Cinema Quarantena: What to Watch (And Not) In Isolation

You’ll have to watch Tiger King yourself.


Lisa Van Dusen

May 14, 2020

After so many weeks of Isolation Nation quarantine that snow is now as discombobulated as the rest of us about which season it is, I’m down to streaming entertainment content that can best be described as “Whatever isn’t Tiger King.”

Having processed just enough information about Tiger King weeks ago to sort its fight-or-flight triggers, my amygdala identified it as the Netflix version of that sad jar of jumbo capers in the back of my fridge, i.e. the last isolation item I would ever consume before shuffling off this mortal coil.

So, in this latest instalment of my public service series of isolation tips, some viewing recommendations for whiling away those hours not spent either navel-gazing or looking up the thesaurus-junkie word for navel-gazing so you can actually use “omphaloskepsis” in a sentence.

Some people, and by some people I mean human beings of the type one once encountered in one’s daily perambulations in the pre-pandemic utopian meat space of non-lethal droplets and unmasked bipeds, have been spending their isolation viewing hours—according to the unimpeachable anthropological authority of Twitter—watching pandemic movies, of which there is an entire genre.

The core canon includes Contagion, Pandemic, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, Virus, and How Hello Kitty Charmed the World. There is a pandemic-adjacent sub-genre that includes World War Z, in which Brad Pitt plays a United Nations official single-handedly thwarting a zombie pandemic using his wits and the ineffable, balmy superpower of being Brad Pitt, which seems qualification enough for the real UN to conscript him as an asset in our current battle.

Since watching a pandemic movie during an actual pandemic strikes me as an act of karmic provocation comparable to licking every doorknob within 20-square blocks of this couch, even the Brad Pitt movie is out of the question. Instead, other than season 2 of Ricky Gervais’ After Life, which is excellent, I’ve been watching anything that replicates the essential elements of the crisis—an enemy that doesn’t respect borders, an uncertain future, a context of unfamiliar deprivation, democracies under siege—without the clinical similarities. In Second World War content, the addictive 2015-17 CBC series X Company has the best ass-saving line ever, yelled by a Resistance fighter caught in American crossfire while impersonating a Nazi: “Don’t shoot—I’m Canadian!” which should be, if not our new national motto, at least a Barenaked Ladies song.

The most useful non-Nazi content I can recommend is The Lives of Others, the 2006 drama about the surveillance state run by the East German Stasi before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since the COVID-19 pandemic is currently being used as a rationale for the expansion of surveillance activity across an increasingly un-democratic globe, it’s a bit of a primer for the surveillance-state renaissance.

Among the take-aways: unregulated, ubiquitous surveillance is never passive, it is a means of not just censorship but of maintaining fealty to a corrupt regime through coercion and intimidation; surveillance states inevitably abuse power on a massive scale to justify their continued existence; surveillance is a means of not just monitoring, but also colonizing the lives of others, deployed by people—because “the state” is made up of human beings after all—with agendas, grudges, obsessions, and vendettas.

A major difference since then: the Stasi surveillance empire was built on hidden wires and camouflaged bugs. Surveillance stopped being about hardware and started being about software with the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution. These days, surveillance states respect no physical boundaries and leave no fingerprints.

Which means, as pandemics go, it may be more akin to zombies than microbes. And very tough to contain. The hopeful twist in The Lives of Others is that the watcher, a human being, rebels.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.