In early July, I set out to write a series of articles on the impact of COVID-19 on Berkeley’s “movie culture.” I intended to set up interviews with the operators of the many theaters in the East Bay — which did result in a great conversation with Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s director of film curation Susan Oxtoby — but I couldn’t find any way to get in contact with the others.
I don’t know why I expected theaters to pick up phone calls while they’re closed to the public. But believe me, I tried everything. Have you ever slid into the Facebook direct messages of a movie theater? Now I can say that I have, and it ghosted me.
It was kind of a flawed idea for a series in retrospect. How different, really, did I expect the COVID-19 experience of Shattuck Cinemas to be from the California Theatre? Certainly not enough to stretch into distinct think pieces on the matter, seeing as they’re owned by the same company.
But parallel to my research, I was reminiscing about pre-quarantine movie nights on my social media. That’s when I stumbled upon a photograph of a couple friends posing goofily underneath the California Theatre’s retro neon marquee.
I don’t remember taking the photo, but I remember the night: It was last October, our first semester. We’d spent way too long chatting about cold brew coffee and Magic: The Gathering in my messy Christian Hall triple and hadn’t really attempted to figure out the bus schedule yet, so we bolted like lost children down Durant Avenue toward the theater. I thought we were seeing “The Lighthouse,” but Daniel had persuaded us to check out this neat Korean indie thriller that had been making some waves in the festival circuit.
I know that there is no deader horse than pontificating about quarantine. Beating it at this point almost feels like an act of hubris. But in all of this reflecting on my freshman year, it’s hard not to acknowledge that this next year is going to be really different — especially for incoming students. Remote classes likely suck even more if they’re your first experience of classes at UC Berkeley. And I have frankly no idea how digital Golden Bear Orientation is going to turn out.
But though I may be alone in this, Berkeley’s film scene was also inseparable from my freshman year experience. It’s a unique point of pride in Berkeley that often goes so unacknowledged: BAMPFA has one of the most active archives in the country, and the downtown theaters work so closely with the student body through SUPERB and other organizations. It’s true much of this will continue remotely, and yet I’m inexpressibly bummed that it won’t be nearly as vibrant in the foreseeable future.
I know these are relatively frivolous complaints, and to be honest, I’m a little ashamed to admit them. Amid unprecedented deaths from this pandemic, a tanking economy and a government proving less competent in handling this by the day, why am I wasting emotional energy missing these silly movie nights?
I suppose that’s where my motivation for the article series originally came from: Perhaps I felt that if I sprinkled this angst on top of some investigative journalism, it would be enough of a reason to write about it. It’s an extension of this bad habit I seem to have formed during quarantine — this reluctance to actually process my emotions unless I can somehow frame it like a productive exercise.
But then I see photos like the one of Daniel and Krista posing under that kitschy sign. I remember having my mind absolutely blown by “Parasite.” I also remember hate-watching “Joker” at the Shattuck and later bonding with my fellow writers in the arts department over our shared animosity. I remember eagerly waiting for my Friday lectures to end to catch the next installment of “War and Peace” at BAMPFA. And I’m reminded that this year will be different. It’ll be an indeterminate number of months before we finally get to see “Tenet,” and who even knows if it’ll be on a big screen when we finally do. I was so ready to be disappointed by “Bill and Ted Face the Music” among a theater of equally disappointed moviegoers, but I guess that’ll have to wait too.
Maybe I just need to acknowledge that I can be disappointed about all of this without necessarily ignoring the real tragedies and political turmoil of this pandemic. And I don’t think that it necessarily involves stretching it into some extended project for my journalism resume.
I suppose that’s the takeaway of all of this, really. I need to work on being emotionally honest with myself, rather than using this angst to fuel my productivity. I guess that’s something we have a bit of a reputation for at UC Berkeley, but maybe I’ll finally learn my lesson by the next time I’m running late to a premier. Oh, and I’ll remember to take the bus next time, too.