Movie theaters in California and Hong Kong are closing back up again and four members of one of the most beloved families in all of cinema today—Amitabh Bachchan; his son and daughter-in-law, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan; and their eight-year-old daughter, Aaradhya—have all tested positive for the coronavirus. Eric Handler, an analyst for MKM Partners, has released a report in which he predicts that the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the event that was to have heralded the return of moviegoing in the U.S. and around the world, will likely be postposed yet again. “In our view,” writes Handler, “it would be surprising to see theaters able to reopen nationwide before September, at the earliest.” In short—and this will be news to no one—this pandemic will carry on hurting the art and the business of cinema until we either come up with a vaccine or learn how to live with the virus safely.
One of the best of the many recent surveys of the impact of the pandemic ran in the Observer on Sunday under the title “The Future of Film: Can Cinema Survive COVID-19?” Wendy Ide has spoken with directors, producers, programmers, exhibitors, and so on—some are optimists, some are pessimists—about collapsing windows between theatrical and digital releases, whether traveling to film festivals will ever make sense again, shooting kissing scenes, and all the other aspects of making and watching movies. If you’re looking for a single primer on the current state of the industry, this is the one for now.
The most arresting passage in the piece appears early on when Ide and her nine-year-old venture into a London movie theater, and about forty-five minutes into Sonic the Hedgehog, the projector conks out. “The screen strobes green then turns to black,” writes Ide. “A brief, loaded silence, then, in the darkness, a tearful child’s voice asks: ‘Is it the virus?’ And there’s a moment of realization. The cinemas might be the same, but the audience has changed. Fear has been hardwired into us, building incrementally since the moment when film audiences and industry alike first started to grasp the gravity of the situation.”
That moment, dating way, way back to mid-March, permeates the new issue of DGA Quarterly, the magazine published by the Directors Guild of America. It’s a fine issue, featuring a brief interview with Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always), conversations with directors who have worked on Better Call Saul, J. C. Chandor on watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) in 2020, and Kenneth Turan on the ways that cinema responded to the major crises of the last century—encroaching fascism, the Great Depression, and two world wars. The centerpiece of this issue, though, is a collection of interviews with directors including Ava DuVernay, Alexander Payne, Kimberly Peirce, Morten Tyldum, and Jean-Marc Vallée. What were they working on when the shutdown hit? What have they been reading, listening to, and watching to cope with the prolonged interruption?
In a wonderfully meandering essay for Little White Lies, Sophie Monks Kaufman argues the case for art as, for all its other virtues, a means of coping with both personal and social crisis. Around halfway in, she talks with Sam Parker, an editor who has put together Penguin Perspectives, a collection of essays from prominent writers responding to this slow-motion emergency. “What’s happened in different points in history is that almost the first head on the chopping block is the arts,” says Parker. “That’s something we should be really careful to avoid, because mental health is going to play a big part in the fall out of this, however it goes, and art, like nature, is essential to help mental well-being.”
Kaufman sees mental well-being “as a site of sanctity that must be tended to and preserved,” especially when the news is “an infinite scroll of death, devastation, and disappointing leadership, while our ongoing state of social distancing means there are scant opportunities ‘for the simple harbor of a hug’ (words from the poet Grace Nichols). The temptation can be to languish in hysterical despair and to deny the opportunity for relief because it feels like a gross indulgence, but who does it serve when you make yourself an invisible martyr to the ills of the world?” Art “valorizes the quiet stirrings we have to live by bolder instincts.”
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