Please don’t make me watch movies made of Zoom calls | Opinion
Who wants to finally escape being stuck at home, to go and watch other people being stuck at home?
Ever since the dawn of motion pictures, movies have allowed us to see and understand worlds that we didn’t live through ourselves. Much of the popular understanding of the Vietnam War, after all, came from movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which were released more than a decade after the war ended.
Now, as we begin to emerge from COVID-19, filmmakers are tasked with creating movies that will help us understand the challenges of living through a pandemic in 2020 and 2021, ones that will help shape how the COVID-19 era is viewed in the future. The challenge, though, will be telling stories that aren’t completely repellent to those who just experienced the pandemic firsthand.
After more than 20 years as a movie critic, I feel confident predicting that in the not-too-distant future, there will be a long dramatic movie about a group of people quarantining together for an extended period.
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I can’t imagine bigger box office poison. Who wants to finally escape being stuck at home, to go and watch other people being stuck at home?
Forget, also, about the idea of an entire movie that is assembled from Zoom calls. Sure, several TV series did special episodes along those lines, and some of them, like last April’s Parks and Recreation reunion, were even quite well-received. But most of the shows like that were not only dull but felt way too much like attending a work meeting. Only last year’s quarantine special from the Apple TV+ show Mythic Quest, created by Philly’s own Rob McElhenney, managed to do something truly creative with the form.
If I never see Zoom in a movie or TV show again, I’ll be thrilled.
If filmmakers are going to set a movie or TV show during the coronavirus period, one thing that is important is to be consistent about whether the characters are under quarantine. While some TV series, like This is Us and Black-ish, have incorporated COVID-related plots into their storylines to positive effect, others have been maddeningly inconsistent, sometimes from scene to scene, over characters’ COVID-19 mitigation behavior. Law & Order: SVU, in particular, will have the characters all masked up in one indoor scene, and unmasked in the next.
So, what movies should be made about the pandemic?
I would be interested in stories about the different acts of heroism that emerged from the COVID-19 era. Let’s see a prestige docudrama about the development of the vaccines, or stories about particularly heroic things that doctors, nurses, and scientists did, or even true-life stories about people who survived bouts with the virus. How about a biopic, in the tradition of The Insider, of someone like Rick Bright, the immunologist who blew the whistle on the government’s virus response?
That seems to be the idea behind last week’s news that filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are making a movie version of Michael Lewis’ The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, a book about people who saw the dangers of the pandemic coming. It sounds like a COVID-19 version of The Big Short, which was also based on a book by Lewis, and also managed to make an exciting movie about an ostensibly boring and noncinematic subject.
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It can go the other way, too, as there are many stories to tell about bad things that people did in response to the crisis. How about a dramatic exploration of massive government failures, or a deeply researched dive into coronavirus conspiracy culture? Everyone watched Contagion early in the pandemic; how about an updated version of that for the COVID-19 era, complete with heroes, villains, and conspiracy pushers? And you know you would watch a Fyre Festival-style documentary about the Philly Fighting COVID debacle.
Speaking of documentaries, there have already been quite a few about the pandemic, and many more are on the way. One early example of doing COVID-19 movies right was last year’s documentary Totally Under Control. Directed by the team of Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger and executive produced by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, the film looked at the failures of the federal government in dealing with the pandemic throughout 2020.
The film’s Philadelphia-based director of photography, Ben Bloodwell, developed a special kit called the “COVID-cam,” which allowed interview subjects to film themselves, while the filmmakers were in another state. So not only did the film layout an airtight case, but it looked well-done and professional, and not like it was from Zoom.
In the coming years, it will be up to creative filmmakers to try to build a cinematic record of the COVID-19 crisis and tell stories about it in a way that is entertaining and artistically compelling — while at the same time meeting the considerable challenge of getting audiences to consider a time they would probably prefer not to think about at all.
Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic who lives in Delaware County.