The Pictures Got Small

Movies in the Time of COVID

Toward the beginning of the 1950 film Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder’s acidly dark take on the perils of early Hollywood, a failing screenwriter stumbles onto the property of a retired film star. When he recognizes her, he exclaims, “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” The imperious actress curtly responds, “I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

In 2020, indeed, the pictures got small. And so did the picture business. As we were all forced to stay home and consume our entertainment streaming on our TVs, movie theaters were closed and the production studios were severely curtailed in their ability to create new product, at least product for the big screen.

Mind you, there was plenty to watch, several generations of streaming content to explore, even several major features that were released directly to one TV platform or another. And some of that was really, really good. Highlights of my COVID viewing include The Queen’s Gambit, The Mandalorian, Lovecraft Country, Watchmen, and even Star Trek: Picard. With a number of late year releases still not seen, several films were also quite satisfying enjoyable, including Soul, First Cow, Da 5 Bloods, Mank, The Midnight Sky, and Palm Springs.

You may have noticed I changed the adjective in that last sentence. Because although I enjoyed these features and others, I found very few of them truly satisfying. It wasn’t their fault; it was the failure of the medium. They just didn’t resonate the same way when viewed on a TV, a fairly large one, in my living room.

It’s not a matter of scale. At one time in our recent entertainment history, there was indeed a clear differentiation between the work produced for film and that for television. Film was always more epic, effects-driven, and just, in the words of Norma Desmond, big.

But the most recent generation of TV production has closed that gap, if not obliterated it. It’s hard to argue that a show such as Game of Thrones spared any of the opulence or scale of the screen. No, I think the primary difference in content now between film and TV is the length of the narrative. TV is simply better suited to long-form stories than the movies are. Movies succeed best with a finite experience that can be contained to several hours.

Still, there is something different, and even special, about the movie-going experience that just can’t re-created in one’s home. Of course, the size of the screen and the encompassing quality of the sound are critically important to the movie theater experience. I would, in fact, argue that there is an inherent difference in terms of vibrancy and depth between a TV image in which the viewer is looking directly at the light source and a cinematic image that is projected onto a screen.

But the essential difference is experiential, the ritual of movie-going itself: traveling to a location specifically intended to deliver this experience, sitting in a dark room ideally free of outside distractions, having a shared experience with strangers. That is what I miss the most.

There is a great deal of concern within the industry about whether it can return after the pandemic. Will moviegoers decide that the home-viewing experience is good enough, or at least safer than going to the movies? Perhaps some will choose to continue to consume their favorite films at home, but I believe true fans will opt for another, richer experience — one absolutely unattainable from their sofa.

A Note About the Oscars

The annual Academy Award celebration has been another ritual re-shaped by the pandemic. In recent years, the ceremony has been in late February with nominations announced in January. This year, the nominations will be unveiled March 15 with the awards to be given out April 25.

How do you mount an awards presentation when people cannot safely gather, and how do you justify the annual exercise in glittering self-indulgence when many Americans are sick and/or unemployed?

Yet no one in Hollywood is going to completely forego this night.

It’s difficult to know what to expect in a year when major releases have been scheduled and rescheduled and rescheduled again, and others have been quietly released via a streaming service. Look for a lot of nominations for films made possible by Netflix and Amazon, and far fewer from the historically-productive Hollywood studios.

I expect to see the following films to dominate the categories: Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mank, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Soul, Sound of Metal, and Tenet. I also anticipate that the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer unexpectedly in late December, could be posthumously nominated for two of his final film performances: Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey