What I'm really watching: old Parky, ancient tennis and a tiger cowboy

Xan Brooks
The Guardian

Last week, the BFI released a list of the films streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s terrific. It contains several movies I’ve always wanted to see (Adelheid, Images) and several I love and want to see again (The Green Ray, Orphée). The weekend was beckoning and the world appeared to be ending. I drafted a timetable of all the great films I would watch.

Now it is Monday and the timetable is in ruins – which is to say that I didn’t watch a single film. What I watched was the BBC news, which is playing as a real-time adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Stand. What I watched was five episodes of the French sitcom Call My Agent, all of which I had seen before. What I watched was a Netflix documentary about a demented cowboy who ran a tiger park in Oklahoma. What I watched was the first half of The Wizard of Oz with my five-year-old son, just before he went to bed. Happily, he seems to have liked it saying: “The only thing I really, really hate are the songs.”

Related: Call My Agent: the French comedy gem A-listers are desperate to star in

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Naturally, Covid-19 is partly to blame. If you take a random person who is exhausted, anxious and confused, and offer them a choice between watching a cherished classic from their childhood or the full seven hours of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, they’ll most likely plump for the least forbidding option. Even so, I suspect that our current predicament has merely accelerated a trend. I used to be altogether more adventurous in my viewing habits. In my 20s and 30s I’d always have gone for the Béla Tarr, if only to boast to people about how I was the sort of person who would always go for the Béla Tarr. Since then I’ve been backsliding, or maybe lightening up. And, as of this past fortnight, I’m a complete MOR sap. These days it’s as much as I can do to focus on anything that a) I haven’t already seen and b) comes in under two hours.

What am I really watching? Mostly, I’m opting for the lowest form of escapism. As a kind of comfort blanket, I’ll watch YouTube videos of old celebrity interviews: John Lennon on Dick Cavett and Richard Burton on Parky.

Occasionally I’ll watch antique tennis matches, too. Wilander versus McEnroe at the 1985 US Open. Becker versus Lendl at the 1988 Masters.

Mostly these are matches I remember watching, live on telly, as a kid. Sometimes they are matches where I can remember which player hit which shot on which break point in the fifth set. Which makes it rather sad; perhaps a little creepy, too. But you don’t need a psychiatrist to explain the appeal of these videos. There’s something reassuring about watching a drama unfold and knowing how it ends.

Next weekend, fingers crossed, we’ll have another stab at the BFI list. But, for the time being, let’s not beat ourselves up about taking the low road, about choosing the trashiest option or the nostalgic frippery. Whatever gets you through the night, as John Lennon once said, possibly to Dick Cavett. Besides, Call My Agent is holding up nicely on the second viewing, and the tiger zoo documentary is perfectly entertaining. (Although, wait, how many episodes? Surely that’s stretching the whole thing very thin.) Plus there’s always the second half of The Wizard of Oz still to get through.

In Preston Sturges’s Depression-era satire Sullivan’s Travels, a successful director of Hollywood comedies dreams of making a harsh, social-realist masterpiece only to realise that the world desperately needs to laugh, particularly when it’s laid out flat on its arse. That sounds about right; it’s a solid thesis right now.

So by all means watch dark, difficult films during dark, difficult times. But maybe balance them out with something lighter as well. I like the story of how, after Ingmar Bergman died, it was found that his film library contained VHS copies of Die Hard, The Blues Brothers and Romancing the Stone. I like it because it shows another side to the man, and perhaps points the way to a deeper psychological truth. Sometimes even Bergman needed a break from Bergman.


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