Chattanooga film historian Gordon Inman shares his final thoughts on the year 2020 for the film industry, locally and globally.
In modern American society, which, for now, I will define as the beginning of the baby boom to roughly March 12th, 2020, people made something of a hobby of celebrating feats of low-stakes endurance as a staple of formidable character. These feats almost exclusively boil down to the following formula:
[experiential noun] is not truly [uncomfortable or painful adjective]
and include such common declarations as:
[This weather] is not truly [cold]
[This weather] is not truly [hot]
[This food] is not truly [spicy]
[This movie] is not truly [scary]
It makes sense that this approach to conversation was popular; after all, that which is low-stakes is often low-effort, and to pretend not to be disturbed by the weather, hot chicken, or M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs takes little acting talent among friends and acquaintances.
In the Spring of 2020, however, the entire nation was called upon to display a series of great and consequential feats. A great many did not endure a full month, including a renowned filmmaker who had enough control over his own work that he insisted the film be released in theaters only, with no intention to allow streaming until the film’s home video release (which did occur in December of 2020). While other films were released only in theaters during and after the initial lockdown, this film represents the only example of an Arabian director’s insistence that his film receive what many directors consider a proper release; as a result, the film and its director’s obsessive demands will be inseparably remembered together in the poetic vein of Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels.
My reason for pointing out this particular director and film (without directly stating a name or title) is that it’s one of the best films of the year, and possibly this director’s best work to date. In a non-pandemic year, it likely would have done extremely well at the box office and been discussed at great length by cinephiles all over. It’s also one of my favorite unnamed subgenres: the confuse-fest. This director’s obliviousness and, to tie in with my cynical opener, lack of endurance, points to a fascinating disconnect among Hollywood creatives: that the only way to see a film is to see it on the big screen. The irony herein is that, for the better part of a century, movie theaters were available in virtually every city, town, and neighborhood, while the other dramatic arts were available (in their most ideal form) in only a handful of cities, but really just New York and maybe Chicago (if we're being honest). In the years leading up to 2020, this changed: before the obvious streamed theatre culmination with Hamilton’s release on Disney+, a number of recorded Broadway musicals and Metropolitan Opera productions became available on VHS and DVD during physical media’s prime, and the arrival of streaming platforms helped to solidify the democratization of these entertainments previously available only to the geographically privileged; meanwhile, as stated in a previous Scenic Trend piece, a Chattanooga couple was required to travel to Memphis and back on a weeknight in order to see only one of two screenings of Pedro Costa’s newest film in the Southern United States, solidifying at least the arthouse leg of cinema as a newly geographical luxury.
A fond memory from another time: at the end of 2011, a college friend (and former “films chair” at Middle Tennessee State University) made two lists and shared them on social media. The first was the five worst films of 2011, and the second was the five best. When I asked why the same film placed fifth on both lists, he responded that money had been tight that year (as we were still in what all young adults thought would be the worst recession of our lives) and he hadn’t been able to see that many new movies. I would imagine he saw exactly nine, but this was never confirmed. At the time, many other friends and I found this frustrating and wondered why he felt compelled to make a Venn-diagram of superlative lists, but in hindsight, it comes across as quite charming and a small monument to the comfort of cinephilia in its own way.
His conclusion - that 2011 wasn’t a great year for movies - hasn’t aged as well. For one thing, he admittedly lacked the experiential capital to make such a statement; for another, 2011 now towers above nearly every other year in the 21st century, at least as far as film is concerned; and most importantly of all, 2020 made it clear that a “bad year for movies” is not a phrase for a subjective assessment on the quality of the year’s new films, but a cold, objective reading on the continued feasibility of the medium. 2020 was a bad year for movies, not necessarily due to the hubris of one aforementioned director, the cancellation of every major European and Canadian festival, the spiritual end to a titanic French publication, the closing of the Palace Theater (#CHATTABUNGA), or the postponement of most of the year’s event pictures to 2021. 2020 was a bad year for movies because the highest-grossing film ever released (2019’s Avengers: Endgame, for those who didn’t know) made more money than every film released in 2020 combined.
With that said, some notable 2020 releases include Costa’s Vitalina Varela, Hannah Gadsby's Douglas (directed by Madeleine Parry), Kelly Reichard’s First Cow, Felix Colgrave’s brilliant short Throat Notes, the Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Patricio Guzman’s The Cordillera of Dreams, and Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow.
Two things for Chattanooga film lovers to be optimistic about: while the showing of Stranger Than Paradise did not occur on January 21, 2021, The Heritage House on Jenkins Road is looking to present a version of their 2021 catalog starting in April of this year.
Additionally, I am partnering with the Chattanooga Theatre Center to produce a showcase of works from local filmmakers in the first two weeks of May, assuming it is safe to do so. Watch this space.