The last time I went to the cinema was on Wednesday the 11th of March, the day before the first Coronavirus measures were announced. It was quiet in the hall of the Pathé De Munt in Amsterdam. As usual, I sat at the front, uncomfortably close to the screen. Once the film had started, people began entering the hall. Every time the door opened, a rectangle of corridor light fell on the screen, and I sighed demonstratively.
On Twitter, film lovers are already looking back with melancholy on the days they spent in the cinema. In response to a request, people share their favourite movie theatre memories. I see one anecdote after another about the time the twitterer in question had the cinema to himself. The snapshots of empty theatres that sometimes accompany these tweets confuse me — I associate emptiness with this crisis, not with the period before.
The film I visited that Wednesday afternoon at the Pathé De Munt was The Invisible Man
, a nice dime-a-dozen horror film about a woman who is first locked up in her house by her manipulative husband and later must suffer an invisible tormentor (that same husband). Looking back, the story, clearly made to connect to #MeToo sentiment, can easily slide into a corona-analogy, just as every fiction and every work of art suddenly allows itself to be loaded with a different meaning, with extra weight, to be viewed from a new perspective, seen with new eyes.
Give an artist a crisis and he resorts to metaphors.
My own favourite cinema memory is of another horror film, Drag Me to Hell
. This memory also takes place at De Munt. The auditorium was packed, noisy. I couldn’t relax. All around me was unrestrained chattering, the scrolling of phones, the crunching of chips and popcorn. It took ten minutes until the film, which is exciting but above all disgusting and funny, finally caught hold of the audience. As divided as everyone had been, on their own little island and full of their own experiences, we became one after the first rancid scene. We laughed as one, disgusted as one, were one scream, one emotion and one tense body that braced itself for the next shock.
Everything stands still, they say. Everything goes fast, I think. How long did it take before we became nostalgic for the world before the crisis? How long did it take for the melancholy memes
to take over Twitter? How long it take to come up with all the metaphors?
Companies pour the spirit of the times into smooth emo-commercials with more or less the same message: we are alone, in our separate homes, on those separate islands — and yet we are together. We are together in our solidarity, in our shared destiny, and we are together because we are in touch more than ever. Because: zoomparties! Home schooling! Virtual fitness classes! Online meetings! Online raves
! Online Easter! On the internet we are more social than ever.
I’ve noticed it myself. I mail more and more often. My mails are longer and more personal. With people I used to speak only superficially, I suddenly maintain intense contact. On the rare moments I go out of the door, I regularly stop at the mailbox. I send presents and tickets. I write letters. But all that calling and writing and messaging is a very specific kind of social contact.
Everything happens fast.
My panic gave way to gloom, the gloom gave way to a sudden burst of creative drive. I was puzzled. The cultural pieces I was going to write during the coming period — about cinema films, the Song Contest — had of course been scrapped; what alternatives could I think of? I mailed my editor an idea, and after she had expressed her doubts, I mailed her another one. I felt so inventive and smart, so incredibly flexible —- until I realised that this editor was being bombarded with ideas for pieces, just as any editorial staff of any magazine is probably being bombarded with ideas for pieces at the moment.
We’re just taking care, they say. We’ll make a sprint, I think.
The contortions through which providers, platforms, institutions and media dedicated to culture are twisting themselves can be seen as sympathetic, as desperate, as a stretch, as charming or constricted, a little breathless, clumsy, feverish, even strangely excited. Inspired by the need to remain relevant, they strive to please the audience, to keep the attention, not to be forgotten.
Give the creative sector a crisis and it comes up with... well, with creative solutions. The creative sector wouldn’t be the creative sector if it weren’t inventive and agile, if it couldn’t respond to the zeitgeist at lightning speed. But is this impressive inventiveness simply a reflex? And shouldn’t we look beyond the reflex? Taking care is a luxury that the cultural sector cannot afford. Standing still and reflecting is not something you do when you panic. You need a foundation, and that foundation is missing.
Do you know which foundation you can build on? On subsidies.
On social media I scroll past concerts, performed live or not. I scroll past podcasts, playlists and online culture tips, stories that have been written at a rapid pace. Films, with or without introduction, Q&A or the possibility to watch them together. In theory, we consume as much culture during anno corona as pre-corona, only now online instead of in the flesh. Virtually we walk through exhibitions, sit in the audience at theatre performances that took place before the crisis or are now being performed, in front of the empty seats at the opera.
Without a rectangle of corridor light falling on the canvas. Without anyone talking over or standing pontifically in front of an artwork. Without the crunching of chips and popcorn. Is the solitary art experience the ultimate art experience? The black box
of the cinema forces you to focus. It forces you to surrender. The white cube
of the museum or gallery makes you self-conscious. Sharpens your senses.
When my aunt’s husband died, my mother wanted to do something for her sister. Tradition prescribes visits with uncomfortable silences and cake, but my mother disregards tradition, so she found an alternative. Every week, my aunt, together with a group of older women, cleans the church of which they all are members. My mother, who is not religious at all and has an aversion to anything bourgeois, offered to help her.
The image stayed with me. It moved me. That group of women, over sixty or, lets say elderly, silently working together. The light falling through the high windows is captured by the swirling dust. A ritual that replaces the discomfort of language, of communication. A being together that has nothing to do with speaking or touching, and everything with a shared goal, a shared experience, with physical closeness.
Art is not only the expression of an artist. Making and experiencing art is also part of something social — of a ritual.
Laughter as one, disgust as one, one scream, one emotion.
When we finally really take care, when we can afford to pause and reflect on what culture is and what it means, let’s use that space to place culture in a broader context. To really take a step back. To really look. Let’s look beyond supply and demand, beyond economic value, beyond marketing. Lets see culture more precisely as culture
. Not as something we make as individuals and that we consume as individuals, but as something that binds us together, as a way to be together. As a ritual. A shared experience.
Basje Boer (1980) is a writer and journalist. Her most recent novel is Nulversie (2019). Earlier she wrote the short story collection Kiestoon (2006) and the novel Bermuda (2016). In the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer she writes about film and (pop)culture.
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts.
Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.