It was the end of March 2020, two weeks into the slow-dawning, shivering realization that the coronavirus pandemic had not just put the world on pause but had shut it down. Routine objects of everyday existence now seemed like lost treasures of antiquity. Some of these absences—like toilet paper or Grape-Nuts—were immediately obvious. Others crept up on you, phantom-limb sensations alerting you to parts of your life you didn’t quite realize were no longer there. Among the losses that were starting to feel acute: hanging with friends and going to the movies.
The Zoom movie club a group of us started a few weeks into lockdown wasn’t initially meant to fill those gaps, but it would turn out to be a bright light of fellowship during the grayed-out weeks and months ahead. Over the course of almost two years, our little group of seven has watched two movies a week, chosen by each member in turn, and gathered every Friday in pixelated form to discuss them. We’ve now seen more than 120 films. The result has been a whimsically curated film festival, a master class in cinematic expression whose random highlights could include anything from Singin’ in the Rain to Duck, You Sucker!
The club included old friends, others who barely knew each other and, in some cases, had never met in person. A few of us had experience in the movie business, which gave us mouthing-off status; others were credentialed only by their opinions. Most of us were too old, and one of us was too young, to have much patience with the conventional wisdom about whatever movie we watched, or to buy into a film’s eminence just because it was on some “greatest of all time” list. As a result, we could be savage when a hallowed Hollywood artifact—say, Some Like It Hot—did not rise to our standards of timelessness and humbly surprised when some recent sleeper we might have never bothered to notice, such as the Robert Redford–Jane Fonda geriatric drama Our Souls at Night, turned out to be solid and moving.
The movie club started, as best as I can tell, based on my excavations of an old email chain, with a message the writer Greg Curtis sent to a group of friends on March 27, the same day my wife, Sue Ellen, and I purchased our first curbside groceries and brought them into the house via an elaborate series of biohazard protocols. Greg was the editor of this magazine for almost twenty years, from 1981 to 2000, until, as he once told me, “I didn’t have another Willie Nelson cover in me.” He went on to write books about the Venus de Milo and prehistoric cave painters. His most recent book—published earlier this year—is Paris Without Her, a memoir about losing his wife, Tracy, to cancer and then reckoning with the legacy of their shared love for the city.
Greg’s email included, without comment, a link to a New York Times appreciation of fifties westerns, which led to a reply from Greg’s close friend Bill Broyles, the founding editor of Texas Monthly. Bill has had many career incarnations but is probably best known as the A-list screenwriter of movies such as Apollo 13 and Cast Away. In response to the Times article, Bill wrote that he regarded 1956’s Seven Men From Now as “the perfectly plotted movie.” Just like that, we were throwing down with our opinions of directors such as Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann and arguing about whether Barbara Stanwyck had been better served by 1950’s The Furies or by Forty Guns, which came out seven years later and featured one of the great post-osculatory lines of dialogue in film history: “I never kissed a gunsmith before.”
From there, it was a slippery slope to us all watching, at Bill’s imploring, Johnny Guitar, the lunatic western starring Joan Crawford in an otherworldly rotation of saloonkeeper/gunslinger outfits. The movie was generally derided by American critics when it came out in 1954, but salvaged from the cultural trash heap by French New Wave thought leader François Truffaut, who called it the “Beauty and the Beast of westerns.”
It was Nina Tarnawsky’s idea, after we had so much fun parsing via email the shining weirdness of that film, to form a weekly Zoom movie club where we could share our opinions and see each other’s faces. At the time, Nina was an archivist at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, in Austin. She was still in her twenties when the pandemic started, isolated during the day in a stringently socially distanced work environment amid boxes of historical documents and cut off at night from quarantined friends her own age. We would soon discover that Nina had seen more movies, remembered them better, and thought about them more thoroughly than the rest of us combined. She never exactly played the “OK boomer” card, but she did remind us, when she opted for the 1992 heist flick Sneakers as her cherished first selection, that nostalgia isn’t solely the province of geezers.
Nina’s cinematic perspicacity was impressive on its own, but she must have inherited at least some of it from another Zoom movie club member: her mother, Iya Labunka. Iya had an impressive career in film, working with the iconoclastic indie producer Roger Corman before entering the mainstream of the business as a vice president of production at Disney’s Touchstone division, where she supervised now-classics such as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Houston native Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. She had also been a producer on several movies of her late husband Wes Craven, the director who tapped deep into our nervous psyches with his visionary horror films. The daughter of Ukrainian political refugees, she had passionate opinions about the movies she loved and sometimes disappeared from the Zoom screen as she doubled over in laughter at the unendurable artiness of, say, The Night of the Hunter. (The thirty-ninth greatest movie of all time according to Rotten Tomatoes, but not according to us.)
Rita Trevino Flynn cited her lack of expert knowledge when we invited her to join our initial gathering of film know-it-alls. This was because she had sacrificed her prime moviegoing years while doing important stuff as a national correspondent for ABC and CBS, including walking into George Washington University Hospital on a frantic day in March 1981 and noticing that President Ronald Reagan, whom the country believed had escaped John Hinckley’s line of fire and was safely inside the White House, was lying on a gurney in the ER. (She missed getting the scoop, though, when she called in and her bosses at the network told her, “Don’t be ridiculous.”) But Rita did have very fond memories of growing up in San Antonio, going to Cantinflas movies with her mother at the Alameda Theater, and, at an impressionable age, watching a Mexican cowboy actor ride his horse right up onto the stage.
That leaves Sue Ellen and me. My career as a screenwriter may not be as illustrious as Bill Broyles’s (case in point: The O. J. Simpson Story), but, unlike him, I can sit through anything (case in point: Howard the Duck), which put me at an advantage when it came to being able to hold forth on misfires such as Baby the Rain Must Fall, which had Bill and others rushing to the virtual exits.
Sue Ellen and I had both grown up in West Texas in the days of nothing-else-to-do and had seen an off-brand spaghetti western on our first date, in 1973, which set a pattern of indiscriminate moviegoing for the next half century. During that time, we probably averaged a movie a week—I mean for real, in a movie theater. The last one we saw before the pandemic was the Harrison Ford version of The Call of the Wild. It was not very good but also not very awful, just an average movie on an average night. But quarantine made me wistful about it in the way I imagine people of my parents’ generation might have been about a movie they saw on December 6, 1941.
Now, joining together with living, breathing strangers in a Panavision-scale mind-meld had been replaced by sitting in front of a laptop screen with little square images of friends, discussing a movie we had all seen separately on our TVs or maybe on our iPads. It was a different experience but still a binding one, even when, especially when, our reactions were wildly divergent. Our selections rarely resulted in universal approval, and sometimes they reaped universal ridicule. (I warned them—don’t watch all three hours and thirty-two minutes of Ben-Hur, just the chariot race.)
None of the movies we watched were new; only a handful had been made in this century. That gave us maybe too much critical distance, too much license to look back in judgment at tropes and mores that now seemed archaic, if not toxic. The dominance rituals involving guns and fists that were part of the unquestioned fabric of fifties westerns like Shane and The Big Country sparked lively (liveliest on the part of the women) inquiries into the dark corners of masculinity. Clark Gable’s grouchy mansplaining in It Happened One Night did not go unnoticed or unsplained, and Gene Hackman rousting the Black patrons of a bar in The French Connection, a scene that at the time of the movie’s release, in 1971, presented itself as a badge of gritty urban authenticity, looked extremely different to us 49 years later in a country that had just witnessed the murder of George Floyd.
We all picked our share of winners and losers. I struck out with 1965’s Darling, which proved that the charms of Swinging London did not quite make it across the threshold to the twenty-first century. But Midnight Cowboy, released four years later by the same director, John Schlesinger, turned out to be bombproof. Sue Ellen’s choice of Bye Bye Birdie generated some try-anything enthusiasm until we saw it (you know a movie is in trouble when the best thing about it is Paul Lynde). But her insistence that Speed was not just a perfect action movie but also had the best kiss scene of all time (between Keanu Reeves and a handcuffed Sandra Bullock on an overturned subway car) turned out to be an observable truth. Rita’s embrace of all things Bill Murray led us to the trying-way-too-hard-to-be-funny psychiatrist-patient comedy What About Bob?, but also brought us to a return engagement with Tootsie, in which the deadpan chic Murray displayed was still a long way from turning into deadpan shtick. Iya wouldn’t stop apologizing for A Man for All Seasons, the Henry VIII drama whose sophisticated earnestness I had fallen for as a teenager back in 1966 but which now had a mothball pungency. All was forgiven when she chose Kurosawa’s Ran.
Greg was so immersed in French culture and had studied the language for so long that it was natural for him to man the Cahiers du Cinéma desk in the movie club. The Gallic astringency of Pickpocket, directed by Robert Bresson at his most Bressonish, left us cold, as it seemed intended to do. But Louis Malle’s 1958 Elevator to the Gallows was a taut little crime thriller, with ricocheting story lines and a scene we all noticed, in which a very sad Jeanne Moreau walks the nighttime streets of Paris accompanied by a shuffling Miles Davis score.
Bill tended to hew to the classics, which yielded North by Northwest, which was better than any of us remembered it, still as alive and exuberantly preposterous as it must have seemed when Alfred Hitchcock released it in 1959. Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s 1937 World War I drama with Erich von Stroheim as its ever-magnetic center, held up so well that in the spirit of the moment we might have agreed with Orson Welles when he told Dick Cavett that it was one of the two films he would take with him on Noah’s Ark. Too bad for Welles, though, that none of us would have exerted ourselves to save from the Flood his own Touch of Evil. In this bleak 1958 crime drama starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican detective with a pencil mustache (back in the days of blithe cultural appropriation), the noir was as thick as road tar. There had been a time when I had responded, as a callow young cineaste, to Welles’s bravura tracking shots and anti-gravity camera angles, but with this viewing I was with the rest of the group in thinking that all that technique amounted to empty calories. Not the case with two of Nina’s picks from the director Alexander Payne, About Schmidt and Nebraska, movies from our own, and, more to the point, her own, century—in which the craftsmanship was unshowy and nicely calibrated to the jaundiced action on-screen.
When it came to silent movies, we liked Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd better than Charlie Chaplin. We liked Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (another Sue Ellen production) better than any other western we watched, though we haven’t yet tested it against Red River. Supposedly fail-proof comedies like Bringing Up Baby and Sullivan’s Travels elicited a few patient chuckles and a kind of archival appreciation, but the movies that actually made us laugh were Tootsie and Moonstruck. They were closer to our own time, which may have been one of the reasons they held up better, but sometimes the shoulder pads and Aqua Net hairstyles of the eighties seemed even more distant than the luxe black and white world inhabited by Fred Astaire in Top Hat.
It turned out that, without planning it, we watched three movies written or based on work by the late Texas playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote. The aforementioned Baby the Rain Must Fall was filmed almost entirely in Texas and is about a country singer played by Steve McQueen, whose singing voice was dubbed, to alarmingly unconvincing effect, by Glenn Yarbrough. I had chosen it mostly because, as someone who had spent a big part of his childhood in Corpus Christi, I wanted to experience again the wonder of hearing a character in a Hollywood movie—in this case, Lee Remick, chatting with a fellow passenger on a bus—speak my city’s name and actually call it Corpus the way we did. The Chase, which was creakily adapted from Foote’s play by Lillian Hellman, and which starred Marlon Brando as an East Texas sheriff, came off as no less artificial than Steve McQueen’s dubbed voice. Tender Mercies was a different matter. The alchemy of Foote’s original screenplay, Bruce Beresford’s direction, and Robert Duvall’s lead performance led to a Texas-based film that was honest, precise, and timeless.
But what did it matter whether the movies were good or bad? We learned pretty early on that we had as much fun deconstructing What About Bob? as we did The Maltese Falcon or Jules and Jim. As the pandemic surged on, as we learned to station ourselves closer to Wi-Fi routers to keep our images from freezing and to position light sources in front of our devices so that we wouldn’t appear as witness-protection silhouettes, our Zoom reality began to feel less strained and complicated. Our minds were absorbing this new technology and accepting it, just as we had long ago trained ourselves to register the light-and-sound phantasms we saw on movie screens as actual people. Like the rest of the world, we were discovering that Zoom was beginning to feel unexpectedly, acceptably almost real. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a kind of emergency-use-authorization idea about videoconferencing. It was a way of keeping in touch with people during a crisis that nobody knew how long would last. But as our group entered the virtual waiting room week after week, as Sue Ellen and I found ourselves looking forward to 6 p.m. on Fridays, I realized that Zoom was not just keeping our friendships on life support, it was expanding them and deepening them.
Those weekly sessions were also a way of measuring time during all those bleak, blank weeks that seemed to roll past like ocean swells toward an unseen horizon. Though the world felt stuck in time, the movies we watched were themselves a reminder of how transient this on-hold moment would eventually turn out to be. Many of the films had been made before any of us were born, but so many others had appeared in theaters when we were kids or young adults, and watching them again was like being sucked into a time tunnel—back not just to the eras in which the movies were made but to the people we were when we had first watched them in theaters.
The movie club began to sputter after we all got vaccinated and started creeping out into the world. Now that there was the possibility of doing things, including going to movie theaters, it was harder and harder to schedule a time when we could all reliably meet. Before the late-summer Delta surge drove us all back into our homes again and revived the club, Sue Ellen and I managed to see only one movie, F9, the most recent chapter in the Fast & Furious franchise. We were both craving a big stupid blockbuster, which F9 was, but we left the theater with an if-the-tree-falls-in-the-forest sensation. Without being able to hear Bill and Greg and Iya and Nina and Rita weigh in with rumbling-voiced Vin Diesel impressions, without seeing them roll their eyes on our laptop screen as they toted up the escalating preposterousness of the movie’s scenes, had we even seen it?
No one knows what the effects of the pandemic on movie theaters will ultimately be. I’d always naively taken for granted that going to the movies was not so much a pastime as it was a kind of verity, that human beings flocked to theaters the way that plants turned toward the sun. Like so much of what has befallen us these past twenty months, that truth has been shaken. But friendship in dark times is an enduring need, which is what has kept the movie club going.
As of this writing, the Delta surge is waning, booster shots are available, and it looks like vaccines are about to be approved for children. Going to a movie theater again may no longer be a life-threatening adventure, so it probably makes logical sense to dissolve our virtual Friday meetings. But we find ourselves oddly reluctant to do so. The stopgap that became a routine has now become a tradition. Blessedly unconstrained by geography, as we never could be in real life, last week we met once again, this time to share our insights on one of Nina’s choices, an unforgettable Pierce Brosnan double feature of The Matador and Mamma Mia! We may see each other only in two dimensions, but in all those months gathered at the Zoom hearth, as we laughed together at the transcendent awfulness of Johnny Guitar and I argued forlornly for the greatness of Ben-Hur, we have gotten to know each other in full.
An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Zoom Lens.” Subscribe today.