Friday, March 20, 2020

Thoughts on a Closed City

So have you watched Contagion yet? At this time of social panic, there’s much to be said for seeking out feel-good movies, in which we’re reassured that it’s a small (and healthy) world after all. But there’s another instinct at work, one that encourages us to locate the grim flicks that mirror our own current mood. Which means that films like Blade Runner, in which the social fabric has been rent asunder, seem all too appropriate.

European and Asian filmmakers have long been deft at showcasing a society gone mad. After reading about the horrors afoot in today’s Italy, my mind flashed back to a classic of Italian cinema, Roberto Rossellini’s Open City. This neo-realist masterwork, released in 1945, deals vividly with the life-and-death clash of Nazis and members of the Resistance on the streets of  Occupied Rome. Today, however, Rome (like all Italian cities) is hardly open. Because of fears of COVID-19, total social isolation is now the law. Any film set in today’s Italy would be better titled Closed City.

As we Americans are increasingly living in Closed Cities of our own, I’m reminded of foreign-language films that run parallel to our current situation. These dark (though sometimes darkly comic) movies capture the paranoia that goes with our current need to shelter in place, sometimes alone, sometimes with others whose fear and anxiety can easily trigger our own. Days and weeks (and months?) cooped up with a spouse or partner can certainly help us identify with Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous stage play, No Exit (first produced in France in 1944 and filmed several times since). Its most celebrated line, “Hell is other people,” certainly sums up what we might begin to feel after a few weeks of conjugal isolation.

The motif of claustrophobia –a sense of the walls closing in--surely asserts itself in many art-house films. I can argue that it’s an element in Bertolucci’s notorious Last Tango in Paris. And it’s certainly present in a Japanese film from 1964, Teshigahara’s eerie, powerful Woman in the Dunes (based on Kobo Abe’s great novel), in which a man is trapped in a sand pit from which he can never escape. After a few weeks of what seems like house arrest, I suspect we’ll all start to know exactly how he feels.

Then there are the films that trade on our fears of the unknown, on a sense of lurking danger that’s coming to get us at any moment. There’s more than one paranoia classic I could cite, but a prime example is Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. This surrealistic 1962 Spanish-language opus posits a group of well-heeled guests who find themselves terrified to leave the mansion in which they’ve all just dined. I understand their panic: I feel something of the same when I go out to move my garbage cans.

Perhaps the film that best addresses the current moment dates all the way back to 1957. I’m thinking of Ingmar Bergman’s Black Plague drama, The Seventh Seal, starring the late Max von Sydow as the medieval knight who plays a chess game to save his soul. I doubt that anyone is entirely clear on what Bergman was after, but his Dance of Death finale is hard to forget. It certainly wasn’t forgotten by my former boss, Roger Corman, who borrowed from Bergman’s visual imagery in adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964). The Poe tale of a castle full of masked revelers who think that in their sanctum they have outwitted the plague seems all too relevant now. And, alas, all too plausible. 

The Dance of Death from Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"

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