When I wrote last week’s What’s Screening newsletter, I knew that the next one would be different. But I didn’t think it would be this different.
When that article went live, only the Stanford and the BAMPFA were closed due to the coronavirus. I thought that this Friday, I would mention which theaters were open and which were not, but I would not recommend going to any movies playing in theaters for obvious reasons.
Thanks to Bay Area county governments, all theaters are now closed. That was a sad decision, but the right one. And it means I can tell you what movies will appear on the big screen this week in one word: none.
So, for this week’s newsletter, let’s consider three movies available for streaming, set at a time when pandemics were common, and no one knew what caused them. You got it…medieval Europe.
And I can’t think of a better film that captures the fright, the religious fanaticism, and the mortality of medieval Europe than Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).
A knight returning from the Crusades (Max von Sydow) plays chess with Death – hoping to live a little longer – while the plague ravages the countryside. But while the knight ponders God’s silence, his life-embracing squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) reminds us what it really means to be fully alive. He’s not the only one. A married couple of travelling performers find a simple happiness (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson). Filled with wonderful characters, religious allegory, and sly humor, The Seventh Seal bursts with a love of humanity and a fear for our place in the universe.
Speaking about pandemics, there’s one terrifying scene where a man dies of the plague while everyone keeps their distance.
You can stream the film from the Criterion Channel or Kanopy. If you don’t subscribe to either of those, it’s available on all the main pay-per-view streaming services: Apple, Amazon, Google Play, Youtube, and Vudu.
Okay. Maybe you want a less heavy and more entertaining version of the Middle Ages. After all, not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition. Some are just plain fun. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) shows us medieval Europe not as it was, but as it should have been. No plagues here.
For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue – graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue – triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Errol Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor–a name that really meant something special in 1938. Read my A+ essay.
Okay, movies set in the Middle Ages can be serious or escapist. How about just plain silly? You may already guess the last movie I’m recommending: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Bump your coconuts and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for the Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. Arguably the funniest film of the 1970s, and certainly the funniest of the 1070s.
Getting back to the plagues of the 21st century, the movie theaters will open someday, but no one knows when. For the time being, I’ll keep this blog going by focusing on what you can see at home. When the theaters come back, so will the weekly What’s Screening newsletter.
Until then, stay at home, wash your hands frequently, phone a loved one, and take some time to watch a classic film you haven’t seen in years.