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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: Avoid or Watch Pandemic Pictures?


What to watch in a pandemic is new territory for a film critic. Nothing as WBGO film critic I'm expected to deal with not now. Or Ever. But here we all are.

I started with the conventional wisdom from the first time the world crashed in the age of movies, the Great Depression of the 1930’s leading into WWII: Happy pictures make an anxious and scared populace happy.

There is no better film than Preston Sturges’ 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels, starring Joel McCrea as a hotshot studio exec reminiscent of MGM’s Irving Thalberg, who escapes his studio handlers to go rogue and investigate firsthand what was happening to his broke, depressed countrymen in order to make more relevant, if grimmer, movies. It’s a great romantic road trip. Sullivan inadvertently stumbles into a black church turned makeshift movie theatre where the pastor starts the evening with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Mickey and Pluto chase each other around and destroy the house. Everyone laughs uproariously. It has two of my favorite early character actors, William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn, and Veronica Lake as the girl, and you can’t find a better film on Amazon Prime, by the way.

Sullivan’s Travels is where escapism became ennobled as a basic truth.  That was my first strategy, in random and hodge-podge fashion, to escape the death count crossing 15,000 this weekend, and the grim drum beat of the news. I tried a film I didn’t get the first time, Booksmart, a 2019 discovery at the SXSW Festival, which last month was the first festival to cancel its 2020 year. Booksmart is a white suburban teen girl comedy with one Beanie Feldstein as one of its two stars trying every angle to mitigate the horrors of white suburban life. Yuck. I defaulted to Bill Murray whom I wanted to share with my daughter, a budding social worker: in What About Bob, from the early ‘90s, Murray is a loco patient who tracks down his shrink, Richard Dreyfuss, on his vacation at Lake Winnipesaukee, and turns his life into a shambles. Bad idea: It made me edgy and my daughter fell asleep. In Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, 1998, Murray takes a tour of all his old girlfriends, who are all as crazy as he is depressed. The portrait is sad, the humor is dark.

Gear it fast forward to Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in The Fast Five, set in Rio in 2011 in the middle of the Furious series. All that testosterone and all those car crashes, available on HBO, doesn’t cut it even halfway through its never ending 2 hours and 10 minutes. Flash back to 1978 and that masterpiece of chaos, Animal House, with John Belushi as Bluto Blutarsky, turning campus life and the world upside down. Good for him, good for the world. In that orderly moment, you’re rooting for chaos. Those were the days.

But it turns out maybe the best way to deal with pandemic is to look at it straight in its ugly face.

The thing about pandemic is that we don’t see it coming. We blow through all the warning signs, coming at us at a measured pace until it engulfs us. You could look at the two virus films, Wolfgang Peterson’s 1995 Outbreak, on Amazon Prime, with Dustin Hoffman trying to save California and the world from a monkey virus, or Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion, on Cinemax via Amazon Prime, with a heroic Laurence Fishburne at the CDC, Marion Cotillard at the World Health Org and Kate Winslet battle a virus from China. Both Contagion and Outbreak mirror the soap operatic content of what you already see minute by minute now on CNN, the reality of which outstrips them for both heroic and outlandish behavior. So, what’s the point of watching either?  

Instead, I settle on two things you can readily see: First is the longform TV series on HBO, The Plot Against America, which The Wire creators Ed Burns and David Simon, have adapted from the late Philip Roth’s 2004 novel. Filmed in Maplewood, Orange and Jersey City, it’s set in the Weequahic neighborhood of late 30s and WWII Newark, crisscrossed by green and yellow city busses, and an innocent Jewish population stopping in at Tabatchnik’s Deli for sturgeon, or a bakery selling challah for a nickel and bialys for 2 cents each, as the Newsreel Theatre brings footage of the Nazification of Germany and the war back home to Americans. The production design team of Dina Goldman and Richard Hoover, the art direction of Jordan Jacobs, Randy Richards and Emma Mendelson , plus sets by Stephanie Bowen and costumes by Jeriana San Juan seduce you into a magical Newark just waiting to be ambushed by the political pandemic to come.

In Roth’s nightmarish what-if alternative history, the Levin family as a stand-in for Roth’s family, are witness to the America First movement that carries Charles Lindbergh to a fantasy victory in the 1940 election over FDR. It is a different kind of epidemic, one that starts with Antisemitism and will end with the pandemic of white nationalist cultural purification of everyone and anyone who’s different. In The Plot Against America, Hitler’s Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop gets a state dinner at the White House and dances with the blind rabbi’s wife. President Lindbergh keeps America out of the war in Europe in alliance with Hitler’s Germany, and slowly resettles and, in true American fashion, assimilates the otherness out of the Others.

The script can weave a little too conveniently -- when the Levins listen to the Yankees-Tigers game on the radio, it’s Hank Greenberg, the legendary Jewish first baseman, who comes to bat. And it lectures a bit too much as if trying to educate, which hampers the credibility of the cast led by Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, Winona Ryder, Anthony Boyle, Ben Cole as Lindbergh, and John Turturro as a Dixie-born and bred rabbi all too willing to further America First’s goals of purging the Jews. Episode four of the six-part series is new this week, and you can catch up to the previous installments of The Plot Against America on HBO on Demand.

Another way to come at pandemic besides contagion is Martin Scorsese’s 1999 Bringing out the Dead, on Amazon Prime, about ambulance drivers, pairing Nick Cage and Ving Rhames as an EMT team coping with the ordinary insanity of Manhattan street life to hospital emergency rooms in Hell’s Kitchen. Funnily enough, I miss the craziness of that 1990s New York City that Scorsese captures so perfectly before it got buried under the new ice age of Disney everything, banks everywhere and designer bathroom stores. I can’t think of a better way to step outside the clichés of virus movies than stepping into Scorsese’s ambulance with Cage and Rhames. You get an idea of what pandemic feels like through hollow-eyed, everyday EMT responders, stretched way past the limit, one case coming at them after another, rolling in like a tsunami they can’t stop to define.

Whatever works for you to see your way through quarantine, I’m all for it. I felt better dealing with pandemic—not escaping it--by entering the discussion from the side lines of political metaphor or an ambulance on a normal night. Just don’t let the corona virus make you crazy. 

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.