Paperstreet Design, Johannesburg, South Africa
There was a time when I thought nothing of driving nearly 100 miles round-trip several nights a week to catch a double-bill at one of LAâs then-flourishing revival houses. The films ranged from Hollywood Golden Age classics and edgy indies to foreign masterpieces, obscurities and documentaries that may never have seen an American theatrical release at all.
Most never, and had never played on television, even chopped up and stuffed with late-night used car commercials, and no home video, cable, or streaming alternatives. Theatrically in the big city, invariably at shabby-chic fading movie palaces or the odd museum or film festival screening, was the only way to see themâlovingly curated by passionate film programmers, not faceless corporate functionaries dishing up mainstream studio slop in crackerbox suburban multiplexes.
Some prints were pretty beat-upâinvariably original, mouldering in a studio or distributorâs vault from some barely remembered initial runâbut it hardly mattered. It was always a joyous experience, a voyage of artistic discovery. And we felt right at home with our audiencesâyoung, smart, receptive, respectful, literateâlaughing, crying or gasping in all the right places.
I was gloomily thinking about all that when I recently took myself to my first new commercial movie screening in almost two years. Even though it was opening weekend, the lobby was empty. An adjoining bar, where pre-pandemic moviegoers once thronged, sat closed and dark. What had been our favorite on-site restaurant downstairs was permanently shuttered, its former name legible only in the faint silhouette where the letters of a sign had once been.
The film, which just opened, was The Rescue, a nail-biting account of the daring rescue in 2018 of a Thai boys soccer team and their coach who became trapped deep underground in a limestone cave system inundated in a sudden monsoon. It was made by the filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, whose Oscar-winning âFree Soloâ documentary followed Alex Honnold, arguably the worldâs foremost rock climber, in an unbearably tense account of his ascent, without ropes or safety equipment, up the face of Yosemiteâs El Capitan to its 3200-foot summit.
Without trying to sound corny, it was impossible not to be gripped by the drama of the mortal peril these children were in, the anguish of their parents, and the selfless bravery of the Thai Navy SEAL force, the American military personnel, and most especially the eccentric group of British cave divers who risked their lives, purely as unpaid volunteers, and first located the children alive. They devised and led the dangerous and complex but ultimately successful plan to ferry everyone to safety under unimaginably frightening and difficult conditions. Itâs the kind of film thatâfor its relatively brief running time, at leastârestores your faith in humanity.
There were maybe a dozen people in the audience.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have The Squid Game, a very different kind of Asian suspense thriller in which broke and desperate players must compete in an escalating series of monstrous childrenâs games, and the losers die increasingly ghastly and brutal deaths, sometimes at the hands of their competitors. Staged by whom, and for what purpose? All part of the mystery.
Itâs been getting a lot of pressânot all of it goodâas the new Netflix tentpole series from South Korea. Itâs a bloody mashup of everything from the 1920s short story, âThe Most Dangerous Gameâ (adapted as recently as last year for the short-lived Quibi streaming service), and the â60s TV series The Prisoner, to more contemporary fare like Cube, and the Saw and The Hunger Games seriesâwith production design that evokes a Day-Glo nightmare somewhere between Peeweeâs Playhouse and a mind-bending Escher maze, with a dash of Stanley Kubrickâs pitiless perversity (right down to the relentlessly cheerful accompaniment of Johann Straussâ âBlue Danubeâ waltz.)
The Squid Game reportedly cost a modest $21.4 million to produce the nine-episode season, but Netflix estimates it has generated nearly $900 million in âimpact value,â drawing in more than 140 million households since its September 17 debut to become the channelâs most-watched program ever.
The Rescue will be lucky to gross $1 million on a few hundred screens before itâs played out theatrically and is eventually lost in the crowd of other cable documentaries.
For quite different reasons, the film and the TV series leave a powerful impression. The Rescue is aspirational, showcasing humanity at its very best, drawing the world together in an altruistic and heroic mission to rescue endangered children. Knowing it ends happily blunts the surprise, but not the emotional punch, for as Hitchcock knew, the suspense lies not just in what happens, but in how.
The Squid Game, unspools a Hobbesian allegory ensnaring unlucky, imprudent, and irresponsible people alike in a pitiless contest for survival. Whether itâs dressed up as penetrating social critique or dressed down as a penny-dreadful splatter-fest, the story arc may be predictable but its precise trajectory is not, and its potent audience approval is already proven.
The Rescue is an uplifting film thatâs meant to be shared and savored in the company of our fellow humans, and if not for the pandemic, maybe it would have been. Yet watching it in a near-empty theaterâknowing that millions elsewhere sit isolated at home, transfixed by a Grand Guignol spectacle that revels sadistically in late-capitalismâs decadent collapseâsomehow better suits this bleak and cheerless moment.