“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, in Jurassic Park
In today’s America, substitute “theater chains and film studios” for “scientists.” Instead of the entertaining spectacle of dinosaurs unleashed on Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and a pair of adorable moppets, we’re talking about a contagion that has killed 182,000 Americans so far.
Thanks to an incoherent public health response of inadequate testing, minimal contact tracing, a deplorable example set by our Chief Executive and his propagandists, and a favoring of capital over human lives, COVID-19 continues its out-of-control spread from sea to shining sea. In the midst of this American carnage, cinemas are reopening.
I know this is not our most pressing matter, in a week that has seen real-time racism and terror in Wisconsin, and the Orwellian horror of the Republican Death Cult Convention. But movies and healthcare are my bailiwick, so I’m going to talk about them.
The points I made in my June 19th column have changed little in two months, so I won’t belabor them here. The dangers of sitting in an enclosed space for an extended period – which the specialists agree is the worst thing you can do during this pandemic – are the same. The half-measures ballyhooed by AMC are just as flimsy.
What have changed, for the worse, are the infection numbers in most of our country. In my region, over 1 in 200 residents are actively infected. And those are only the cases we know of: when my son took ill recently, it took 13 freakin’ days for his negative result to return, making contact tracing in East Tennessee a useless pantomime.
The other difference since June 19th is that the threat of cinemas reopening has become an actuality. I expected no less from the greed-headed executives of AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, but I am disappointed in movie creators and in some of my film critic colleagues who are implicitly encouraging moviegoing with their reviews.
Since they fecklessly reopened their amusement-to-death park in Florida last month, I really thought Disney would be the first to drop a major release in theaters. It would’ve been completely in character to infect little kiddies and their grandparents with live-action Mulan.
Instead, it’s gonna be Warner Brothers with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. And with that decision, I’ve crossed Nolan off my “people I respect” list. Till now, I’ve admired him as a filmmaker who blends big-budget spectacle with big ideas. But the guy who consulted physicist Kip Thorne to lend veracity to Interstellar couldn’t be troubled to chat with epidemiologists in 2020. So congratulations Mr. Nolan, you’re a wastrel hypocrite with blood on your hands.
In the race to publish Tenet reviews for English-speaking readers, RogerEbert.com was near the front of the line. Brian Tallerico’s write-up included a preamble stating “this film was screened for limited press in Chicago with extreme precautions that simply won’t be in place for most ticket buyers…The intent of this review is not to encourage or discourage anyone from attending a theatrical screening…It is an analysis of the work itself for posterity.”
Sorry, but I’m not buying Tallerico’s disclaimer. Warner Brothers didn’t set up a screening in Chicago out of charity and generosity. RogerEbert.com knows full well a review is free publicity, especially when positive, and Tallerico gave Tenet three out of four stars.
At this moment, publishing reviews for movies only in theaters, for a readership hungry for entertainment outside their home’s four walls, is like plunking a slice of chocolate cake in front of a brittle diabetic. Yeah, you’re not responsible for their decision to pick up a fork, but you’ve abetted high-risk behavior.
And that line about “posterity”? Puh-leeze. Posterity will judge more kindly those who displayed solidarity and self-control in their choices during this painful time.
To briefly cite other examples, the LA Times is prefacing their reviews in a manner akin to Ebert, while NY Times’s reviews say nada. The A.V. Club gets credit for their interview with a pair of epidemiologists who said moviegoing is “just about the last thing I’d do right now,” but then undid their good karma with a hand-wringing rationalization for writing about movies their reviewers can safely screen.
Though film critics are hardly a tight-knit association, I still feel a sense of professional betrayal and disappointment. (My wife, a hospital-based speech pathologist, compared it to her anger when coworkers post dining out photos or prattle about going to church.) And, yeah, I resent their thunder-stealing from critics like me who are practicing civic-minded forbearance during this pandemic.
One irony in this: the consensus opinion of Tenet thus far has been less than glowing. Another: despite the yearly garment rending over the death of cinema, there has been plenty of terrific new content for us to safely watch at home. Looking over my reviews since I began sheltering in place, 15 films have earned at least four stars.
So I think we can tarry a while longer before catching Black Widow or A Time to Die. We don’t have to emulate AMC, Warner Brothers, and Christopher Nolan – or to a lesser degree the critics at RogerEbert.com and The A.V. Club – and surrender our integrity to the insatiable maw of capitalism. Please, keep doing what you should, not what you can.