Movie theaters are still shut down — and with them, the full power of challenging cinema
One of the finest movies I’ve seen this year is an exquisitely melancholy German film called “I Was at Home, But … ” That’s a title that almost sounds tailor-made for these anxious days of lockdown — a time when many (if not nearly enough) of us are staying home and a trailing-off ellipsis might be the most optimistic way to describe the future.
In fact, the movie, a deeply personal and ruminative work from writer-director Angela Schanelec, was finished months before the COVID-19 pandemic. Cinephiles will recognize the title as a sly riff on “I Was Born, But … ,” a 1932 silent classic from the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.
“I Was at Home, But … ” isn’t silent, but it is something of a quiet enigma — the kind of story that holds its meanings close and is in no hurry to relinquish them. Like Ozu, but at the same time not like him at all, Schanelec takes a family’s heartache as her subject, and she invites you to puzzle over her findings along with her. She lets emotion and understanding accrue gradually, and she likes to tease out backstory details rather than announcing them upfront. She knows that few families are quick to give up their secrets, even in the presence of a camera as sensitive and unobtrusive as hers.
The initial reception to “I Was at Home, But … ” followed a familiar enough trajectory for movies of a certain emotionally reserved, structurally tricky, non-English-language type. I first saw it at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, as part of a jury that awarded Schanelec the prize for best director. The movie went on to play the Toronto, New York and San Sebastián festivals, among others, and began a quiet rollout in U.S. theaters in February through its distributor, the Cinema Guild, enjoying a measure of critical attention before sliding quickly into commercial oblivion.
That slide was hastened, in this case, by the pandemic. In mid-March, growing concern over the virus’ spread forced theaters to close — a necessary measure that further limited the impact of an art-house movie, and many others, that were destined for limited impact to begin with. One of the sadder jokes circulating among critics and publicists lately is that theaters could actually show a lot of these movies without violating calls for social distancing and reduced capacity, given how poorly attended most of them usually are by an indifferent public.
Audiences in Los Angeles did at least have a chance to see “I Was at Home, But … ” before the shutdown began. The movie opened Feb. 28 at the Laemmle Royal, where it played for just one week — a tiny if typical allotment of time and space for a non-English-language release. A couple of days after my review ran in The Times, a reader emailed to let me know that he had loved the film, and also that he had been one of only six people in the theater for an opening-night showing: “It should have been sold out,” he wrote, with genuinely touching optimism, before going on to ask me if I thought a “philistine attitude” had kept everyone away.
Whether you blanch, laugh or nod vigorously at that question, it was a nice departure from some of the friendly feedback I’ve gotten from Laemmle regulars, some of whom were appalled by my raves for movies as “tedious” and “pretentious” as Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama” or Claire Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In.”
Charges of pretension have existed for as long as art has existed, especially art that doesn’t follow the usual formal, structural and narrative logic. Charges of philistinism have been a handy critical rejoinder for nearly as long, though as a critic who reflexively assumes his readers are smarter than he is, I generally consider those charges to be equally rooted in bad faith.
The appreciation for a certain strain of art cinema — the kind that journalists like to describe using words such as “rarefied,” “difficult” or “impenetrable,” depending on their persuasion — has never been a function of superior intelligence. As with any level of appreciation in any artistic medium, it’s primarily a matter of taste, exposure, patience, knowledge, adventurousness and appetite. It’s also a matter of, yes, trusting critics who might steer you toward something off the beaten multiplex path — something that doesn’t necessarily boast an emotionally accessible protagonist, a three-act structure or any of the other usual narrative footholds. Tastes can be acquired; appetites can too.
Dim the lights and watch
The question now is whether those tastes and appetites can be nurtured, and satisfied, during a health crisis that has temporarily removed theaters and film festivals from the equation. It’s about the fate of cinema that exists as something other than a Netflix-branded narrative delivery machine, and that — in a time of ever more scattered and fragmentary home-viewing habits — requires the light of an enormous screen, the hush of a darkened auditorium and the investment of a fully attentive audience in order to cast its spell.
“I Was at Home, But … ” is one recent example. “Vitalina Varela,” the latest from Portugal’s Pedro Costa, is another: a mesmerizing weave of drama and documentary that sometimes inches closer to still portraiture. It tells the story of a Cape Verdean woman who travels to Lisbon to pay her respects to the husband who abandoned her years earlier. I had the good fortune to see it at Sundance in January, a couple of months before its originally scheduled late-March run at the Lumiere Music Hall in Beverly Hills. (It was ultimately released virtually via distributor Grasshopper Film, in partnership with art-house theaters nationwide.)
When I reviewed “Vitalina Varela,” I urged readers to turn off their lights and give it a try. There are admittedly not many home-viewing environments that could do justice to the shadow beauty of cinematographer Leonardo Simões’ images, most of them shot at the edge of visibility. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort. Even under less-than-ideal circumstances, few movies this year are more worth the effort.
I’ve been thinking intently about “Vitalina Varela” for months — and not just about its aesthetic rigor but also about what it says about betrayal, forgiveness and responsibility, and specifically what it reveals about the lives of impoverished Black immigrants in a country that isn’t our own. It reveals this not through explication or narrative contrivance but by forcing you to look closely at the faces of its subjects, to inhabit the spaces that they inhabit, to let them tell their stories in their own time and at their own pace.
Yes, it’s difficult — and the difficulty is (partly) the point. We hear a lot of glib talk about cinema as a tool for empathy, but Costa’s movie opens up a space where we can ponder what that really means, what the condition of empathy actually requires. The most meaningful expressions of human understanding, it suggests, are seldom the easiest.
Beautifully repellent surrender
Empathy is an even trickier proposition when it comes to the recent IFC Films release “The Painted Bird,” a brutally bleak Holocaust drama from Czech director Václav Marhoul, and a movie that withholds compassion almost entirely in hopes of stimulating our own. Like “Vitalina Varela,” the film prompted more than a few walkouts when it was shown on the festival circuit last fall. In this case, however, they were motivated not by impatience or boredom but by visceral (and perhaps mildly performative) disgust at the horrors that are endured and witnessed by the film’s protagonist, a young boy separated from his family during World War II.
I don’t know how much I can recommend “The Painted Bird,” mainly because its nearly three-hour wallow in abjection strikes me as more ritualistic than fully felt. Still, I can’t help wondering if I would have liked it more (or less) if I’d seen it in a theater, as it was clearly meant to be seen, with its immaculate black-and-white cinematography and dreadfully absorbing narrative: This is a beautifully repellent film that pulls you in and pushes you out with equal insistence.
“Any sane person will find themselves thinking, ‘Stop the ride, I want to get off,’” critic Charles Bramesco wrote in a piece for InsideHook. “That the film keeps happening even when we wish it wouldn’t faintly approximates the helplessness our boy feels, a safe and culturally sanctioned taste of torment.”
“A film that keeps happening even when we wish it wouldn’t” is a wonderfully apt phrase, and one that isn’t limited to unyielding Holocaust dramas; it could apply to any film that, whether by venturing into uncomfortably dark territory or messing with your internal rhythms, makes you feel like a captive in your seat. And if that seat happens to be in a theater, rather than in your living room, you are naturally far more likely to surrender yourself to the film, to give it the attention it demands and maybe even deserves.
We haven’t heard enough about these kinds of movies since theaters closed back in March. We heard a lot about the casualties the pandemic would inflict on the summer box office and the fall awards season. We heard about expensive family-friendly trifles like “Trolls: World Tour,” which largely bypassed theaters for streaming platforms, and hotly anticipated blockbusters like the James Bond caper “No Time to Die” and the Marvel spinoff “Black Widow,” which were pushed back from their spring and summer release dates. In recent weeks, the studios behind “Tenet” and “Mulan” have announced one last-minute postponement after another, turning a multimillion-dollar quandary into a Beckettian comedy of delayed gratification.
With pandemic uncertainty escalating by the day, I have no idea when we’ll get to see any of these blockbusters. I’m looking forward to them as much as anyone, but I’m not particularly worried about any of them, and it’s a shame if hardly a surprise that they’ve continued to dominate headlines. I’m also not worried about Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” or Pete Docter’s “Soul,” the two highest-profile titles that were scheduled to premiere in May at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which, like so many other festivals this year, was canceled.
Cannes, being the most famous such festival in the world, will survive the disappointment of a suspended season. (So, too, I suspect will Telluride, which recently canceled its annual Labor Day weekend event; other major fall festivals, like Venice, Toronto and New York, are still on track.) But there will be real setbacks for the kind of serious-minded art cinema that Cannes reliably supports and feeds annually into the festival pipeline. I was reminded of this while watching a recent video conversation between the Chilean director Pablo Larraín (“Jackie,” “No”) and Efe Cakarel, the Turkish entrepreneur and founder-CEO of the art-house streaming platform Mubi. (The conversation was sponsored by the Marché du Film, the film market that operates alongside Cannes every year.)
Both men acknowledged that the pandemic had actually had some favorable effects on the home consumption of independent and non-English-language cinema in the U.S., as indicated by everything from the increased interest in the back catalogs of certain established directors (like Larraín himself) to the growing popularity of international series on Netflix.
But Larraín also pointed out the ways in which the pandemic had exposed the fragility of cinema as both a business and an artistic pursuit, and he expressed concern for the kinds of movies that don’t fall into easily bankable categories and that depend on festivals for their exposure: “What happens to … those movies that aren’t bought by the streamers? Where do they go? It’s like a cemetery of cinema,” he said. “I’m worried about those movies that don’t have a place. They deserve to exist.”
He went on to offer as neat an explanation of the importance of theatrical moviegoing, and the unique quality of that experience, as I’ve heard any filmmaker, critic or academic give: “I think that there’s something very important, which is the reflection — to be able to reflect on the movies that you’ve seen. Some movies can change your life, can really affect you … in such beautiful ways,” he said. “That’s why the cinema experience is so interesting. You go to a place, you see something, then you walk out, [get] some fresh air, everything’s new, and you can absorb that movie and digest it.”
I’ve had some of those experiences at festivals, including the one where I saw Larraín’s 2010 film, “Post Mortem,” a stunningly bleak portrait of Chile’s 1973 military coup that chilled me to the marrow when I saw it. Some of those experiences also happened right here in Los Angeles, a city whose devotion to the exhibition of independent, international and repertory cinema has afforded me many hours of pleasure.
I’m thinking specifically about “Into Great Silence,” Philip Gröning’s rapturously enveloping documentary about Carthusian monks in the French Alps. I sat through it spellbound back in 2007, along with a cluster of other grateful souls spread out across the Nuart Theatre, not one of whom even thought about budging for the film’s nearly three-hour duration. On the shorter but no less immersive side: “Tropical Malady” (2004), an intoxicating love story from the great Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I had seen it on DVD years earlier, but its lush jungle landscape and dense, teeming shadows never truly came alive for me until I saw them projected on the big screen last fall, at a 35-millimeter screening presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
A few months after “Tropical Malady,” I gratefully surrendered to the entire 7½-hour expanse of “Sátántangó,” Béla Tarr’s epic tour of a small Hungarian village hovering at the edge of the apocalypse, when the American Cinematheque screened it at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It’s a monumental film, a prolonged vision of hell that becomes its own kind of cinematic bliss. My memories of the afternoon and evening I spent in its company — the slight seating adjustments my screening companions and I made during intermissions; the delicious but stressful dinner I grabbed with a friend a few blocks away, desperate to make it back in time for part three — stand out as vividly, in some ways, as the picture itself.
I cling to those memories now, memories of a prepandemic time when we could occupy the same space and breathe the same air for hours without a moment’s concern. Undoubtedly you have your own such memories, and I look forward to all the memories that we have yet to forge, once it’s safe again to do so. Huddling together in the dark, far from our TV screens and seeing each other only by the light of a projector beam, we are never just in a theater. We are in the truest sense at home, a place to which we will always long to return.
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