Not How We Watched, How We Saw

It has been almost 9 long months of shying away from what we deem normal, how we usually do things and small luxuries we almost certainly took for granted. It’s also been 9 months of online discourse that has gotten progressively sourer, more contentious with each passing day. This is especially true when it comes to not only film criticism but the growing debate between streaming and cinemas. Back in April when the conversation was fresh it was that, a conversation. A discussion of the benefits of both and an acknowledgement of the winds of change when it comes to how we watch things, be it DVDs, cinemas or streaming services. I even wrote about the initial skirmish between Universal and cinema chains back in May (Read that here) but as studios continue to do what is in their best interest to stay afloat and profitable in a time of conflicting viewing experiences and shuttered cinemas it has become a game of pick a team and personally I no longer have time for a discussion that has long moved past toxic. I’d rather talk about something else.

So instead of entering into that fracas where nobody doesn’t come out looking bruised and beaten I decided looking at the question of whether or not the pandemic has changed how we perceive the things we watch. The discussion of how things land in this new world seem far more positive and genuinely interesting than the alternative. Be it a deep dive into the different feel of games like The Last of Us 2, a game about a changed world thanks to a parasitic fungus, an infection ravaging the world we live in. Released in June, it was impossible to not see the parallels. However does the overall meat of the game and its story change because of what we are going through. I’m not sure. Is it worth talking about, yes. The same discussion can be had with this year’s Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s psychedelic horror film about a family living in isolation and being driven mad by something intangible. An allegory for cabin fever featuring actual cabins, it is hard not to see this having a different resonance now than in pre-pandemic times. However the question begs asking even if the answer is easy.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the answer is of course yes, social context frames everything we watch, play or enjoy, its impossible not to. The question seems pointless but as a jumping off point for how it happens and what different stories are affected because of it, it’s a vital query. These changes range from the obvious and simple to effects that prove far more sly. Some hit me as I watched something, others crept up on me days after I saw it and I’m sure that is the same for many others. The follow up question then proves to be, is this a good thing or a bad thing or is something different just that, different. Here I’ll try and attempt to answer that by looking back at some of the films and TV i saw in 2020 and a few of the games I played.

I Saw You Across A Crowded Room

When I asked around before writing this, one statement that seemed to be universal was the general concept of togetherness, how alien it feels to see people physically close in a socially distanced world. Be it in the escapism of a simple soap opera with a group of friends walking the cobbles of Coronation Street as one friend said, pointing to how abnormal it now feels. A similar moment of mine was going to see Natalie Krinsky’s The Broken Hearts Gallery, a film I loved (you can read my review here.) for being an old fashioned romantic comedy for a new generation. However it was a film clearly filmed before New York became the first major city in America to bear the brunt of this pandemic. Not only does it open with shots of crowded busy streets, a bustling hive of humanity but the films final moments, the grand romantic gesture we have grown accustomed to, surrounded by onlookers, both friends and strangers is distinctly New York in flavour but not the one we know today. Up until that moment the sappy goodness of Krinsky’s film painted over these lingering ideas of what it must be like today, a different world, a changed city. With that one party however, it became impossible to ignore.

Small thoughts like this creep into even the ludicrous films or shows we watch. Tenet for all its fantastical time inversion nonsense, is a globe-trotting film emulating the tone and feel of past Bond films and part of the escapism provided by Nolan’s latest is somewhat muted by a world that almost 6 months into this horror seems completely foreign. I watched The Photograph recently and when a group of New Yorkers assembled for a screening of an experimental French art film (only in New York is every seat occupied for this, even in a regular world) I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sheer lunacy of the time it has been since even 10% of a screening was occupied for any film I went to go and see. Even in August when I went to see Tenet on release day, I counted 7 other people in a room that housed around 150-200.

Then again, if it can work one way, pull you back into reality, it certainly has the ability to do the opposite, connect you to a story. This year’s documentary A Secret Love, the tale of a seven decade love story between Pat and Terry, two elderly women who have spent years hiding who they really by self imposing the idea of social distancing on themselves to protect their love from a unwavering country not yet ready to accept them. The fact that most of the film is them alone in their house, visited sporadically by relatives and occasionally visiting old friends with similar stories instantly makes you empathetic. Knowing just how hard, how imposing avoiding contact has been this year the notion of doing it for close to seventy years seems like the ultimate sacrifice, a fact that only heightens the inclusive and loving message of an already personal documentary. The idea that keeping apart from people isn’t normal here doesn’t seem atypical, a mortifying fact but one that connects you to the film in a more cutting way. While it might be a simple change, one we notice and can choose to ignore, its hard to ignore the effect it has.

Is That The Gist?

The more affecting aspect of how 2020 has either temporarily or permanently changed our perspective is how even films with no clear links to what is happening outside our windows and on our news reports feel different. In February I went to see the wonderful Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Read my review here.) in the cinema and I was blown away by its tragic but transformative 18th century love story, the unique and singular shooting style and just how sensual a film with only fractional nudity could be. I knew I had to own it and when it finally arrived in June, well into lockdown I watched it again. It is a vastly different film. Not a worse one, not a better one. Just a new experience with more to say on different topics. Set on an island isolated from others, the film follows a love story between two women when one is hired to paint a wedding portrait of the other before her arranged marriage. While the concept of women as property, a sellable object to be bartered and advertised always lingered in Céline Sciamma’s film, the isolation and loneliness of femininity now bursts out the seams of this already full story. It was probably always there, but now it seems prominent, a painful fact lingering in the recesses of the film’s expertly framed shots.

The same can be said about Craig Roberts’ latest Eternal Beauty, one which delves into the ostracizing power of mental illness and how misunderstanding often translates to rejection and abandonment. The empty scenes and slim cast only progress the notion that this is a film about the forgotten or the taken for granted, a feeling so many can relate to at the moment, stuck behind walls awaiting phone calls that sometimes come all too infrequently. Both of these films might be set in different centuries, talking about different things but the effects seem important to talk about because they bring out new highlights worth discussing. Maybe it might be watching with new eyes, maybe its attaching a new social norm to something that wasn’t there before, its hard to say but if its possible for lockdown to add to an experience, we all know its possible for it to prove detrimental, to take away.

The first film I watched in isolation was the warm yet stark French feature Amanda (read my review here.), a story of binding ties between people, the lingering power of bad memories but the endless joy of good ones and how forgiveness is a potent and important part of life. Following the effects on a young man who is forced to take his niece, the titular Amanda, in after a meaningless terror attack kills his sister and Amanda’s mother. Most of all Amanda tells a story about how togetherness is more important than thinking solely of yourself but April perhaps was not the time for this message. Be it acclimating to avoiding people, to seeing them as potential threats instead of people/friends translates over to the way I watched films trying to push us towards accepting other people. Having gone back to it recently, Amanda is a far warmer picture than the one I first saw 6 months earlier, one with a message fitting of this cold socially distanced winter, one that to some may go ignored because our world makes it feel disingenuous, a crime to an inclusive lovely film.

The real shock when writing this was in the previously mentioned Last of Us 2, the sequel to Naughty Dog’s outstanding 2013 road movie of a game. Not only is it set in an overgrown America brought to its knees by infection, a futuristic look at the effects of a virus far worse than what we are enduring. Continuing the story of Ellie and Joel, here transitioning to an old school revenge story, one interested in the cyclical nature of vengeance and violence and how our decisions often decide where we end up, the release in June seemed perfectly timed. Not only was the content timely but the tone was melancholy enough to fit the feeling of June itself as we were quickly missing out on a summer after sacrificing our spring. However The Last of Us 2 remains largely unchanged or affected by outside commentary (despite a wealth of trolls seeking to demean it due to pointless loyalty), as it sets itself apart from the real with a world not only visually different but one that indulges the baser impulses and decisions of its characters and the people playing them. It proved the ultimate escapism because this was not anywhere we recognized. That might be why I also enjoyed Train to Busan sequel Peninsula so much because it was nice to see the complete opposite of normal, even if that included fight scenes more akin to elaborate dancing and CGI car chases fresh out of Tokyo Drift. It seems distancing yourself from a world seemingly of our past helped at least me ignore it. That might be why I didn’t take to George Clooney’s latest, The Midnight Sky as it is a little too close to home despite some science fiction magic thrown in. However the myriad of issues i had with that film might have more to do with it but that’s a different article.

More Changes to Come?

When we return to normal (if we do?) and we can finally see this thing in the rearview mirror the question then becomes how that shift changes us and how we view things. I’m sure the predictable business articles will emerge discussing if cinema will rebound, what the new normal viewing patterns are and what we can do to help but I will not be entering into that debate again, even with a positive spin on something. I hope i’ll be writing about how authentic it feels to see actual intimacy on screen without thinking how many Covid tests were used to get that minute of footage, how a zombie apocalypse is just a bit of mindless fun, not a stones throw away from our reality. Ultimately I want to enjoy myself when i sit down to read, play or watch and that’s the change i hope for. However, who knows, we never saw this coming, who knows what changes lie ahead. The fact that change brings new experiences/insights however is reason enough to be optimistic as the new year approaches.


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