Published June 10, 2020
Consider this a story told with great regret.
We’re now into month 4 of the Great Extended Pause, the shelter-in-place reality that while at best shows moderate signs of softening, still looks like it’s going to be with us for who knows how long.
Without delay, it’s time to go back to our COVID-19 survival kit. And movies have always helped in crises, both personal and collective. Movies have sustained, nurtured, informed, transported and inspired us, regardless of generations. Movies can help us keep our sanity, humanity and perspective through social distancing, through periods of uncertainty and unrest.
The regret comes from facing the fact that the traditional experience of sitting in a movie theater in front of a large screen does not appear to be returning anytime soon.
“Film was always defined as a medium consumed in public in large groups,” says David Schmid, associate professor of English and an expert on popular culture and cultural studies. “It was this feature that distinguished going to the movies from reading a book.”
While the public movie theater experience for now is not an option, alternatives exist ─ from streaming movies on television to watching them on phones or other devices. Don’t forget the occasional drive-in. And Schmid sees, well, a bigger picture in all this.
“I’ve noticed that the choice of movie or genre is relatively unimportant,” he says. “What counts is spending time together and feeling a sense of connection with others. This is the main way that movies can help us during these strange times.”
And these alternatives have replaced the traditional theater experience.
“More family-based movie-watching at home is taking place at the moment than for many years,” Schmid says. “This is certainly true of my house. One could argue that social distancing has inadvertently led to families spending more leisure time together, potentially re-establishing and reinforcing family bonds that had previously been neglected or taken for granted.”
For those who still need convincing, listen to Amber Falcheck, a senior exercise science major who considers movies a “hobby/coping mechanism.”
“I had a rough senior year of high school,” she says. “I had a bad sports injury. I was losing a lot of friends. I was in a state of social isolation before experiencing the real isolation we have today.
“Then I transitioned to college almost four hours away from my hometown, not knowing a single person. I still dealt with social isolation.”
Starting in 2018, Falcheck has kept track of “every single movie” she’s watched.
“I watched 191 films that year, 369 hours total,” she says. “Last year, I only watched 136, due to getting a new job and having less time to watch. While I’m not a film major ─ at times I wish I were ─ I can always find so much to unpack in every movie I watch.
“Movies have become a source of escapism for me,” Falcheck says. “For two hours or so, there is nothing else for me to focus on but the story I chose to watch. That brief time of leaving the real world helps calm down my anxieties of whatever is going on in my life.”
Films do provide pure escapist fantasy, says Sarah JM Kolberg, film scholar and award-winning film producer and director, and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Media Study.
“We are all a little adrift on our own islands right now,” Kolberg says. “Whether alone or with others, we are longing for companionship, for quiet, for the touch of another, for a return to ‘normal,’ for escape.
“Films can provide pure escapist fantasy, lifting us out of our own suffering, if only for a moment.”
Conversely, Kolberg says, film can put us more in touch with suffering that leads to “transformatively healing.” She cites as an example the experience of singer Nick Cave, whose 15-year-old son died after falling from a cliff. Cave was recording his 16th studio album at the time.
“With director Andrew Dominik, Cave invites the audience to commune with him as he processes his grief while finishing the album,” says Kolberg. “The resulting film documents Cave’s suffering metamorphosized into art. ‘One More Time with Feeling’ (2016) is dark, raw, harrowing and … exquisitely beautiful.”
The pandemic has created an unprecedented opportunity to re-think aspects of society to address the failures of the old “normal,” Kolberg says.
“Film can help us in that endeavor by providing an important barometer against which to measure our own circumstances, both individually and as a culture.”
The 2007 film “The Visitor” addresses both this shared humanity and overcoming the us/them stereotypes, Kolberg says. It’s the heartfelt story of Walter Vale, a lonely and emotionally detached widower, and two illegal immigrants whose lives are forever transformed by a chance encounter.
“In different hands the storyline could easily be overly sentimental and trite,” she says, “yet ‘The Visitor’ handles these transformations with subtle grace revealing each of the characters’ softening hearts, and in turn softens our own.”