Licensed to binge-watch
The James Bond movies had never held much appeal for me before 2020. I’d seen three or four in the past and been entertained but never really enthralled. Stuck in the house in those early days of lockdown one, in dire need of both escapism and a project, I decided to watch all 24.
With a speed and intensity that took me completely by surprise, I became obsessed. The glamorous far-flung locations helped satisfy my pandemic-induced desperation for armchair travel.
The delicious silliness of it all – Christopher Lee and his third nipple in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Jaws falling in love (in space!) in Moonraker (1979) – was a real comfort in a world that was getting scarier by the day. And with a calendar that had been indefinitely stripped of anything to look forward to, each change in Bond was a big event.
Then there were the theme songs, the set-pieces, the gadgets with their varying degrees of usefulness… all of a sudden I was someone who had opinions about all of them. Strong ones!
Though my obsession has cooled a little in the time since then – which is probably for the best – I’ll always be grateful to those films for providing a delightful reprieve from those frightening first months of the pandemic.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
From Minecraft to I May Destroy You
I’d like to say I’ve used the last 12 months of lockdown to brush up on classic cinema, but – truth be told – with the demands of homeschooling eating into my viewing time I have watched fewer films than normal. Yet I have enjoyed the dominance of the regional British films that I love – things like Rocks (2019), Saint Maud (2019), His House (2020), Body of Water (2020), Make Up (2019) – and have been thrilled to see them enjoying such a positive reception, when in previous years they may have been muscled out by bigger releases.
I also found I craved the familiarity of old favourites, and have been working my way through The West Wing for the third time. There’s something comforting about Aaron Sorkin’s optimistic world view.
Thanks to the brilliance of Netflix Party, I shared plenty of ‘dumb fun’ like Geostorm (2017), The Meg (2018) and Tiger King (2020) with my best friend, which enabled us to forget about the real world for a couple of hours. And, like everyone else, I was utterly blown away by Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (2020). It felt like the exhalation of a tightly-held breath and has brought real hope that audiences are embracing brave, bold storytelling.
I’ll have to wait some time to share any of those with my seven-year-old son, but we do enjoy watching family-friendly things like the Netflix challenge show The Floor Is Lava – which, of course, we recreate around the living room. And he has developed an all-consuming love of Minecraft. The passion he has for it, and the pride he takes in the worlds he creates, is surprisingly infectious. It’s brought him – and me – hours of precious distraction.
With the announcement of lockdown in March 2020, a flurry of cancellation emails entered my inbox. Zia Anger’s ICA presentation of My First Film (2019) was cancelled, and then suddenly she was on social media offering limited places to live streaming sessions. I bagged a spot. Live interactions with big names on Instagram and Zoom soon followed – I took to them like Augustus Gloop to candy as Laura Mulvey, Roger Corman and even a cigar-chomping Jean-Luc Godard joined in.
I attended lots of virtual film festivals: Fantasia, Abertoir, Glasgow, BFI Flare and the London Film Festival. Seeing the Cannes Film Festival logo appear before many of the films was bittersweet. Strangely, I was craving the horribly long queues outside the Palais, but it was lovely to be able to watch the films sitting next to my partner on the sofa.
The switch from the working-from-home week to the weekend was marked with Ghibli Saturdays, Zoom film clubs watching trashy laugh-along classics like Alligator (1980), and endless YouTube music video playlists that usually started off with Normani’s ‘Motivation’.
I missed the socialising of Christmas break so much that, for company, we binged the Back to the… series celebrating 38 years of Channel 4. This led to us watching the first film Channel 4 ever screened – Michael Apted’s P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang (1982) – and repeating the title’s made-up catchphrase as loudly as we could at random intervals. We still do. RIP Michael Apted.
The friends I so desperately miss also made the best of a bad situation by starting WhatsApp and Houseparty groups so we could watch Drag Race UK together. Bing, Bang, Bong, Sing, Sang, Song, Ding, Dang, Dong, UK Hun? That’s what I’ll remember.
Running in loops
We moved house, quit jobs, my dad died. Huge things happened that felt bizarrely inconsequential – we still couldn’t go anywhere and, when we could, we were dragged back into lockdown.
Hades is a video game in which you play a demi-god battling to escape hell. Your character, Zagreus – the son of Hades – is fighting his way up through the underworld to the surface. When he dies he is dragged back to hell.
The loop would be interminable, but Zagreus is surrounded by family – his uncles, Zeus and Poseidon; his cousins – Athena, Dionysus, Ares. With each run they tell us something about their world that breathes life into the repetition. The small interactions stack over the hours. Eventually the game’s constraints frame something beautiful and meaningful.
Thousands of hours of Lego on the carpet. An exercise routine learned rote. Dad, fighting through a story he’d shared yesterday and the day before. The game is the same thing over and over. It’s hell, but there are moments of heaven too.
The past inside the present
When the pandemic hit and the flow of new releases slowed, I looked back to find my contemporary cinema. After all, what could be more current than the work of Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, whose study in toxic masculinity, Cairo Station (1958), recently landed on Netflix along with 11 of his other films. Or Mr Arkadin (1955), Orson Welles’ Cold War thriller about amoral men accumulating power and wealth in a newly divided and suspicious Europe. Or Alan Bridges’ class-conscious The Hireling (1973), an anti-romantic drama that ponders if the divide between the haves and have-nots might be unbridgeable.
Then there was Edgar G. Ulmer’s fatal noir Detour (1945), whose intensely isolated mood so resonates in our doomy, lonely new reality; and even that great film maudit Waterworld (1995), a Swiss cheese of logical holes and 90s blockbuster theatrics, but one with genuinely heartfelt concerns about the planet and whether it’s in man’s nature to destroy it.
As the pressure to keep up with endless fresh ‘content’ eased off, this was the year I stopped to watch all the classic films I’d been meaning to – and found the past capable of saying a great deal about right now.
Pandemic screen culture will be forever associated in my memory with the spread of virtual watch parties. It started with the Netflix Party extension, which let people view films in a synchronised way, associated with a chat. It had been around but was given a new lease of life by the pandemic. Typical of the way things work in our capitalist world, it was limited to a specific browser, a specific streaming platform and the subset of films available in all of the participants’ geolocations. Yet, with the indefinite closing of cinemas, we were a captive market, longing for any semblance of communal viewing.
Soon, many streaming platforms had their own exclusive extensions. By the time cross-platform extensions arrived, me and my friends, all in our mid-20s, were already done with the experiment. Though it was fun at the beginning, the more watch parties we did, the more difficult it was to recreate what we had lost in pandemic times.
So another turning point in pandemic screen cultures for me was letting go of the desire to be synchronised, of the desire for cheap substitutes of past experiences rather than embracing what the present unexpectedly offered.
Among these offerings was the new potential to have virtual asynchronous screenings with friends around the world. Wherever we were geographically, we could now discuss films collectively, in a way we rarely had before.
Back out of hell
The last year has made viewing cinema feel strange. For myself at least, the act of watching something in isolation has felt like a consuming act –perhaps too idle an activity for a long time spent in idleness.
Not that I’ve kept away from film entirely. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final feature, Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), proved unintentionally timely with its wistful and contemplative ode to the emotional and ideological power – good and bad – of the movie theatre. I’ve also found some salvation in one of my favourites, Katsuhiro Otomo’s explosive anime Akira (1988). It’s visceral and apocalyptic, but also exhilarating and gorgeously realised to the point that it feels new each time.
But the more active participation of video games made a welcome break from that feeling of idleness. Funny then that I’ve spent most of my time playing Supergiant Games’ Hades, an often brutally challenging game that on the face of it is about escaping hell.
The game’s looping structure keeps you hooked not just with its precise action and constantly remixing levels but also with the fostering of complex relationships with its diverse and beautifully drawn pantheon of characters. It’s a near-perfect game about hard-won reconnection with your loved ones, and what could be a more suitable piece of cultural ephemera for this year than that?
Don’t try to escape
With everything that’s been happening in the world, it would be natural to look for an escape (and perhaps even advised), so that’s what I did. I buried myself in sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and My Wife and Kids, and laughed until my jaw cramped and eyes watered. And then I stopped.
I stopped trying to escape because I couldn’t. Whenever I would turn off the screen I would re-enter the world in the same confused state that I left it in. I think the upbeat, escapist tone of the content I was consuming made it even harder to transition back into reality.
As time went on, I realised that I found more comfort in doing the opposite. I gravitated towards stories that reaffirmed my belief that the world around me was not normal. I watched The Truman Show (more than once), Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove and the anime series Attack on Titan. At their core, these are all stories about people observing the world around them, feeling uncomfortable and doing something to change it.
The art that I’ll associate with this time in my life is the stuff that made me realise that feeling uncomfortable in this world is unfortunately not an uncommon feeling. As a Black man I belong to the community of people who are not comfortable with the way the world is, and there are others who share the same lived experience – because of the colour of their skin, what they identify as, or other factors beyond their control. Art is our voice.
Not a normal screening
“Doesn’t it feel like we’re on a really long, long, long, long flight?”
The first episode of 2 Lizards by Brooklyn-based artists and filmmakers Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki popped up on Instagram last March just as a UK lockdown appeared imminent, and I was instantly charmed.
A pair of shiny reptiles living in NYC traverse the city reflecting on the fears, frustrations and strange beauty of quarantine life. Combining 3D animation and real footage, the series covers everything from Dr Fauci’s briefings and doomsday scrolling to the BLM protests. The narrative unfolded alongside the pandemic and brilliantly captured (with dark humour and a perfect soundtrack) a specific moment in time.
Two weeks later, I took a seat in front of my laptop for American filmmaker Zia Anger’s livestream cinema presentation of My First Film. Originally conceived as a solo performance (due to end its two-year tour in the UK before COVID-19), the work is an intimate journey into the inception and eventual abandonment of her feature debut Always All Ways, Anne Marie. Anger uses screen sharing, iMessages, Quicktime videos and TextEdit to create a self-reflexive and affecting meditation on failure and the creative process.
Checking into the halfway house
The last film I saw in a cinema before lockdown was Jan Komasa’s thriller The Hater (2020). Addressing populist politics and online culture, it’s painfully contemporary. What I mostly watched during lockdown was the opposite: a mix of British cinema of the 1940s and 50s and classic British series from the 1990s that provided both immersive engagement and much-needed escape.
In the TV camp, favourite rediscoveries included the brilliant BBC adaptations of Wives and Daughters (1999) and Vanity Fair (1998) – the former as elegant as the latter is rambunctious – while rewarding film rewatches included the ever-radiant I Know Where I’m Going! (1945).
Ealing Studios films, with their ensemble emphasis, also offered a much stronger sense of community than the average Zoom call, whether in the committed social drama of Pool of London (1951) or the ingenious collective fantasia of The Halfway House (1944).
While the familiar voices of actors such as Earl Cameron, Glynis Johns or Roger Livesey consoled and comforted, these films often surprised in their inclusivity and elements of experimentation – and their occasional ability to reflect on the current situation. “You were given a pause in time,” the characters in The Halfway House discover, “a pause to stand still and look at yourselves and your difficulties.”
It’s a line that partially evokes the strange, suspended experience of lockdown – as well as the ongoing challenges as we each attempt to assess what this gruelling year has given us, and what it has taken away.
The rise of the simul-watch
My father has been seriously ill since a few months prior to the first lockdown. One of the challenges this past year has been being at a remove from his treatments, not really able to meet in person and limiting our interactions to calls, Facetimes and Zooms. Since my childhood we’ve always watched films together – whether an eclectic range of classics at home or new stuff at my local cinemas growing up: the Ipswich Film Theatre or the big old metallic Odeon.
It was my dad who introduced me to classical Hollywood, the French New Wave and whatever new exoticism Tartan, Artificial Eye or the BFI had on release. And it was me who forced dad to go to the opening nights of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Troy (2004), the latter of which, as a classicist, irritated him to the point of mania. Passionate discussions afterwards were always an integral part of the experience and so much of my passion for cinema now I can put down to those chats.
Of course, WhatsApp group quip-alongs to dreadful movies have become a staple of staying sane for so many of us during this period. But what’s been really special for me has been watching some truly great films remotely with my dad again. He’s particularly loved Tabu (2012), Toni Erdmann (2016) and Witness (1985), and has been writing me long emails about them afterwards.
I really hope we can watch films together again soon. But for now, these simul-watches have been a breath of fresh air. They’ve reminded me why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.
When lockdown arrived, YouTube gaming communities like OutsideXbox, OutsideXtra, itsJuliaHardy, Eurogamer and Dicebreaker rapidly adapted their studio schedules to a home-based livestream format. This meant green screens, ad-hoc setups and occasional teething issues – the latter instantly forgivable considering the efforts being made to keep us, the community, entertained.
These livestreams quickly became the mainstay of daily viewing for myself and many new and loyal viewers. There was sheer delight in watching nine people from multiple channels argue who was the impostor in Among Us – a kind of Cluedo in space. Then there was the crescendo of horror found in the – initially hilarious – co-operative ghost-hunting fright fest that was Phasmophobia. It was all the more appealing that these titles were created by indie studios, who benefitted from unexpected publicity during an uncertain economic period.
More recently, in this third lockdown we got Jackbox Party 7, the creative writing game released in late 2020. It’s become a streaming treasure trove for the YouTube/Twitch crowd, and I’ve also taken to hosting a game or two of Quiplash myself via Zoom. It’s enough to help anyone forget about being trapped inside for many hours a day and enjoy time with friends again.
Rooms with a different view
I’ve clocked up several hundred films since the UK first went into full lockdown on 23 March. It looks like I kicked off with John Woo’s The Killer (1989) that day. That choice didn’t have much rhyme, reason or resonance, and I can’t detect much shape to many of my other choices either. I watched long films – the really long ones, like Lav Diaz’s 11-hour Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) that I’d been waiting to find the time for. I watched short films – including all those lockdown-themed shorts that started appearing from directors like Mati Diop and Jonathan Glazer.
That first lockdown will always be synonymous in my mind with Hey Duggee and hot days juggling work and toddler care. In the evenings, I spent a month watching almost nothing but Japanese films, and lots of them – for work, nominally, but also for escapism. At other times, when I wanted to work and escape at the same time, I’d turn to window-swap.com – an addictive website comprising crowd-sourced videos out of windows around the world. At the tap of a trackpad, you can click through backyard views everywhere from Maine to Melbourne – all complete with ambient sound and, after months stuck at home, infinitely more interesting than your own.
YouTube and Pokémon GO
For much of the first lockdown, my attention span when it came to feature films was appalling. I didn’t manage to watch a single movie for over two weeks after pandemic status was officially declared. And then almost another full week after that. Things eventually got better on that front, particularly once I got involved in some viewing projects for either work or pleasure: for example, a week spent mostly watching Talking Pictures TV or a fortnight largely devoted to Scottish cinema for an article I was writing.
I’ve found myself watching a lot more video essays in the past year, alongside diving into the archives of YouTube channels posting engaging short or long-form productions. I’d been following him for years before anyway, but the work of music reviewer Todd in the Shadows has been a regular comfort, particularly his One Hit Wonderland and Trainwreckords series, the latter exploring notorious career-ruining albums from major artists. I’ve revisited the episodes on Van Halen III and Liz Phair’s Funstyle several times now.
In terms of the smallest screen I regularly use, Pokémon GO has been handy for walks. I was impressed by how the developers adapted the gameplay features to account for much of the global player-base being shut indoors for most of the past year.
How the other half lives
With every passing month of the pandemic I’ve felt my attention span wane. At points, the idea of sitting down to start a new film or television series has felt like an impossible commitment. In these moments, I’ve turned to YouTube.
One of my go to channels this past year has been Architectural Digest, for their Open Door series. The premise is simple: celebrities show you around their disturbingly decadent houses. Walking you around their homes, they wax lyrical about the extensive design choices which have gone into every inch of them. Jessica Alba recounts how she built a fireplace for the purpose of hanging Christmas stockings on it. Lenny Kravitz tells us about the copper bathtub he had custom made for his bedroom – “You have to have a tub in your room.”
Despite their polished veneer, at times these videos can be surprisingly revealing. John Stamos takes a moment to proudly read a congratulatory letter he received from Donald Trump, while his wife cringes beside him, giving a quick glimpse into their dynamic.
These videos are filled with predictably eye-roll-inducing moments, and such glaring displays of wealth are particularly jarring given the current state of the world, but I find them strangely soothing. They’re so completely foreign to the reality of my day-to-day life that watching them feels like an escape. For 10 minutes, I get to exist in a world where the only problems are paint colours and pool sizes.
Flora Spencer Grant