In the Time of Virtual Cinema

In the Time of Virtual Cinema

Theaters big and small have moved to streaming models as their physical locations have temporarily shuttered. Will moviegoing fundamentally change as a result?  


I read without alarm the news that AMC Theatres will ban Universal films from its movie houses in retaliation for the studio’s decision to offer streaming and theatrical releases simultaneously. Never mind the question of whether the movie that broke industry protocol, Trolls World Tour, had the gravitas to usher us into a new epoch. When and how, I wondered, will most theaters reopen, and who will get up from the couch when they do? AMC’s threat, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, thundered like a squirrel vowing to get up and bite the semi that had flattened it.

Besides, this particular roadkill is more like a rat. I sorely miss going to the movies, but I don’t miss AMC, the chain that boasts of having been the first to squeeze pictures and their viewers into a multiplex bunker and the first to soothe its abused audiences (or put them into a diabetic coma) by building cupholders into the armrests. As much as any company, AMC has made moviegoing an affliction of tacked-on fees, useless seat reservations, somnolence-inducing recliners (designed to turn you into one of those blob people from Wall-E), and advertisements by the half hour. (Get to the show in time to watch them or else reason with the guy sprawled on the leatherette slab that was supposedly all yours.) And speaking of roadkill, let’s not forget the aroma, that complex and lingering mélange of rancid oil, high fructose corn syrup, and ammonia. If the people running AMC ever allow themselves a moment to reflect, they might recognize that the tender care they extend to their films and customers has done more than Covid-19 to make moviegoing an experience you don’t want.

The last time the industry suffered so severe a rupture in its exhibition methods was in the late 1940s, when the major US studios, no longer permitted to operate as a vertically integrated oligopoly, were stripped of their theater chains. The ripple effect from that decision changed almost everything about the movies, from how they were financed and where they were produced to the themes and aesthetics that eventually popped up on screens around the world. But after that transformation, which took a dozen years, the movies remained what they had always been: a novelty business, dependent on the public’s wanting to see whatever was going into the theaters next week. Today’s new regime of endless streaming is more radical in its impact—for AMC, Universal, all the other companies in the industry, and you. The release schedule withers, all sense of occasion is lost, and movie watching becomes an eternal now. Whether that will make for bliss or indifference remains to be discovered.

Hoping for bliss and survival, some distributors and art houses have banded together to confect a sense of occasion. They are streaming films on a rolling basis under the rubric of Virtual Cinema, with your modest fee evoking the bygone era of ticket buying and a portion of the revenue helping to preserve the struggling exhibitors. Sometimes, this arm of the eternal now can sweep true greatness into your living room, along with a reflection of your present condition. For example, Béla Tarr’s Sátátangó, in its full 439 minutes of desolate glory, just finished a run at the Virtual Cinema of Film at Lincoln Center. Like the Hungarian villagers in Tarr’s magnum opus, I, too, have felt cut off from the world recently and sunk in dilapidation. (How the words of the film’s drunken, reclusive, snooping doctor rang in my ears when he scratched into his diary that he had no more peach brandy and would have to leave the house.) The wonder of Sátántangó is that as the villagers’ abjection deepens toward absolute, the film becomes more and more exhilarating. But this isn’t a new exhilaration. Sátántangó is a 1994 film.

So, in search of novelty, I got busy pretending to attend a film festival. (You may apply as many scare quotes as you like to that sentence.) The event in question was the Tribeca festival, which began in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, thanks to Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff, and Robert De Niro, who thought the conviviality and excitement of collective moviegoing would help revive lower Manhattan. So it did—until the coronavirus came along. This year, Tribeca could offer only the simulation of an event, flickering on innumerable computer screens. Juries convened remotely. The press office sent out an e-mail about awards. Nothing happened that involved people out there.

Maybe I made the wrong decisions about which films to sample, but I felt that nothing was happening with the selections, either. Tribeca has always been a bit catch-as-catch-can in its programming—that’s how it goes when you inaugurate a festival within walking distance of a smoldering mass grave—but I found that plucking this or that item off an online roster led me toward aggravated indifference.

I clicked on Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift in the US narrative competition and was confronted by an exercise in sour, jocular violence and condescension toward Bible Belt hicks (there’s no polite way to express the attitude), set in an Arkansas hospital toward the end of the Clinton administration. Yes, the film turned out to be timely, but in an entirely negative way. At a moment when health care workers are exhausting themselves and accepting great personal risk, 12 Hour Shift asked me to chortle over the misadventures of a dope fiend nurse who trades in body parts.

The international narrative competition held more rewards, though none that seemed urgent. The winner of the Best Actor award in that section, Noé Hernández, gave a performance dripping with grunge, horniness, and arterial blood in Kokoloko, a fable set in Oaxaca, Mexico, about ineffectual armed militants and obsessive, possessive love. Gerardo Naranjo, perhaps best known for the flamboyant narco thriller Miss Bala (2011), directed Kokoloko with endless cleverness, making this present-day story look like a recently unearthed artifact of boxy 1960s cinema, complete with flares, scratches, unsteady zooms, stretches of leader, and mind-blown chronology. I might interpret the result as a satirical assault on a certain strain of rebelliousness in both film and politics, except that it’s less an attack than a reinforcement. The object of desire for Hernández and his not-so-militant rival is a young and frequently naked woman (Alejandra Herrera) whose function in this narrative can be described only in the passive mood. She gets pushed around and gets screwed.

The winner of the Best Actress award in the international section, Shira Haas, has much more to do in Ruthy Pribar’s Asia, playing a Jerusalem teenager wrapped in sullen and loving conflict and dependency with her single mother. The mom (Alena Yiv), a nurse who emigrated from Russia, is still young and full of life, despite the strains of her job and the obtuseness of men. The daughter, afflicted with a neurodegenerative disease, is becoming a pale shadow of the mother and rages against her fate. Ignoring the evidence that the film, too, is steadily degenerating, in its case toward melodrama, Haas gives the part her all, which is a lot. She’s got the skills and power of a LeBron James, packed into a frame that’s maybe half his height. But what was special or festive about watching Haas right then on Tribeca’s extranet? I could just as well have moved from the desk to the couch and seen her on Netflix, in Unorthodox or Shtisel.

Now that I’ve experienced the digital Tribeca festival, whatever discontent I’ve felt with the real-world version has faded. That said, I recognize there are useful possibilities in the merger of festivals and streaming. (There had better be, since that looks like a big part of the future.) Witness a film that premiered at the 2019 Tribeca festival, Lara Jean Gallagher’s Clementine, which is now screening in Virtual Cinemas (via the independent producer and distributor Oscilloscope) and is worth your attention, despite the year it’s spent on the shelf.

Neither of the film’s young protagonists is named Clementine, although they’re both treated by others as something fresh and juicy and are increasingly, painfully aware of being biodegradable. Karen (Otmara Marrero), perhaps 20 years younger than the famous painter who recently dumped her, drives up from Los Angeles to the ex’s lake house in Oregon, breaks in, and settles down for some clandestine brooding. She is interrupted, though, by a passing waif, Lana (Sydney Sweeney, in a performance that’s so spontaneous, it seems autonomic), who is even younger and more vulnerable and at first appears to be pliably credulous. Karen plays at being the older, famous artist. Lana plays into her story or maybe plays along. In the Kelly Reichardt mode of Pacific Northwest semi-queer cinema, towering pines rustle overhead as desires shift and intensify. What do these two women really want, except maybe not to be so young anymore, when they’re so unable to seize the power that’s supposed to come from youth? I liked getting caught up in their mirror games. And I like a movie with the line “How’d you get so good at eyeliner?” In just seven words, it tells you that Lana, the character who speaks it, is candid, curious, willing to learn, and has a workable sense of values.

Also from Oscilloscope and having its premiere online this month through Museum of the Moving Image is the 2019 Sundance Film Festival audience award winner, The Infiltrators. Directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra, it’s another film that comes off the shelf and into the stream at an apparently random moment, which seems all the more contingent because of the period of the action. The events the film narrates, in a bracingly deft merger of drama and documentation, took place in 2012, in that now almost unimaginable era of Barack Obama’s first term. But the story, sorry to say, remains as timely as ever. The Infiltrators is about the successful efforts of Marco Saavedra and Viridiana Martinez, activists with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to get themselves locked up in the Broward Transitional Center in Florida, the better to help incarcerated undocumented immigrants win release and escape deportation.

The Infiltrators is a noticeably modest production. A handful of actors, pressed into tireless, budget-conscious service, appear as walking synecdoches for an entire system of administration, guards, and immigration police. A found location—it looks like a middle school built in the 1970s—fills in for the prison’s corridors, offices, and common spaces. In another way, though, the film is almost dizzyingly rich. It mixes talking-head shots and archival video images of Saavedra, Martinez, and others with dramatizations in which these protagonists are portrayed by actors (including Maynor Alvarado and Chelsea Rendon). Such reenactments are usually a curse to documentaries, but here they produce a fascinating double vision, continually revealing the fundamental reality that every person you might see in lockup is a role player of sorts. Besides, this is a movie about immigrants who suffer for lack of documentation. What could be more appropriate than to issue them all a kind of cinematic fake ID?

As if to announce that the future is already here, WarnerMedia is introducing a subscription streaming service, HBO Max, on May 27. Following on the launch last year of Disney+ (which is pumping out old and new product owned by its parent company, including Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar movies), HBO Max will open the Warner Bros. vaults to offer as much Casablanca as anybody could want, as well as new items such as its debut documentary feature, the hot-button 2020 Sundance festival selection On the Record, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.

Having dedicated themselves for years to making substantial documentaries about survivors of sexual abuse—Twist of Faith (2004), The Invisible War (2012), The Hunting Ground (2015)—Dick and Ziering clearly have both the seriousness and the experience to explore yet another area of this subject matter, the excruciating dilemmas faced by black women who consider making allegations against black men. Centuries of terrible, bloody history militate against going public with such accusations. So does the imperative of community solidarity. And for any black woman above the age of 35, the trashing of Anita Hill resides in living memory as a cautionary example.

Dick and Ziering deal with all these issues, drawing on interviews with figures including Tarana Burke (who founded #MeToo), Kimberlé Crenshaw (author of the forthcoming On Intersectionality), and journalist Joan Morgan. But the central figure of On the Record, a compelling one, is Drew Dixon, a former music business executive who rose to considerable success in the 1990s working with hip-hop artists. Because the film is built around her allegations against her former boss Russell Simmons, who strongly denies Dixon’s accusation and all others that have been made against him, On the Record became a controversy of its own at Sundance, with charges thrown back and forth of attempted suppression and shoddy, tendentious filmmaking.

Some aspects of the movie give me pause. You can see that Dixon involved the filmmakers on the early side, in 2017, when she was still in the process of deciding whether to go public and was just beginning to speak with Joe Coscarelli of The New York Times. (At one point, during a phone call with Dixon, he asks whether he’s being filmed, then hangs up when the answer is yes.) You get an immediate sense of the agony of her choice, but with that comes an uncomfortable awareness of the limit that Dick and Ziering pushed against. Documentarians often come to their subjects as advocates—see The Infiltrators, for example—but in this case, through their early presence, Dick and Ziering went far in not just recording Dixon but also assisting her. At some moments, they also eat the poison fruit of documentary reenactment (there are repeated inserts of panning shots across somebody’s bed, in an apartment somewhere, to muscle up the story being told), and they rely to a wearying degree on footage that seems to come from a single sit-down interview with Dixon.

So I can’t tell you that On the Record is impeccable—but then, I don’t think it needs to be. It gives you more than enough intense portraiture, narrative drive, and thoughtful commentary to justify the decisions the filmmakers made. And if this combination of elements sometimes seems a bit out of balance, the allegations (believe them as you will) are upsetting in themselves. You shouldn’t sit there feeling stable.

Where will you be sitting if you choose to watch On the Record? Not in an AMC theater, obviously. This movie was never destined for on-the-hour screenings at AMC with or without its allegations against Russell Simmons. But only a few months ago, it might have been headed toward some smaller movie house where you could have talked about it with other people—some of whom might even have been strangers—and taken note of one another’s feelings. You also might have had a reason to put it on your calendar, before it could vanish from theaters. In the eternal now, it’s just one of a gazillion items in the HBO Max launch and will presumably dwell forever in the stream.

It’s not just an exhibition system that’s changing. Time itself changes, our sense of what’s immediately important changes, and the movies are going to change. Faced with this uncertainty, I can’t even say, as we did in the old days, “Watch for it near you.” It’s more like, “Keep clicking.”

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