The current pandemic has not only prompted revived interest in viral dystopian films,1 but also inflects the way we engage with even the most mundane filmic images. David Edelstein reflects, “the other day I swear I was watching a movie where a guy coughed and I flinched”.2 This embodied reaction indicates the affective bridge between the screen and the self. Vivian Sobchack argues that even when watching a fiction film, viewers may find themselves having ‘home movie’ and ‘documentary’ moments when they see something connected to their real-life experiences.3 Building on Sobchack’s work, I have argued elsewhere that the ‘home movie’ moment may be a fleeting interruption or a deeply felt resonance, inspired by sight or sound, with the potential to create an uncanny liminal viewing experience.4 During the pandemic, it is the surprise of film scenes with new and unintended resonance with the lockdown, or alternatively, scenes now positively alarming in their divergence from our current predicament. This is the shock of the old.
Of the first kind, Josephine Tovey discovers a fresh affinity with the Regency era characters of Jane Austin period dramas, who are similarly enclosed for days on end with relatives and must keep a respectful distance from suitors. Characters in films such as Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) “thrum with… yearning” as “bosoms heave”, an embodied state audiences have always been encouraged to share.5 What differs is more of us not only share characters’ yearning but also their confinement and distancing, despite the shift in historical context. The connection sits alongside its fissures and creates an uncanny spectatorship, vacillating between fiction and non-fiction, then and now.
Of the second kind, I take an example from our family film night. Given the current lockdown, we don’t really need an engineered event to bring the family together. We’re already constantly in each other’s space. Nonetheless, here we are again, maintaining the pre-lockdown film night tradition. On this occasion, the film is Mirai (Mamoru Hosoda 2018), a fantasy anime about four-year-old Kun, a little boy struggling to share parental attention with his newborn sister, Mirai. With the help of his magical garden, Kun eventually runs away but ends up at a creepy, colossal train station. Here he is overwhelmed by the indifferent crowds, interminable escalators, and even a monstrous train. At this point, our youngest audience member exclaims in alarm, “look at all the people!” What becomes most unsettling is not the robot conductor threatening to send Kun away forever, but rather the once-familiar sight (and site) of a crowded station. It is the abject shudder prompted by seeing people jostle with one another in close quarters; breathing on one another. The present viewing conditions and the remembered, recent past collide with the film text, creating a fluid temporality. Watching Mirai’s filmic sights and sounds in the COVID-19 era, Kun’s fictional distress becomes momentarily punctured by an apprehension based in non-fiction, engaging with yet reworking the film’s own fantasy estrangement of a familiar place.
From our peculiar contemporary vantage point, spectatorship may simultaneously align with and depart from the internal logic of a film. The viewing experience with COVID-19 has the potential to render any film both newly strange and disturbingly familiar. The pre-pandemic world – of our memories and of our films – sits uncomfortably with our present. This gives a historically specific tension to the fiction/non-fiction spectatorship dynamic that is always potentially at play.
- Wheeler Winston Dixon, “The 21st century plague: Cinema in the age of COVID-19”, Senses of Cinema, (April 2020), http://sensesofcinema.com/2020/feature-articles/the-21st-century-plague-cinema-in-the-age-of-covid-19/ ↩
- David Edelstein, “Life under quarantine: Movies in the time of pandemic,” CBS News, 22 March 2020, www.cbsnews.com/news/life-under-quarantine-movies-in-the-time-of-pandemic/ ↩
- Vivian Sobchack, “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience”, in Collecting Visible Evidence, Jane Gaines and Michael Renov, eds, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 241-254. ↩
- Djoymi Baker, “Predestination: Uncanny (mis)recognition, science fiction and ‘home movie’ moments”, The Soundtrack 10.2 (2019): pp. 145-160 ↩
- Josephine Tovey, “Sense and social distancing: ‘Lockdown has given me a newfound affinity with Jane Austen’s heroines’”, The Guardian, 30 April 2020, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/apr/30/sense-and-social-distancing-lockdown-has-given-me-a-newfound-affinity-with-jane-austens-heroines ↩