As soon as the film industry shut down one year ago, discussions began about how quickly it could start back up.
In the blockbuster corner, that meant spending many unexpected millions of dollars to rewrite the production playbook. Which is how giant affairs like the new Jurassic World and Mission: Impossible and Batman movies were able to get back to camera before anyone even knew vaccines would be available.
In the more independent sphere, things have been trickier. The good news: a surprisingly robust number of mid-, low- and micro-budget movies have been conceived, shot and released all while COVID-19 turns the world upside-down. But within this boom there has emerged a curious new genre of cinema: movies made during the pandemic that are also about the pandemic – and almost all of them gobsmackingly awful.
This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, which ran this week virtually out of Austin, proved to be ground zero for this new superdepressing trend. No fewer than nine SXSW titles tackle the pandemic, and while you cannot help but admire the tenacity and resourcefulness of filmmakers painted into a COVID-19 corner, the resulting work should also compel artists of all stripes to take a breath and ask themselves if, truly, they are creating work out of purpose or because they’re bored.
Recovery and The End of Us, both of which had their world premieres at SXSW, are prime offenders. Both are small movies featuring only a handful of characters, shot in limited locations, attempting to mine our ultra-frustrating reality for too-soon indie-comedy laughs.
Recovery, from co-directors Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek, follows two twentysomething sisters (Everton and co-writer Whitney Call) as they travel across the U.S. to retrieve their grandmother from a long-term care facility hit by the coronavirus. The End of Us, directed by Henry Loevner and Steven Kanter, focuses on a recently split Los Angeles couple (Ben Coleman and Ali Vingiano) who must continue cohabitating due to stay-at-home orders.
Ostensibly, hilarity ensues from those central predicaments. Yet both films use “our unprecedented time” as an excuse to push through unbearably annoying characters, millennial-shtick mugging and shaggy jokes that wouldn’t make the cut at a fifth-rate regional sketch-comedy competition. These are crisis-opportunity (crisitunity?) films that may have kept their creative teams busy but will only leave audiences feeling more depressed than they were before pressing play.
The shot-during-lockdown dramedy Language Lessons, another SXSW selection, is not really about COVID-19. Conceived by friends Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass, the film follows the up-and-down friendship between a down-on-her-luck Spanish tutor (Morales) and the rich dude (Duplass) who was gifted virtual lessons by his husband. But by telling its story exclusively through glitchy video-chat screens – complete with audio lag and all the other fun Zoom/FaceTime/Skype/Microsoft Teams features we’ve learned to endure over the past 12 months – it substitutes aggravating novelty for character, story, beauty and imagination.
The psychological drama Ayar, meanwhile, about a wannabe actress separated from her young daughter thanks to both the coronavirus and familial issues, is not a wink-y lark like the other SXSW selections. But it, too, feels like a film that uses the pandemic as a creative crutch – it has timeliness on its side, sure, but is there anything more to it?
These SXSW titles follow a handful of pandemic-produced films out of January’s Sundance that similarly proved filmmakers are either not yet equipped to process the cultural moment or have nothing better to do: Ben Wheatley’s folk-horror experiment In the Earth (which takes place in a virus-wracked world); Zoe Lister Jones and Daryl Wein’s comedy How It Ends (a glib world-ending experiment that offers an excuse for L.A.’s best comic actors to visit each other from a distance); and Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath, a rushed, contextually uneven documentary that also played SXSW this week.
Other critics were more favourable toward Language Lessons after its Berlinale film festival premiere earlier this month. So maybe I’m just grumpy. But the Berlinale also offered a genuinely great example of how to make a movie about our COVID-19 world without turning the entire story or form over to COVID-19: the Romanian satire Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. Director-writer Radu Jude’s film, which follows a teacher who faces ostracization after her sex tape leaks, was in the works for years. But instead of abandoning it or reworking it, Jude simply slid his story into a locked-down world. The basics remained the same, but sometimes characters would wear masks, or walk by shuttered storefronts. It is a movie about the pandemic, but also not at all.
Likely/hopefully, this era of socially distanced cinema will be short-lived. The isolation will fade away, the limits of making a movie with PPE and hundred-plus-page safety protocols will become an obstacle of the past. And in five or 10 or 20 years’ time, perhaps we will gain the necessary reflection to make sense of a moment in time that doesn’t make any sense at all. But right now, I can only take so much staring into cinema’s Zoom-y void before it starts to stare back at me. Let’s mute this trend for the time being.
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