Roger Durling’s Pandemic Film Diary
Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Executive Director Publishes Cinema in Flux: A Year of Connecting Through Film
By Charles Donelan
Like so many of the pandemic-driven routines that shaped our lives over the past two years, the process by which Roger Durling wrote his new book, Cinema in Flux: A Year of Connecting Through Film, began casually enough.
On Friday, March 13, 2020, schools across California closed in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, and on Sunday, March 15, Durling sent an email to people who subscribed to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It started this way:
I hope this note finds you well. Since we’re spending time at home, we thought of sending you daily movie recommendations — accompanied with a study guide (below) with fun facts. The first film is one of our favorites, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. We all need to remain positive, focused at this moment, and I love that this movie inspires that.
No one in those early days of the pandemic could possibly have anticipated just how fully at home we would be over the next many months, or how persistent the need for positivity and focus would become. What Durling in particular could not have known was something more personal, and, in retrospect, quite spectacular. Before he would be through composing these 350 movie recommendations, begun so casually on that fateful day in March, he would end up documenting them in an ambitious, beautifully illustrated coffee-table book.
As an avid reader of Durling’s daily email recommendations, I sensed early on that they had the makings of a potential book, but who could have predicted the scale would become so massive? The project, which lasted 12 full months, would have run to a thousand pages if every essay were included.
The completed book takes 124 essays of approximately 800 words each and intersperses them with timelines that blend a chronology of all Durling’s recommendations with contemporaneous news briefs. The result is a fascinating hybrid of multiple genres.
From one angle, Cinema in Flux is a film studies reference work; from another, it’s a pandemic quarantine screening diary. Perhaps most important of all, thanks to the quality of Durling’s writing and the extravagance of the book’s striking graphic design, it’s an immersive experience of cinematic companionship, activating film’s potential to provide healing, wisdom, distraction, and solace during a prolonged episode of overwhelming global challenge.
Films chosen in the early days alternate between sweet, lovable comedies, such as two films featuring an unmoored and confused Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Lost in Translation, and more ominous reflections on isolation and loss, such as Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Spike Jonze’s Her.
A brief reflection on the terms of our engagement through digital media by way of The Social Network leads to Durling’s first acknowledgement that the COVID crisis could in fact be a global catastrophe — Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic fantasy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Durling’s not afraid, in these early moments, to issue some grand pronouncements. Some of them came as a surprise, at least to me. I’d agree that Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s best film, but is it “the boldest and funniest movie ever made”? Well, Durling felt that way on a certain hectic day in early March of 2020, and who can blame him? As we were all trying to learn to stop worrying and love the crisis, his high praise of Kubrick’s anti-fascist farce reminds us that the majority of these essays were written when the White House was occupied by a figure who could have stepped out of a Peter Sellers film.
The book’s first panel of news items and simple film listings kicks in on March 18, 2020, with John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Directly beneath that entry, two headlines rendered in telegram-style Courier font announce the twin perils we were all facing at that time: “California Statewide Shelter-in-Place Ordered; Trump Begins Referring to the Coronavirus as the ‘China Virus.’ ”
When full-length essays start up again, after an April 18-20 run of Toy Story 4, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s glorious Top Hat, and the epic 1969’s Easy Rider (for 4/20), it’s Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity that’s under discussion, and the entry begins with an unforgettable injunction from the author: “It’s time to see things differently.”
In 2018, Cuarón asked Durling to help put together a coffee-table book commemorating his landmark film Roma. It was through this project that Durling first met the design and production team at Assouline Publishing. Beginning in July 2020, even while he was still writing new entries, Durling and a team of New York–based designers began collecting images and thinking about the look and feel of the finished product. “I wanted an expansion of the visual experience of the book to happen as it progressed,” Durling told me, “because as it [the quarantine] went on, we were all getting used to the changes that were happening in our lives.”
The COVID Eye
The routine Durling followed for more than a year remained remarkably consistent. Every afternoon or early evening, he would choose the film he wanted to address in the next day’s message. Control of the remote at the Goleta home he shares with his husband, Dan, became a dictatorship.
However, as director of the film festival and the Riviera Theatre, Durling enjoyed some advantages over the rest of us. For example, sometimes he would take his dog to the Riviera and watch a film in an empty theater, where he could remember the experience of seeing a film on a large movie screen.
One thing that did not vary was his strict writing schedule. Every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (with occasional Saturdays off), he would sit down at his desk in the film festival’s office and write, inspired or not. After the first few films, when it became apparent that this isolation would be going on for some time, Durling made the rule that he wouldn’t write about a film without rewatching it.
This pledge led him to discover what he now refers to as his “COVID eye” — the realization that the global pandemic offered, even to deeply informed cinephiles such as himself, a different, often enlightening perspective on films that may have been seen many times before but now could be understood in new ways.
“COVID eye” as a concept goes a long way toward defining what’s most salient in these critical essays, toward explaining how cinema came to function as a refuge from the encroaching turmoil of the outside world, and as a way of understanding and even seeking to transform it.
Take the way Durling responded to John Huston’s 1951 classic The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn must navigate the Congo River together in order to save themselves and evade capture by German forces during World War I. Shot on location in East Africa, the film depicts nature as something both beautiful and potentially engulfing. At one point, Bogart and Hepburn are forced to drag their becalmed boat through a deep swamp teeming with mosquitoes. Seeing the two stars up to their chests in slime, pulling their rickety craft behind them, touched off new insight. Here’s how Durling described it to me:
I’ll never forget that Sunday watching the film and seeing them drag the boat through the mud, and understanding that that’s where I was. And the rest of the country — it was like we were stuck in the mud. Just from watching that, I got very inspired. I knew then that we needed to drag that boat through the mud. No matter what, we just had to keep moving forward.
Black Films Matter
Perhaps the most evocative section of the book begins in June 2020 in the weeks following the death of George Floyd. As Black Lives Matter protests started up all over the country and eventually the world, Durling dove into the emergent canon of African-American film. The book reprints 12 of these essays in full: Fruitvale Station, Selma, Queen & Slim, Moonlight, The Hate U Give, Black Girl, Da 5 Bloods, Loving, Hollywood Shuffle, Boyz n the Hood, Eve’s Bayou, and Mudbound.
Durling describes this nearly month-long stretch of viewing African-American films every day as the hardest period of the project because it involved recognizing the limits of his own experience. “I was educating myself and trying to seek answers. I don’t think I’ve articulated this before, but this made me realize that in the arts, we have been complicit and biased,” he told me. “I discovered … that I had not paid enough respect or taken enough time to seek out African-American films and to understand what they were trying to convey.”
Film Snob Demise
The COVID eye disclosed other blind spots that might not have been detected without such extraordinary circumstances. One of the book’s most personal moments comes when Durling admits that the film snob in him was reluctant to accept the film When Harry Met Sally… when it came out.
This may come across as sacrilegious to some of you, but I was not a fan of this film when I first saw it. The purist cinephile in me was turned off by the fact that it felt like a distilled version of a Woody Allen comedy, a more mainstream version of Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters, even using similar title cards, utilizing the great American songbook as its soundtrack and New York City as its backdrop. The curmudgeon in me couldn’t get past that — and Meg Ryan, as Sally, always felt to me like she mugged too much.
What a mush I have become. If anything, COVID has taught me to look at the glass as half-full. I’m done looking for defects. I look at the things that work. I’m all about admiring the positives. And there are quite a lot of them in When Harry Met Sally…
Fortunately, Durling eschews the Warhol style of entry that documents every meeting and meal as though it were part of world history, so you won’t hear much about what he had for breakfast or where he went for dinner. Of course, since it was written during quarantine, there might not have been much to that anyway. The personal material that does come through tends to be in relation to specific people and events in the larger world. He mourns the deaths of Christopher Plummer and Chadwick Boseman in real time, and he writes about the film Loving on the day that the Supreme Court decides another important case concerning marriage, this time one allowing same-sex couples the rights accorded in the Loving case to couples of mixed race.
Film School in Session
It’s Professor Durling, the experienced Santa Barbara City College lecturer, who makes the most frequent cameos, and they are, to this reader at least, uniformly useful and even charming. In the entry on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, for example, Durling embellishes Adam Sandler’s greatest role by providing advice on how to notice and interpret the film’s judicious use of symbolic color. His essay on Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a classic film which has earned the acclaim of professionals all over the world, contains a miniature dissertation on the director’s complex, idiosyncratic aesthetic. Reading about how Ozu breaks some of the fundamental rules of narrative cinema in the service of his own vision revealed the genius of this picture to me as never before. Whether he’s discussing technical questions of camera placement in a black-and-white Japanese film from the 1950s or the color of a character’s suit or dress in an American film from the 21st century, Durling offers insights that shift one’s perspective in such a way as to see the film anew.
That he can make filmmaking interesting while talking about movies from such disparate times and places is one of his signature strengths. I was continually impressed by how wide his range of reference was, and how natural and complete his recall of relevant cross-references could be. There are many different kinds of films in here — movies released last year and movies made in the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as documentaries and even animated features. The sheer number of female directors had me reflecting on how comprehensive his knowledge of the art form is and on how radically the industry has changed in just the past couple of decades.
Cinema in Flux: A Year of Connecting Through Film is now available for pre-order through the SBIFF website (sbiff.org/book) and will ship this month, with all proceeds from its sale going to support the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which has taken a two-year hit from COVID, just like so many of our city’s other great arts events and organizations. It will also be available in bookstores in October.
When we spoke about the mission of the SBIFF in January 2020, before the pandemic had taken over our lives, Durling expressed his gratitude for the chance to keep his staff employed year-round and celebrated that the festival had finally become a continuous operation, capable of functioning as an educational resource every month of the year. What we didn’t know was that this year-long model would be tested in quite the way that it was, or that Durling would take up the task of making it happen so much on his own.
CORRECTION: Cinema in Flux was published independently by Roger Durling and SBIFF with the help of Print-New York, not through Assouline Publishing.