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On going back to the movies

And seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

A red-lit view of a comedian sitting on gazebo steps facing a crowd in the rain.
Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place closed out the Tribeca Festival. It felt like more than just a movie.
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

On Saturday night, while jumping out of my seat to let someone squeeze past me at Radio City Music Hall, I spilled my red wine on the stranger seated next to me. Just sloshed it right across his knees, onto his jeans. Big dark stains, visible even in the dim light. World’s most embarrassing party foul.

He forcefully and repeatedly assured me it was fine, no problem at all, they were old jeans he was going to throw out anyhow — thank you, kind stranger — but as we sat back down, I was equal parts horrified and elated. Horrified, because that’s just a rookie mistake. Elated, because, well, put yourself in my shoes: I spilled wine on the stranger in the seat next to mine. At Radio City Music Hall. I was close enough to someone else to spill wine on them, and I was drinking wine, and we were in one of the world’s most famous concert venues, the most capacious in New York City. Packed to the gills, everyone vaccinated. Ready to see a movie (and a concert, though we didn’t know that part yet).

It had been so long. So much longer than I could have ever believed 15 months earlier. I sat astonished in my seat by what had just happened, by sitting surrounded by people in an august venue, as the movie was introduced and the opening titles began rolling. DAVE CHAPPELLE: THIS TIME THIS PLACE flashed onto the screen.

A black-and-white photo of three people sitting on grass together and smiling.
Dave Chappelle with Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, directors of Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place.
Courtesy of Tribeca Festival

The closing night film of the Tribeca Festival began to play, chronicling several months of outdoor, socially distanced shows in a small-town Ohio field that Chappelle and an assortment of A-list comedians — Michelle Wolf, Jon Stewart, Hannibal Buress, David Letterman, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, Trevor Noah, on and on and on — put on near Chappelle’s home during the summer of 2020.

Directed by veteran documentarians Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar (winners of the 2020 Best Documentary Oscar for American Factory) — who live in the same town as Chappelle, Yellow Springs, the home of Antioch College, near Dayton — the film captured a lot more than a series of stand-up acts. It’s the best movie I’ve seen to date at summing up the very particular mood that struck so many Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a community that took the threat to life posed by the virus very seriously, and still tried to find a way to live. People getting giant swabs shoved up their noses every day. Existential crises. Balancing love of neighbor with staying the heck away from neighbor. Grappling with the murder of George Floyd and everything that followed. We see Wolf, who had been in Ohio for a show on March 14 and ended up living with Chappelle and his family in the ensuing months, making a salad in the Chappelle kitchen in sweats and a ponytail, talking about just trying to cope. The camera captures a rolling cast of comedians who seem incredibly relieved to just tell jokes to a bunch of masked Ohioans, sitting in little spray-painted circles, as startled as anyone to be there.

I watched the film, and thought about my own city, New York, which was hit so hard and which has come vibrantly alive in the last month. (The fact that half the comedians arriving to perform at Chappelle’s were from New York, and emerged from a plane blinking in the light as if they were recently liberated mole women, didn’t hurt.) The Tribeca Festival happened to be the first large-scale in-person event held in the city since March 2020, with well-attended outdoor film and TV screenings scattered throughout the boroughs and a smattering of other events. During the festival’s 10-day mid-June run, the governor announced that we’d reached a key threshold: 70 percent of New York state residents over 18 had gotten at least one vaccine shot, and all legal restrictions were immediately lifted.

Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place was different from the others; it was shown inside a venue, with vaccination status checked at the door, no social distancing or masks required. And it marked the first event at Radio City Music Hall since the pandemic began.

The whole festival, to be honest, felt like a conveyor belt ramping up into something weirdly normal-ish, while casting a cautious glance back over its shoulder. At times it felt like we were all crossing our fingers, hoping that the thing we were starting to talk about in the past tense, for our corner of the world, might actually stay there. Don’t want to jinx it, after all.

Two women in the foreground wearing sunglasses look up at the screen.
The screenings took place mostly outdoors — and that’s me in the background!
Shravya King / Tribeca Festival

The film slate was full of movies made either during or about the pandemic, or both. I watched one of the most charming, Roshan Sethi’s romantic comedy 7 Days, while perched on a seat on Brooklyn’s MetroTech plaza, beneath a big screen. It’s the tale of Ravi (Karan Soni) and Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan), who are set up on a date by their parents but end up quarantined together when lockdowns suddenly happen. I winced when I realized the premise, but with a plot centered on the pair’s slowly growing friendship and deeper connection, I relaxed and enjoyed their chemistry.

The Tribeca Festival retained a virtual component — a key part of every film festival for more than a year now — and so at home on my couch, where I also attended Sundance, and the Toronto Film Festival, and a few others in the last 15 months, I watched Roaring 20s. Directed by Elisabeth Vogler, the film follows 24 Parisians through a long, continuous afternoon, in pairs and solo. As characters cross paths, the camera swerves away to follow another one. Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (or books like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses), it evoked pandemic Paris without focusing on the pandemic — and it was all shot in the summer of 2020. You can feel the same anticipation and anxiety of the characters. We lived this, or some version of this, together.

Not every movie at the festival was pandemic-related, of course. Accepted, a terrific documentary from Dan Chen, dives into the shockingly successful Louisiana school TM Landry Prep, and then is upended when a scandal hits. The film smartly turns on a dime, examining how mythos are made and how documentarians and viral social media can inadvertently aid in the lie. Ultrasound, a complex and staggering intellectual horror thriller, weaves a subtle metaphor for the gaslighting that powers abusive relationships into its heart-pounding story.

Some films weren’t pandemic-related, but felt that way nonetheless. The brilliant thriller The Novice, which feels like a cousin to Black Swan and The Fits, digs into the psyche of a college student who is driven to the edge by her desperate need to win, to succeed, to be good at something — an obsession that might feel all too familiar. In another film, Italian Studies, Vanessa Kirby plays a successful author who suddenly experiences a dissociative episode and begins wandering the streets of New York, talking to teenagers she meets, trying to figure out where she belongs. Quite a movie to watch while seated with an audience on the lawn of Battery Park, hearing the sounds of that same city all around us.

Six men standing in a row, in suits, on a stage.
Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm, Noah Jupe, Steven Soderbergh, Ray Liotta, and David Harbour — who were flanked on both sides by even more stars — at the Tribeca premiere of Soderbergh’s new film No Sudden Move.
Courtesy of Tribeca Festival

Then there was the festival’s centerpiece selection, No Sudden Move, Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming slow-burn heist movie. Or is it? The movie is about the foolishness of trusting anyone, shot in a style that evokes similar movies from the 1950s. But Soderbergh and his incredible star-studded cast (Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox, Noah Jupe, Ray Liotta, Kieran Culkin, Bill Duke, and the list goes on) shot the film last fall, in Detroit, in a “production bubble,” and though that has nothing to do with the story, it’s hard to forget. (The movie is fantastic, but will only be on HBO Max on July 1, so maybe the pandemic influence is still palpable.)

We’ve been talking since the start of the pandemic about what the pandemic movies would be like, which of them would be great and which would be awful, and whether we’ll spend a couple of years watching bad ones before we get to see the good ones. A historical event so big, so disruptive, with loss of life on the level of a war and inescapable effects on our daily lives, couldn’t help but affect the entertainment industry, too. We’ll be seeing the results for a long time to come.

Sitting in Radio City, having just watched two weeks of movies that grappled with that reality, I understood in a new way how weird the near future will probably be. It feels like waking up from a nightmare, except the nightmare is still lurking in the corners, and still showing up on the evening news. Like the comedians on screen, we emerged blinking into a familiar but slightly rearranged world. Walking around New York, which I’ve barely left since the pandemic began, I experienced the same feeling that happens when I go back to visit my hometown after months away — everything’s the same, but it’s also really different.

After the film, Dave Chappelle showed up. The real Dave Chappelle, on a real stage, not in a field in Ohio but right there in New York. He introduced DJ Clark Kent, who proceeded to bring on a string of hip-hop artists from all five of New York’s boroughs, plus Long Island and Newark. Q-Tip. A$AP Ferg. Ghostface Killah. Talib Kweli. Fat Joe. The crowd went wild. We jumped to our feet and started dancing, myself and the guy I spilled wine on included. A screen behind the performers showed the streets of New York. When it was all over at nearly midnight, I walked through a packed Times Square to the subway, and for once wasn’t mad about the crowds and all the lights.

I don’t know if we’re back, really, and fear still lurks. But I’ll be over here hoping that light at the end of the tunnel is real, and watching the movies that make it grow brighter.