Journal of the Plague Year: Quarantine Girl

I didn’t know it at the time, but watching Gregory Hatanaka and Nicole d’Angelo’s movie Quarantine Girl would offer me a challenge.

At the time the movie came out I was reading Daniel Defoe’s unclassifiable Journal of the Plague Year. It dawned on me that it would be an interesting experiment to watch the movie again at the end of a year.

Here you go.

***

I’ve lived under martial law so the early days of COVID-19 lockdown were immediately familiar. The fear. The tension. The sense of anything being possible — but mostly the bad. Americans have no idea what it’s like not to have privilege and so-called freedom. Their identity depends on it, and individual identities even more so. So instead of the grim, black-humor acceptance of a Turk or a Croatian, they come unglued.

I think this is the premise behind Gregory Hatanaka and Nicole D’Angelo’s movie, Quarantine Girl.

Here we have a perfect representation of the modern bourgeoisie: no longer tied to a desk for wage labor drudgery, the modern bourgeoisie are free to work from home, or in the field. Any place does for capitalism these days. Travel is a given. The modern bourgeoisie spend their time working but in exotic locations (at least, not factories and offices). Success is measured on the road. They are, in a truly American sense, “free” from commitments.

Nicole D’Angelo wondering whose packages these really are. Still photo from Quarantine Girl.

Then suddenly the COVID-19 pandemic breaks out. No one knows what’s going on. At first, as always, everything happens somewhere else and Americans in typical fashion avail themselves of the convenient SEP Filter — “somebody else’s problem.” But then the very globalization of their world works against them. Borders close. Communication breaks down. The only metaphor Americans have to grasp the problem is one of invasion. Except that the invader cannot be seen and is almost completely unknown.

Wash your hands a lot. Wear a mask. Keep your distance from other people. Stay at home. It’s all very straightforward. Until it isn’t. Then it just sounds like anonymous people giving orders.

Freedom is gone.

The protagonist of Quarantine Girl, Ruby, is a freelance photographer who spends her entire life not at home but on the great road of freedom, flying from location to location, story to story on cozy airplanes. When the planes stop, her freedom stops. And as her freedom erodes so does her identity.

Quarantine Girl would suffer if I compared it to Repulsion. In each movie a woman goes nuts from isolation, but the degree is different. And so is the point. In Repulsion, Deneuve’s character is never “normal”; she’s simply high-functioning–until she isn’t. In Quarantine Girl, Nicole D’Angelo’s character Ruby is supposedly normal. The movie is intended to show that even us normal people can break down in isolation.

Nicole D’Angelo feeling the darkness. Still photo from Quarantine Girl.

I like Nicole D’Angelo a lot. She is a fine actress and well-suited here. She’s incredibly beautiful, just like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, but similarly she can dress down her beauty. So as she responds to the news and the isolation, she unravels exactly the way most people would. A “slight disorder in the dress” gives way to a completely shop-worn look by the end of the film. Too, I think the film benefits from her direction. Mr. Hatanaka’s films can be excessive, to put it politely, but when Ms. D’Angelo writes she helps rein him in, which is good for everyone.

I think it also helps that the cast is small. It gives a sense that the world itself is small, which I suppose it is in the middle of a quarantine. She’s helped by Shane Ryan’s offbeat, quirky performance as Nate, her old friend who’s a biologist. Mr. Ryan is so much more interesting when he stretches out like he does here. Often he’s a neurotic basket case at best but here he’s admirably restrained, playing things cool, letting himself relax and giving his voice a rest so that when he finally needs the energy at the end of the film it comes together nicely.

It’s also nice to have Craijece Lewis’s face on screen, even remotely. She makes an excellent quidnunc, and she plays the role very much to a tee. Like most people in this quarantine, her character is confused and worried and afraid, but she gives her role a real humanity and dimension of sympathy. And of course I always adore seeing Lisa London, even more so when I can see her play a newscaster who moonlights during quarantine as a BDSM instructor.

My usual complaints about Gregory Hatanaka’s cinematographic style remain. His camera is still all over the place, with everything happening altogether too fast. However, the subject matter helps him out. The scenes of empty streets, vacant buildings, raided stores, with an absence of people mean that the typical Hatanaka landscape has to be approached from the point of view of the foreign and the strange. This helps anchor his usual excess. Undoubtedly Ms. D’Angelo’s hand also helps stabilize some of his directorial choices. It is, after all, her show and distracting the viewer from her would be a grave mistake.

It’s not in Mr. Hatanaka’s visual vocabulary to do long static takes. Clearly he believes, as some of my friends do, that every shot has to move. But this is a film about not moving. The director should adjust. Besides, there are ways of moving without going anywhere — it’s the lesson of any Beckett play or most any Tarkovsky film.

Still, this is Ms. D’Angelo’s show and she is well worth watching.

***

Even at this short distance in time I can recall the way the lockdown hit. Quarantine Girl is a reconstruction of that time, and a what if.

It’s certainly not far off.

I have to remember this is being done in the middle of lockdown. There are no camera crews. Things are likely being shot on iPhones or DSLRs with minimal gear. And of course it’s LA, which is artificial looking anyway, no matter what you do. It’s at least minimally heroic to make feature films in these conditions. It limits the cast and more importantly the interpersonal contact between the cast. Ms. D’Angelo only has scenes with Shane Ryan at the end, and her father at the beginning. The rest is all her. That’s a tough load.

Shane Ryan on the phone. Still photo from Quarantine Girl.

Also it strikes me now that this film is a companion piece to Nicole D’Angelo’s other film, Darling Nikki, which is about a woman escaping into fantasy that is indistinguishable from reality. Here there is no escape. Fantasy and reality merge. Or at least the surreal and the real.

I notice now there’s a sense of ritual to be found in the movie, if only in pieces. The sense of ritual gives Mr. Hatanaka’s editing something to focus on when he’s often all over the place. The hand washing rituals especially so. I wonder how Alain Resnais or King Hu would have handled it.

All of Mr. Hatanaka’s movies after Samurai Cop 2 are short. Quarantine Girl is, too. Usually it helps. I think here, the movie is actually crying out to be longer. There’s not really time to build up the feeling of psychological isolation (think Solaris) and make me feel it the way I would if he’d include longer takes or more abstract detail.

Looking back I still think it’s true there’s a great mise-en-scène to be found here. I wish there were more of it, but I’m not here to tell filmmakers what film they should have made, just the one that they have.

The creepy shit in the film is what is least typical in Gregory Hatanaka’s work: the scenes of the empty stores, empty streets and all the signs of the new normal. There’s not a mask in sight. And vaccine — forget it. Shane Ryan’s character Nate has been tested, but that’s the height of prevention.

All these things harken back to my own experiences. Hoarding. Shuttered windows. Empty streets. Absolute stillness. What Americans didn’t experience is the darkness.

It’s not just figurative. Literal darkness is the sign of a real lockdown. Not so much as a cigarette alight on the streets. Stores closed. Restaurants shuttered. Not a window on the street with a light in it. Black-clad police in black night.

It hasn’t been nearly that bad here. Sure, there’s no toilet paper or paper towels or bleach or hand sanitizer. Canned food is scarce. No pasta or beans. But there are still some things on the shelves. The stores are at least open, and queues are not sixty people deep. Buses and trains still run. And despite what fearmongers believe there’s no National Guard pulling over citizens on the sidewalk to ask them for ID and walking passes under threat of imprisonment.

I feel pretty much the same way about Quarantine Girl as I did the first time I watched it. The first time, in the middle of lockdown, I was one of the “essential” people who were on the streets, putting our lives into danger for paltry wages, constantly exposed. Isolation wasn’t something I feared. On the contrary. I wished I’d had some. But it was certainly odd.

Looking back, the sense of oddness is there. But I don’t feel any fear, probably because I didn’t get much of a chance to be afraid even at the time. Also, I’m fundamentally hopeful in Vaclav Havel’s sense. I’ve had worse. COVID-19 was just one more thing to get through.

It still is.


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