Truffaut famously exhorted that it was not joie de vivre that sends one to the cinema, but the exact opposite – ‘when you don’t love life or when life doesn’t give you satisfaction, you go to the movies.’ This is perhaps a good place to start, when attempting to understand my own response to Lockdown Number 1, the first instalment in what my local cinema has deemed the worst trilogy ever. These wretched words – WORST TRILOGY EVER - inserted as crimson and black capitals on the front banner of the movie house, still manage to delight each time I walk past. Maybe the Wizard of Oz is in there, or even better, maybe some staff who haven’t been laid off. It is easy enough to tether the mind to the fantasy.
At home, my immediate inclination, upon understanding that we were not to leave the house at all, was to try and force my friends into some kind of virtual group film-watching-with-simultaneous-texting experience. Some complied, others shook their heads sorrowfully, at my latest folly. How can you watch a film and talk about it at the same time? Engaging in this kind of cognitive dissonance is something that even an idiot would understand as torture, surely? I respectfully withdrew the request.
But several pandemic film groups did spring up. First, the ‘wrong film’ club – leading to a joyful profusion of hot takes and piss takes of disastrous films such as The Toy (1982), in which Richard Pryor is a night janitor who is paid for one week to be the toy of a rich child. I don’t know if it was the isolation or the wine, but I now believe The Toy to be the greatest allegory of American racism in cinematic history. For this club, we also took on the sleaze, cheese and Freudian undertow of Paul Verhoeven’s films – namely Showgirls (1995), Basic Instinct (1992) and The Fourth Man (1983).
Next, an in-translation film club, which did prove, excitingly, that the vulgar enjoyment of texting can take place even with classy, subtitled films. Aside from myself, this group was made up of two poets who invariably chose extraordinary films that are not available to rent or stream online in the UK, thereby testing commitment and rewarding preparation. Samira Makhmalbaf's immersive film Blackboards (2000), in which nomadic teachers on the border between Iran and Iraq carry huge blackboards on their backs, looking for pupils in between attacks, is difficult for me to forget.
Then there is the romance film club, featuring films such as The Philadelphia Story (1940), 500 Days of Summer (2009), Frankie and Johnny (1991) and naturally, much of the oeuvre of Babs Streisand. We have noted that stalking is a recurrent, socially acceptable part of courtship in this kind of film. Finally there is the ‘Bong’ film club – dedicated to the work of the feted director of Parasite, Bong Joon Ho. This film club has very good intentions but rarely meets. It is more of an idea, some kind of salute.
What is the point of all this? Why did I make so many film clubs? At a time of such atomisation, wouldn’t it be healthier to do things that involve eye-contact? These were some of my questions at the very end of 2020 when I got the first shiver of what would take over my mind, body and spirit for a few weeks, and make itself known as Covid-19.
The symptoms have been well documented. I lay on the sofa, freezing in five blankets, before throwing them all off in a sudden mania of perspiration. I started to turn a shade of purple. My oxygen levels fell, but not drastically – I did not go to hospital. In short, I was one of the extremely lucky ones, it was just a moderate case. But it was testing, and before it got better, a little fearsome at times. My children circled around me with a mixture of affection and tension. My husband looked after me, he was an immense, healing presence. Through it all, and even though my fingers were far from being able to text at will, I could not stop thinking of the film clubs. Which one next for the wrong film club? Would my last meaningful utterance really be something to do with Legal Eagles (1986), a critically reviled ‘comedy thriller’ starring a dream cast of Robert Redford, Debra Winger, Terence Stamp and Daryl Hannah? Would it be pushing it to classify the existential jazz panic of Shadows (1959) as romance? But mostly, I missed them all, the people who would come together for two hours of banter and revelation in those clubs. I missed them dreadfully.
In The Names, a Don DeLillo novel that has had significant influence on my own work, a film theorist exclaims: ‘You have to ask yourself if there is anything more important than the fact that we are constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves’. I don’t find this self-eating idea very attractive, but I have to say that it resonates when I look back on the past 12 months. Several of us have experienced bereavement in this time, several have been seriously ill. It’s the time we live in. And yet, when everyone is paused on the same frame of the same film, and the countdown begins to simultaneously press play, I pause my ruminations and embrace life for a few hours.
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Nikita Lalwani is the author of You People.
Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.
Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin