If there’s one factoid that has bedeviled creators since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it is this one: Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine. The actual truthiness of this anecdote aside (there are nuances), many people—musicians, filmmakers, writers—took it as a personal challenge. If the bubonic plague didn’t halt one of the greatest plays ever written, then weren’t all of us capable of looking up from TikTok, taking off our PJs, and making a masterpiece? Some of the work produced in lockdown so far has been quite good—the Euphoria one-off episodes, the two full LPs that Taylor Swift managed to record—but others, like the movie Songbird, which my colleague Kate Knibbs noted had “a bad fast-food quality to it” … well, let’s just say they don’t quite live up to the Bard’s standards.
Filmmaking, it seems, has been most troubled by Covid-19 lockdowns. Not only have social distancing guidelines left theaters sitting empty, they’ve also left film studios facing tough decisions about when, where, and how to release their movies. Filmmakers, meanwhile, can only work with small crews—and not many actors. Some larger productions have resumed, but they’re precarious endeavors; that’s why Tom Cruise sometimes has to yell at people. And while inspiration for what kind of story to tell can theoretically come from anywhere, filmmakers are hand-tied into what kind of story can be made under the circumstances—and it’s hard not to dwell on the end of the world.
So far, the movies that have come out of lockdown—either those inspired by the pandemic or filmed under its restrictive conditions (or both)—have been, shall we say, uneven. Songbird was not good, and as my coworker put it, felt “cribbed from right-wing message boards.” Director Doug Liman’s HBO Max dramedy Locked Down injected a little bit of wry levity into the atmosphere, but still its attempt to turn the tension of quarantining with a partner into fodder for a heist movie fell flat—no matter how good Anne Hathaway is at playing unhinged. Most people just aren’t far enough removed from endless passive-aggressive Zoom calls to find drinking-during-the-meeting jokes funny yet. Netflix’s new Malcolm & Marie, which Euphoria creator Sam Levinson shot with Zendaya, John David Washington, and a skeleton crew mid-pandemic, fared slightly better, largely because its leads have more magnetism than the sun.
Horror directors figured out early on how to both make movies in a pandemic and make them not suck (see: Host), but horror is horror. Escaping one’s nightmare life by watching a worse nightmare is the whole point; the genre is designed to translate the anxieties of any era into art.
Perhaps, then, the lesson here is that the movies of the pandemic will be as brilliant or uneven or downright unwatchable as every movie that came before them. Perhaps what'll change most is how we see them.
This past week, during the mostly virtual Sundance Film Festival, a few Movies Born During Covid showed some promise. How It Ends, a film from Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, transformed an apocalypse trope into a comedy one by following a woman (played by Lister-Jones) around LA as she connects with friends, family, and strangers in a last-ditch attempt to make amends before an asteroid hits Earth. At times poignant and funny, it often lingers a bit long on the detached enlightenment prevalent amongst a certain segment of (mostly white, mostly middle-class) Angelenos, but it never once made me cringe in a bad way. The inspiration, Lister-Jones noted during the film’s virtual introduction, came from the introspection and stock-taking that’s become commonplace during quarantine; the movie’s focus on mental health during extenuating circumstances, she said, was was meant to “create a time capsule of this moment … without denying the impact” of what’s happening. In that, it’s a success.
In a completely different vein, filmmaker Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth takes place during a pandemic and uses the tools of horror to convey its message. Written during lockdown and filmed in the UK last summer, it starts out as a movie about a scientist and a park ranger who venture into the woods to find a researcher who might have answers about a deadly virus that’s overtaken the populace. What they find is her ex, a man convinced he’s communicating with some higher power in the forest—one that convinces him he needs to drug his new friends and insert objects under their skin. It’s (good) weird, and could’ve been shut down at any time during filming due to Covid, an event that Wheatley noted would’ve left his financier Neon “holding the bag.” If it sounds like a strange and anxious movie for a strange and anxious time, that's because it is.
Elsewhere at Sundance, many movies were reminiscent of Covid, even if they weren’t inspired by it or made in its shadow. Documentarian Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, which dives deep on simulation theory, is full of interviews conducted over video chat, many with animated avatars standing in for the film’s subjects. If the people onscreen weren’t talking about Philip K. Dick and theology while resembling mutated GoBots, Glitch could easily look like your weekly planning meeting. “It just felt on theme for a movie where we’re talking about visual communication and virtual worlds to do the interviews via Skype,” Ascher told me last week, right before his film premiered (it’s now available on VOD). “Since lockdown, that form of communication has become so ubiquitous that in some ways maybe it makes the movie feel like a satire, to be Zooming with these digital avatars, but it’s just one very strange coincidence.”
Director Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud and Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet are both set amidst pandemics—though not conceived during this one. There’s no disease in Karen Cinorre’s Mayday, but it does center on a small handful of women who spend most of their time in a bunker, waging a war on patriarchy. There’s also a dance number. Then there’s R#J, a(nother) modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet conveyed largely via text messages, FaceTime, Instagram Live, etc.—something Willy Shakes never could’ve even dreamed of when he wrote his tragedies amidst the bubonic plague.
So, has any filmmaker—nearly a year into the Covid-19 outbreak—made their own King Lear yet? Or anything even approaching the quality of Shakespeare’s best works? No. But it’s worth considering that the pestilence of his time came and went over the course of decades, not months. The monumental works of the coronavirus era may be yet to come—not because the virus will be raging on, but because the changes lockdown has made to the collective psyche will be felt for years. (So, too, will the pandemic’s economic impact, which no doubt influence who can afford to make films and who can’t.) In The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, a doctor tells a pair of new parents not to worry about the mental strain the pandemic will inflict on their child: "They were born in this world” and don’t know what’s been lost. For Shakespeare it was the same; he was born in a plague. He didn’t have to adjust to quarantine and make art of it; he just wrote the world he knew, which was one more morbid than most. In Macbeth he wrote of a country “almost afraid to know itself” because death was so common. Art is a simulacrum of the place it was birthed—one that is now learning to know itself anew.