If these were normal times, movie lovers would now be gearing up for the holiday season, when big studios splash out with their flashiest work. But with so many theaters unable to safely reopen—and with the movie industry itself in a holding pattern—the upcoming awards season will be like no other. Some pundits have suggested canceling the Academy Awards altogether. What good is an awards season without the usual parade of dazzling Hollywood product?
The answer, actually, is that a break from awards-season madness could be pretty great—if we can adjust our notion of what an awards contender ought to be, and if we can come to honest terms with how we, as movie lovers, feel about the big-screen experience. For years now, I’ve been fielding arguments from people who claim to love movies but prefer to watch them at home: if you have a big TV and a nice sound setup, it’s just better. There are no annoying fellow humans to break the spell of your movie watching. You can sneak off to the fridge whenever you want—which also breaks the spell, but on your own terms.
Now, some eight months into pandemic life, I’m hearing arguments that people will never want to return to movie theaters again, partly out of safety fears—a reasonable consideration until COVID-19 is well under control—but also because they’re now too used to the convenience of streaming movies at home. Why go back to the old ways?
This is where our true feelings about movies—works designed by their makers to be viewed larger than life, in the presence of other, possibly annoying human beings—and our self-defined expectations about awards contenders mingle into a potentially combustible cocktail. Now that most of us have been forced to stream movies at home for months, we’ve had plenty of time to assess—or grow to loathe—the experience. The two poles of the argument might be “Please cancel the Oscars because as much as I love movies, nothing I watched at home this year felt like a real movie,” and “Movies and TV have already blurred together for me. What do the Oscars matter?”
If the majority turn out to be in the latter camp, then the movies really are dead. But if you’re in the former camp—if not even the good new movies you watched at home in 2020 felt as “real” to you as they would have in a theater—you’re not alone, and your frustration is actually a sign of hope for the future. We can’t change the film industry—none of us can get it up and running, robustly, right now. But we can reject a world where mindless binge-watching triumphs over intense focus on one work at a time.
The movie theater is part of the world in a way your living room is not. And going to the movies, giving yourself over to an image larger than you are, entails both an emotional risk and a shift in context. It demands you step out into the night, or the bald daylight, even as you’re still processing what you’ve just seen. The drive or ride home, the conversation or silence afterward—any of those can become part of your experience of a film. We’ve been robbed of that context, at least for now.
For most of us, 2020 has required making the best of a terrible situation. It has also given us some terrific movies, pictures that should have had their chance to be been seen big but, through no fault of their own, had to be shrunk small. This awards season will be lacking in big, glossy spectacles. (No Steven Spielberg West Side Story until 2021.) But then, this might be the year we focus more on intimately scaled films like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, or on pictures that shed light on our own sociopolitical circus, like Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. It could be the year your favorite movie turns out to be a small, gorgeous picture about a friendship between two men in the 1820s Pacific Northwest, forged over stolen milk. (If you haven’t yet seen that film, it’s Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.) Weird as it sounds, this may be the year that expands your view of what movies can mean. Movie people will always love movies. We have to have faith in the day we can step out into the light once again—which will be our cue to step back into the right kind of darkness.
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