Screen Protection

M ovie theaters are shuttered, streaming is up and a mid-March article in Adweek reported a surge in views of films like Pandemic, Outbreak and Contagion. We asked five local film experts to give us a few less obvious picks at a time when watching a movie at home is pretty much doctor’s orders.

Utter immersion into another world is Brian Meacham’s suggestion for dealing with the current crisis. Meacham, the archive and special collections manager at the Yale Film Study Center, recommends the “utterly hypnotic” film Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). The documentary covers the history of Dawson City, Yukon, an indigenous settlement that became a gold rush town in 1897 and later a “haven for adventurers seeking gold and entertainments in brothels, gambling halls, and theaters,” as IMDb describes it. What makes this film special, Meacham says, is that the story is told almost entirely through silent movies. Even more intriguing: They’re films that were lost for decades, literally buried throughout Dawson City, including hundreds that were sealed in an old swimming pool, because the nitrate film they were recorded on was dangerously flammable. “They were worried about what to do with the film, so they just used it as landfill,” Meacham says. In the 1970s, construction projects began to unearth these hidden treasures.

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Part of the intrigue of Dawson City: Frozen Time is the meta-layer of the deteriorated film itself, Meacham says. “There’s this kind of ghostly, spectral damage creeping in from the edges of the film.” But you don’t have to have a deep interest in film history to enjoy watching it, he says. The film is for anyone who wants “to be transported to a different era and hear a really fascinating story told in a unique way.”

Seth Godfrey, manager of reference and adult learning at Ives Main Library, takes a different approach to the question of what to watch in quarantine. He opts for an inspiring film of survival, Ich war neunzehn (1968) or I Was Nineteen, an East German film based on the life of director Konrad Wolf, whose family fled Germany when he was a child and who returned as a soldier in the Soviet Union’s Red Army. “It’s a return to home,” Godfrey says, yet the protagonist, Gregor Hecker—based on Wolf—has to then figure out who he is and where he belongs. “For me, it resonates in times of despair,” Godfrey says. It also speaks to him on a personal level. “We think about the moral courage [of] our relatives who battled fascism,” he says.

Humor is the antidote sought by Trish Clark, city producer for the New Haven branch of the 48 Hour Film Project, who suggests the “hilarious college romp” Midnight Madness (1980). The film stars a not-yet-famous Michael J. Fox, with appearances by other iconic ’80s actors whose faces viewers of a certain age will recognize but whose names they probably won’t, such as David Naughton, best known as the Dr. Pepper guy. Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Peewee Herman, makes an appearance in the early-career role of “pinball proprietor.” Midnight Madness’s plot hinges on a nighttime scavenger hunt through Los Angeles, a competition among stereotypical teams of jocks, nerds, sorority girls and others masterminded by a character named Leon. “It’s just a fun, feel-good film that you can kick back and laugh at,” Clark says.

Another ’80s film gets a shout-out from Ashley Brandon, assistant professor of film, television and media arts at Quinnipiac University and filmmaker at Wolf + Me Films. Brandon’s pick, Poltergeist (1982), is a horror movie. That may not be the first genre you’d choose to watch in stressful times, but Brandon says Poltergeist isn’t just (slightly) scary. It’s also, in her opinion, literally “the best portrayal of a family in cinema.” There’s nothing stereotypical about the Freelings. “Everyone in the family has their flaws, everyone fights with one another, but then in the end they stick together… to save a family member that is helpless,” Brandon says. The film offers up a generous helping of irony and comedy. But horror can be therapeutic, too, at a time like this, she suggests, because, like comedy, horror elicits a physical reaction from its audience. It may be “a release for some people. I think maybe some of us have pent-up energy.”

Local filmmaker Brendan Toller is thinking about social critique and political upheaval these days, and he sees it in the guise of a comedy-action film with echoes of George Orwell that “ironically and coincidentally came out in 1984”: Repo Man. The film could be viewed either straight-up or as a “subversive Trojan horse” of a movie that critiques capital, labor, politics and culture in the Reagan era, Toller says. Its convoluted IMDb summary hints at some of those themes and the film’s madcap plot; during his apprenticeship as a “repo man” for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, Otto (played by Emilio Estevez) is “introduced into the mercenary and paranoid world of the drivers, befriended by a UFO conspiracy theorist, confronted by rival repo agents, discovers some of his one-time friends have turned to a life of crime, is lectured to near cosmic unconsciousness by the repo agency grounds worker, and finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue concerning a huge repossession bounty on a 1964 Chevy Malibu driven by a lunatic government scientist, with Top Secret cargo in the trunk.”

Toller, whose 2015 film Danny Says tells the story of iconic music producer Danny Fields, says Repo Man is the right film for the present day because being at home “gives us a natural pause, even if we’re working, … to reflect on what we actually return to when society resumes and what are the things worth keeping and what are the things not worth keeping.” Repo Man, he says, “actually opens up and critiques those questions and those structures in a really fun and imaginative way.”

You don’t need a streaming service to see many of these films. Both Godfrey and Meacham give a shout-out to Kanopy and hoopla, digital platforms that public library cardholders can access for free. And if none of these suggestions strike your fancy, for a few more recommendations, you can check out Best Video’s ongoing “A Favorite Movie” series, in which friends of Hamden’s film and cultural center discuss their favorite, often obscure, movies.

Whether you’re looking for an escape or a head-on collision, Brandon says these days at home are making the value of movies clearer than ever. “I can’t be out shooting and making my art,” she says, “but at the same time it makes you realize how important films and filmmaking [are] because that’s what everyone is turning to.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image depicts a still from Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016).

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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