In the face of mass death and economic devastation on a worldwide scale, matters of art and entertainment may seem trifling. But the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the cinema. With theatres shuttered, festivals cancelled and film production schedules in disarray, the shutdown mandated across much of the planet has meant that, for the first time since 1895, we are now living in a world without cinema. It is hard, almost impossible, to comprehend.
Of course, putting it in those terms invites mockery. Under the pandemic, the consumption of moving images is, if anything, greater than ever, as many of those sequestered in their homes resort to binge-watching to while away their time in confinement. There is good reason why Netflix shares went up at the same time that the rest of the stock market plummeted. At Senses, we are by no means puritans when it comes to the mode of viewing through which people choose to consume films, TV series or video art. Taking in an installation at a gallery, playing a DVD on a big-screen TV or streaming a YouTube clip on a smartphone while waiting for the bus all offer the possibility of cinematic experiences for the spectator.
And yet, there is undeniably something lost when movie-going is taken away from us. Its social nature, for a start: the practice of watching the same images, being transported by the same narrative, with friends and strangers alike. If cinema has remained alive even after so many other media formats have perished, then it is because there is such a strong desire to leave the house on a Saturday night and be a part of a mass emotion – something which, alongside sport, theatre and concerts (which have also become victims of the virus), the cinema has always been able to provide to great effect.
But it’s not just that. An immersion in film is possible in other viewing formats, but it is something that the movie theatre, forcibly depriving us of the distractions of modern life, produces almost automatically. The darkened room, the big screen, the projected image allow us to truly see a film, to register formal mechanisms which might otherwise pass us by. The arresting power of a close-up is greatly lessened when viewed on a display the size of palm.
If there is a working definition of cinema, as opposed to other forms of the moving image, then perhaps it is this. You may view a given work on a television, a computer monitor or mobile device, but if the imaginary ideal conditions of viewing a work are in the cinema, and if you pause to ask yourself what the experience may be if seen on a big screen, in a darkened theatre (and perhaps, even, projected on celluloid), then what you are watching is a film.
The issue, today, is precisely that these conditions now exist only in the imaginary, and it is in no way certain when they might resurface in the real. The world is at a crossroads. Economically, countries could make a quick recovery after the virus subsides, or they could sink deeper into an enduring depression. Politically, the after-effects of the pandemic could prompt a radical, potentially emancipatory rejection of the neoliberal status quo, or they could herald a new era of technocratic tyranny, with a cowed population showing little capacity to resist the creep of surveillance-state authoritarianism. Socially, the end of lockdown may see the world’s population take to the streets once more to delight in the pleasures of real life, or ensconce themselves ever deeper into their digital bubbles, permanently crippled by the anxieties the virus has instilled in them.
The cinema, for its part, may bounce back. Theatres may reopen with audiences flocking to them. Festivals may return with bigger crowds and bolder programming. Shooting for film productions may resume, with filmmakers invigorated to create new and imaginative works in response to the unprecedented situation they have lived through. But this is far from certain. The death of cinema was a trope that began circulating in the 1990s, with general millenarian anxieties paired with foreboding about the impending digital transition. It seemed that, by 2020, we had finally put this canard to rest, only for it to re-emerge under circumstances that nobody who had participated in the decades-long debates about the future of film could have foreseen.
In the meantime, however, Senses of Cinema will continue, and we will try to remain as regular as we can. Some areas of the journal will be impacted more than others: the suspension of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s programming will have obvious consequences for our CTEQ Annotations, much as the festival reports section will have to contend with the new reality faced by that sphere of film culture. On the level of content, future issues will more fully reflect the post-coronavirus world, but the present issue is something of a hybrid, with authors cognisant of the ramifications of the pandemic to varying degrees at the time of writing. Wheeler Winston Dixon has already responded to the new world with his thoughts on cinema in the age of COVID-19, with a look back on plague-related films from earlier eras, while Jeremy Carr presciently evokes an end of days atmosphere with his piece on Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Stuart Richards looks into the conservative backlash that the queer film And Then We Danced sparked in the country of Georgia. And Then We Danced is an intimate exploration of the links between artistic and sexual expression, the body and the emotional realm. John Hughes presents a fascinating look at the little-known Australian ASIO film Legal Resident (1963) and the upcoming documentary about it, Final Rendezvous by Peter Butt.
In our Great Directors section, Abel Muñoz Henonin analyses the career of the prolific Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, perhaps the most notable figure of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. El Indio was perhaps responsible for creating an idea of what “Mexicaness” means and looks like, which speaks of the expansive power of cinema as art and mass entertainment, as well as nation-building. In addition, Adrian Schober looks at the career of Robert Wise, director of such watershed musicals as West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
Probably one of the largest collection of festival reports we’ll have for some time, this issue we feature Tanner Tafelski on MoMA’s To Save and Project (written before the pandemic), Leonardo Goi on Thessaloniki, Bérénice Reynaud on AFI FEST / AFM and Sundance, Tara Judah on Rotterdam, Daniel Fairfax on the Berlinale, Jordan M. Smith on True/False, and a couple of reports on some festivals that could not occur but chose to continue in an online version – Pernille Lystlund Matzen on CPH:DOX and Dirk de Bruyn on Ann Arbor. Dirk also wrote some thoughts on the films he saw that were to screen at SXSW (which was cancelled, but press and jury were able to view screeners of a selection of programmed films). Next issue, we will continue online festival coverage. Meanwhile, this issue’s CTEQ Annotations focus on key works directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, Jacques Rivette, Vittorio De Sica, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, Gillian Armstrong, Cecil Holmes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hiroshi Shimizu, as well as iconic performances of screen legends Marlene Dietrich and Dirk Bogarde.
Perhaps the biggest reason to be cheerful in this issue is our dossier of conversations with contemporary filmmakers, which features interviews with Eliza Hittman by Brigitta Wagner, Luis López Carrasco by Leonardo Goi, Truong Minh Quý by Andrew Northrop, Joanna Hogg by Leonardo Goi, Lemohang Jeremiah Moses by Wilfred Okiche, Radu Jude by Hugo Emmerzael, Arun Karthick by Leonardo Goi and João Pedro Rodrigues by Tomáš Hudák. At the time these dialogues were conducted, mainly during the Rotterdam and Berlin film festivals, the directors could only have been dimly aware of the impact the coronavirus would have. Undoubtedly they are facing a very different reality today. But the dossier shows that, in the one area upon which the state of the cinema is most directly dependent — the social perspicacity and artistic inspiration of the world’s filmmakers — the art form is indisputably in a rude state of health. As most of these films have recently premiered and are on festival hiatus, we urge you to keep an eye out for them when cinemas and festivals return: The Year of Discovery (Luis López Carrasco), The Tree House (Truong Minh Quý), This is Not a Burial. It’s a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Moses), Nasir (Arun Karthick), and Uppercase Print and The Exit of Trains (both by Radu Jude). Never Rarely Sometimes Always is starting to appear officially online (more information in the Eliza Hittman interview) and The Souvenir by Joanna Hogg is also available online.
This issue we also farewell two of our fellow editors, Mark Freeman and David Heslin. Both have had huge input into the journal over the last five years, particularly Mark’s production of the Senses of Cinema podcast and David’s work across the CTEQ Annotations. We look forward to continuing to work with them both as writers and wish them well in the future.
The fact that Senses of Cinema has always been an online-only journal insulates us from some of the more direct repercussions of the lockdown better than our print counterparts: Film Comment has already been put on hiatus, while Cahiers du cinéma is reeling from the double blow of an acrimonious ownership dispute and the state of emergency imposed on France. We understand that both readers and writers can be forgiven for being preoccupied with other matters right now, whether it is the loss of loved ones, financial vulnerability or just a generalised feeling of disorientation. But we hope that, however the global pandemic has affected you, you will take some comfort and joy from issue 94 of Senses of Cinema, and we look forward to continuing with issue 95 and beyond.