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Self-isolation in the movies |


Self-isolation in the movies

MORE ADVENTUROUS - Fiel Estrella - The Philippine Star
Self-isolation in the movies

One of the movies I have watched under lockdown is Vivarium, which is a sci-fi horror flick featuring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. It was two weeks into the community quarantine, and I felt shaken as I watched the main characters — a couple looking to buy their first home — try to find their way out of the neverending suburbia in which they had found themselves trapped.

The houses, all the same pallid shade of green, were ordinary looking, stood next to each other in neat rows that seemed to go on forever into an artificial-looking sun. No matter which way the characters drove or walked, they ended up right back outside the house that had been chosen for them. It was deadly silent, the air stale, and there was nobody else around. There was no escape, nowhere else to go.

It was chilling, and it was too close to home. Literally.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the movie would end up embodying the uncertainties of the future that lay ahead, not just for me personally, but the planet as a whole. You do what you can to survive, and you do what you can to alleviate your own nervousness, to rekindle your sense of purpose and direction, even if it means digging a hole into the earth just to find where it leads.

In the weeks since, it has left me curious about what other movies have to say about self-isolation and disconnect. I looked back on what I’ve watched and emerged with a list that has its fair share of collective similarities and differences. There’s a whole range of genres and stories, from the lighthearted to the mindscrew-y. Quarantine movies, after all, have never had a reason to exist before today — a gaping hole in cinema that I have no doubt will soon be filled.

The first movie that came to mind when I started thinking about this running theme was Two Night Stand, a romantic comedy starring Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton. A pair of virtual strangers who have a one-night stand end up not being able to stand each other come the morning after — only they’ll have to put up or shut up, because there’s a blizzard and now they’re stuck with each other for the time being. Two Night Stand has plenty of the recklessness that comes with being removed from routine or the status quo, and its depiction of people trying to get along under close quarters rings especially true these days.

In Weepah Way for Now, the fictional sisters played by real-life siblings Aly and AJ Michalka aren’t necessarily stuck at home; it revolves around the pair as they plan a going-away party in their house, and each scene is conversational and very slice-of-life. Still, it resonated with me and felt very relevant to current events; there was the bickering and adjusting that come with cohabitation, there was reminiscence and nostalgia for days gone by, there was purposeful movement coinciding with flights of fancy. The sisters cling to favorite places and the objects that have made up their lives. Their comfort and their grief go hand in hand and they live through the endings, the changes, and the bad news because they have each other.

Into the Forest also features a pair of sisters, Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood). Set in the near future, when a power outage causes technological collapse nationwide, leading to an apocalypse, it concerns two girls whose father has died; the girls board themselves up in their remotely located home, surrounded by the forest and, beyond it, the still-turning world. Food and supplies run scarce while fear and danger run high, but as in Weepah Way for Now, they still have a semblance of hope and protection in each other’s presence.

Two interesting studies of madness in isolation are Queen of Earth and Darling. The former is a psychological thriller with a brilliant performance from Elisabeth Moss, in which two friends spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods and realize they’ve drifted apart. Moss’ character Catherine, in particular, already spiraling from a breakup and the death of her father, undergoes emotional distress that breaks down her sense of self: “I don’t really feel like I exist anymore.” There’s biting tension and hostility, the plot unfolding to ominous music that makes the viewer wonder where it’s going, or if it’s even getting anywhere — in his review, film critic Brian Tallerico describes it as “those hazy, uncertain days of our lives when our definitions of ourselves have to change.”

Darling, on the other hand, is about a young woman who slowly loses her grip on reality when she takes on a job as caretaker of a New York apartment with a vague but morbid history. The movie is told in chapters that come off more like non-sequiturs instead of telling a linear narrative, serving only to better illustrate the descent into madness of the unnamed lead, who spends most of her time alone. Being shot in black and white with an absence of modern objects gives it the feel of being lost in time — a stylistic choice that heightens the anxiety and horror, especially set against the backdrop of a grand but empty home.

Finally, there’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, who wakes up after a car accident in an underground shelter after being “taken in” (read: kidnapped) by Howard (John Goodman), who appears affable but soon reveals himself to be quite unhinged. He claims that the world is in shambles and she’ll never be able to survive out there. Together with the third inhabitant Emmett (John Gallagher Jr., a delight), they quickly fall into a new day-to-day version of normal — but Michelle will stop at nothing to find out what’s really going on outside the bunker in the actual world.

Beyond its otherworldly themes, what struck me most about the film is how it portrays a person’s sense of safety, and how the characters find ways to fill their days. When you’ve gotten used to a strange situation and begin to feel secure in it, it’s easy to forget that there could be very real threats outside, the way many of us tend to do in the midst of this pandemic.

Time moves differently when you’ve shut yourself away from the rest of the world. The movies I’ve seen over the last few weeks in order to write this essay sometimes take place over a few days, or weeks, or months — it’s interesting to me how they depict the passage of time, especially when characters have to remain in one place through it all. Hair grows, or the weather changes, or there’s a sudden dance montage. Being stuck in a certain space for that long, you’re forced to confront your own notions of ennui and amusement. Your resourcefulness and creativity are put to the test. The movies address that, too: characters doing their nails, bringing out VHS tapes and old board games, filling the silence with conversation.

Just beneath it all lies the paranoia and anxieties we’re trying to see through to the other side, always thrumming — along with the sides of ourselves we’d rather not face. I like that these movies have a wide variety of tone and mood; it shows that these thoughts that haunt us can lead to enlightenment and promise just as much as madness and despair.

But the part I keep holding on to is that most of these characters are never truly alone, no matter how dire their situations become. I find myself going back to that scene in Weepah Way for Now where, after the sisters face an unimaginable tragedy, the narrator refuses to dwell on the pain that follows: “We can choose to focus on other things if we want to.” It’s impossible to do that in real life — and it would be foolish and uncouth. But I like the idea of it anyway, that there will be an “after” that comes at the end of hard times.

The story skips ahead, instead, to the first time the sisters have a good laugh after all that they’ve experienced. They’re overlooking the city they’ve grown up in; their movements are stilted and tentative at first, but they begin to smile in earnest and goof off, their limbs growing looser and bolder. They feel good, they’re surviving, they’re fearless, they’re loved. Together.

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