In these early days of self-sequestering or hermetic apartment-dwelling or whatever we haven’t quite settled on calling it but are hopefully ALL DOING, I have been surprised by the number of people, my beloved in-laws among them, who have shared the news that the first movie they decided to watch was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. The reason I was surprised is that, although I admire Soderbergh’s movies greatly, I would rather watch almost anything else. In fact, if offered the choice between watching Contagion and spending the night in an unsanitized sauna last used at a Fox News corporate getaway, I would … okay, I’d watch. But really, who are you people?
“Who are you people” turns out to be the central question when thinking about recommending movies and TV shows to pass the time. Because we’re not all wired the same way, and this moment in particular is exposing a lot of distinct personality types, culturally speaking. So here’s a quick set of lists for four categories of people, one of whom you might be.
1. I want to be scared out of my mind so as to distract myself from how scared I am!
Okay, Contagion-heads. You asked for it; here it is. Want to know just how quickly you can lose your mind while trapped in an apartment? Watch Catherine Deneuve fall spectacularly apart in Roman Polanski’s 1965 classic Repulsion. (Yes, I know he’s canceled. And she’s had some … not particularly up-to-date opinions. But the film is great.) Want to play with the idea that the thing you’re afraid is right outside your door is actually inside your home already? Fine, you loons: Check out the 1979 horror film When a Stranger Calls, a sacred text for anyone of that era who ever made a few extra bucks babysitting.
Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute deeply understands the particularities of apartment life — how your special space can feel both like a sanctuary and like a penetrable membrane, and even if it doesn’t scare you, you will have watched a great movie. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski again; I am so sorry, but if you have Netflix, it’s free) is arguably the greatest of all apartment-building movies, and aside from being scary, it offers the same envy/aspiration/rage combination as the Real Estate section. You can spend endless time trying to map out Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s apparently two-bedroom starter apartment in the Dakota, which is honestly so huge and perfect that at some point you will start to believe that they deserve whatever befalls them. And for all of you parents who have been doing “fun” tweets about how challenging this all is because you can’t stand your kids, watch The Babadook, in which director Jennifer Kent has something important to say to you.
2. I am low on Xanax. Please write me a refill in the form of home viewing.
Now you people are speaking my language. Over the last few weeks, I have found that what’s been easiest for me to connect to is material about other enclosed worlds. In a few weeks, Schitt’s Creek will come to the last episode of its sixth and final season on PopTV, but the first five — dozens of episodes! — are streamable, and I cannot recommend highly enough that you escape into a town where everybody is nice and neighborly and well-intentioned and Catherine O’Hara is always there. This would also be a good time to binge The Crown, which the novelist Ayelet Waldman, soon after Trump’s election, brilliantly called “boring in the best possible way … like watching an aquarium.” I have lately found great comfort in episodes of Columbo (the 40 or so that were produced in the 1970s), which are incredibly calming, with their turtlenecked guest stars and luxury-on-the-cheap interiors and absolutely ritualized investigations of murders that always get solved so well that half the time, even the murderer is like, “Hey, well done, Peter Falk, but don’t worry, I will be back playing a completely different murderer next season.” You know what else works well right now? Vintage soaps. Let me note that the entire runs of both Dallas and Melrose Place are both streamable, and that there is something counterintuitively calming about watching people slap each other in the face and vow revenge and get generally overwrought about concerns that have nothing to do with you, or this moment, or most recognizable reality. (I’ve only recommended TV shows, not movies, because if you need an anti-anxiety drug in the form of entertainment, you need something you know will be there for you, over and over and over.)
3. This is finally the moment for me to undertake that big, challenging, knotty viewing project I’ve never taken the time for until now.
Hats off to you, truly. For myself, it’s a win if I can go more than 15 minutes without thinking about how one might already be infected or staring out the window or thinking solemnly, “Well, that was the third-to-last yogurt.” But if you’re ready for a cultural self-improvement project, do it. I mean, you’re probably already reading a very long novel, and I resent your focus. So let me direct you to the Criterion Channel, the best buy among all streaming services for cinephiles, and a place where you can make yourself an expert in something. Its lineup is ever-changing, but within it, they curate mini-festivals that currently range from the brief (a four-film Rita Hayworth tribute led by Gilda) to the rigorous (are you ready to explore the career of Max von Sydow in 15 movies, including Wim Wenders’s nearly five-hour Until the End of the World)? Or just pick a standalone: There is never a wrong day to see Federico Fellini’s 8½ and George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun for the first time. This might also be just the day to watch Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a 1962 drama about a group of wealthy decadents who attend a fancy dinner party and then find themselves, for reasons that they can’t quite understand, trapped with each other indefinitely. (See also: horror.)
4. Turn it into a streaming version of the six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon game.
I hear you. You have a lot of time on your hands now that you’ve been sent home from the office (with pay … at least for now?) The paralysis of too much choice is a strange thing, but it’s real. First suggestion: Turner Classic Movies is your friend. (And you can watch it on your laptop or tablet.) Odds are high that whatever old movie they’re showing is going to be great, good, or at worst interesting. Watch it, and then create your own random path, with one requirement: The next movie (or TV show) you pick has to have at least one connection to the one you just watched. It could be a star, or a performer you enjoyed in a supporting role, or a genre, or another movie from the same year.
Example: I recently watched B.F.’s Daughter, a peculiar but not uncompelling romantic drama with Barbara Stanwyck as a woman determined to help her husband (Van Heflin) pursue a career in … public speaking. Their great chemistry led me to another movie they made together, the 1946 noirish melodrama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, in which I noticed the actress Lizabeth Scott, whose Wikipedia entry made me curious to check out her final movie, the 1972 film Pulp, which stars Michael Caine as a down-on-his-luck novelist and, of all people, Mickey Rooney (you can skip it; be prepared for some potholes in whatever road you build). But something about Scott at the end of her career reminded me of Sylvia Miles, which led me to Miles’s very short Oscar-nominated performance in the 1975 Raymond Chandler remake Farewell, My Lovely. From Sylvia Miles, you can go pretty much anywhere; I ended up Googling to see if Farewell’s star, Robert Mitchum, ever made a movie with Martha Ivers’s co-star, Kirk Douglas, which led me to the all-time-great noir Out of the Past. You get the idea. Use IMDb as an aid and see how long and crazily random you can make your chain: You can get from anything you watch just about anywhere else in the history of filmed entertainment in about six moves, and along the way, I guarantee that you’ll end up watching something interesting enough to make you change your plans. Happy hunting!
(Tip: All of these options are streaming, many in more than one place — Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Prime, Netflix, etc. They’re mostly not free, but some of them cost as little as three bucks. Google the title plus “streaming” and availability is the first thing that will appear in your results.)
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