Should Congress Okay a Theater Bailout?

Plus: 'Possessor' reviewed and 'Raised by Wolves' assessed.

I asked a knowledgeable friend some months ago why the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) hadn’t been pushing more vocally for financial assistance from Congress. After all, government-mandated closures were crippling theaters, and the closures were in turn crippling studios, creating a sort of vicious cycle: No theaters were open, so no studios were releasing new movies, which gave no theaters any reason to reopen, which further encouraged studios to push back release dates, et cetera. 

This (very smart!) friend said that while some chains had taken PPP loans, exhibitors were hoping they could hold on just long enough for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet: that a big blockbuster would encourage folks to come out, and once they started coming out again, the movies would start coming out again. It would break the cycle, and things would get back to normal. Or, well, normal-ish, insofar as capacity would still be limited and some audiences would still be a bit freaked out. But better.

Well, how’d that work out?

Between social media scaremongering and New York/Los Angeles’s continued refusal to reopen theaters despite the fact that sitting silently in a cinema while socially distanced and wearing a mask presents an extremely limited health risk, the hoped-for boom after reopening simply hasn’t happened. Domestic theater attendance remains sluggish even as foreign sales begin to recover. Studios have pushed release dates back yet again, delaying blockbusters to December and beyond. And theaters have started to shutter again. One small piece of data: In the Dallas area there are six Alamo Drafthouses. Four of those have closed again, as demand simply isn’t there for them to stay open. I saw it firsthand during a screening of the remastered Akira: an auditorium that could fit 150 or so held seven. 

All of which is to say that, finally, NATO, the Motion Picture Association (MPA), and the Directors Guild Association (DGA) have banded together to more strenuously argue for a bailout of movie theaters.

“The moviegoing experience is central to American life,” those three groups write in a letter to congressional leaders. “268 million people in North America went to the movies last year to laugh, cry, dream, and be moved together. Theaters are great unifiers where our nation’s most talented storytellers showcase their cinematic accomplishments. Every aspiring filmmaker, actor, and producer dreams of bringing their art to the silver screen, an irreplaceable experience that represents the pinnacle of filmmaking achievement.”

Beyond the airy ideals are cold hard facts about solid jobs being destroyed by government-mandated closures: “93% of movie theater companies had over 75% in losses in the second quarter of 2020. If the status quo continues, 69% of small and mid-sized movie theater companies will be forced to file for bankruptcy or to close permanently, and 66% of theater jobs will be lost.”

It’s not just the estimated 150,000 jobs provided by the theaters themselves that are at risk if movie theaters go under. It’s jobs on movie sets that sport enormous budgets justifiable only because of outsized box office grosses: prop makers in Atlanta working on Marvel movies; gaffers and riggers working sets in Louisiana. These people will be hurt as well if theater chains go under and movie-watching shifts entirely to streaming.

Look, there are plenty of good arguments against bailouts during normal times: let capitalism do its thing, no need to prop up buggy-makers in a time of autos, et cetera. But these are not normal times. And the simple fact of the matter is that the distress movie theaters are suffering is, in large part, due to government interference in their natural operations: Last year saw a record high box-office gross, after all. Yes, people are freaked out. Sure, this might have just accelerated the extinction of theaters. But maybe they’re freaked out in part because state governments have targeted theaters for extended closure despite the fact that literally zero superspreader events in the medical literature are tied to movie theaters? And standing by while a government-accelerated extinction occurs isn’t exactly laissez-faire economics.

There are obviously a great number of businesses that have suffered a great deal of damage due to the coronavirus. I have no idea if we can afford to bail them all out. I do know, however, that if something isn’t done, and quickly, to rescue movie theaters there’s a good chance that most of them won’t survive this crisis. And that would be a terrible shame.


Review: Possessor (limited theatrical)

(Art by Jason Kauzlarich)

With a few exceptions—Tenet and Greyhound on the action front; maybe Palm Springs and The King of Staten Island and She Dies Tomorrow on the comedy front—we’ve had a genuine dearth of real-ass movies released during the six months of the COVID crisis. Locked down, stuck at home, we’ve generally had to settle for straight-to-streaming fare like An American Pickle or The Devil All the Time: not bad, exactly, but not quite kino, either. 

Defining a real-ass movie is a bit like defining pornography. And let me tell you: Possessor is a real-ass movie. (It’s also, honestly, slightly pornographic. Two for one on the “you know it when you see it” front.) A genuinely disturbing vision of the near future from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, Possessor mixes the mundanity of modernity with the terrifying intrusion into our lives that technology often makes.

Mostly, though, it feels like the sort of thing that would play great in a theater, even as you’re watching it via watermarked screener on your laptop. From the opening shots—as a young African-American woman named Holly (Gabrielle Graham) plugs something into her head and starts turning a dial, her face shifting from horrible sadness to sheer joy, before donning a jumpsuit-style uniform and heading to a nightclub, the camera tracking her low and from behind as she a cadre of similarly suited entertainers walk up a spiral staircase and enter the posh bar—you can tell you’re watching something made with special, fastidious care. And when Holly’s smiling precision shifts to horrifying violence, you know Cronenberg here too is being precise, exacting. What follows isn’t splatter for splatter’s sake: It’s letting us know about the mindset of the protagonist.

Cronenberg and his director of photography, Karim Hussain, frame their shots with great care, offering up both information about the story and a series of terrible tableaus: At one point, a character sits in a lake of blood, having taken a meat cleaver to someone a few times and the camera, which had been in close-up during the violence, sits back a bit and lets us soak in the carnage with fresh eyes. The room is drenched in red, practically painted afresh. Reframing and resting helps us absorb the brutality of the moment.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a corporate assassin who hijacks the brains (and therefore bodies) of unsuspecting individuals in order to get close enough to corporate titans to kill them. Tas’s handler is Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a veteran of these sorts of brain-bending operations. Tas’s latest adventure in transmurder has left her a bit shaken; she’s having trouble reconnecting with her own body, her own life. And those personal connections are a problem for Girder, who sees Tas as her own replacement as head of this murder-for-hire business. Personal attachments make this line of work difficult. 

The bulk of Possessor concerns Tas’s effort to take over the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) so she can get close to tech mogul John Parse (Sean Bean) via Parse’s daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Parse owns a “data mining” operation, the exact details of which serve as a precise metaphor for Tas’s more explicit brain-hopping: using cameras on laptops and the like, Parse’s company spies on people’s homes. Not for anything as tawdry as sexual secrets to blackmail people with, though the miners see lots of that. No. For curtains. To see what people have in their home. To see what they might want to buy more of at a future date. 

This sort of casually terrifying intrusion into the real lives of random people is, in an odd way, the scariest thing about Possessor, a movie that features the aforementioned lake of blood. We’re already letting corporations into our homes, into our lives, into our very thoughts and ideas—what do you think Google is doing with your Gmail account anyway? Body-jumping murder is just the logical endpoint given what else we cede to the tech titans.


Assigned Viewing: Raised by Wolves (HBO Max)

A pair of androids flee a planet Earth torn to ribbons by a war between atheists and believers of the Mithraic faith. The androids were programmed by an atheist to raise a group of children made by artificial insemination on a distant planet; almost all of them die. An ark arrives from Earth filled with believers; it is destroyed by one of the androids, who it turns out was a weapon of mass destruction play-acting as a nurturing mother. The voice of God instructs an atheist hiding among the Mithraists how to act; he is eventually made their leader. The atheist murder-android kidnaps the children of the believers to raise as her own; her surprises keep coming. There’s a prophecy; how it will be fulfilled should be the central question of the show, but it keeps getting relegated to background noise.

I dunno, you guys. I’ve watched the whole season, which was executive produced by Ridley Scott (who also directed the first couple of episodes), and I’m not sure if it’s good or terrible. It’s probably terrible. But I really admire the way show creator Aaron Guzikowski leans into the weirdness of it all. If it is terrible it’s at least genuine camp in the Sontagian sense of the term: an honest effort to make something with feeling that falls apart because it’s just so silly and absurd. 

At the very least, it’s captivating: Abubakar Salim does this weirdly interesting thing with his voice/speech cadence as the android Father, while Mother (Amanda Collin) is delightfully deranged. You get the sense she might start screaming about wire hangers at any moment.