, has been a troubling test case, giving us both hope and warning: it made “$20.2 million over its first four days in North American theaters — a mere $9.4 million in the U.S. if you subtract Canadian grosses, it was later revealed,” according to Chris Lee’s September 22, 2020 online (Vulture) report for New York magazine. As of early October, the film seems to have made about $45 million in the United States, and about $307 million worldwide (per Box Office Mojo). Apparently, in light of the financial investment in the movie, the film has to make $400 million to break even. As well, Mission Impossible sequels have been postponed—as has the opening of the new James Bond film (Daniel Craig had begun promoting it when the news was announced). Some theater owners have said they may not be able to continue in business. What will tomorrow bring? We do not know—but cinema has prepared us for dreams and disasters.

Daniel Garrett


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