Thoughts on a Post-COVID Cinema (and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)

Usually (a key word, there, usually!) around this time, the Oscar nominations are out and I’ll have an essay on this site about my top ten movies from the year before and other things which caught my eye. But February 2021 isn’t a usual time…it’s been eleven months since I set foot in a movie theater and the nominations won’t be announced until next month! Even more to my shame, even though there’s several films that are available right now for free that will be legit Academy contenders, the amount and variety of choices you get from streaming sites…and between all of us in the Rostan family we’ve run the gamut…often results in my saying “screw it” more often than not. I look at all my options and then throw on The Great British Baking Show or Top Chef again.

(Note: Season Ten/Collection 7 of TGBBS is one of the most comforting things anyone could watch now, a dramatic show where part of the drama comes from how everyone genuinely cares about each other from the first episode and no one wants to see somebody else lose. It’s NICE PEOPLE doing COOL THINGS.)

That being said, I have seen more 2020 new releases than I have for previous years (in part thanks to splurging for a CIFF pass) as well as more old movies than I’ve seen in a long while…you can find my reviews on Letterboxd, where I’ve gotten pretty darn active! Doing so, combined with living on my own and thus having lots of time to think when I’m not writing or cleaning the house, has led me to consider what the movies will be like post-COVID.

I hadn’t even realized this was a thought of mine until September, when the rumination began under special circumstances. Part of what’s kept me even-keeled during the pandemic is I ended up becoming part of a circle who watches a film together every week in curated series like you’d get at a repertory house. There’s never been people I’ve loved diving into movies with more, and in our series we mix flat-out masterpieces with the occasional stinkers…that we didn’t know at the time were stinkers but we wanted to check out because they fit a theme.

What happened in September was I watched one of the single worst abominations trying to pass itself off as a movie I’d ever seen. I won’t even give these 90 minutes of unpleasant or thoroughly bland characters saying words that someone allegedly thought were jokes the courtesy of a name. But while processing my thoughts, I wrote this:

It astonishes me that Columbia Pictures thought that this film would appeal to anyone at all (Yes, this was a major release)…and it makes me hope that post-pandemic, as the studios gear up again and have to think more seriously about what they’re investing their money in for a changed world, we might not have unconscionable dreck like this anymore.

Of all the things, right? But that was what got my train of thought rolling. As soon as Biden and company have us all vaccinated and we can resume normal life or something like it again, there’s going to be so many factors going into how the movies carry on. Streaming is, again, a bigger deal than ever, and after a year people have gotten used to not going out to the point where the business of actual, physical theaters is on the brink. (Drive-ins were a fun substitute, but you’re also gonna get movies like Ammonite which aren’t designed for that sort of projection.) Moreover, production of movies is moving in two different directions. While the major Hollywood concerns shrink more and make less, with an emphasis on existing intellectual property with a few exceptions for awards season (The Walt Disney-Fox behemoth being the key here, as the MCU and more roll on with no end in sight), the democratization of film…the very aspect which defines all I love most about the medium…hasn’t stopped either. Judging by the reactions to Sundance last month and most of the pictures that are cleaning up at the critics’ awards, small-scale production is alive and well, maybe in even more of a position to thrive than ever as the responsible among us ease back into group activity.

I don’t see either of these trends slowing down, especially as theaters reopen and the industry wants to get people back into seats. Spectacle, of course, is one way to do that. And I, person whose favorite director of all is David Lean, who sweated through all my clothes seeing Dunkirk in 70mm, who considers Avengers: Endgame and Into the Spider-Verse Warholian-level pieces of pop art, isn’t going to turn down the return of mega-filmmaking.

But in rereading my Letterboxd diaries, I’ve found that for 2020 and now well into 2021, there’s a kind of story I’m drawn to more than ever. More than any of the above examples.

Which leads us to Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

*

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the third feature film from writer-director Eliza Hittman, is hitherto the only 2020 release I’ve considered worthy of a five-star rating. Those who know me won’t be surprised when I say that it’s extraordinary. That I cried multiple times while watching it. These are what garner five stars from Andrew Rostan. But I want to talk more about what makes this film stand out for me, why it should stand out for you, and how I think it has a role to play in the future of cinema.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about Autumn, a seventeen year-old living in Pennsylvania who discovers she’s pregnant. Autumn’s home life is far from the best, the crisis pregnancy center she goes to is (unsurprisingly) no help, and state law is draconian. The one person she can confide in is her cousin/best friend Skylar, and the two of them embark on a covert journey to New York City so Autumn can have an abortion.

That’s the plot. But as Ebert would say, a movie isn’t about what it’s about (although especially now what this film says about being a person who can get pregnant in America speaks volumes) but how it’s about it, and what Hittman does in showing the how is remarkable. Her gift at invoking the atmosphere of a location is one of the finest I’ve seen in years; for the first part of the picture, when she shoots schools and restaurants and big box stores and standard homes you could find in any suburb or small town in Pennsylvania, nothing looks artificial and nothing looks touristy, or filmed through a filter that Hittman is putting such places down. There’s a detail, a usage of color and editing and shadow, that makes everything feel so real you’re there in a way that someone with a pre-judgment of the location could never achieve. When Autumn and Skylar get to New York City, their journey begins at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Take it from someone who’s had to navigate it at 11:30 at night: there’s no better way to immediately feel the biggest city in the nation’s askew than to wander through the Port Authority trying to figure out where you need to go. There’s nothing romantic about Hittman’s New York but again, there’s nothing where she’s saying it stinks either. It’s a place full of endless streets and starkly lit rooms and divey corners that would overwhelm any newcomer but especially two teenagers.

But besides giving us atmospheres, Hittman excels at showing faces. There’s not much dialogue in this movie, and that dialogue is more given over to snatches of conversation and casual remarks than exposition. This is a movie that respects an audience in letting us know from a single look on a person’s face…and not a melodramatic look either…how they think and feel. It’s from those looks and not as much what they say that we learn Autumn doesn’t like her mom’s partner and doesn’t trust the people giving her information about her options, and that Skylar has a vague dissatisfaction with the way her life is now that makes doing something different an enticing prospect.

None of it would be possible if Hittman hadn’t cast Sidney Flanigan (who’s also a punk rock bandleader) and Talia Ryder (who’s also a Broadway dancer) as Autumn and Skylar. Flanigan and Ryder are really good actors, on the verge of greatness, and their chemistry through the film is so believable. But they have the gifts of supremely interesting faces and being able to do so much without words. I watch Flanigan and Ryder’s expressions and know I’m in the company of intelligent people operating on instinct, conveying the sense of being in the moment, of convincing you this is real life and not merely something from a script.

This work builds to the scene that most shattered me: Autumn meeting with a truly sympathetic social worker (wonderfully played by Kelly Chapman) before her procedure and being asked about her history with sex and relationships. It’s a long scene, the dialogue at the barest minimum, but in the intersection of Hittman’s camera, Flanigan’s reactions, and what we’ve seen come before, we get an entire, heartbreaking history of a girl’s growing up. It could have been a short film of pure genius all by itself, and that it’s a flowing part of a long, engrossing narrative is artistic spoiling.

It makes me think of my greatest takeaways from the film; Autumn and Skylar as figures of quiet desperation in an age where so much is uncertain the world over, but also quiet strength. There’s an unspoken potential that their lives in their hometown could go nowhere, and a spoken one in terms of cinematic language that those lives are full of heartache, and they’re ultimately headed towards more heartache to come. But the story unfolds to show Autumn, a private, quiet person, show more vulnerability and emotion than she has before, and Skylar, due to interactions with unexpected “ally” (and I use that word and the quotations with reason)  Jasper, played without guile by Theodore Pellerin, realizing what she’s capable of doing for someone she loves and what limits she will set for herself in the future. Hittman’s implication is that they can—not that they always will, but they can—overcome the obstacles in their way, and they now know they can overcome them and have learned more about themselves, and this is a powerful, earned victory. Between that message (which is 99% of this combo) and an unexpected shoutout to Gerry and the Pacemakers, this film won over every bit of my heart and soul.

Best of all, this film doesn’t have the classical stakes Hollywood would insist upon it having.

SPOILER ALERT: The trailers I saw in January during my last ventures to movie theaters (Again, remember those?) implied that there would be suspense from the girls losing all their money or getting stranded in a place with no assistance. These things don’t happen! And the film’s better for it!

*

All of this is to say that in giving Never Rarely Sometimes Always my highest praise and then looking back on what I’d also valued in my 2020 movie watching, I found that what I’m most drawn to now are not giant, sweeping epics, as much as they may help escape the unsettled life around us all, but stories told on an intimate scale. Stories where the conflicts aren’t traditionally major but the real dilemmas we go through every day. Stories that could come across as quiet and are always observatory…and that make us care about life more

The grandmaster of this type of filmmaking for me will always be Agnes Varda; especially with her masterpiece, Cleo From 5 to 7, but also in films like La Pointe Courte and Vagabond, she showed there was something revolutionary…and still revolutionary…in telling a micro-observed story of life, especially from a non-masculine point of view. And there’s so many more examples I could name. Kathleen Collins’s recently rediscovered early 1980s film of rare genius, Losing Ground. Stephen Cone’s beautiful, touching, occasionally hilarious tales of growing up and the intersection of the secular and spiritual, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and Princess Cyd—the latter one of the most moving stories I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Demme at his most down-to-earth: Melvin and Howard, Rachel Getting Married, and the first part of Something Wild. (The second part of Something Wild is freaking great too but veers into a new tone more conventional trappings, while the first part, like the aforementioned films, revels in random, plotless, anything-can-happen quality). The works of David Gordon Green up to the deeply underrated Snow Angels. And most recently, Joanna Hogg’s inventive, dazzling The Souvenir.

What I want to believe is that films like these and Never Rarely Sometimes Always will in a post-COVID world find an audience; probably not one on the scale of Disney but one enough for them to play for long runs in theaters and have the best platforms pick them up. Again, I will never turn away from the gigantic that feels all the more awesome due to the big screen and the lights going down in a big theater. But the pandemic has reinforced for me that my soul craves movies where the stories are more intimate. Dare I say it…more everyday and commonplace. Because we’ve been missing out on the everyday and commonplace for so long that we’re being reminded how special it is. And one person or a few people’s self-discovery and transformation can and does carry all the impact of uniformed heroes or a plucky woman with a lightsaber saving the universe…and I’ll take the first over the second, with more of a chance to learn something about me, every time.

(But rest assured that as I praise intimate drama/comedy, I’m not including that new film where a man annoys his girlfriend and in all likelihood his neighbors by yelling about Barry Jenkins and William Wyler until sunrise.)

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