Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 1, No. 5 We're in a waiting room hoping for the best

I haven’t been writing much these days, despite an initial plan to keep a kind of daily diary during this period of isolation. For me, isolation tends to breed as much indolence as productivity and I’ve spent far too much time reading and watching the news, worrying about the fate of family and friends and allowing my distress at the utterances of certain of our leaders, particular the one with very bad hair, to spiral upward.

I’ve been trying to reach out to friends who live alone, but it also occurred to me that these same people are the best prepared to deal with long periods of isolation. They’re ahead of the curve when it comes to coronavirus adjustment.

As for viewing ... well ... I’ve watched a couple of movies in advance of their theatrical opening, but mostly, I haven’t viewed the current situation as an opportunity to revisit favorite movies or binge-watch a new series.

I feel like I'm in a hospital waiting room waiting for the surgeon to emerge with a report. Worrying that it won't be good news.

This is the first time in the last 40 years that I haven’t been connected to the ceaseless flow of new releases and I've been wondering whether that hasn't been a somewhat trivial way to mark time, a vague equivalent of J. Alfred Prufrock’s measuring out his life in coffee spoons?

As for missing the movies. Truth be told, I’ve been missing the movies for a long time. I miss cavernous theaters with voluptuous curtains in front of the screen. I miss the thrill of playing hookey from pre-reviewing jobs to watch a movie in the middle of the day. I miss the brief moment in the 1960s and 1970s when I —- and lots of people like me — believed that movies (or cinema, if you prefer) were the best route to transcendence in art. It was a time when discovering a new Truffaut or a new Bergman or a new Altman or a new Hal Ashby or a new (at least to us) Kurosawa was thrilling.

No point in going on, but that was the moment when we (enthusiasts of a similar bent) felt a special connection to movies. We read Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. We populated art houses and theaters that had yet to become multiplexes. For a fleeting moment, we felt as if the movies belonged to us. They were ours.

None of us ever talked about box-office results.

No need to recount the story of how massive box-office juggernauts changed the movies. That’s an old story. I’ve been transported by some comic-book movies and by some of the very movies that have been blamed for the demise of movie art. I still enjoy watching Jaws, one of the oft-cited culprits in the story of how movie art was quashed by blockbuster onslaughts.

I've learned how to appreciate certain Marvel movies while detesting the depth of minutia that consumes many of those who grew up reading Marvel comics the way we grew up reading Catcher in the Rye or Mad Magazine or any of the other age-specific pleasures that flavored our youth. I've enjoyed some of the Star Wars movies but have no tolerance for those who insist on Star Wars purity.

I’m not saying that there are no good or even great movies. I seldom have difficulty assembling a 10-best list at the end of the year. Often I can’t make room for all the year’s worthy releases, but I also know that movies have lost their cultural primacy — to television, to video games, to other diversions — and that this trend will continue.

I'm sure you've read stories about how the studios are trying to adjust to the closure of theaters during the period of sheltering at home. The window between theatrical release and home viewing has been diminished and in some cases, abandoned entirely.

Theaters I believe, will come back to life, but the problems facing theater chains started long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus and will continue after the virus retreats.

Could some of what I’m saying be part of the inevitable sorrow that comes with lost youth? Probably. But as I sit in isolation, I’m also thinking about the ways in which movies flood the market, allowing little time for the culture to absorb them. Here today; on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon tomorrow. It's difficult to create a culture out of movable parts. Movies are absorbed into the culture in waves of market penetration. They touch the lives of different groups at different times.

These are not novel thoughts, but they’ve come into sharper focus with the disruption of routine that the coronavirus has brought.

I’m wondering how a country that has reveled in bloodshed on-screen and fine-tuned the aesthetics of violence is going to react when body counts (possibility in the millions) aren’t attached to movies such as the John Wick killing machines or remote battle zones that barely the make the news anymore.

When it’s all said and done, most will go one. But for some, the credits won’t roll and the lights won’t come up.

I’m thinking that those close to them won’t be consoled by a rise in the Dow Jones Average or by news proclaiming that GDP has gone through the roof and they certainly won’t be cheered by the fact that some new movie has broken every box-office record.

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