Monday, March 9, was a week out from the fourth iteration of Light Field, our collectively organized, celluloid-only film festival. COVID-19 was a murmur. When asked if the festival would be canceled, I said there was no way.
Two days later, on March 11, we canceled. News about the pandemic and its dangers had come fast and it had come from everywhere, flipping shreds of our reality, strip by strip, into a whole different picture. Canceling was the only option, but it made no sense. Most of us cried. A festival of works on film has a unique administrative choreography: projectors, canisters, shipping routes. Every year when the festival came, the intensive musculature of planning spasmed into a feeling of joyous impermanence. Intolerant of nihilism, it staved off the doom.
But now, ephemerality was no longer safe. It felt trite. I couldn’t watch anything. I yielded to the blue light of the endless online scroll. I bathed myself in information instead of images. I let myself understand that it was the end of an era, and that the aesthetic stakes that had once felt imperative to me would trifle in the face of death and collapse that was soon to come. I was right.
No matter. Over the next few days, the world squeakily reoriented, continued functioning despite itself. The cost of doing anything else would have been too great. It gave me whiplash. I had no attention span for anything but the news. If I looked away, I would no longer be witness to the disaster and I needed to keep up with its brisk progress. I accessed vast Google Drives of films I had wanted to see and hadn’t yet. I was invited to poetry readings in Google Hangouts and eschewed them for YouTube videos: Claire Saffitz, of Bon Appetit’s Test Kitchen, making English muffins, experimental cuts of my friends doing mean step-ups. I liked them. The digestible chunks reassured me I could hover above my life for increments of five to eight minutes at a time.
I recovered slightly. I started watching a movie every night with Staiti, my partner, for the sake of routine. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) won me over with Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of a small-town priest who muddles righteous asceticism with the worst of masculine pride. The next night, Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso (1992) was a good antidote, a stylish anime about an anthropomorphic pilot pig, infused with anti-fascist sentiment. We watched Charles Vidor’s noir Gilda (1946) set in the casinos of Argentina, Rita Hayworth radiating snide mystique, and the late’60s documentary The Queen, a remnant of the drag pageants of yore, featuring Crystal LaBeija and a cameo by Andy Warhol.
I clung to the Golden Age of American cinema because Technicolor smarts around the eyes. I like to feel the sear behind the curtain of the impossible good life. The genre’s simmering suburbanism is an apt metaphor for the way America rots its systems inch by inch, everything still weakly driven by those most exploited. We watched Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), a quarantine classic. Starring a transcendently pastel Julianne Moore, Safe is about a housewife who begins to experience symptoms that mystify medical professionals. She succumbs to the belief that she suffers from environmental illness and chemical sensitivity. Slowly, stringently, she isolates herself from all that she has ever known.
Haynes is an admirer of director Douglas Sirk, noted for his contributions to Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s so it’s no surprise that his shots are as beautifully composed as Sirk’s own, indeed, they could almost pass as exact replicas. The last time I saw a Sirk film on 35mm was in November at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, when they screened The Tarnished Angels (1957). Dorothy’s Malone’s cheekbone was flinty in textured black and white. Its arch grazed my eyeballs. But watching Safe at home on my tinny laptop, I did not miss filmic grain. If anything, the distinct beauty of Haynes’s melodrama is that it’s cold, its paranoia sunk deep, trapped in coral plastic. It balks at the contamination that comes with celluloid’s imperfection. It refuses touch.
In an email to the writer Blake Butler, I wrote that Moore’s performance in Safe is about how “it is impossible to feel safe even when everything is fine, normal; and how yet we cannot cut danger out of our lives without slicing a mute part of ourselves too.”
After writing the email, I went to the grocery store. I grew anxious from the brush of others against my back, from our protruding limbs. I shrank back from the scowl of masked faces that could not follow the six-foot rule. I thought about leaving. Staiti helped me get through the shopping list.
Sure, I religiously adhere to staying home. But I refuse to seal myself. I don’t want to touch, but still, I want to find a way to be around.
Instead, there were Zoom meetings. They were airless, the opposite of the intimacy I craved. I was in them all the time. I had meetings for work at Small Press Distribution and for volunteering with the Berkeley Free Clinic. I watched Zoom’s shifting tessellation of rectangles more than I did TV or film. I gazed upward at myself in the top right-hand box, smoothed the line of my eyebrows, wore barrettes. I hated this forward-facing purpose. But on March 18, a week after we canceled the festival, I found myself in a Light Field meeting on Google Hangouts. It’s a glitchier platform than Zoom, so the screen pulled focus schizophrenically with each stray sound or movement. I found it hilarious. I traced everyone’s lagging, misshapen gestures, each weirdly hued figure bleeding into the next. My screen turned live: a bedroom carousel, houseplant slideshow. I delighted at the antics of my co-organizers, how they put their hands in the air, twitched their eyebrows, squabbled. We got a little work done. We figured out who would ship reels back to the filmmakers. But mostly we stayed online to watch each other, the way we moved.
It’s funny how context changes everything. Not long ago, I valued screening experimental celluloid because it required gathering for a shared experience of wonder. It meant expanding our notions of what a new and different world could look like, by practicing feeling together: aesthetic indulgence as political imperative. But we have been transplanted to a different present, where it is impossible to be physically together to collectively imagine what the future might be. For now, what I miss most is sharing life, with all its uninvited interruptions, quirks, and uncertainties: popcorn crunching around me in the cinema, the giggly couple next to me at a restaurant. And in its absence, I resent the sutured sleekness of our contained new digital reality. Instead, I find comfort in technological malfunction: the frenzy of the Google Hangout, the jarring pixels on my screen. Each glitchy frustration a sign of life, evidence that other beings inhabit this same terrible and eccentric time; that we will find ways to weather it, that we will do it together. Currently, celluloid cannot function in the way that it should without compromising people’s health and safety. There is no sense in missing it. So I sit in the shared mutual aid spreadsheet, I watch a YouTube video about rent strikes, I change my Zoom background to Jeanne Dielman’s kitchen to make everyone else laugh.
Mike Stoltz’s Something to Touch That Is Not Ashes or Corruption or Dust is my favorite film that I never got to show in Light Field’s 2020 program. It starts abstractly, with black and white shapes and modulated distortions of static and sound. Palm trees whiz by. A symmetry of bars and barbed wire form a fenced-in perspective. The grid of a windowpane zooms out so fast it aches. Patterns close in, torqueing around the bend. In the final moments of the film, the screen fills—a full, flickering square, fishing between the dark and the light. Watching it in isolation, the taut claustrophobia in my chest opens up so that feeling rushes in, vast and perplexing. Something to Touch helps me stay present in this moment of opacity and sickness. I breathe to the soundtrack, I let myself wonder: how long are we to be contained? Is this how we escape? Could this be our death?
There is still a way to touch, and be touched, even if it is harder and its occasions are scarce. Stoltz’s film shows it. Over time, we will find other ways, and they will have to take varied and unexpected forms. We have yet to know them all. But for now—from resources to care and hope—there is still so much else we can share.