After a quarter century living in Topanga Canyon, I’ve moved to Hollywood Boulevard. Not only that, but into a 1925 gothic revival building that once housed Audrey Hepburn and Ronald Reagan, with the Chinese Theatre a block away and Musso & Frank’s a ten-minute walk. Five floors below my window, tourists teem and barkers in Spiderman costumes hawk guided tours over their megaphones. When I arrived six months ago, the boulevard was quiet, its commotion still in hiding from the pandemic. Now it explodes as much as is possible in an imperiled democracy, a kind of euphoria bursting at the seams.
In a country that—whatever those annoying French claim otherwise—thinks of itself as having invented movies, popular culture says more about America than politics does, and potentially the pandemic may change the movies more than anything since television 70 years ago. We’ve just gone through a year of loss, retreat, and national crisis as documented by films that dominated our mass consciousness like Nomadland, Minari, The Father, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Although movies are in production even longer than pandemics, it’s not an overstatement to suggest this last pandemic affected what was released in the 15 months we all spent wandering the nomadlands of our own homes.
Now the movies are ready to party, and we’re all invited. Bets split down the middle that, on the one hand, we’ve become addicted to streaming on HBO Max or Netflix or Hulu or Amazon whatever we want to see at the moment from the comfort of our own couches; on the other hand, the siren call of the boulevard outside is irresistible. If you’ve driven around the city at all lately, you’ve noticed billboards insisting as they never have before that this or that particular movie is “what theaters were made for.” What theaters are made for means not just the size of the screen, the sonic splendor of the sound, the Big Dark in which we sit, but something we all do together, communally, now that we’ve been unleashed from our quarantines.
It’s hard to imagine a movie better timed for celebration than Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, a remake of the spectacular 1961 urban musical that successfully lured audiences from their TVs the first time around. I thought remaking West Side Story was a brick-dumb idea right up to the moment I realized it was stone brilliant and that Spielberg was the perfect guy for it, with Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Angels in America) writing the script and a cast of ethnically authentic unknowns, as opposed to, say, Natalie Wood as Maria in the original. If the zeitgeist proves as festive as it wants to be, West Side Story will be a smash in the theaters when it arrives in December, as will Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune—a grail for filmmakers like David Lynch, whose 1984 version was a failure, and The Holy Mountain weirdo Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose elaborate, unfulfilled storyboards for Dune became legendary on their own. Ridley Scott brings his lavish period piece The Last Duel with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Killing Eve femme fatale Jodie Comer, while wrapping up next year’s Napoleon epic with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role and Comer as Josephine. And, come on, you know you want to see that and will happily go to a theater to do so. I also look forward to strolling across the street to the Chinese to finally see Daniel Craig wrap up his run as Bond, James Bond, in No Time to Die.
Every one of these movies sounds like fun. Not a single one is about growing crops in Arkansas or the ravages of dementia or Frances McDormand casting her weary gaze across America’s mesas of despair. The Rorschach test in terms of both what audiences want to watch and what filmmakers want to show them may be this summer’s Get Back, Peter Jackson’s recut reassemblage of the grim 1970 music documentary Let It Be. The earlier movie displayed the disintegration of a once-notable rock band called the Beatles, who only defined twentieth-century Western culture in a manner comparable to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, and Picasso. The new version sounds less dour, with less footage of the Beatles bickering and more of them giving their last show from a London rooftop. Had they lived in Hollywood, they might have performed on the roof of the building I live in now—though I doubt the postpandemic pandemonium could be any more triumphant than in this Seize the Day Summer of 2021. If things get much crazier down there on the boulevard, I may get back to self-quarantining. But I’m going to the movies first.
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