While welcoming the Covid-19 lockdown as a chance to catch up on some TV and film viewing, this reviewer found himself craving, with a few notable exceptions, the romance of the cinematic experience. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Missing that big-screen feeling
I am missing the cinema, the experience of watching a movie in an auditorium. Like so many of us, I’m sure, I decided to use the Covid-19 lockdown as an opportunity to catch up on a pile of DVDs and TV series I’d neglected to watch. The catching up with movies has been both illuminating and fun. But I have been surprised by how dissatisfied I have been with the fare on offer when it comes to episodic television or mini-series.
This is meant to be the Golden Age of television, but I fear that ideal age may be passing. Or it may be that not having cinema-going as a contrast has served to reinforce the small screen’s limitations of sound and vision: the laptop, the television, when always in a domestic setting, they remain furniture.
But this bizarre and unexpected moment of stillness has not been without discoveries.
One of the undoubted highlights has been finally watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a movie I’ve wanted to see since I was a teenager. The long wait was worth it. As with all Powell and Pressburger’s films, it has a supremely confident, classical structure. Made during the height of World War II, it traces the friendship between an Englishman and a German that survives the enmity of the Boer War, World War I and the devastation of the rise of Nazism. I think of it alongside Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, one of the finest of war films. Like Renoir, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp recognises the destructiveness and cruelty of war while at the same time ruefully acknowledging the limitations of pacifism.
Another film I had always read about, but I had never managed to catch at a repertory screening, was F. W. Murnau’s German silent classic The Last Laugh, about a proud doorman at an elite hotel who is demoted to bathroom attendant.
Watching The Last Laugh, on the streaming site Kanopy, reminded me of some of the undoubted blessings available to a film lover in the digital age. Previously, when I have watched silent films in cinemas, the prints have often been irreparably damaged, and the projection speeds terribly out of whack. The effect is often to make all silent film seem exaggerated and risible, and probably also explains why the reputation of silent comedy is greater than that of silent dramas and tragedies. But The Last Laugh has been lovingly restored.
There is an exaggeration to silent screen acting that will undoubtedly always seem overwrought to our modern sensibilities. Yet there is also an astonishing fluidity to the images and the editing that came from the directors not being encumbered by the machinery of sound recording. The lack of sound also meant my concentration on the visuals was heightened. My lounge room and my domestic world disappeared as I became immersed in the viewing. Being lost in that silence reminded me of my hushed rapture in the cinema as a child.
Of course, one can become distracted in a cinema, by the discomfort of a seat or the vagaries of temperature; and when a film is boring or incoherent there is that unbearable sense of being trapped, sandwiched between other audience members and wondering when might be the appropriate moment to get up and walk out. But walking out of a cinema has a declaratory power that is different from the mere switching off of a movie or TV series at home; it requires you to think through your choice as you mumble your excuses at inconveniencing your fellow cinema-goers. Your criticisms gather form and definition as you contemplate the structural inadequacies or idiocies of scripting of the film you have just left. That doesn’t happen when I switch off the television or the computer – when the 24-hour news floods back on the television, the computer’s screensaver returns, and I am returned to the domestic. I’m not likely to be utilising my critical faculties. I’m probably wondering what there is to eat in the fridge.
Maybe I was unlucky in my choices, but the television series I watched during the lockdown were largely unsatisfying – from Unorthodox on Netflix and Years and Years on SBS On Demand, to Fosse/Verdon, downloaded from iTunes.
All three have enticing premises. Unorthodox is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of growing up as a Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish woman, and her fleeing to Berlin to escape the strictures of her community. Years and Years posits a demagogue taking control of Britain’s near future, and the consequences of populist politics on a middle-class family of mixed race and mixed sexualities. And Fosse/Verdon explores the fraught marriage, divorce and longstanding friendship between choreographer and filmmaker Bob Fosse and Broadway musical legend Gwen Verdon.
All three shows feature terrific performances and reinforce how TV is now offering English-language actors the opportunity for roles that are adult and complex. But all three are marred by lazy and faddish script choices.
Unorthodox has genuine authority and power when it flashes back to its young lead’s life in Brooklyn, but the scriptwriters portray her life in Berlin as some multicultural utopia, where she is taken up by a group of classical musical students, none of whom seem to share the bourgeois prejudices and assumptions rife in the conservatorium students I have known.
Years and Years delivers a truly confronting and exciting opening scene, but it almost immediately squanders that initial promise. Emma Thompson’s demagogue is a caricature and the political consequences of her rise are only tangentially resonant with the lives of the main characters. The series is written by Russell T. Davies, the writer of the original Queer as Folk, and it is instructive to compare the audacity and verisimilitude of his Queer as Folk with the smug progressive pieties and reductionist characterisations of Years and Years.
Those same pieties, and some of that smugness, run throughout Fosse/Verdon. The assumption of the scriptwriters – that two of the most formidable talents of the great 20th-century popular form, the Broadway musical, would have been happier and better human beings if they had eschewed the promises of celebrity and rejected the urgency of their respective ambitions – is small-minded and disingenuous.
Of course, there is terrific work still being done in the television medium. I had been enthralled by Netflix’s Mindhunter, a series about the development of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, centring on three highly intelligent but morally ambiguous characters. The complex questions it raises of responsibility and culpability, and about race and gender biases in policing, are integral to the writing and scrupulously well researched. Unlike Years and Years or Fosse/Verdon, the writers don’t seem to be relying on their Twitter feeds for their plotting and for their character development.
While finishing watching the second season of Mindhunter, I had gone to the cinema to see the Argentinian film End of the Century, directed by Lucio Castro. It’s a stunning work, visually elegant and formally daring, using flashback not for exposition but as a way to interrogate memory, both personal and cultural.
It also reminded me of how important it is to keep being surprised and challenged by films that speak to questions both social and existential, and to filmmaking that dares to be visually and aesthetically bold.
I saw the film with my partner and afterwards we went for a drink and had a long conversation about queer history, the difference between Protestant and Catholic notions of desire, and the treachery of memory. Thinking back to this last cinema experience, which happened three months ago now, makes me conscious of another serious lack in streaming services and television. There is very little film available from outside the English-speaking world. I miss that terribly.
I mentioned this lack of linguistic diversity to a friend and she replied, “What about SBS On Demand?” I confessed, “I can’t bear the commercials during films.” She laughed and told me, “You’re very old-fashioned.”
Which I suspect I am, although that no longer seems as loaded an accusation as it might have been before the Covid-19 crisis. I can’t wait to be able to slip into a cinema again, to be enthralled by the luminous image on the widescreen, to laugh or stifle a sob among strangers. As this crisis has reminded so many of us, there have to be spaces between the domestic and the global.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2020 as "Sofa not so good".
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