Coronavirus goes to the movies

23 March 2020

Movie buff Mark Naglazas mourns the move from the cinema to the couch, and offers his tips on navigating the streaming universe.

It is often observed that the film industry during the dark days of World War II supplied stories that fortified flagging spirits, such Casablanca, The Great Dictator, To Be Or Not To Be and Henry V. Audiences were transported to better, more humane, more beautiful places (The Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind, Meet Me In St Louis, National Velvet) and the industry sub-contracted its greatest talents to the propaganda machine (Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler, John Ford).

Our generation now has its WWII as the entire planet unites in the battle against a virus Hollywood predicted with chilling accuracy in the 2011 Steven Soderbergh thriller Contagion. The big difference between then and now is that instead of being recruited in the war effort Hollywood was one of the first industries to shut itself down.

Soon-to-be released blockbusters have been put on ice (amongst them the latest James Bond adventure No Time to Die, Marvel’s Black Widow and the live-action Mulan), dozens of productions have been halted (including Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic and James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequel), recently released hits such as The Invisible Man and Bloodshot have been taken out of cinemas and put onto streaming services, film festivals have been cancelled (including Cannes) and cinemas have been closed.

Here in Australia the multiplexes and art-houses held out for as long as possible. But the Prime Minister sealed their fate in his Sunday address to the nation, which means that as of noon today all cinemas across the nation will be closed (very few people were turning up anyway so Scott Morrison simply signed into law what audiences had already decided).

The big-screen experience has been part of Mark Naglazas’ lifeblood.
Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959) directed by William Wyler.

While the loss of movie-going is causing me distress — the big-screen experience has been my lifeblood since I watched Ben-Hur in an outdoor cinema in the Perth suburb in which I grew up — most of my friends and professional colleagues have little sympathy for my anguish. Indeed, many welcome the chance to spend a couple of months on the couch with a subscription to Netflix, Stan, Amazon, Disney+ or one of the many streaming services that have proliferated as a result of increased internet speeds.

What’s not understood by those addicted to the tsunami of cheap content pouring into their homes is the role traditional movie-going plays within film culture and the culture overall. Apart from supplying an aesthetic experience that an evening in front of the tele cannot match, cinemas such as Perth’s Luna Palace are hubs for a myriad of screen-connected activities whose impact is impossible to measure.

It’s where the next generation of filmmakers are educated and inspired, it is a mecca for film lovers to meet, talk about what they have just seen and deepen connections,  it curates content for the more casual viewer and it promotes movies that would be overlooked or dumped by the more business-oriented multiplexes.

“I worry most about Luna Palace in Perth because its existence is threatened by the shutdown, especially if it continues for the six months talked about by the PM.”

Most importantly, the Luna Palace and the like are keeping Australian cinema alive. As globalisation continues to centralise power with the American entertainment industry (the so-called “long tail” proved to be a myth) Australian cinema commands a smaller and smaller amount of the available screen space and the consciousness of audiences. If it wasn’t for Luna Palace there would be almost no Australian cinematic presence in our city (for example, we would never have had the opportunity to see Jennifer Kent’s magisterial The Nightingale).

I worry most about Luna Palace in Perth because its existence is threatened by the shutdown, especially if it continues for the six months talked about by the PM in his Sunday statement. While the government supports our film industry (it would not exist without it) it has minimal involvement in distribution and exhibition.

This will have to change if Luna Palace and indie cinemas across the country are to survive. Industry bodies are pressing federal government to intervene in these difficult times. As we prepare to explore the multiple tributaries of streaming, like David Livingstone with a remote, please consider how you can support those fighting to keep traditional cinema-going alive as this wrecking ball of a virus destroys our already fragile culture industries.

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In the meantime I will be joining you on the couch as we sift through the dross that clogs up many streaming services – seeking out cinematic experiences that match the extraordinary quality of television series (which are perhaps an even bigger threat to the art of cinema that COVID-19).

Before we get onto Netflix, Stan, Amazon and the rest I’ll begin with the freebie: SBS World Movies, the multi-cultural broadcaster’s dedicated movie channel.

Like many Seesaw readers anxious for news on the spread of the coronavirus I’ve been relentlessly channel surfing, jumping from local to international and even foreign-language reports. On the way I’ve found myself stopping on World Movies channel and not leaving as one great movie after another is finding its way into their line-up.

The worried faces of a man and woman as they embrace
David Niven and Kim Hunter in the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death.

I recently watched Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburgers’ s ravishing war-time fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which David Niven plays a poet-pilot who slips through death’s hand on his plunge to earth and falls so deeply in love with an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) that he becomes the centre of a vast metaphysical legal dispute centred on the nature of love. It’s exactly the kind of against-all-odds uplift we need right now.

Other films currently in rotation on the World Movies channel are amongst my favourites of all time. Included in films that you can watch at scheduled broadcast times or on SBS On Demand are Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime (1967) , a vast comic imagining in which the French Chaplin transforms soulless modern Paris into a village that accommodates his perennial hero Hulot; Terry Gilliam’s exhilarating 1991 redemptive romance The Fisher King and 1970s classics that every self-respecting film buff should see over and over again (The Conversation, Heaven Can Wait, Serpico, Marathon Man, Chinatown and the three Godfathers).

Vehicles crowd a roundabout in 1970's Paris
Jacques Tati’s comic masterpiece Playtime (1967).

We’re not going to get cinemas back any time soon so we now have to get used to watching all of our movies on our various devices (imagine seeing Apocalypse Now for the first time on an iPhone and you know how sad it makes me feel). So over the coming weeks and months I’ll be helping Seesaw readers navigate the streaming universe to locate stories that provide both escape and enlightenment during the darkest time most of us as a community will ever experience.

Mark Naglazas will be back next Monday with more film tips and information on how Perth movie lovers can help keep Luna Palace alive.

Pictured top: The existence of independent cinemas like Luna Cinema in Leederville is under threat.

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Author —
Mark Naglazas

Mark Naglazas has interviewed many of the world’s most significant producers, writers, directors and actors while working as film editor for The West Australian. He now writes for STM, reviews films on 6PR and hosts the Luna Palace Q & A series Movies with Mark. Favourite playground equipment: monkey bars, where you can hung upside and see the world from a different perspective.

Past Articles

  • Show me the other money

    The pressure on the arts community to wean itself off mining and fossil fuel money has been amplified by the outcome of the Federal election. But are there realistic alternatives to an industry that looms so large over all aspects of West Australian business and culture? Mark Naglazas reports.

  • Black Swan: the state of play

    After many challenges during its 10-year residency at the State Theatre Centre of WA, questions hang over Black Swan’s role as the state’s flagship theatre company. Mark Naglazas reports.

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