In today’s unpredictable COVID (ab)normality when the world has been ground to a halt, we keep navigating the increasingly fine line between reality and fiction; no exit or “Il fine” in sight. Isolated from our peers and more, or less, confined to our domestic spheres, apparently gone is the time of reckless abandon when, minds untroubled and carefree, we gathered in the open at public art centres packed with people. Relegated to the sweet corners of our memory are images of spectators flocking to the cinemas and theatres seemingly without a care in the world; times when our undivided attention was turned to the other and to the performance collectively enjoyed within the comfort of the movie theatre and other public venues. From the big screen we now turn to Netflix and all kinds of home theatre systems as we are forced to access the arts by other, as it turns out certainly very viable, means. But where is the vibrant movie-watching experience that John Ellis speaks so enthusiastically about in his all-encompassing 1982 theory book Visible Fictions (republished in several new editions since then), where he talks of cinema as a cultural event? “Cinema”, writes Ellis, “… becomes a very precise urban experience, that of the crowd with its sense of belonging and loneliness”. As we step further into 2021 the external becomes internal and the connection with alternative realities now happens, instead, very much within the domestic sphere.
Shakespeare, as we know, once declared that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. This becomes clearer than ever as our global reality today resembles fiction and verges on science fiction ̶ even horror. Faced with the task of comprehending a whole new era, we have all started playing a role in a reality that has become increasingly surreal. We opt for online entertainment and if we, against the odds, manage to cross physical borders and set off somewhere by flight we discover among in-flight entertainment options films like recent addition, sci-fi thriller Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan, 2019), where the robot/weirdo/alien, whatever “it” is, takes on a new shape and form.
This quietly unnerving film with supernatural elements in part resembles The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975) in its representation of an apparently immaculate housing estate that welcomes its soon-to-be- trapped visitors, with open arms (and the robotic manager/s of the urban development, in turn, bring/s to mind the similarly robotically smiling females in Forbes’ earlier sci-fi movie). Within the artificial (or not?) limits of Yonder ̶ where perfectly identical cottony cirrus clouds adorn the blue sky above perfectly identical house roofs above perfectly identical streets ̶ these potential new property owners are soon turned residents against their will; confined to a “forever home” and unable to escape as weirdness unfolds. As they start questioning their own sanity, the young couple in focus in Vivarium (played by increasingly haggard-looking Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) are drawn into a quiet nightmare where in the twilight zone of diurnal and nocturnal fluidity, nothing is what it seems. As Mark Kermode, writing for The Guardian, puts it, “Home is where the hell is”. Forced to care for a baby delivered on their doorstep ̶ a precocious child turned slick youngster in a jiffy, who creepily mimics them all the steps of the way ̶ Gemma and Tom are gradually alienated from each other as their “son” screamingly demands his share of their attention. As they (sometimes literally) scratch the surface, the perfect façade begins to crumble and an ugly side of their new reality comes to the fore.
Leaving further details aside, suffice to say that the viewer will be able to draw a parallel between these movies produced in different eras (which both speak of dissimulation and pretence, the keeping up of appearances and the impossible strive for perfection, as well as the inability to escape a world where everything has changed yet nothing is what is seems) and our bewildering, physically restrictive new pandemic reality.
Still, on broader reflection, it feels reassuring to try to imagine a future where pre-pandemic hype and hunt for material possessions may have led to lasting insights into what really matters. True wealth, I feel, lies in discovering the beauty of connecting with other realities through the movies and, likewise, in connecting with people who enable us to envision the different layers and dimensions of reality; then and now. Additional harmony comes from relating more closely to our natural environment, where we can still smell the (real) roses. We must treasure it all while we protect and elevate the various art forms out there to new heights.
There is definitely more than one way to go about our day, as long as we remain true to ourselves and are perceptive to all that can be gained from the parallel realities discovered through the visual, literary and performing arts. “The object of art”, after all, “is to give life shape”. Let the Midsummer Night’s Dream begin!