We have to have darkness: the movies don’t work without it. Even in our living room, we turn off the light to pretend.

But we know there is a greater Dark out there, the realm in which something wicked comes. Or the possibility of darkness persisting. Imagine, one day, it’s dawn and morning, but the light declines to come back. How long, then, before we start signing up for Panic 101 or living in Clickbait?

I want to talk about movies not just as attempts to get at our credit cards and our hearts, but as a cyclone system in which the dark and the Dark are bumping together.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

We are naturally so cheery (don’t you love us?) that we have not thought enough about the prospect of our dark; we have been so set on brave efforts to have light surpass the threat of night. This is an essay on that looming metaphor. It’s grounded in movies (or movie-like attempts). But it insists on the technology and the meaning as a married unity. Not that this marriage is tranquil. The movies are more than an art and a business, a medium and a passion. They are a cave painting of our struggle with the Dark.

By 2022, we understand—we have not been competent with reality. Try ruinous. Maybe the movies were invented to indulge or hide that failure—like ads for looking on the bright side. So we cling to treating extinction as just a special-effects extravaganza. But the real Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica (diminishing but as large as the United Kingdom) is beyond CGI or being rescued by the italic of a knockout movie fanfare—Thwaites!—with a $500 million budget and the Rock, Dwayne Johnson, bringing us home just as he did in his lyrical disaster epic San Andreas!

One thing we’ve learned during COVID-19 is that we should have been studying hard for years. Like, all of our lives. Or before. What were we supposed to do, sitting in that waiting womb, looking to get out, but start thinking? Why not have a screen in the womb to let the embryo study? In our desperate need for intel, we have to begin earlier.

And if we need a five-day course on thinking, we could try this:

  1. Ours is a racist society; the Civil War has not been settled.
  2. Reject any optimistic rejoinder that things are getting better—they aren’t. Survival requires dead reckoning.
  3. So don’t hold conferences on global warming; do everything you know to do and do it now, while there is a chance. Example: scrap every private vehicle. Reason: a prime lesson of COVID is that we don’t actually need to go anywhere.
  4. And since more pandemics are certain—don’t pretend otherwise—we have to have universal healthcare.
  5. It follows that we have to have universal poverty care. The Rock would know this; he’s a man of the people. I realize that a proper war on poverty could quickly lead to a war on wealth. And that will pain you and lead you into fits against socialism. But you are going to have to be steadfast and unrelenting once you get into this thinking enterprise. As the Rock proclaims in San Andreas, we will rebuild. Don’t you love us?

    So retire all the homilies on America as a can-do country, the best in creation, and some epic of greatness. It’s an unholy mess, a mockery of its own vanity. The Dark is waiting, and beyond politics.

    And while you’re contemplating this crash course, ponder what the sainted (but sanctimonious) Frances McDormand thought she was asking for, when she got the Oscars for Nomadland, by urging us to get out there to the biggest screen we can find and watch the lovely movies the system makes. When Nomadland was an elegy to no more movie theaters, no more urban squalor, and no more packed houses.

    Hasn’t McDormand noticed that we have been giving up on the movies as a mass medium, and our nourishment, for decades? Why be astonished that the TV viewing figures for the 2021 Oscars show fell by 58 percent from the previous year’s, meaning that fewer than 10 million of us were bothered to watch? The omens have been gathering like vultures since movies made for fewer and fewer people started winning Best Picture. Just accept that 10 years ago, the home audience for the show was about 40 million. And that in 1998, it was 55 million. The fantasy of communal uplift has been fading since before our kids were born.

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    We said we longed to get back into movie theaters and their precious dark. But for a while now, that possibility has existed and we have avoided the offer. In October 2020, for just a month or so, San Francisco’s AMC Kabuki 8 theater reopened for business. It’s our local, so my wife and I put on our masks and felt brave about going into the dark again for a picture called Let Him Go.

    It seemed an aberration then that the Kabuki had reopened, and we were disappointed that the liberated multiplex was drabber than it had been for years. We didn’t need to sit six feet apart; we could tell that every surface seemed to glow with having been wiped; and we were there with one other person, who was asleep. The apartness was infinite, yet the film was effective in a silly, outmoded 1960s way, as if to remind us how movies were once, when Kevin Costner was young and a picture could be him against the world.

    In Montana, Kev is a retired sheriff, with Diane Lane as his wife. Their son is killed in an accident, and his widow gets remarried to a dangerous guy who takes Kevin and Diane’s grandson (aged three) to a stronghold in North Dakota. The grandparents go after the kid to restore family order and the decency of America. But a vicious Lesley Manville is the matriarch from whom they must reclaim their boy in an ungoverned Badlands, American Dark.

    There’s violence and death before the close, an old sheriff against a depraved tribe, but there’s honor and sad satisfaction, too, that seem ancient now. Costner still has the melancholy assurance that movie stars once offered with a sigh, a terse line, and a gaze at the horizon. Like Gary Cooper before he grew anxious.

    One could do worse in 2020 than give a couple of hours to Let Him Go. It did poorly at the box office, yet there was no such function as box office any longer. And as I was watching at the dismal Kabuki, something else struck me. Befitting its settings, the film has epic landscapes, as vibrant as the performance of Diane Lane. But at the Kabuki, the images seemed to be suffering from drought; they had the sere look of parched grass. I realized that Let Him Go would have looked brighter and sharper at home on what we still call our television screen. Few mention this, but the movies can be more compelling from the couch.

    So Lucy and I went home, and that same night we binged on three episodes of The Queen’s Gambit, going on pause for the bathroom or a dish of ice cream, but slaves to the radiant show. Living with it, you knew it had to be made; the hypnotic face of its soul, Beth, was like religion or a well in the desert. It was one of the few overwhelming screen experiences of the year. I feel good about saying that, because I still yearn to be swept away by a light to help me forget the Dark.

    The Queen’s Gambit was seven episodes and 395 minutes long, written and directed by Scott Frank (with cowriter Allan Scott), from the Walter Tevis novel, and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, “whose eyes never stop looking at you,” says Frank. We drank the queen’s draft in two nights—and felt exhilarated. We were not alone. The viewing figures were the best in Netflix’s history of scripted television. Some 60 million households were talked about as being on, so maybe 100 million people. This was the real thing, an authentic mass medium, a compulsive serial entertainment amounting to a rapture, or the thrilled sense of “everyone” taking in the same show. Novices started learning chess.

    dark illustration
    Matt Mahurin

    Not enough has been done to explore the experience of a Queen’s Gambit at home, or of movie-like performance taken away from theaters. So set aside the clichés (most of which I’ve used in my time) of the awesomely large screen and the communal hush of a packed house. In too many movie theaters for years now, those benefits have hardly existed. But at home, count the blessings. The image is intense. It is a burning altar in the living room, an engine of light, not just a reflective surface: the colors are wetter, the detail is finer, and the placing of us and the picture is ideal and not interfered with.

    Add this: Don’t accept the fallacy of woe, that the home screen is so much smaller than the old movie theater screen. Instead, grasp a reverse truth, that the screen on our wall is so much bigger than the screen that has become our daily lifeline—the few square inches of our phone.

    The home is warmer than theaters (they are stingy on heating), our couches are cozier, and we are so much more relaxed, as willing as pilgrims. If we are in company, we talk to one another, gossiping over the show. We can pause the image or play a special moment again. And again. We have become more like filmmakers. We can luxuriate in the dynamic of the screen and pay less heed to what was once worshipped as narrative suspense. We like extracts or scenes as much as the whole thing. We have learned that life is extracts, fragments, isolated bits.

    It may seem heresy to dispute the imperative of story line. In a movie theater, strangers told us to shut up if our chatter was getting in the way of “following” the plot. But something curious happened in movie history: gradually, after several decades, we cottoned on to the fact that there are very few movie stories, and they generally work in the same ways. The moves are like moves in chess: We know that a knight does that weird poetic lurch, while queens run free. In the same way, we trust that after its early close-up, that gun in the movie is going to have to be fired. And Diane Lane’s valiant attractiveness will need to tremble in peril. In other words, the suspense turned camp or artificial, and sometimes films were deadpan rituals mocking our hold on reality.

    That’s what Hitchcock uncovered with Psycho: that we didn’t care about what happened to the people; we were intent on how the slaughter was administered. This was a dynamic box-office breakthrough (and Psycho was as influential as The Birth of a Nation). But its heartlessness began to turn us cold and lonesome, or as calculating as filmmakers, where once we’d been part of the congregation of story and that old religion in which movies could help us pursue happiness while overlooking the Dark closing in.

    A question arises in considering this essay: Granted suppression of the virus, allowing for the restoration of business as usual—would we hurry back to the cineplex and the old joy of something magical and transforming?

    I don’t know the answer any better than you. I was confident once that in the first flush of recovery there would be a sentimental rush to movie theaters—if they survived as more than haunted houses; if recovery was more than virtual. But on a Saturday night in August at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, there were 10 of us for Annette—and after I’d endured the picture, that number seemed high.

    Instead, I anticipate an enthusiasm for direct interaction, for it is the lack of contact that has been the disconcerting trance state of COVID. So live theater—with audiences and players in the same room—could be the larger beneficiary, no matter how dangerous. Theater should be risky. That will affect concert music, public readings, sports events, the theatricalization of restaurants, and even illicit parties, secret raves, and anti-distancing orgies. Whereas the innate deadness of cinema will seem more fossilized.

    But the technology in streaming will thrive and promote the ambitions of its stories. This has been happening for years already. As well as the bliss of The Queen’s Gambit, I can offer other streaming ventures. Ozark is on its violent surface a murderous thriller, built on criminal enterprise, betrayal, and execution—if it helps your nutshell appreciation system, it is a Godfather in rural Missouri. But it is also an unshocked survey of how the pursuit of money crushes a standard American family, as they try to get some happiness while stuffing dirty cash in the walls of their home. Ozark is a great movie. And by now it runs some 30 hours.

    Alias Grace will be less familiar. It’s a six-part series from Canada that was released as long ago as 2017, adapted for the screen by Sarah Polley (director of Away from Her and Stories We Tell) from the Margaret Atwood novel and directed by Mary Harron (who made I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho). Though it’s based on a real murder case in 1840s Ontario, its varying points of view are as modernist as novels like The Good Soldier or Pale Fire, and the show hinges on the enigmatic presence of Sarah Gadon as Grace. I can’t say it’s flawless. The different versions of what happens in the story can impede involvement. It is too wordy, too long and reluctant to grasp Grace’s desperate being. But it conforms with the possibilities in streaming, ready to go off on different and competing narrative currents. To watch it is to become caught up in decisions of structure and editing. It starts us thinking of remaking the Grace story.

    That is a huge cognitive threshold in watching film—but one that exists already in the circumstances of streaming. Imagine a project like Alias Grace coming to us as a pack of cards or variants: so many scenes that are an anthology of all the alternatives we have a chance to edit and rearrange. As if we are playing a game. With this bonus: our home computer might now generate new images from the accumulated bank of the series—the way CGI has worked for years.

    Imagine it’s Clickbait (created by Tony Ayres and Christian White), a rage in the late summer just past, as insolent and meretricious as the title that asks, Won’t you swallow our barbed hook, like stupid fish? Here was a narrative as broken up as cell phone life, as unsound as the internet, an insult to structured narrative purpose. But a show that seemed recklessly now, thriving on our technological insecurity and its oneiric epidemic. Clickbait was feverish with its own scorned ploys, like the spasms of soap opera learning the cut and thrust of noir. You wanted to cry out, “Am I going to watch another episode of this crap?” And you did.

    Surely entertainment is going to settle down again and give us a little peace?

    Oh, you say, that gloom is too cynical and just a passing craze. Clickbait is not even very “good.” Surely entertainment is going to settle down again and give us a little peace? Isn’t it pretty to think that? But remember, life itself is only a passing craze, passing more quickly, even if we once esteemed it as Civilization 101. The destiny of streaming and bingeing is not that it be “good.” That old-world standard has been subsumed in on/off. Just imagine that you switch on your LED altar tonight and that nothing happens. All you see is the muddy reflection of your own anxiety in the gunmetal plastic.

    For a moment, watching the wiped-out Zoe Kazan in Clickbait, I forgot the big Dark, until a new season of fires and hurricanes, the hellish board game of Kabul airport, and the unwinding condition of long-form illness with its franchise of booster shots and going remote. What has happened to our escapism? In the early 1940s (dark days), we had Casablanca, The Lady Eve, To Have and Have Not, Meet Me in St. Louis, and To Be or Not to Be, and there were long, long lines for those shows.

    You may flinch at my five-day course on thinking, even wish to escape it. That abrupt plan for the end of wealth may seem un-American or communistic, and we have been schooled not to ask what those voodoo terms mean.

    I have sketched a scary new world in which technology might reach for fresh creation. I hope that will be so. But I wonder. There are movies so dominated by the money and the computers (and the pretensions that try to counter them) that they intensify our loneliness and the diminished interest in being with our fellows. I fear that covers Tenet and Mank and Dune. In just over a year and a half, a culture of distancing has grown in us that will be hard to forget. But its pattern had been coming for years.

    You want a screen phenomenon to illustrate that diagnosis? Try pornography and how it undermined romance or desire in our movies. (Didn’t you use to love desire?) Try violent horror and its erasure of actual pain. In short, try to understand the complex legacy of Psycho.

    In the brightness of the Thwaites Glacier, we can hear the tread of a Dark this way coming. And we won’t have so long to wait for our Waterworld, a Kevin Costner disaster picture from 1995. Twenty-seven years ago, a movie set in 2500 could be true twenty-seven years from now?

    Oh, cheer up, you want to say. Certainly, there may be a Dark possibility in view, a prospect of the rich and the poor going to war in an ultimate battle over nomadland. But that must be a hundred years away, you want to hope, beyond the span of our adorable grandchildren.

    We’ll get there in 20. Our hurry is picking up its pace. •

    David Thomson, born and raised in England, is a longtime resident of San Francisco.