The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

“Back to the Movies”: A Retrospective

The month is August. It is a day soaked in London grey. Through the window of what looks like an extended Cadillac Escalade, a man waves at three young girls on bikes who wave back for the sake of politeness; one of them yelling, “Hi, Tom!”. As they drive off, Tom Cruise ponders to a person recording on their iPhone over how he can be recognized if he’s wearing a mask. Eventually, the car pulls over at the local cinema, to which Cruise excitedly leaps out and lumbers toward a giant poster display of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, towering well over his 5’7 frame. “Here we are …”, Tom says as he walks and then stops to gesture toward the poster in front of the person (hopefully) paid to record him. As he looks at the camera with brimming confidence, he simply says, “… Back to the movies.”

But we do not stop there. We are taken inside the auditorium, in which Tom Cruise and who I believe is his Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie await the starting of the film. Two merely masked faces in a sea of them, successfully blended in. And soon, they watch. We observe their eyes taking in this experience after presumably months of not being able to return to it, recorded in a way that may or may not be legal. Until eventually, like all experiences, they end, and the lights go back up. Tom immediately breaks his obscuring by clapping the loudest, happily declaring how great it is to be back in a movie theatre, to the support of everyone else inside. Tom walks out, reinvigorated by the communal power of movie-going, strutting outside in a way that indicates his confidence in knowing it’s a power that surely won’t go away again. Movie theaters in both the U.S. and U.K. would shut down again a month later.

It’s very easy to have your emotions inform your decision-making. Not even a billionaire actor like Tom Cruise could have expected such an outcome when a video of the above experience was posted on his social media. Months later, as he would go on to make sure his filming of two back-to-back sequels to his Mission: Impossible franchise would be completed in the midst of a global pandemic that had still not even reached its peak in cases and deaths, a secretly-recorded outburst from Cruise himself made the viral waves. Loudly damning select crew members for breaking COVID safety protocols, Cruise lambasted their risking of the entire production (financed in part by Tom himself) shutting down and causing hundreds to be out-ofwork without any feasible way to provide for their families. Today I can’t help but wonder about hypocrisy getting in his way of supposedly acting in the interest of others. After all, how can the same person who is willing to provide work for those under his wing during the worst economical crisis since the Great Depression also be the same person encouraging others to go into movie theaters in a world where there were only rising numbers in cases and approximately zero vaccines available or even conceived?

I don’t think it would be bold of me to say that a fair share of us have spent the past year feeling very scared and confused. Why didn’t the pandemic end after two months like some originally hoped for? What do you mean half of California’s population will likely be diagnosed with COVID-19 at least once? I had COVID in my system without even knowing it?! Many such questions like the above are well likely to have been asked, and oftentimes the most compelled response to the general feeling of doom lingering within myself has been to try and understand the fear of others. The realm of contradicting ourselves has been one we’ll always be certain to fall into, but I feel that tracing it down to why we’ve often felt hurt, or even betrayed, by those we personally know who weren’t as willing to take their safety as seriously as ourselves, would involve drawing a fine line between two reasons. Either we want this period to end as quickly as possible, or we want to maintain the illusion that it already has. But these reasons seem to conclude the same way: people are seeking pleasure in whatever form it takes, and it’s above all possible for others to feel that those eager to seek it during a pandemic are inherently privileged in doing so, and in no way would they be wrong in thinking it. It’s all very difficult to take in.

But back to the movies. If you engage in these blog posts, then I’d like to assume that you have a longing to support not necessarily just the Frida, but the plethora of arthouses out there that rely primarily on community. We have all experienced such a drastic disruption over the past year that most of our plans almost have no choice but to run on a near-improvisational basis. But against unfathomable odds, we’ve seen a bounty of success from the various drive-ins and Virtual Cinema selections programmed since initial action was taken to close our doors. As we inch closer to our first physical screening since then with Dazed and Confused on April 20th (that way you indeed have no choice but to see it with a bud), taking its natural course is recollection. How have we coped with these alterations? How did we survive our lowest lows? And can we ever reach those highest highs again? I personally believe we still have many ways to go before we can comfortably accept the feeling of normalcy, but I also think we are propelling through that path the only way I think is possible. Slowly, rockily, but surely.

The movie theatre has become but a memory to most. Like what you’d have with a former lover, there’s a special kind of aching you feel when you long for something you can’t return to. You ceaselessly romanticize the space you had, the otherworldliness you felt as the lights dimmed and everything that would tempt you as a distraction is obscured by a screen unloading before you with light and color. Before you know it, you’re absorbed into somewhere else, and if you’re moved in the right way, then it becomes a place you couldn’t possibly want to leave behind. There’s a reason why a filmmaker like Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-Liang has gained much prominence for quarantined film fans. With borderline masterworks like The Hole, Rebels of the Neon God, or Vive L’Amour, Tsai taps into such a specific element of collective isolation that couldn’t possibly resonate more with those who had only but themselves to seek solace in over the long year. But it’s with 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn that cemented Tsai as seemingly the most seminal film artist of this period.

Set during the final screening at a Taipei movie palace, Tsai’s film conjures feelings that would otherwise be impossible to articulate. It’s a film drenched in minimalism, but the ghostliness permeating through dimmed, empty hallways and the lonely souls of its patrons is anything but minimal. As King Lu’s 1967 classic Dragon Inn plays onscreen, the atmosphere comes before anything else, even conventional narrative or dialogue. Everything you need to know and feel conveyed through spaces of an environment that may have seen much better days, but a strange beauty is nonetheless mined from beneath the surface. By the time Dragon Inn ends and the lights return, there is barely a soul left inside, yet taking its place is the notion that something is still there. We hold on a wide shot of the entire auditorium for various minutes, and it simply just holds still. With each passing second, the idea of knowing it will eventually cut sinks further within you. In a way, you almost don’t want to leave, but you know you’ll have to. But in its final moments, you’re left comforted with the feeling that it may never be fully abandoned. Each space left to itself is another ghost that stays behind.

On the opposite side, we should be endlessly grateful that the Frida will manage to resume operations in an era that has seen various businesses like it unable to survive. The most fruitful thing to consider here is that at the end of the day, and in some ways before others, people still care. And while it’s important to embrace community, one should just as equally account for the uncertainty of knowing that we’re still far from this fight being over. But steps have been taken that are too drastic to undo, and as long as more continue to hold on and put safety before themselves, whether it’s the continuation of mask-wearing or the protection of vaccination, perhaps the words of Tom Cruise himself will reverberate sooner and sooner into a time that is actually proper and just. After all, it helps to always put trust in scientists before
Scientologists.