Movies in The Time of Coronavirus, Part I

What day is it? What month? What year? I feel like every day I’m playing this scene in my head:

It’s day whatever of the California lockdown and if and when movies will return to theaters is unknown. I miss movies. I miss theaters. The good ones, anyway. No, actually the bad ones too. I miss weird old movies on 35mm, of which my calendar was full back in mid-march. Deleting them all was sad, sad, sad. The last movie I saw on 35 before home arrest was Gunfight at the O.K. Corral from ’57. Don’t remember a damn thing about it, aside from Kirk Douglas, who’d just died. Remember that? Happened about a decade ago? Sorry, what year is it again?

So what does one watch when staying at home watching things is the only thing on the menu? Apparently a lot of television shows, based on my informal survey of Zoom conversation topics. But man, while there certainly is a lot of television these days, the ancient rule of quality still applies, as it has for time immemorial: Ninety percent of everything is shit. Seems I can barely make it through the first episode of anything. At least Rick & Morty jumping in a vat of acid made me laugh.

Movies, then. Old random movies. The only answer to house arrest. Here’s some of what I’ve watched lately. If you’re very, very lucky, I’ll return soon with more. Take these as recommendations or warnings as you see fit.

I Am Legend (2007)

Will Smith battles generic zombie monsters in the third movie based on the book the first movie adaptation of which inspired Romero to make Night of the Living Dead. We’ve come full circle.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend was published way back in ’54. His ghouls he calls vampires, but they’re not supernatural. Their vampirism is caused by a bacteria resutling in a worldwide pandemic. It ends with the last man’s realization that this new form of humanity is the new race, and he is but the final leftover of the old. The vampires are right to be outraged at his murderous rampages. They’re right to scoff at his hope of “curing” them. They’re right to kill him.

In the Will Smith movie, there is no such interesting ending. There is, in fact, nothing. I Am Legend is a movie about nothing, in which nothing happens. Will Smith wanders around an empty New York doing fuck-all, aside from when he’s trying to cure the zombie monsters. The zombie monsters aren’t remotely scary because they’re poorly rendered CGI blobs straight out of a video game. Why don’t filmmakers understand that an actual human is always going to be scarier? Put a little creepy makeup on them, have them movie strangely and make weird noises, and that slight off-ness hits a place deep within us—we’re instinctively repelled and freaked out.

Eventually Will Smith meets a nice lady, and then it turns out the miracle cure we never see him developing works, and then he blows himself up, and then the nice lady takes the miracle blood to some nice people in Vermont. The end.

Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics (2020)

A sort of documentary-like thing in which celebrities, mostly but not only the funny kind, relate stories of tripping on hallucinogenics. Potentially boring, but in fact funny enough to watch the entire thing. Though I wonder if this would work for anyone who’d never taken a psychedelic. Would having a string of quick cuts of interviewees saying forcefully “NEVER look in a mirror!” be funny or meaningful if you’d never been on such a drug and looked in a mirror? Because if you have been on a psychedelic drug, you’ve looked in a mirror while doing so, and if you’ve looked in a mirror you’ve thought OH MY GOD NEVER DO THAT AGAIN, so there’s something very funny about all these people saying the same thing.

Which that’s the thing about stories of psychedelics—what actually transpires is rarely very interesting in the telling. Unless you’ve been on psychedelics, in which it all makes PERFECT SENSE and you SO TOTALLY UNDERSTAND why it’s funny some dude forgot how to drive a car and that Sting attended the birth of cow.

House, AKA Hausu (1977)

The Japanese, any time they suspect someone, somewhere in the world, has done something weird, immediately do everything in their power to outweird them and remain emperors of the bizarre. If you’ve been wondering which movie to watch now that you’re going to take a psychedelic, this is it.

House is a deeply strange and wonderful movie. I’d forgotten most of it yet everything felt familiar. I kept thinking, “Oh right, this scene,” while having no idea in the world what would actually happen in whatever scene it was. I only watched it a week ago and already it’s becoming hazy.

The story has something to do with a gaggle of teenage girls going to a creepy house for summer vacation. I recall an attack by mattresses and a girl being eaten by a piano.

It appears that House wasn’t screened in the U.S. until a release in the late aughts, which is strange, because watching it you’d swear Sam Raimi and David Lynch were profoundly influenced by it. Strange minds think strangely alike, I guess.

Jagged Edge (1985)

I was a teenager when this came out. I remember liking it. A lot. So did critics. So did my parents, and my mother is a lawyer, and though the heroine (Glenn Close) is a female lawyer, the courtroom scenes in Jagged Edge are as realistic as Trump’s coronavirus cures. Watching Jagged Edge today is as sane as injecting Lysol into your veins. It’s so ludicrous it’s beyond ludicrous. It’s directed by Richard Marquand with all the style of a man desperate to land a gig directing an episode of Knots Landing or Falcon Crest. And yes, that is indeed the Marquand you recall as the director of Return of the Jedi.

So what did we see in it? My only guess is that, one, courtroom dramas had yet to become ubiquitous. Law & Order didn’t exist yet, nor anything like it. And two, movies where (spoiler, but trust me, you don’t care) the handsome protagonist, underdog, and love interest turns out to be the killer were rare. Weren’t they? They must have been. I feel like I remember the joy of the movie lying in the shock of realizing Jeff Bridges really did hack up his wife.

Watching it now, the killer’s identity couldn’t be more obvious. It’s like they’re yelling it at you from frame one. They don’t even bother to give you a plausible red herring to buy into. Good god this movie is lazy. It’s written by Joe Eszterhas before he hit the big time with such finely wrought material as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, and shows a similar concern for the female view.

Sharky’s Machine (1981)

What’s that? You didn’t know Burt Reynolds also directed movies? He sure did. You think it was an accident you loved Gator (’76) so much? No. It was Burt.

Sharky’s Machine is something like Reynolds’s Dirty Harry. He’d been doing comedy with the Smokey and the Bandit movies and The Cannonball Run and felt he needed to get back into a serious role before everyone forgot about that dramatic actor from Deliverance.

My first thought watching Sharky’s Machine was that if anyone made an action movie—hell, any movie—paced this slowly today, they’d be publicly executed. Sharky’s Machine takes its time. And a few other movies’ time to boot. Though released in ’81, Reynolds does his damnedest to make it look and play like it came from the early ‘70s, all dark and gritty and slow and is anybody really a good guy? Aren’t we all dirty in one way or another? DOES NOTHING MATTER?!

Sharky is a cop. He screws up a drug bust. He’s demoted to vice. But goddammit, he cares. And when he stumbles onto a high-class escort run by an evil crime boss, you can bet Sharky’s going to get him. Any minute now, he is going…to get…him. But first, this long conversation, and this stake-out, and… and… zzzzz.

The Godfather & The Godfather Part 2 (1972/1974)

A friend who shall remain nameless recently said he hadn’t watched The Godfather in forever, and wondered if it held up.

If The Godfather held up. He was wondering. He hadn’t seen it for some years. The Godfather. If it, his words, held up.

For my friend if he’s reading this: Do The Godfather & The Godfather Part 2 hold up? Yes. Yes, they do.

Here for you now are some other things that hold up, if you’ve been harboring any similar concerns: Bach, sex, the Mona Lisa, Copernicus’s theory of a heliocentric solar system, rainbows, Jimi Hendrix, the smell of the woods the morning after a rain storm, and beer. You’re welcome.

2 responses on “Movies in The Time of Coronavirus, Part I

  1. I miss your takes on movies–your deep knowledge of and focus on the form, and your rigorous and deeply personal standards for good filmmaking. Been reading through Ebert’s and Dargis’ and Travers’ other critics’ back-catalogs (hell, even some Kael and early Reed) in between reading essays by Woolf and Montaigne and other usual suspects, but other film critics’ work is just not as consistently enjoyable as yours and Evil Genius’, even when it’s revelatory.

    You and Evil Genius have your own lives and your own Important Things, and had both even before Covid19 upended everything. Just wanted to let you know that your writing here is actively missed, and eagerly read (and re-read) when you’ve time and inclination to produce and post it.

    • We miss our takes on movies too. But even before covid killed film, our minds had been drifting. Thanks so much for the compliments. We haven’t forgotten this place entirely. I know I’ve meant to write about any number of oddities I’ve come across of late, but the inspiration’s been lacking. Surely I’ll post something sooner or later.

      Thanks for sticking around. It’s nice to know we’ve still got at least one fan out there hoping for more.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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