By Mark Peranson
When called upon to comment on a group of films, whether as a critic summarizing a festival or writing a year-end round up, or a programmer being grilled before a selection is presented to the public, inevitably the T word will enter the conversation—by that, I mean “trend.” To wit, “What trends have you seen in the program this year? What is the greatest trend in contemporary cinema? Do you see any trends coming out of Eastern Europe? Yadda yadda yadda.” I think I speak for most people in saying that nobody thinks trends are interesting save fashion journalists, but with the recent batch of premieres at Sundance, Rotterdam, and Berlin, one “trend” has indeed monopolized the conversation, for obvious reasons: pandemic cinema.
Is pandemic cinema a trend? Sure, because it ain’t a genre, and, one day—like a miracle—it will disappear. Pandemic cinema is appealing because anything can be pandemic cinema, and indeed everything now is. We can turn anything into PC because that’s what we desire, thanks in no small part to a culture that has fully accepted conspiratorial thinking. In this issue, though, there are films covered that one can point to as expressing something that hits on the contemporary condition and sticks—films that are mainly interior (people trapped in enclosed spaces, people’s lives subjected to strict regulation, both of which apply to the latest from the Zürcher brothers, The Girl and the Spider), or exterior (people expressing our collective will to be free of said enclosed spaces or ideologies and roam free, as in Dominik Graf’s Fabian), or both (Denis Côté’s Hygiène sociale, the ur-pandemic text, a term I use just to raise the hackles of its author).
Then there are those numerous documentaries made specifically about the pandemic, which, for the most part—save for that pandemic classic Malcolm and Marie—I wouldn’t wish on the already vaccinated. Having seen more than my share, I can attest that they are for the most part journalistic or diaristic, but exceptions do prevail, such as Zhu Shengzhe’s A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, which premiered in the Berlinale Forum and is a film about the development of the city of Wuhan which would have been made with or without the pandemic (the bulk was shot in the years preceding) but, due to events, became pandemic cinema due to the juxtaposition of letters from pandemic time with images shot before.
Compare that to Hamaguchi Ryusuke, who shot two chapters of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in 2019 but the last in the COVID summer of 2020, cleverly adding to the mix a mysterious virus—of the computer variety, one that has disabled most of the internet (if only)—though, again, the limited characters and indoor settings in each of the three stories fits the “pandemic cinema” narrative. Or Céline Sciamma, who shot Petite maman entirely during the pandemic, or Golden Bear winner Radu Jude, who did the same, and whose Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn was the only one of these variants to acknowledge our mask-wearing present for a script that, like Hygiène sociale, was not planned to be filmed in current conditions. The examples are endless, but to paraphrase and fully recontextualize Welles, the best directors preside over accidents. As I don’t see Cannes happening any time soon (July is too late for the next go-round anyhow), we will be reading about these films here soon enough.
The last variant would be a kind of cinema that fits in with our current viewing patterns, namely, films that don’t require a big screen. The general success of online festivals has shown that, like it or not, art cinema doesn’t need theatrical projection to exist—a strong statement that would require more room to unpack (indeed, it may just be a symptom of the current situation), but if it’s true, let’s not take that conclusion to be as negative as it sounds, nor surrender to inevitability. The obvious truth that nobody wants to talk about is that the real pandemic cinema is, of course, television. But as long as it’s made by Adam Curtis, I’m good, and his most recent takeaway, lest we forget, is that the future is what we make of it.