In a year where people continue to shelter indoors, mask up and avoid people like the plague (myself included), the access to at-home entertainment and multi-media distractions has never been in greater demand. And one very, very, very, VERY small upside to these proceedings has been people taking up hobbies, reconnecting (if only digitally) with loved ones and discovering just what a wealth of entertainment options are out there for them to be plugged into in the first place. More people have discovered streaming services like The Criterion Channel, Mubi, Shudder and, yes, Kanopy, in since March of last year than ever before, and they play into the many different niche interests people oftentimes have but have no outlet for due to the seeming lack of options out there that play into them.
Thankfully, however, most of these are beamable straight into your living room (or bedroom… really anywhere you have a TV or even just a laptop or smart phone). Kanopy might even be the best option of all, given the astounding array of educational and documentary materials as its central focus, its varied narrative options and that the whole thing costs no more than the price of a library card or school ID. That’s right, Folks: Kanopy is absolutely free through many of the library and school systems that you already pay into with your taxes every year (making this especially valuable for any students out there looking for something to do on a Friday night or on your second screen while remote learning from home). Either way, here is a perfect entertainment package to get you started on your journey through the wonderful worlds that Kanopy opens up to you.
Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922)
Over the past decade or so, nothing has had a more looming presence in the horror genre than witchcraft. The thing is, though, that this is not just your mother’s garden variety of Satan worshipping sorceresses dancing in the moonlight somewhere in the woods. In the lead-up to and fermenting center of the #MeToo movement, there has been a radical recontextualization of witches as a kind of wounded feminists: impossibly wronged by the men (and oftentimes women) around them since their heyday in Europe. Explored in films as varied as Antichrist (2009), ParaNorman (2012), Maleficent (2014), The Witch (2015), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), The Love Witch (2016), Suspiria (2018), Gretel and Hansel (2020) and the three Fear Street (2021) movies, it has proven to be a deep well of exploration for both modern and historical womanhood, persecution and terror. However, sympathetic portrayals of witchcraft are, in of themselves, nothing new, as evidenced by this narrative-documentary hybrid on the subject from way back in the silent days of cinema. Presenting narrative scenes amidst essay-like examinations of the dark arts throughout history, Haxan is a gripping artifact that posits the hypocrisies and dangers inherent in society’s persistent willingness to take their frustrations out on the women within them, whether they are archaic theologians.
Moderns Times (1936)
As was the case with the aforementioned Haxan, it appears that the more things change, the more they actually stay the same. Now that people have had a chance to step away from what their lives were, unplug from the rapidity of modern life and reconnect with those immediately around them, many of us can’t help but realize just how dehumanizing and consuming the presence of modern technologies are in our lives, and how many of them serve only to drive us apart from one another and view each other as somehow less than what we are. I mean, heck, the culmination of the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued Anti-vax / Anti-mask (and, if we’re really being honest with each other, Pro-Virus) backlash against those trying to mitigate the damage being done by the ongoing pandemic around us seems proof enough of this as anything we’re going to get. The thing is, though, that these are the kinds of messages that Charlie Chaplin was preaching back in the early 20th century, never more powerfully nor more directly than he did in Modern Times: a silent masterpiece released well into the era of sound in Hollywood.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
One thing that a lot of people found surprising last year was the spiked popularity of movies such as Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011). Rather than running as far away from the virus raging just outside of their doorstep – and instead insulating themselves with comfortable binge watching like Friends, The Office or pretty much every last thing on Disney+ – a great number of people instead leaned into the troubled times that they found themselves in and sought comfort in stories where educated experts in lab coats tackled our virulent problems head-on and eventually came up with a solution to the ills that were plaguing them. And while I was certainly among those people (much to the chagrin of my wife, who decidedly was not), I also found comfort in this quintessential piece of Swedish art cinema. Igmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which the looming specter of death plays a returning crusader in a game of chess for his very soul, plays out amidst the Black Plague, treating it as more of a background texture than a major plot point in the narrative (think of something more akin to Jesus’s presence in Ben-Hur). And, I have to say, there was something even more comforting in this ponderous, half-century-old period piece than in its blockbuster counterparts, because here we saw the grim visage of death set upon his duties with the grim fatalism we have come to expect from him, only, paradoxically, life inevitable went on for the countless masses living out their lives in the margins. There was something infinitely reassuring in the idea that life inextricably goes on, even in the face of Death (or, perhaps, even because of it).
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975)
While I admit that Jeanne Dielman is a difficult watch for most that, like The Seventh Seal, embodies the very worst stereotypes that come to mind when people think of European Arthouse movies, in the right mood and environment (both of which I feel have been plentifully provided by shelter in place orders and forced quarantines over the last 18 months), it can be downright transcendent. It’s the kind of movie where my wife complains that “Nothing happens” (see also recent Oscar winner Nomadland), but that it both besides and exactly the point being made. In it, we see the familiar kinds of rote routines that many have adopted in quarantine. We see ourselves in the unconscious undulations of Dielman: the familiar to-do list being quietly checked off throughout the day, and in it, I think, we see our recent experiences validated in their representation on screen. No, there are no climactic blowouts, over-the-top pratfalls nor fantastical flights of fancy: there is only life, starkly laid bare, staring back at us from the other side of our living rooms.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1982)
Then again, sometimes you really need that escape that traditional narratives offer us. You need to be transported someplace else – ANY place else – and are all too eager to dive in head first, consequences be damned. And while not everybody is willing and eager to fork over the $30 entrance fee that Disney+ is demanding for Jungle Cruise (2021), many of the film’s obvious inspirations can be found elsewhere for pennies on the dollar. One that particularly surprised the mainstream viewing public was this legendary German film about a mad conquistador in search for El Dorado: a man who abandoned his life and country for the mere prospect of a gilded kingdom in the heart of South America. It is a harrowing exercise in human endurance, to be sure, but there is no denying it overwhelming power that persists to this very day. And just think of how smart you’ll look when it finally becomes available to stream for free on Disney+ and you’re pointing out all the canny references and familiar narrative beats like a pro who’s seen it all before.
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