The trouble with COVID anniversaries is that the digital era makes it much too easy to scroll back to what we were doing and thinking a year ago, turning every activity into a marker of loss and every social-media statement into a portent of doom. My camera roll assures me that March 3, 2020 was the last time I saw the inside of a restaurant, courtesy of a photo of the whole fish that my party of four laid waste to. March 10, according to my calendar app, was the date of a friend’s book party, which was the last time I set foot in a bar (I also left reminders for myself to pick up some boneless pork shoulder and my dry cleaning). And on March 18, it will have been 365 days since I blithely tweeted, after only one delirious week of lockdown, that “No one will be fully prepared for the wave of indie films hitting 18 months from now about people falling in or out of love when they end up stuck together during quarantine.” The joke, it turned out, would be on me. We’re still quarantining, 12 months later, and I’ve already seen three movies with that premise.
I’ve also seen a pair of movies that take place entirely on a Zoom call, and even more that feature Zoom in some way. There were two films in which a character falls down and everyone thinks that she’s dead, but then she isn’t, which is the kind of move that just screams, “How else am I going to engineer drama in a story about people unable to go anywhere?” There’ve been at least two features that imagine the pandemic continuing for years, and enforcement of stay-at-home orders getting more militant, while a few others have skipped ahead to apocalypse, as though it were the natural progression. And there have been many, many diaries in which people show off their shrunk down worlds and try to reckon with their constant dread and crushing boredom. People on screen have their first brushes with all sorts of things that are novel to them and now terribly familiar to so many of us — like cabin fever, endless video chats, and increasingly uncertain employment prospects. It’s been a full year of living in an outbreak, and almost that long a stretch of people making movies about it, which is long enough that some of these productions can offer up a weird, vertiginous form of nostalgia that comes with none of the pleasure or yearning we normally associate with the sensation.
The pandemic has been a shared disaster on a global level. The closest thing to a unifying quality in the cinema that’s been born out of it so far is how unsatisfying so much of it is. We’re still too close, and there’s only so much to be gained from holding a mirror up to an experience that’s ongoing — with not enough distance yet between the experience and the art that can be made out of it, no perspective, no processing. But there’s also the more basic truth that it’s really hard to make a film about an absence of action, of contact, and of forward motion. Moviemaking in the shadow of COVID has been hugely challenging, and not just because of the restrictions on what can be done, which have slowly been lifted and haphazardly codified as mainstream production has started back up. It’s demonstrated the limits of everyone’s exhausted, hemmed-in imaginations. There only seems to be so many ideas for stories to be told under lockdown, at least looking at what’s been released, and there also only seems to be so much of an appetite for seeing these experiences reflected back on screen.
As far as I can tell, the first pandemic movie was a Canadian indie called Corona that was touted for its timely arrival at the end of March. Writer-director Mostafa Keshvari shot in early 2020, when the virus was still more looming threat than fully arrived reality. You can watch the film online, though I wouldn’t recommend it — aside from a willingness to tackle curdling anti-Asian sentiment, haste is really the only thing Corona has going for it. It takes place entirely in the elevator of a Vancouver condo building that breaks down shortly after a Chinese newcomer who only speaks Mandarin gets in, and consists of actors playing caricatures talking messily over each other over the course of one long take. Still, a lot of the elements the film leans on to fill out its lean 72-minute run time recur in other pandemic productions — the opening montage of dire news coverage, the claustrophobic setting, the forced escalation toward fights. Not to mention that accidental, maybe deadly head injury, which, almost a year after Corona was shot, another pandemic thriller called Safer at Home would try, eager to insert some kind of narrative to the testy Zoom gathering it was depicting.
Sure, there were Zoom movies, just like there were Zoom television episodes. Safer at Home, which came from director Will Wernick, starts with a group of old college friends substituting FedExed molly and digital backgrounds for what was originally planned to be a birthday celebration in Las Vegas. But TV series have the benefit of having established their characters already, while in Safer at Home, all you’re aware of is how much exposition everyone has to deliver to camera, and how much tougher it is to invest in characters who are only seen in static shots, speaking to the camera in their respective quadrants of the screen. Zoom, as many of us have had ample opportunity to realize, can be wearying, which is why the moment in the horror movie Host when one of the characters gets yanked across the room by a supernatural force is so gratifying. Finally, for the love of god, something happening! Host, which was directed by Rob Savage entirely over Zoom and premiered on Shudder in July, is also about a digital gathering of socially distanced friends. But its characters try to alleviate pandemic malaise with an online séance that works a little too well, and summons something spooky that starts picking them off, one by one, until the surviving characters are cut off by the call limit expiring.
Host is very clever, but, in making the pandemic its context instead of its subject, it also manages to get at a certain truth about the lockdown experience better than films that took it on directly. When things start going wrong (by way of DIY effects the actors set up themselves), you don’t just feel a pleasant horror film dread — you get an echo of the awful alone-togetherness that suffused the last year as its characters look on hopelessly from afar as loved ones end up in danger, with nothing to do but watch. As low-fi a production as Host was, it’s infinitely better than the Michael Bay–produced Songbird, a COVID-inspired dystopian drama that came and went on premium VOD in December, and that imagines lockdown stretching on for four years, lockdown violently enforced for everyone in L.A. except for the naturally immune. KJ Apa plays one of the latter, a courier trying to raise money to get a counterfeit immunity pass for his girlfriend (Sofia Carson), who he’s never been in the same room with. When the two press their teen network-perfected bodies against the door separating them, what comes to mind is not their desperate love but how casually the movie turns rules meant to stop infection into an authoritarian nightmare in order to give its lovers something more tangible than the virus to struggle against.
Not that romantic comedy proved any easier in the pandemic. That seemingly obvious concept of former lovers forced to keep cohabitating turned out to be a tricky one to execute with any charm. Locked Down, which hit HBO Max in January, has Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor as marrieds who break up right before COVID becomes a reality, and who are left awkwardly sharing an admittedly plush London pad. But despite the cast, Doug Liman directing from a screenplay by Steven Knight, and a bafflingly late-breaking scheme to steal a diamond from Harrods, it’s a dreary experience, like committing to a pod with seemingly pleasant people who then reveal themselves to be shrill and self-pitying. Watching movie stars bicker, freak out, and talk to their tablets isn’t any more rewarding than doing it yourself. Watching BuzzFeed stars do it actually works out a little better, if only for the lack of pretense. In the more modestly scaled The End of Us, which just had its premiere at SXSW, Ben Coleman and Ali Vingiano have a meandering breakup prolonged by the pandemic, and while it’s ultimately not that fun to watch two people squabble over a changed Netflix password, the movie feels more clear as to what it’s going for. But it’s telling that both these features were beat out by Zambian Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s short Couple Splits Up While In Lockdown LOL, which came out months earlier in June. In ten minutes, composed entirely of text and multimedia messages, it manages to be inventive and funny in a way the longer films aren’t.
The short form does seem like it’s been better suited for COVID-born content — even Host, the best of the features, was barely one at 56 minutes. Couple Splits Up While In Lockdown LOL was released as part of a Netflix series called Homemade, an international anthology of COVID shorts made by the likes of Ladj Ly, Paolo Sorrentino, Pablo Larraín, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nadine Labaki, Kristen Stewart, and Gurinder Chadha that was a decidedly mixed bag. Directors pointed their cameras at their kids or at empty streets that were positioned as part of an apocalypse, and often provided more proof that, even for some of the hottest directors in the world, there were only so many ideas that quarantine could accommodate. But then there were submissions like Nyoni’s, or like Sebastian Schipper’s cunningly composed short about sharing an apartment with multiplying versions of himself as his sanity splinters. Pedro Almodóvar’s half-hour marvel The Human Voice, which is now out in theaters, was shot during the pandemic. As Tilda Swinton, playing a woman who’s been waiting for her former lover to pick up his things for three days, paces around an exquisite apartment that is also very clearly a set, the film feels like it’s guided by the experience of lockdown even if it takes place in an artificial world without the virus.
The internet was also a platform for smaller, more limber works that were better at reacting to what was happening than the larger scale things that followed. Back in May, when New York was being battered by the virus, Spike Lee released a simple and stupendously moving three-and-a-half minute short on Instagram. It was a montage, filmed on warm Super 8, of a city in stasis just as spring was in full bloom, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” playing over shots of empty streets and desolate landmarks. And just when it looked like more documentation of the I Am Legend–style spookiness of a shut-down metropolis, the camera settles on the tents in Central Park, then a line outside a pharmacy, and hospital workers in PPE, and the 7 p.m. salute — the city not abandoned, just pulling through the best it can. In July, Jonathan Glazer’s Strasbourg 1518 was released, a ten-minute film about COVID inspired by a 16th century instance of possible mass hysteria. Its dancers, all alone in empty apartments, fling their limbs around and hurl themselves against the walls to the thrumming score by Mica Levi, and it is as potent a visual metaphor for feelings of isolation-induced derangement as you’ll be able to find.
In September, a new short from Atlantique director Mati Diop called In My Room, premiered on YouTube. Like Strasbourg 1518, it drew a line from the past to our stultifyingly endless present, though it did so in a more personal sense. It was the latest installment in Miu Miu-sponsored Women’s Tales series, though the absurdity of figuring out a way to fold designer garb into a film about lockdown gets acknowledged on screen. Diop, like so many other directors during lockdown, filmed in her own apartment, capturing the view of Paris outside and activity in the windows of the building across the way, and also her own listless wanderings, checking the fridge and trying on clothes from her closet. But she combines this footage with audio of her late grandmother, Maji, who was confined to her own apartment for 20 years, and whose dementia worsens over the course of the recordings. The connection made between Diop’s experiences and Maji’s is beautiful and moving, but also a reminder that the difficulties of these historic times are lived through on an individual scale all the time, with Maji, in the end, wailing about just wanting to be left alone. If Diop’s imagery is relatable and familiar, the audio gradually starts to feel almost like a rebuke, a means of asking the viewer to not just look for commonalities.
There’s other COVID-shot fare that’s yet to be seen, and that presumably has nothing to do with the virus. Swinton quietly made a new movie with her The Souvenir director Joanna Hogg; The Florida Project’s Sean Baker secretly shot a dark comedy with Simon Rex in Texas; Lena Dunham announced last week that she’d just completed her third feature. Sam Levinson made a whole movie, Malcolm & Marie, with Zendaya and John David Washington that didn’t mention the pandemic at all, but did manage to be excruciating in a way that felt grounded in quarantine anyway, its miserable lovers engaging in the kind of endless, circular argument that comes from being together too long. There’ve been documentary features, too, though I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch them — the Wuhan-set 76 Days and In the Same Breath, and Alex Gibney’s Trump-centric Totally Under Control, which was rushed out in October. But last week I did watch Covid Diaries NYC, a collection of short nonfiction from teen and college-aged filmmakers that recently premiered on HBO. The participants, who are mostly Black and Latinx, document themselves in footage that’s intimate and sometimes raw — capturing their own mental health struggles, or their family’s dislocation due to an inability to pay rent, or their dread that an essential worker parent will get sick.
These aren’t just glimpses into other lives; they’re a reminder that COVID cinema, or at least cinema about what happened during the pandemic, has only gotten started, and that there are so many stories left to be told that don’t just involve staring at someone staring at a screen. Maybe that’s the takeaway from so much of this first year of quarantine movies, with their unintended sameness and their recurring motifs. Lockdown reduced the field of vision of so many people to what was in their immediate vicinity, including artists, and the stress of the pandemic made it that much harder to create anything, to focus, or to just see beyond the day to day. But lockdown also emphasized the degree to which the people who are able to make films are also those who have the privilege of staying home and trying to figure out what stories can be told when you can’t go anywhere. If it’s agonizing to watch variations on the experience of being stuck in your house reflected back at you, characters pacing and picking fights with whoever they might share space with while coming up with ever more esoteric ways to stave off boredom, well, there hasn’t been much work from people who did otherwise yet. That’s yet to come, and hopefully it will, as we start to process just what the past year and change has done to us and to the world.