What Did You Do In The Great Lockdown?
To the outside eye, America is a country now at war with itself.
The trouble with the Lockdown is that unlike war it’s a passive experience. The writers who made capital of their wartime experiences are stumped this time. They’re already complaining that it will be impossible to write about because it’s fundamentally boring. If you’re used to spending a lot of time outside, this process of internalising life must be very hard to handle. Writers spend their days alone inside themselves, so a hermit existence comes naturally.
There are aspects of it I’ve been enjoying. During the lacuna I’m re-evaluating my stuff and rediscovering some gems among the ephemeral dross I own. There’s stacks of physical entertainment stored in inaccessible cupboards; treasurable novels, CDs and Blu-Rays, theatre programmes, scripts, photos. I’m covering some of the books I’ve found in other blog posts, but there are some ‘classic’ films I’ve been holding onto for years that need reassessing. I don’t own a car or a fancy watch, but boy do I have a lot of films.
Last night I made the mistake of returning to ‘Cinema Paradiso’. This was an endless (close to three hours) director’s cut of the much-loved and awarded Italian film. The longer version has a cheesy sub-plot that is contrived, sentimental and slightly creepy. Slathered with Ennio Morricone’s most treacly score, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a ceramic kitten with big eyes, and even the wonderful montage of the censored film kisses at the end barely redeems it. How many other cinema classics have I kept out of misplaced nostalgia? Thankfully ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon des Sources’ remain superb.
I’ve watched some pre-Hays code monochrome melodramas, like ‘Freaks’ and the less-remembered but entirely deranged ‘Kongo’ (1932). In this a revenge-bent cripple (their words) puts his own daughter in a bordello to ruin her. Everyone sweats constantly, the drums never let up and the women have a tendency to scream and drop to the floor. The ‘exotic’ black cast, the ooga-booga fake language and a main black character called Fuzzy with a bone through his nose makes it as hard to stomach as the plot. Is this really what white Americans thought of black Americans in the thirties? There’s a novel to be written about a black actor coming off this set every night and going home to his family.
On the other hand I found films I’ve filed and never watched. ‘I Give It A Year’ is a poisonously British funny rom-com that subverts the Richard Curtis template and includes Stephen Merchant as the best friend who can’t open his mouth without insulting everyone and Olivia Williams as the world’s worst marriage guidance counsellor. ‘Skeletons’ is a sweet delight of a film about two men who go around the countryside sorting out psychic phenomena. The joke is that they’re like a team from the gas board, and treat their working life with all the mundanity of council employees. Small British films have proven a revelation; ‘God’s Own Country’, ‘Wake Wood’, ‘Black Pond’, ‘Black Death’, ‘Eden Lake’ and others are worth digging out. And for action as big as Hollywood, just better, check out Ben Wheatley’s virtually unseen ‘Free Fire’.
I watched remastered Buster Keaton films on YouTube (revelatory) and ‘Hidden Figures’ and ‘The Shape of Water’ because I’d watch Octavia Spencer read a telephone directory. I watched arthouse fare like ‘The Square’ again (still overrated) and ‘The Brand New Testament’ (still brilliantly bizarre) and ended up chucking out none of them because each book, film, album or play I’ve kept has a crumb of something worth keeping, no matter how small.
I’ve cherished items to the point of forgetting what I’ve done with them. Where is the cast album of Peter Nichols’ brilliantly savage musical ‘Poppy’? It doesn’t appear to exist anywhere in the world now, but I owned the album and saw the damned thing on stage, learning a valuable lesson in the process (don’t go on a first date to an audience-participation political fringe play). Having failed to throw anything out, I’m going from prissy Marie Kondo to some kind of maximalist opposite. I’m sparking joy by inviting new things in.
I listened to the ‘Slow Burn’ podcasts from Slate. Series 1 is about the forgotten stories of Watergate, from forcibly sedating Martha Mitchell to the Washington Post’s initial failure to get traction with the break-in story. Series 2 concerns Monica Lewinsky, series 3 looks at the mystery still surrounding the deaths of Biggie and Tupac.
I watched ‘Dirty Money’ on Netflix, in-depth examinations of national and international corruption from sleazy slumlord Jared Kushner to scumbag chemicals company Formosa, cheerily poisoning a Texas town and by implication the rest of the planet.
I enjoyed ‘The Hunt’, a B-movie gorefest that twists into a satire on American liberalism and populism, ruffling feathers even before its release. Based on the trailer, right-wing US critics attacked the film for its politics. Trump railed against what he called ‘Liberal Hollywood’ in an incendiary tweet that mistakenly claimed the movie was made to inflame and cause chaos. Naturally he misunderstood the point of ‘The Hunt’, which is to express frustration at the increasingly bitter divisiveness of US politics. When a film can shift from a ridiculously shootout to making you argue about the manipulation of refugees, it’s onto something, even if it isn’t as subversive as I hoped it would be.
In the coming economic crisis I wonder if there’ll be a return to this kind of hard-nosed satirical takedown, last seen in books and films during the dark economic times of the mid-seventies. To the outside eye, America is a country now at war with itself. If theatrical entertainment ignores changing attitudes it will remain trapped in a Harry Potterish neverland. I’ve re-examined the great seventies political thrillers like ‘The Parallax View’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor’ and they really do stand up.
I’m also box-setting Shakespeare’s history plays in the brilliant series ‘The Hollow Crown’ and re-viewing Stephen Soderberg’s eerily prescient ‘Contagion’, which got all the salient details of the pandemic correct with the exception of the loo rolls. They thought everyone would be panic-buying batteries.
I’ve yet to start sorting out several shoeboxes full of photographs. These are flat coloured depictions of scenes on your phone, for any Youngs out there. (In today’s related news a council is trying to save a red phonebox, which was described as ‘a glass box containing a landline’ for those who arrived late.) I’ve written a couple of new short stories for fun, done some research, working on Bryant & May. What I haven’t done is wanted to go out. The weather is glorious, my terrace is in full flower, why leave? I may become agoraphobic and end up loving it.
What are you discovering/rediscovering during the Lockdown?