night and the movies

How to stay focused in the COVID-19 era? How do you keep yourself from wildly unhealthy doomscrolling, say? Maybe the existing sociopolitical order will completely collapse tomorrow, maybe it will. Or maybe you’ll look at too many articles about a direly important subject du jour, as if you’re going to solve all the world’s or lower jurisdiction’s problems all in one week?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have all the all the answers, finding doomscrolling and social injustice and dysfunction issue pieces and videos hard to avoid right now, despite being busy over the summer. (More about what I’ve read below, with a couple of links.)

I can say, however, what has helped keep me sane, in an era when I can’t just bring my camera out and take shots of anything and everything: Old movies. Unlike about half of everyone else, I haven’t been watching many television series or new docs since mid-March. Instead, I’ve watched a couple of older movies a week, on average, usually late at night.

I started the movie watching for a couple of reasons. First, I knew I would be without cable late this summer, given that my condominium complex is no longer providing it with monthly fees. Comcast, meanwhile, decided to add Turner Classic Movies, which I loved, to a higher tier. Consequently, early on this year I paid for a couple of months of the higher tier, and recorded as many movies of interest to me from TCM as I could, thinking they tie me over until later. Now that I no longer have cable, I am getting TCM selections through HBO Max, and other classic movies and art films through the similarly outstanding Criteron Channel.

And the surfeit of cinema is one of the reasons I say that the stay-at-home season has seemed so surreal. Things are falling apart outside our front doors. The entertainment and accessible film options, though, have never been better.

Anyway, some of my favorite finds have included:

Night and the City (1950): While this classic film noir’s story is not particularly original or notable, the atmosphere it creates through its immediate post-World War II setting, design, and photography is like no other in film. It’s seedy but alluring, a portrait of the poor and depraved but uniquely glamorous. Or something to that effect.

I was so inspired by the lighting and photography in the film that I tried to imitate with self-portraits I took downstairs. The first homage is at the top of this page, with the other below, with screen shots/stills of Richard Widmark from the film for comparison.

The other major find was Saint Jack (1979), a once-seeming comeback film for director Peter Bogdanovich. It was based on a novel about an American trying to run (or at least start) a brothel in Singapore, and getting recruited for a CIA schemes, ultimately rejecting them. It is not a spy thriller, however, or an action film. It’s a character study, and a week-in-the-life story. It also just happened to be filmed on the sly, and captured an older, decaying yet romantic and wild-looking Singapore, before it underwent dramatic, rapid upward mobility. The film was banned in Singapore for decades, I read later, but has since become a festival favorite there. And it has a following, with a book about the film selling for a premium online and off. The plot was hard to keep up with, I found, but I never once wanted to turn the TV off when watching it. Again, the atmosphere carries the day.

Otherwise, I loved these:

Tokyo Olympiad (1965), via Criterion Channel (including a version with informed commentary).

The Red Shoes (1948), via TCM.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), via TCM.

I may cover some others later, but have to save something to keep me from doomscrolling on another day.

Today’s Media for Thought

  • “The Sociologist Who Could Save Us from Coronavirus,” from Foreign Policy. Some of this I think you would need to have read the book to fully appreciate. I have no read the book. Still, it was easy enough to get most of it.
  • “The Fabric is Torn in Oxford” from the nonprofit Mississippi Free Press. I thought this Part I was much stronger than this series on Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) fundraising’s Part II, which gets lost in the weeds of byzantine academic politics, how a PR effort might have gone better, and seeming score-settling with or one-upping of a competitor. Part I also doesn’t tell you nearly enough about how the Houston fundraiser Blake Tartt made his money and reputation (the gigantic Memorial City development in Houston, for one), but it does provide an unsettling look at efforts to keep troublesome university donors happy–in this case at one with a school that once made more of a big deal out of stressing an old south and Confederate-tied image–made it central, even, just before and during the Civil Rights Movement years. Then you see this intersect with Trump.
  • The Axios interview with Trump. Must watch, if pain-inducing.