Some cinematic languages are ahead of their eras. Others arrive just in time.
Eons ago – also known as January – Zoom was a semi-obscure service known mostly as a business-based videoconferencing tool. Now, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become a our instant vernacular, with toddlers using it for playdates, teenagers using it to learn, wine o’clockers using it to toast and families using it for virtual hugs during a time of enforced separation.
With its black-box simplicity and stacked spatial grid, the Zoom screen hews to a comforting form of classicism, evoking both Mies van der Rohe-esque modernism and the boomer nostalgia of “Hollywood Squares.” As a metaphor for contagious times, its aesthetic couldn’t be more apt, allowing practitioners to be connected and self-isolated, in a format that – however improbably – looks better as more people add their faces to its oddly mesmerizing mosaic of morphing tiles.
In fact, Zoom has quickly become so ubiquitous, so reflexively accepted as How We Live Now (it’s been real, TikTok), that it’s only a matter of time before someone makes their first feature film entirely on the platform. In the same way that D.W. Griffith’s novelistic editing and psychological symbolism anticipated audiences’ expanding expectations in the early 20th century, and that the jump cuts and jittery handheld camera movements of the French New Wave both captured and informed the edgy sociopolitical impulses of the 1960s, Zoom is already promising to both reflect and infiltrate the visual language of its era.
Like the aesthetic advances that preceded it, the Zoomification of movies will be the product of what has always been a dialectical relationship between technology and creators. In 2000, the British director Mike Figgis made “Time Code,” composed of four separate story lines filmed on digital cameras that unspooled simultaneously, leaving it to viewers (nudged by increasing the volume on certain pieces of dialogue) to decide which part of the desultory, maddeningly random plot to follow. It didn’t take long for movies like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Sucker Punch” to adopt visual and narrative techniques from the very video games that were striving to look like movies. Over the past few years, filmmakers have experimented with re-creating the online experience in “desktop” movies like “Unfriended” and “Searching”; the conundrum of how best to show text messages on screen – beyond boring shots of pinging cellphones – has been attempted in everything from “The Fault in Our Stars” to the TV shows “Sherlock” and “House of Cards.”
Phones are the target exhibitors for Quibi, the new venture being launched next week by former studio mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who not that long ago was insisting that large-format theaters and 3-D were the future; now he’s big on small-canvas stories designed for bite-sized snacking.
But phones have also become their own means of production: In 2015 Sean Baker made the sun-kissed Los Angeles picaresque “Tangerine” entirely on an iPhone, with nary a hiccup – a feat repeated last year by Steven Soderbergh with the basketball drama “High Flying Bird.”
If any filmmaker is already working on a Zoom movie, it’s most likely Soderbergh, an inveterate early adopter of innovations with movies like “Full Frontal,” “Bubble” and “Che”; his prescient 2011 epidemic thriller “Contagion” has already become the cinematic mascot for 2020, a year that has taken on the contours of an eerie dystopian allegory. But more than just a gimmick or pop-metonym, Zoom has the potential to add legitimate production value to the cinematic lexicon. For an example, look no further than a video of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing an excerpt from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” that went viral over the past two weeks.
Created by principal double bass Jeffrey Beecher, the 4 1/2-minute film features 29 orchestra members playing the “Simple Gifts” theme from Copland’s composition. Beecher sent his colleagues an MP3 of the digital score he’d created on his computer so they could hear each other’s parts while they played, asked them to film themselves on their phones and send him the files. Then he spent 48 hours (with pizza breaks) furiously editing the performances into a poetic whole. Although Beecher didn’t make the piece on Zoom, his visual design – rectilinear blocks that shift in placement and prominence, set amid a solid black background – evokes the platform’s elegantly simple layout.
Beecher’s inspirations were as varied as the obscure 1980s DIY cult film “The Wizard of Speed and Time,” a vintage board game called “Guess Who?” and the choreography of Martha Graham, who commissioned “Appalachian Spring.” But he admits that he was instinctively drawn to the “Brady Bunch”-era familiarity and clean lines of Zoom. “Out of isolation comes connection,” he said in a recent telephone conversation from his home in Toronto. “How does culture serve our present quarantined time, not just in terms of supplying content for couch binge-watching, but … how these adapted skills and perspectives will change the live arts experience once we move freely from our homes?”
In its own way, Beecher’s experiment offers an answer to that question. Going to the movies has always been an exercise in collective solitude. Now that ethos has taken on life-or-death stakes. With filmgoers finding new ways of keeping their distance, whether at Netflix watch parties or “theatricasts” hosted by their local arthouses, Zoom promises to become not just a means of cinematic communing, but a uniquely expressive piece of cinematic grammar – one that gives “alone together” a prophetic, profound and potentially literal new meaning.