Commentary: With emotions on the surface during lockdown, a critic gives thanks 8 different ways

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The mood swings, needless to say, have been enough to usher in a new swing era.

My wife and I are constantly forgetting what day it is. She leans forward, mistaking Thursday for Friday or even Saturday; I lean backward and think if it’s Thursday, it must be Tuesday. We have been writing a lot. The frivolous, distraction-minded stuff feels both right and wrong. The grim, business-related prognoses feel both wrong and right.

I’ve been talking to vulnerable, valiant folks in the Chicago film industry: exhibitors, distributors, programmers, projectionists, digital-platform workers scrambling to figure out alternatives to traditional moviegoing. We’re moviestaying for now, and “now” has never been a more vexing and unpredictable word. I’ve quoted Arthur Miller’s line from “All My Sons” in various contexts, but the novel coronavirus renders it urgent beyond argument: “You can be better! Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it.”

On Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere online, we gather many different coping mechanisms, cinematic or otherwise. I read about someone’s go-to “comfort food” movie, a reliable picker-upper, or some film or song or work of literature returned to, in search of comfort and solace. I don’t really work that way, I guess. Not yet. I’m more compelled by seeing and listening to work I’ve never made time for, before the new now.

Yet when I feel sad about loved ones I haven’t seen in too long, or regretful about things I’ve said, or concerned about how many “essential workers” (never mind the millions of allegedly nonessential ones) likely to find themselves unemployed later this year, if they’re not already, suddenly I realize the value of simple rediscoveries. Things to appreciate, with a full heart. For the first time, or the 50th.

1. My stepdaughter’s banana bread. It’s amazing. Moist, with a slightly chewy crust. She bakes it often these days. She’s keeping us all in excellent culinary shape in self-quarantine.

2. Movie themes as interpreted by jazz pianist Bill Evans. In an upcoming weekly segment heard on Classical WFMT’s “Soundtrack,” hosted by Maggie Clennon Reberg (9-10 a.m. Saturdays, 98.7 FM, and on, you’ll hear a rare 1970 Evans recording of the Johnny Mandel song “Emily.” It’s the love theme from the 1964 James Garner/Julie Andrews drama “The Americanization of Emily,” an eccentric and intriguing film for a lot of reasons. It was recorded in a beautiful, low-slung Helsinki living room, by a lake. The performance — particularly the first minute and the last minute — is a well that never runs dry. And then there’s his solo piano rendition of the main title theme, “The Bad and the Beautiful.” It’s only the human experience in two minutes, that’s all.

3. The people who deliver our groceries. Thank you.

4. The way Michael Curtiz works a movie camera around a nightclub or a restaurant scene. Embarrassing, yes, but I’ve only recently caught up with “Mildred Pierce” (1945) for the first time, though I like and love all kinds of Curtiz films, from “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” to “The Adventures of Robin Hood” to “Casablanca” to the overripe fulminations of “Young Man with a Horn.” Watching a studio craftsman such as Curtiz activate the simplest camera movements, on a diagonal dolly or a sly pivot between tables at a diner or entering a swank cocktail lounge, well … it’s a beautiful experience, subconscious or otherwise. Curtiz and Vincente Minnelli — those guys really knew how to make an entrance.

5. Our local bike shop. Haven’t been to Boulevard Bikes in a while, but they took care of my old Schwinn well enough, last tune-up, to keep it working well in the coronavirus era.

6. The dog. Still alive. Still chases a tennis ball down the sidewalk. Now deaf, or nearly, but now she sleeps in, even after we’ve come downstairs early morning to make the coffee.

7. My colleagues. The Tribune faces turbulence and uncertainty every day. The folks I work for, and with, are doing vital, important work every day of those days.

8. You. You’re reading this. Thank you. You might consider a penny a day for six months, and $1.99/week thereafter. It’s a worthwhile investment in local journalism, even if you like so-and-so but can’t stand the vicious opinions of so-and-so. It’s a town hall, not a propaganda outfit.

We all have a few things in common here in Chicago, and across the country as Americans. We have governmental and civic leaders who have risen, impressively and humanely, to a pretty terrible occasion. And we have each other, 6 feet apart or more for now.

We’re apart, not alone.



Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.


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