The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Movies used to be an escape. Now they’re a risk-reward calculation.

John David Washington in a scene from “Tenet,” the latest film from director Christopher Nolan, which is tentatively scheduled to open in theaters on July 17. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP)

“I swear, Christopher Nolan could film a jar of mayonnaise for two hours and I would watch it.”

That’s a snippet of a conversation I overheard while a trailer for “Tenet” played at a preview of “Birds of Prey” in February, which turned out to be one of the last screenings I would attend before theaters closed several weeks later. As was typical of my schedule then, I was in a sardine-packed multiplex on a weekday night, having hastily consumed reheated leftovers before driving to the suburbs, hoping that the movie I was about to see was worth missing dinner with my family. (Still annoyed at 2016’s unwatchable “Suicide Squad,” which introduced “Birds of Prey” protagonist Harley Quinn, I wasn’t optimistic.)

It turned out that the sequel was better than its predecessor, even if Mr. Mayonnaise seemed to enjoy the movie far more than I did. But if I were in that multiplex today, I would be making a far different mental calculation: Forget whether “Birds of Prey” was worth my time and inconvenience. Was it worth my physical health and well-being?

The question has become uncomfortably concrete. With movie theaters opening in Georgia and Texas, and venues such as the Alamo Drafthouse and the Venice Film Festival surveying their patrons to ascertain what it will take to get them back, critics and film fans alike are wondering when we’ll feel okay about returning to the sticky-floored, dimly lit rooms that we have long considered our natural habitat.

I miss the collective ritual of moviegoing: the anticipatory bustle of the theater lobby, the smell of the popcorn, the trailers and pre-screening chitchat, the laughs and jump-scares that are no fun at all unless they’re experienced with a bunch of strangers in the dark.

But I’m unable to visualize marching into a multiplex and happily forgetting the outside world for a couple of hours — having donned a mask and gloves, had my temperature taken along with my ticket, been duly informed of the theater’s sanitation policies and taken an assigned seat well within the six-foot social-distancing protocols. Cue the classic Loews jingle: Sit back and relax, enjoy the show!

I will, one day — especially when testing, tracing, therapeutics and a vaccine are widely available. In the meantime, I and my fellow cinephiles are in a quandary: missing the medium we love in its fullest expression, but still able to enjoy it in relative comfort and safety on our home screens (and, let’s be honest, not missing the irritations that often ruin the filmgoing experience, including pre-screening chitchat that continues once the movie starts).

Unlike theater, ballet and live music, cinema isn’t fatally diminished when it migrates to smaller exhibition platforms. If the development of “virtual cinema” has taught us anything, it’s that there are fabulous films to be discovered online. One of the most unexpected pleasures of quarantine-era movie-watching is being able to introduce readers to such revelatory gems as “Blow the Man Down,” “Selah and the Spades,” “The Half of It” and “Driveways” — streaming and VOD titles that in a pre-coronavirus world I likely would have overlooked amid the glut of big-studio theatrical releases. The unexpected hiatus has also opened up delightful rabbit holes on such classic-movie sites as the Criterion Channel, Kino Now and Kanopy.

So far this spring, the trade-off hasn’t been entirely painful. But with summer looming, followed by awards season, the compromises will become more difficult. Last week, Spike Lee announced that his new movie, “Da 5 Bloods,” will drop on Netflix in June. Presumably, Lee wanted his film, which stars Chadwick Boseman as a Vietnam veteran determined to find the remains of his fallen squad leader, to be seen sooner rather than await the uncertainties of theater reopenings and release-schedule bottlenecks. Thanks to a recent rule-change at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “Da 5 Bloods” will still qualify for an Oscar regardless of not opening in theaters first.

It remains to be seen whether “Da 5 Bloods” suffers for not being shown on the big screen. But I know I’ll never forget watching Lee’s 2019 film “BlacKkKlansman” in a crowded theater, Terence Blanchard’s gorgeous music swelling during the breathtaking final sequence whose cathartic power resided not just in sound and image, but the deep emotional current the audience shared in that moment. If Netflix executives view the academy’s one-time rule change as an opening for streaming-only movies, they might want to heed the lessons of “Roma,” a movie that I and many others loved when we saw it in big-screen splendor, and just as many found disappointing and overrated when they saw it shrunk down to fit their TVs.

Film as an art form may be able to adapt when it migrates to the home screen. But as a collective experience, it is in the process of morphing, if not disappearing entirely. The recent boomlet in drive-in theaters represents a bracing expression of esprit de corps, nostalgia and creative ways to be alone-together. But it also points to a future when cinema has become as bubble-fied as the rest of American life, whether we’re watching them in our cars, via online viewing parties or in completely contact-free theaters like the ones currently being tried in South Korea. At their best, movies demand a form of psychological surrender. The question is: How will we enter that vulnerable state while girding ourselves with individualized armamentaria and hypervigilant spatial awareness?

Prudent safety measures and sound medical guidance will get me back into the theater, but unreservedly entering the world on screen will depend on what it’s always depended on: the movies themselves.

Like my “Birds of Prey” seatmate, Warner Bros. is bullish on Christopher Nolan and his obsessively loyal fan base of Imax purists and “Dark Knight” lifers. The company is expected to announce soon whether it will stick with the July 17 release date for Nolan’s time-travel thriller “Tenet” in theaters.

Disney is similarly hoping that the generation of girls, young women and their moms who grew up with the animated action-adventure “Mulan” will turn out in July, when the live-action version is scheduled to open in bricks-and-mortar venues. Then there’s “Wonder Woman 1984” which, if it arrives as planned in August, will no doubt leverage the deep emotional connection that propelled “Wonder Woman” into a global phenomenon and Hollywood game-changer.

Some viewers are surely saving their first foray back into theaters for the scheduled early September release of “A Quiet Place Part II” (a better-with-others movie if ever there was one). Some are holding out for “The French Dispatch,” a bespoke Wes Anderson jewel box that is due to arrive in theaters in October.

As momentous as those movies promise to be, when I consider my next film to watch in a theater I think about the last film I watched in a theater: “First Cow,” a superbly crafted period drama, opened on the very day in March that most Washington-area venues were forced to close (Friday the 13th, as it happens). Directed with characteristic care and sensitivity by Kelly Reichardt, “First Cow” is every bit as monumental as a Nolan-esque extravaganza or lavishly hyped franchise installment — if only because Reichardt’s auteurism takes such a small-canvas, diligently understated form.

Indeed, “First Cow” is such an important cinematic event that the film’s distributor, A24, declined to make it available as a streaming title, preferring to relaunch the film when audiences can fully appreciate the exquisitely detailed world that Reichardt devotes so much time, detailed imagination and single-minded intelligence to create.

In other words, Reichardt wasn’t making another disposable piece of product or extending a corporate brand — the movies Hollywood has been obsessively making to avoid risk, but that now feel unworthy of what we might be risking to sit through them.

When “First Cow” opens again, I’ll be first in line to see it — mask, gloves, alcohol wipes and all. Just a few short months ago, Reichardt’s film exemplified movies as a life-or-death proposition — or at least a life-affirming declaration — for the people who make them. From now on, it will always remind me that the emotional stakes should feel just as high for the people who watch them.

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