Infected, Broken and Mortal
This article is part of a collaboration with Florian Trompke, whose article on Post-Covid spaces can be accessed here: Post-Covid-Räume im Post-Covid-Kino
“Ladies and Gentlemen, … the screening is about to begin…wearing a face mask during the whole screening is strongly recommended…”
I make myself as comfortable as I can in the makeshift seats of the PalaBiennale. It’s early in the morning, too early, and I am sandwiched between people whose every exhale is a reminder of the coffee I didn’t have time to drink that morning.
I debate whether or not I should follow the announcement’s recommendation as the lights slowly fade out. The pandemic isn’t over yet, the announcement is supposed to make me aware of this. I look around me and there’s at least 1200 other people in the same room as me. Maybe it’s too late to wear a mask now, if I were to catch the virus, I would have already caught it elsewhere on the busy festival grounds.
I shrug and I turn my head to the screen, only to be bombarded again and again with the reminder that I am living in unprecedented – and weirdly postapocalyptic – times.
The year is 2022 and the film industry is slowly but surely recovering from the restricting pandemic. Sets and crews are allowed to return to their large-scale norms, cinemas are allowed to be full and Tom Cruise goes viral for shouting at crew members for not following Covid safety regulations on the set of Mission Impossible 7. The big directors of Hollywood who were once young and wild are now at the later half of middle age, further aged by the disruption of a pandemic that made them confront their fragility, their mortality and their relevance. Forced to stay in their mansions for the better half of a year or so, they seem to have had time to reflect. Their fat fingers quickly clicked away on expensive Apple products to bring their newly found plights to the silver screen.
And what better space to experience the product of their pain than at the ungodly hours of the morning with a thousand people in a foreign country? One big-budget production after the other, the films of the Official (and the Unofficial) Selection are star-studded with household names behind the cameras, promising to be exciting and versatile – the probable Oscar contenders of the post-pandemic era.
The first of such films I encounter at the Venice Film Festival is Noah Baumbach’s White Noise. Starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, the film is set in the 80s/90s – when Baumbach himself was in the prime of his youth – and chronicles the lives of an American family facing unprecedented situations. The father, played by Driver, is a professor specializing in Hitler studies, focusing all his energy in the analysis of a past long gone. A few scenes show him giving speeches to crowds of students. Suddenly, he is stripped away from the crowds, his obsession with the past seems useless in the wake of the unprecedented catastrophes that start happening around him. His mortality becomes a big question mark, fragile and out of his hands. Can he even protect his family? The word “quarantine” is uttered in the film. Baumbach’s unsubtle irony of writing himself into his films isn’t lost on me and I start to shudder. Too soon, I am not yet ready to see my immediate reality on the silver screen. However, I find myself forced to get used to it. White Noise marks the beginning of a pattern I would soon start recognizing while watching most of the festival’s films; each of these films can be read as a strategic confrontation with the pandemic and its consequences.
Somewhat like White Noise, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Bardo presents another self-insert strategy. A fifty-ish year old documentary filmmaker from Mexico deals with his family, his critics, his past, the country he left and of course, he deals with his own mortality. The film is a (very expensive) three hour long resignation, a confession almost; Inarritu invites his audience to see him buttnaked, to point at his pathetic little decaying body and to laugh at his self-importance – even he will die.
Even smaller-scale films like Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter aren’t safe from the self-insert. The immediacy of death hangs onto Tilda Swinton’s characters, who are cooped up in a grand and empty hotel. A sense of grief for the empty rooms that were once crowded prevails. Crowdlessness, emptiness, loneliness, and death. Although Hogg’s confrontation is subtle, it still fits the pattern.
Along with the self-insert, other strategies can be recognized in Post-Covid films. Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All and Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale rely very heavily on the materiality, the physicality of the human body. While Guadagnino’s bodies get cut up and bitten, eventually decaying, and eaten by maggots, they are also sensual, touching, caressing, kissing and falling in love. The film represents a heightened awareness of the fragility of the material body, while highlighting the preciousness of this fragility. A unique strategy of confrontation that makes the film stand out enough to be awarded with the Silver Lion.
Brendan Fraser’s comeback film The Whale, however, views the fragility of the body through a more pessimistic lens, presenting the viewer with the tragic story of a self-quarantined body that is constantly being pushed to its physical limits by the soul that inhabits it. Every move of this massive body in the small apartment is monumental. The whole world is reduced to a tiny apartment, while the body becomes increasingly immobile, stuffed with self-hatred and an undeniable death wish. The body is used against itself, its limitations and its fragility are weaponized, setting off the self-destruct algorithm with every decision made by the soul of Fraser’s character.
To pretend like the pandemic never happened, or that it ended without permanently changing something in us and in our societies is a strategy many of us embrace. We accept the strategy as canon because we wish we could rush back to the “normality” of pre-pandemic times as fast as possible. We push the undeniably persistent changes made in us, our relationships with our fragile, mortal bodies to loom in the background.
Perhaps the films and the narratives illustrated above have absolutely nothing to do with the Post-Covid limbo – but the mere possibility of their interpretation as indicators of a Post-Covid era of storytelling is enough. The fact that I can look at these films with a heightened sensitivity towards themes of loneliness and bodiliness, means I have become a Post-Covid spectator – I have become a Post-Covid subject.