There are many COVID-19 voids.
Some are a matter of life or death, like the dearth of essential medical equipment.
Some are less consequential, but still concerning, like intermittent shortages that can leave grocery stores stripped of staples.
And some aren’t in any way imperative, yet still important to building community and enjoying life.
Like sports. And movies.
Indeed, many (me included) miss the rituals of the roar of the crowd or the hush of the audience, as the theater lights dim and focus brightens toward the big screen (and at least for a couple of hours and a box of popcorn, away from small-screen distractions).
Movie theaters, of course, went dark in the dash to flatten the curve. But while they understandably weren’t deemed essential businesses, movies themselves seem more essential than ever, especially as many seek a diversion from the divisions that have emerged after an initial sense of pandemic unity.
So the interest in cinematic experiences hasn’t changed. What has is the venue: living rooms instead of cineplexes, as streaming services like Disney+ add viewers and events, like the announcement this week that a movie version of the stage sensation “Hamilton” — with the original Broadway cast — will fittingly premiere over Independence Day weekend.
Hollywood, reeling from rapid changes and challenges to its cultural and commercial model, has had to adjust. World cinema, too — including important events like the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, which had announced an exciting lineup of more than 250 films just before the coronavirus curtain came crashing down.
So the MSP Film Society had to adjust its view. Or “Adjust Your View” — the previous festival tagline with newfound profundity — with a relaunched event called “MSPIFF39 Redefined: A Virtual Film Festival.”
It kicked off on Thursday night — with patrons kicking off their shoes in a virtual dance party — and will run through May 23 as the festival screens about 50 feature films it had already selected for the 39th annual event.
Along with entries from every corner of the world (including Minneapolis, the location of “Bridge,” a documentary about the collapse of the I-35W bridge, and “Women in Blue,” a documentary following three female police officers), there will be live Q&A sessions (via Zoom, of course) with directors of several films, including one I’ll moderate on Sunday night after a screening of Maribeth Romslo’s compelling movie “Raise Your Voice,” about student journalists in the wake of the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The “Redefined” film festival will be just that, said MSP Film Society Executive Director Susan Smoluchowski. Gone will be the serendipity of sitting next to a moviegoer from across town or across the world, sharing impressions about the movie and the social movement it might reflect.
“The value of an international film festival is people come together not only to see the film but to talk to each other,” Smoluchowski said. “The most eye-opening piece of it all is to have that interaction with other people.”
It was the eye-opening outpouring of support that convinced the Film Society that the show must go on. “We had to figure out a way to stay in front of people who love what we bring to their lives,” Smoluchowski said. And those people — and then some — stayed in front of the festival. Not a single sponsor (including the Star Tribune) backed out, and Smoluchowski said that new members have joined every day since the festival’s mid-March postponement.
“It’s like this display of encouragement that we’ve been experiencing that goes way beyond what we ever could have imagined; that tells us something,” Smoluchowski said.
What this moment tells us about globalization is one of the key questions emerging from the worldwide crisis. Namely, is the pandemic’s global jolt the end of ever-increasing internationalization, which was one of the transcendent trends in the postwar era?
Some seem to think so — even if they rue it.
“Goodbye globalization,” reads this week’s Economist cover story. But the subhead — “The dangerous lure of self-sufficiency” — alludes to what Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes calls in her editor’s note “a lament for globalization.” Describing the coronavirus crisis as a “third body-blow” (following the financial crisis and the Sino-American trade war), Beddoes writes: “A fractured world will make solving planet-wide problems harder, including finding a vaccine and securing an economic recovery.”
Others, like Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book, “The World: A Brief Introduction,” are more sanguine about the durability of internationalization. In an interview, Haass said that, “Globalization is a reality. The pandemic is simply a reflection of that reality. Climate change continues. Migration continues. Terrorism continues. Proliferation continues. Trade continues. Globalization is a fact. How we respond to it; that’s the big question.” Transnational challenges, Haass stressed, know no national borders. “That’s simply a fact of life.”
Mary Curtin, diplomat-in-residence at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, concurred on the headwinds stemming from headlines about the pandemic and other worldly woes. “The forces against globalism are very much there; that is a reality.” And yet in cases like COVID-19, “it’s interesting to see these other forces saying we need to work together.”
The forces that bring cultures together at events like the film festival will still be there, too — and may be stronger than ever after the world was torn asunder by the asymmetric, invisible virus.
“We will be longing for that communal experience,” Smoluchowski said. “Although this is a crisis in our lives, I don’t think there’s any way that globalization, or the way we see the world in a more global way, is going to recede.”
But until people can again fully come together, “It’s an extraordinarily important time to connect right now,” Smoluchowski said.
“It seems paramount that we do everything we can to stay connected to the world,” she added. “Divisiveness is never useful to humanity.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.