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Lights Bouncing Off the Ceiling

Willem Dafoe and Anna Ferrara in Tommaso, courtesy of Kino Lorber

COVID has made it so that new films, for the time being, can only be released via streaming platforms, not in movie theaters. We all know this is not optimal, but it’s the way it has to be for now. For most film critics, seeing films before they open is the main part of the job. These days, trying to see new movies before they come out has gotten weird.

Not only do I not want to write about films I can only see on my laptop, I don’t want to watch movies on my laptop at all. A TV app like Vimeo is fine, but the laptop I’m writing this on is 10 years old, has a small screen and the sound is quiet no matter what. It’s a word processor with email and a headphone jack. Watching movies at my desk is terrible, moving to the kitchen table even worse, on the arm of the couch not much better and, in bed, lazy and enervating. If this is what it’s come to, I’ll read a book. A world without movie theaters makes new movies unnecessary.

Some people I know have purchased projectors to use with their computers, but I don’t have the empty wall space. It’s really the flat screen or nothing. I work on the computer, and if I have to also watch movies on it I’ll have to spend about 14 hours a day with an LCD screen less than 20 inches from my face. The laptop is a machine in the factory where I work, which is also where I live. It’s the contemporary loom, an instrument of drudgery and pain that has somehow installed itself in my apartment right in front of my eyes, like the face-hugging parasite in Alien.

Regardless of the life choices I’ve made that prevent me from getting a new computer, the main thing is not how this is annoying to me but how it’s unfair to filmmakers. Directors and cinematographers and their lighting crews, along with sound recordists, designers and mixers, go to great lengths to get their films to look and sound the way they want them to. They labor for years to be able to do those things well.

Now, all of a sudden, because of this pandemic someone who is going to review their work for publication is sitting in a room with a lamp on, trying to take notes as ambulances and police cars speed by outside, sirens going, red and blue lights bouncing off the ceiling. Texts and DMs keep coming in, and the phone is ringing, too, because now everyone wants to be in touch with everybody they’ve ever met. Everyone is on end-times alert, and they’re reaching out in all directions.

Last week, I was watching Abel Ferrara’s new film, Tommaso, by myself, using a press link on Vimeo. Ferrara’s work is frustrating to watch at home because the darkness and depth of its cinematography is one of its main characteristics and pleasures. It was the middle of the night. Things were quiet except for the sirens outside, and Ferrara’s film was really focusing my concentration for a change. Halfway through, I thought it was great so far, with an excellent performance from Willem Dafoe as a Ferrara stand-in, a film director from New York living in Rome.

Then, the phone rang on the table next to me. I saw it was an old friend, so I answered. She was calling to tell me someone she was close to had just died of COVID. She wanted help writing his obituary. He was estranged from his family, and certain duties had fallen to her. He was a middle-aged man who lived alone, hadn’t left his high-rise condo in Alphabet City since quarantine began. Somehow, he’d contracted COVID anyway, maybe from the laundry room or the trash room in his building. Now, he was dead.

She and another friend discovered his body after he didn’t answer their texts for a couple of days. He’d seemed to be recovering and had been feeling better last she’d heard from him. They found him collapsed on the floor, with a spilled drink next to his body.

Nothing like this call had ever happened to me during a press screening before. In a movie theater, I wouldn’t have seen the phone ringing. I paused Tommaso and helped my friend write about this poor guy whom I’d never met. After a while we got off the phone, and I went back to the movie. Right away, first scene: Tommaso’s little daughter runs into the street and is struck and killed by a car. It was so shocking, even for a Ferrara film. I paused the film again and sat there doing nothing, pulverized.

In Ferrara’s 1998 movie New Rose Hotel, which takes place in the near future, Christopher Walken and Dafoe are what Walken’s character describes as “point men in the skull wars,” a description that also applies to film critics. A virus escapes from a lab, which Dafoe learns about on a telephone call. We hear the great character actor Victor Argo’s voice on the line, over some washed-out video footage, 1998’s version of the future: “Fever and death everywhere,” Argo chokes out. “Everybody’s dying of the same exact thing. It’s definitely some sort of virus.”

New Rose Hotel, an impenetrable, oblique, repetitive film, seemed to be waiting for a moment like this. By the end, Dafoe is holed up alone in a tiny room, hiding from the world, drinking and obsessively going over memories of his lost love, Asia Argento, now seen in flashback. She’d asked him how he could live with no stories. “I’m here to listen to your stories,” he told her. Maybe that’s why so many people from our pasts are contacting us now. They’re trying to find the story, gather the loose threads before it’s too late. When movies find new meaning because of crisis, it shows how they are still valid, not disposable. They hold memory, but not like a computer does. Beside these stories and voices, as Walken says to Dafoe earlier in New Rose Hotel, “everything else is waiting.”

This article is part of Filmmaker‘s 2020 Summer issue. To support Filmmaker and read the entire issue, please consider purchasing the digital PDF edition here.

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