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What to watch during a pandemic

Faline Bobier

April 4, 2020

The sheer amount of information (and mis-information, if you are listening to the orange monster) on Covid 19 can be overwhelming. Here are some suggestions for things worth watching to distract ourselves, at the same time as we are looking out for our neighbours, organizing against bosses forcing us to work in unsafe conditions and planning how we need to come out of this crisis on a fighting footing. As many people are saying, we can’t simply go back to ‘normal’ when this is over because ‘normal’ under capitalism is what got us here in the first place.

End of the world watching

Contagion - Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, released in 2011, is now available on Netflix. It’s a film which is eerily prescient of what’s happening today, although there’s not enough in it about ordinary people organizing collectively (of which we are seeing many examples around us) and tends to focus on the notion that ordinary people mostly revert to selfishness and a stance of each person for themselves, which fits nicely with the ruling class script.

Snowpiercer – If you liked Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, which took best film and best international film at this year’s Oscars, this earlier film is also very much on the theme of the dystopic future of capitalism and is available on Netflix. The story centres on a train hurtling through a frozen dead earth where the only survivors are those on the train. Inside the train, all the class divisions that existed in the outside world are still there with a vengeance. Great over the top performances by John Hurt, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton et al.

For feminist fun

Bridesmaids – You can’t go wrong with this hilarious, side-splitting feminist comedy, co-written and starring Kristen Wiig, the brilliant Saturday Night Live alum. Although this is a mainstream Hollywood release it does touch on real issues that women face – recession, unemployment, having to go back and live with your parents and dealing with jerks, like Jon Hamm, playing Kristen’s self-involved and sexist ‘fuck-buddy’. The scene on the plane as Kristen’s character’s best friend (played by Maya Rudolph) and her bridesmaids head to Las Vegas for the bachelorette party proves that women can do raunchy and hilarious, if there was ever any question. Melissa McCarthy is wonderful as usual in the role of the groom’s sister – another reason to seek this movie out and watch it now if you need a humour injection.

Booksmart – Another great feminist comedy directed by Olivia Wilde, featuring millennials this time. Actors Beanie Feldstein (Molly) and Kaitlyn Dever (Amy) play best friends, about to graduate from high school. On the last day before their graduation ceremony Molly inadvertently learns what the other kids think of them – nerds who care only about studying and have no life outside of their books. So, on their last night of high school they decide to prove the other students wrong and set out to have the night of their lives. Great performances that give hope that the new generation will do things differently, as director Wilde discussed when promoting her movie: “The young generation are like: ‘You’ve put us in a fucked-up political situation, the Earth is dying, there are maniacs in power, you’ve created this binary way of thinking about gender and sexuality, which we don’t accept. We’d actually like to shift this paradigm – you’re done!”

Emma – Some recent mainstream Hollywood releases are now available to watch on your TV for a price. The most recent version of Jane Austen’s Emma, which hit theatres just as the pandemic was taking flight, is one of them. It definitely belongs in this list of feminist fare. The new film version of Jane Austen’s Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde, is a delight and will hopefully have the effect of taking people back to the original work, especially in these uncertain times, when we’re all looking for diversions. Someone described the movie as like being inside a cupcake, because of the beautiful pastels and colours.

Emma was originally published in 1815 but like Jane Austen’s other novels it has a lot to say to contemporary audiences about women’s place in society, about love and romance and about human foibles. Emma (beautifully incarnated by Anya Taylor-Joy) learns through trial and error that her attempts at match-making may be well-intentioned but they go disastrously awry.

The movie over all has an amazing cast, including the incomparable British actor Bill Nighy, playing Emma’s father, perpetually worried about drafts and catching cold, as well as Johnny Flynn in the role of Mr. Knightley, the heartthrob and wealthy friend of the family who watches Emma’s machinations with dismay and disapproval.

Just plain funny

Planes, trains, automobiles - Planes, trains and automobiles is a throwback to 1987, which is still very much worth watching. I’ve watched this movie a few times over the years but the story of Neal Page (Steve Martin), a high-strung marketing executive and Del Griffith (John Candy), a goodhearted but annoying shower curtain ring salesperson still delights. The two men share a three-day odyssey of misadventures as Neal wants desperately to get home to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. The two actors play off each other to hilarious effect. It’s a movie that’s worth seeing for the performance of the great John Candy alone, on the 25th anniversary of his death. His beautiful slapstick, wit and humanity make the movie a great watch for right now.

But don’t forget the politics

Sorry We Missed You – British Marxist Ken Loach’s most recent film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the fictional tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. Although it’s not a documentary it well could be as it describes the working life of a growing number of people, especially, but not limited to, millennials. Luckily, we have seen recent fightbacks by those same workers, as in the successful organizing drive of Foodora workers in Toronto.

The Report (The Torture Report) – This movie, directed by Scott Z. Burns and starring Adam Driver and Annette Benning as US Senator Dianne Feinstein, reminds us how Western governments used torture as a means to justify illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The plot follows staffer Daniel Jones (played by Driver) and the Senate Intelligence Committee as they investigate the CIA's use of torture following the September 11 attacks. It’s a harrowing and infuriating reminder of how much our governments lied to us during this whole decade and beyond, and in the course of it killed and tortured millions of people whose only crime was living in areas rich in oil, coveted by Western profiteers.

Dark Waters – This 2019 American legal thriller directed by Todd Haynes dramatizes the true story of Robert Bilott's case against the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont after they contaminated a town with unregulated chemicals. Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate defense lawyer from Cincinnati, Ohio when farmer Wilbur Tennant, who knows Robert's grandmother, asks Robert to investigate a number of unexplained deaths in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Tennant connects the deaths to the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont, and gives Robert a large case of videotapes. The film exposes DuPont’s criminal development of ‘Teflon’, used in non-stick pans, which they knew from internal testing over a period of years, caused cancer and other birth defects, and also affected women workers on the line. Dupont dumped hundreds of gallons of toxic sludge upriver from Tennant's farm. PFOA and similar compounds used to make Teflon are forever chemicals, chemicals that do not leave the blood stream and slowly accumulate. Given the behaviour of CEOs during our current crisis, who are willing to see ‘acceptable’ numbers of older people die in order to keep the stock market strong, the behaviour of Dupont corporate murderers will come as no surprise.
Many of these films can be viewed on streaming services such as Amazon Prime and others. Most streaming services offer a 30-day free trial so that you don’t actually have to put any money into the pockets of sleazy capitalists like Jeff Bezos.

And for inspiration

Land and Freedom – Another film by the brilliant Ken Loach. This is a movie that bears watching and re-watching, about the Spanish Civil War. It shows the way ordinary people were inspired to go to Spain from places like Britain and Canada because they realized what was at stake in the fight between the forces of fascism and the Spanish workers and peasants who wanted to found another kind of society. They didn’t wait for their governments but began to collectivize land and take it away from the big land-owners, as well as building a people’s militia to defend their gains.
Ken Loach has made most of his films available free of charge on youtube so you can watch this movie and his entire canon there.

MatewanDirector John Sayles is like an American version of Ken Loach. One of my favourite films from Sayles is Matewan, which dramatizes the events of the Battle of Matewan, a coal miners' strike in 1920 in Matewan, a small town in the hills of West Virginia. The movie has a lot to say about the determination of ordinary workers, the attempts of the coal bosses to pit workers against each other by using anti-immigrant and anti-Black racism and the courage of the miners and their families to withstand murderous attacks by the employer. This film is available from the Criterion Collection: and well worth the investment.

Most public libraries (which are closed to the public right now for obvious reasons) have online movies and TV shows available for free through services like Overdrive, Hoopla and Kanopy.

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