As the coronavirus continues to play with the fates of Oregon’s independent movie houses like a cat with a mouse, it’s nevertheless worth pondering what things will look like once restrictions on attendance are lifted. As with so many other areas of life, what will the new normal look like?
Specifically, will theaters continue to offer what’s become known as “virtual cinema,” wherein first-run titles can be rented from home, with a certain percentage of the ticket price going to the theater that’s “showing” the film? After all, before the pandemic, one of the biggest threats to the livelihood of theaters was the increasing use of simultaneous big-screen and pay-per-view releases. If arthouse distributors return to that practice once theaters have fully reopened, why not set it up so that theaters get a cut?
There are certainly reasons why this sort of setup wouldn’t be ideal. Theaters count on concession sales to balance the books, for one thing. For another, unless virtual cinema ticket sales were restricted geographically, the idea of a limited theatrical release would be a thing of the past, since anyone in Portland could watch a film screening virtually in Austin, Texas, and vice versa. In addition, I’ve heard anecdotally that, even during pandemic shutdowns, virtual cinema revenues have been underwhelming, so would it even be worth the trouble once in-person screenings are a thing again?
On the other hand, continuing the practice could allow for a broader selection of available titles, especially if the economics are structured so that theaters can minimize their up-front rental costs. One example of this possibility is the current programming at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre. Unlike almost all of Portland’s theaters, the Kiggins is open for limited audiences, with current big-screen offerings including Oscar winners Minari and The Father. But the Kiggins has been a prolific user of the virtual cinema setup throughout the pandemic, and that doesn’t seem likely to change. There are currently nine movies available for online rental, with new releases scheduled each week for the foreseeable future.
Most of these are the sorts of titles that, in the before times, would have also opened at, say, Regal’s Fox Tower, played for a week, and vanished into the ether. But they’re also the sorts of titles that discriminating viewers won’t want to miss. For example, there’s The County, an Icelandic drama about one woman’s persistent efforts to expose corruption in her local agricultural co-op. Not the sexiest of plot summaries, to be sure, but a compelling story nonetheless, topped by a convincing and powerful performance by Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir. It’s also dotted with moments of dry, near-absurdist humor in that particular Scandinavian mold.
There’s also Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on the same 1929 Alfred Doblin novel that inspired Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mammoth 14-episode TV series from 1980. Director Burhan Qurbani’s new iteration is a decidedly looser adaptation. Instead of a rootless German recently released from prison, the story’s antihero, Franz B. (Welket Bungué), is an undocumented refugee from Guinea-Bissau who has recently arrived in Berlin. As in the original, however, Franz, despite his righteous intentions, finds himself drawn into the city’s demimonde of drug dealers, prostitutes, and nightclubs, mostly thanks to his unfortunate friendship with a neurotic, misogynistic criminal named Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch, in a menacing and memorable performance). Franz finds hope for the future in his friendship with a nightclub owner named Eva and in his relationship with a prostitute named Mieze, but his moral compromises and unsavory entanglements threaten to destroy him.
Tackling this book in the considerable shadow of Fassbinder’s epic treatment is a brave act, and using it to foreground the consequences of treating immigrants and refugees as less than human creates intriguing parallels between the novel’s Weimar setting and present-day Germany. What doesn’t translate quite as well is the depiction of the underground world Franz inhabits—Weimar cabaret culture was transgressive in a way that reads as progressive today, while the neon-lit strip clubs where so much of this film’s action take place come off as tawdry and inhuman. Although perhaps that was Qurbani’s intent.
In any case, even with its three-hour running time (another plus in the virtual cinema column: pausing for bathroom breaks!), this Berlin Alexanderplatz can’t contain the novel’s, or Fassbinder’s, expansive narrative. It doesn’t have to, though, to make its point.
Also opening this week at The Living Room Theaters, one of the few venues currently hosting in-person screenings, is the Israeli documentary The Human Factor, which provides a fascinating, intimate look at the Arab-Israeli peace process from the unique perspective of the American negotiators who participated in it. Director Dror Moreh garners forthright and revealing interviews with six U.S. diplomats, including Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, who relate both the triumphs and, more frequently, disappointments, of negotiations during the 1990s. The pinnacle, of course, comes with the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the White House in 1993, and the nadir follows only two years later, when Rabin is assassinated by a right-wing fanatic.
As the title implies, the film focuses on the ways the individual personalities involved affected the tenor and the outcome of the various negotiating sessions. The peace process is described at one point as a bicycle, in that it has to keep moving forward or it will fall over. Although some anecdotes are amusing, most highlight the way that arrogance and insecurity from the men (and they’re always men) involved served too often as a stick in the spokes of that bicycle’s wheels. Ultimately, this is a story about a dream that failed, but as a reminder of how close it came at times to being realized, The Human Factor can remind us that it wasn’t an impossible dream.