Jim Carrey in 1994's The Mask

Enter The Quar Gaze

Watching films under quarantine levies an exacting critique of anything set in the present-day, rendering everything not made yesterday entirely obsolete.

by Claudia Ross
Apr 19 2020, 9:36am

Jim Carrey in 1994's The Mask

Of all coronavirus’ victims, cultural production ranks low on the list, though its absence changes the flavor of daily life. In the wake of the global pandemic, the media juggernaut stuttered: film productions halted, content creators moved to awkward WFH set-ups. The marketing-PR hive mind could do nothing to predict the new world heralded by COVID-19; not even quarantine-adjacent films (read: house-bound and horrified) like 2017’s Get Out or Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) could wrestle with the avalanche of social regulations, the dystopian panic-buy shoppers, and the gridlock of crisis and terror that now marks our quotidian routine. The rhythm of quarantine lacks representation, casting cinema in a drastically different light: restaurant scenes are the stuff of terror and nostalgia—sex scenes, well, forget it. Approximations of our reality sans-virus conjure a set of feelings unique to life under COVID, from the paranoid to the erotic. The subtle shift in the experience of media consumption during coronavirus suggests a future defined by radically different encounters with intimacy, identity, and the public sphere. The view from quarantine? No movie will ever be the same.

Unlike other disasters, viral epidemics demand their own sidewalk theatre. Social distancing requires choreography, from the looping paths of joggers to the Elizabethan curtsy of a Postmate dropping off Thai food 6 feet from your doorstep. This makes cinematic representations of the near-contemporary bear the characteristics of the uncanny: 2019’s Marriage Story belongs to antiquity, a time when estranged spouses could trade their kid back and forth without viral consequences. The Netflix teen straight-to-streaming genre rouses feelings of empathy and revulsion: a by-all-accounts horrible film like SPF-18, which features a group of 4 “artistically minded” teenagers stranded in Keanu Reeves’ abandoned Malibu homestead (don’t ask), reads like an Ex Machina mimesis—so close, and yet so far. “Quarantine gaze” (“quar-gaze,” colloquially) levies an exacting critique of anything set in the present-day, rendering everything not made yesterday entirely obsolete.

"Marriage Story," a movie from another time.

If quarantine spells planned obsolescence for most media, where to? The strict social rules of high-budget period pieces offer COVID solace. Forgotten etiquette often provides the structure for whole plotlines, principally around the dramatic transgression of prescribed social norms, from kissing a neighbor—Romeo & Juliet (1968), and Romeo + Juliet, (1996)—to not wearing a mask to the grocery store. In these not-so-foreign historical dramas, the regulation of public behavior creates its own erotica, walking the thin libidinal line between deprivation and desire. In Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988), John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and Michelle Pfeiffer negotiate the terms of endearment of 18th century France—though a Lothario Malkovich is keen to break its rules. A rigorous economy of gesture—the graze of a shoulder, a sidelong glance—forms around the budding sexual tension between the cast of characters, as alien and familiar as the standards of contemporary quarantine. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Decameron offers six tales derived from Boccaccio’s epic of the same name, which, in the original, structures itself around stories told by ten wealthy Italians hiding in a Florentine villa during the Black Plague. Sound familiar? Pasolini’s riff on the medieval legends features the director’s characteristic explorations of sexuality, bodily fluids, and a dash of incest. In one episode, a young man who pretends to be deaf and mute is welcomed by an enclave of nuns, whom he proceeds to have sex with one by one (their idea, not his). Pasolini’s singular filmmaking proves its relevance once again: a horny convent, after all, is just April 2020’s “apartment building.” Under quarantine, courtship rituals appear not only sexy but also life-saving, a respite from all the horrible physical contact that graced our screens for most of this century.

In these not-so-foreign historical dramas, the regulation of public behavior creates its own erotica, walking the thin libidinal line between deprivation and desire.

But the restructuring of media under quarantine does not stop at the socio-sexual: under viral threat, each individual is a potential carrier and victim. Hands and faces, previously tethered, appear more and more suspect: I realize how much they did without me thinking, my illusion of ambient control. For this ailment, thankfully, we have somewhere to turn: the cinema of self-alienation might as well be its own genre, crafting narratives that speak to the special dystopia of having a body during a pandemic. From William Friedkin’s The Exorcist to Freaky Friday (1976, 2003), Hollywood loves to explore the self as a site of potential occupation. In 1994’s The Mask, the already cartoonish Jim Carrey plays beta bank teller Stanley Ipkiss, who finds a wooden mask that transforms him into a kind of Casanova Daffy Duck. When wearing the mask, characters morph into realizations of their “deepest inner selves,” even though their faces are obscured. The Mask plays with the idea that the face is the principle marker of identity: when Ipkiss reveals himself to romantic interest Cameron Diaz, she stays with him—but the police officers persecuting “The Mask” are forced to drop all charges. In the age of coronavirus, previously taboo facial coverings are measures of self-protection and displays of, in the words of Benjamin Bratton, “solidarity with the epidemiological and immunological commons.” Techniques used to elude identification are now crucial to social preservation during coronavirus, providing some citizens with new anti-authoritarian armor. As potential deadly hosts to the virus, individuals are forced to reconcile new systems of protection—ones that paradoxically confuse modes of social and political identification.

At the beginning of April, my downstairs neighbors moved their television into their tiled foyer. In the afternoons, I forget that the mixture of YouTube videos and concert streams emanating from below aren’t real conversations, some remnant of urban life left untouched. In between weeks 3 and 4, the difference between the screen and the street blurred—I catch myself lazily drawing six feet lines between chariots in Ben-Hur and assuming the Misery writer is, like me, under Pandemic Law . Somewhere beyond Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief lies a sixth one, an adjustment to loss that carefully tunes each sense to a profoundly different routine. That’s when quarantine really begins: in dreams, books, and movies, the choreography of coronavirus starts to sink in, growing teeth and nails, like a newborn. The virus is a ghost to every film, an invisible enemy that alters the benign interactions of a pre-COVID public. There’s a quarantine-shaped veneer over crowd scenes, an added guest at the diner counter. If you’re running out of Netflix shows, try a re-watch—there’s a special something lurking in the shadows.

the mask